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Education and It’s Relationship With Change

“The challenges of ensuring that we pass on a world fit to live in (from an environmental perspective) will require, arguably, significant transformations in the ways in which we live. To what extent can government facilitate those changes through its current systems/structures?” Susan Brown, University of Manchester

Change is ubiquitous and relentless, forcing itself on us at each turn. The secret of growth and development is learning how to contend with forces of change using methodologies which turn positive forces to our advantage, while blunting negative ones.  The future of the world is a learning future; one were learning is synonymous with adaptation and evolution.

adapt change

It is not sufficient to separate planned change from seemingly spontaneous or naturally occurring change.  Only through recognizing and adopting a holistic perspective of ‘education’, what ‘its’ plurivocal aims are and change may we approach a collection of potential solutions.

It is not possible to solve ‘the change problem’, as Fullan puts it, however we can learn to live with it more proactively and productively. What is important is that we recognize there are meta elements that change has identifiable generic properties in complex societies; for example the need to be dynamic holding with us the re-iterative axioms of observation, conversation and action.

Change is a journey of unknown destination, where problems are our friends, where seeking assistance is a sign of strength, where simultaneous top-down bottom-up initiatives merge, where collegiality and individualism co-exist in productive tension (Fullan and Hargreaves, 1991; Fullan and Miles, 1992).

Life and change are necessarily bound and refuse to be reduced to a model or formula or mean.  There is no geometry of perfection or permanency which ‘captures’ happiness or harmony, only people with knowledge of methodologies which enable them/us to view, manage and initiate change in better ways.

“It is a world where on should never trust a change agent, or never assume that others, especially leaders, know what they are doing – not because change agents and leaders are duplicitous or incompetent – but because the change process is so complex and so fraught with unknowns that all of us must be on guard and apply ourselves to investigating and solving problems”.

We need generative concepts and capacities; we need the individual as inquirer and learner , mastery and know-how as prime strategies (common instruments), the leader who expresses but also extends what is valued enabling others to do the same, team work and shared purposes which accepts both individualism and collectivism as essential to organisational learning, and the organisation which is dynamically connected to its environment because that is necessary to avoid extinction as environments are always changing. We need to have sustainability as a logos embedded in all our thinking and doing.

The idea of the learning or self renewing individual and organisation has been around at least since the 1960s where J. Gardner explored it in self-renewal, New York, Harper and Row. James Gleick wrote about complex patterns ( Chaos: Making a New Science, New York, Penguin Books, 1987, p. 304) saying ‘simple systems give rise to complex behaviour.  Complex systems give rise to simple behaviour’.  The trouble is that you cannot predict exactly when and how such consequences will happen.

Stephen Wolfram in his book ‘A New Kind of Science’ explores this theme that complex behaviour can result from very simple rules of interaction. Fullan suggests, this is why we need more generative capacities that can anticipate and rise to the occasions of change on a continuous basis as they occur.


Martha Nussbaum discusses capabilities and capacities in her work which draws upon that of Amartya Sen: “Against the dominant emphasis on economic growth as an indicator of a nation’s quality of life, Sen has insisted on the importance of capabilities, what people are actually able to do and to be…. If we ask what people are actually able to do and to be, we come much closer to understanding the barriers societies have erected” [Capabilities as Fundamental Entitlements: Sen and Social Justice by Martha C. Nussbaum, Feminist Economics, 9(2 – 3), 2003, 33 – 59, DOI: 10.1080/1354570022000077926]

Maybe the capabilities approach developed by Nussbaum and Sen would be aptly turned in towards examining the influence and effect of the institution in this context. As with all knowledge, we are only ever working on a scale of increasingly or decreasingly reliable knowledge, as described in scientific method and philosophy. We are moving through a landscape and constantly negotiating and re-negotiating accumulated tensions, insights and breakthroughs in the future.

Society is constantly in a dialectic (and unilectic – where coalescence takes the place of opposition as focus) where permanency and change are manifest.  Teachers’ capacities to deal with change, learn from it, and help students learn from it is critical for the future development and evolution of societies into a more suited contextualised state.

Educators are in a position to play a vital role – a living role, and we need mindsets to be deeper and broader.  Leroy Wilsher, teacher of history and Inspector of Schools, introduced me to the axiom of Alexander Pope – ‘Let fools contest, what’s best administered is best’.

