“Transformation is the sum of well- choreographed incrementalism.”
What a jargon-loaded quotation that is! It is an interesting one because, if you spend a moment to work out what it means, you’ll struggle to forget it. Perhaps the most common misconception about transformation is that it is a visible big bang. Maybe it is, but usually it isn’t. Think about how mobile communications technology has transformed during our lifetimes. The big bang moment was the appearance of the first mobile handset. The transformation since has been even more remarkable. Anywhere, anytime access to the technosphere to communicate with anyone or anything we need, through numerous version upgrades over the years – in other words, well-choreographed incrementalism. That’s how education changes too. Educational reform is not about big bangs. It’s about hard-won incremental steps.
How well do we choreograph the steps, so that they all lead to the transformation we seek? do we know what transformation we need, and why?
Teachers everywhere are trying to shift from teaching about to teaching how to, often in response to curriculum reforms focused on outcomes. In many parts of the world, teachers are now advancing powerful and successful approaches to investigative learning, which are about the how to of application, based on higher-order thinking skills.
So, how is the classroom changing to promote these ‘how to’ skills?
Perhaps we’ve seen the change from blackboards to whiteboards, but has pedagogy really shifted as a result? Is the teacher still seen as the holder of knowledge to be imparted to the student, probably with an examination to check students’ memory once done? Think again about the unlimited knowledge at our fingertips in the technosphere and the skills we need in order to process that information. This isn’t about teaching our students to store knowledge as if they are some kind of computer hard drive, but to help them to find out how to process the knowledge in productive ways – more like the computer processor does.
How do we shift teaching so that it unleashes the vital how to skills?
Perhaps we need to be thinking more about the system of change itself – the choreography of incremental steps that lead to transformation?
We know about self-evaluation and have been getting better at it for decades. Self-