What is sure is the need for network effects with positive externalities; a fostering of situation of co-production where co-authoring is a ‘ticket to learning’. Michael Fullan describes in his book Change Forces (page IX) how Bernard Shapiro taught him that the world of action is the real arena of change, and that you don’t have to stud change to know about it.  He also thanks Noel Clark and Linda Grant for the concept and the challenge of ‘What Is Worth Fighting For’…

Our learning consortium is a powerful force for practitioners and academics to learn from each other while attempting to construct learning organisations together.  Universities, school districts and schools work together to forge new environments for change.

Balancing work and life is always a problem.  Being better at life and better at work go hand in hand.  You can’t have one without the other for very long.  Plans and implementing plans are two separate realties which should not be mistakenly blurred into one. Is the educational system and its inhabitants open to or capable of change ?  Even if education were perfect, can it make a difference given social class, family and other societal conditions outside the purview of the educational sector ?

By the end of the 1970s the effective schools movement had accumulated evidence that schools can make a difference even under trying conditions.  Work on in-service and staff development by Bruce Joyce and others showed that ongoing competence-building strategies can work.

In 1983, with the release of A Nation At Risk- the solution was seen as requiring large scale governmental action.  Structural solutions through top down regulations were introduced in many Western Countries.  Curricula were specified and mandated, competencies for students and teachers were detailed and tested, salaries for teachers raised from woefully low, and leadership competencies were listed and trained.  In the UK the Education Reform Act of 1988 introduced a National Curriculum.

After 1985 a movement of restructuring took hold which saw an emphasis on school based management, enhanced roles for principals and teachers and other decentralized components.  Centralists see greater top down regulation, accountability and control of the educational establishment as the answer, including strategies such as local management of schools which attempt to place more power in the hands of local interests outside the school.

The other major perspective here is that of the restructionists who see greater control by school based teachers and other educators as the solution for educational problems.  As in many situations that deal with complex societal problems, opinions have become polarized and camps have formed around differing strategies to solution.  The stakes have escalated in terms that we are no longer considering specific innovations one at a time but seeking a plan for comprehensive reform.

The conversation surrounding education has grown sufficient by enough to rule out the restructionists as sole voices.  Governments, ministries of Education and business interests now play major roles in deciding the strategies and outcomes.  This age of integrated agencies creates various confusions that emanate from what some might describe as a wicked problem.

Michael Fullan suggests we need a new mindset about educational change ‘if we are to achieve anything other than ‘clumsy attempts to mend’. In ‘The Fifth Discipline’: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation by Peter Senge, the Greek word ‘metanoia’ is examined as ‘a fundamental shift of mind’.  This is what Fullan suggests we need about the concept of educational change itself.

arrayed strategy

Without such an intellectual synthesis which enables an ‘arrayed strategy’ or pluralised approach, the danger is that we are held up by an insoluble binary of a continuous change theme juxtaposed with a continuous conservative system. Tensions arise between two natural forces. On one hand, the constant and ever expanding motion of innovation and reform in the educational setting.  Contemporary society is nearly always perceived to be cutting through landscapes via ‘waves of creative destruction’ as Joseph Schumpeter puts it.

On the other, we have an education system and society which is fundamentally conservative.  The way that teachers are trained, the way that schools are organized, the way that the educational hierarchy operates and the way that education is treated by decision makers is more likely to retain the status quo.

When change is attempted under such circumstances it results in defensiveness superficiality or, at best, short lived pockets of success.  Fullan argues that it is not through reform strategies that we will evolve the educational system to what it ideally should be. He suggests that ‘reform strategies’ are antithetical to a system basically not organized to engage in change.

Rather he suggests that the situation needs to be reframed into one in which we ask “what would it take to make the educational system a learning organisation” as an integral way of life ? The reason we need ‘learning organisations is related to the discovery that change in complex systems is non-linear and full of surprises.  We need new mindsets to help us ‘manage the unknowable’.

This is largely a digest and commentry based around the opening of Michael Fullan’s book Change Forces: Probing the Depths of Educational Reform; ISBN-10: 1850008264; page VII


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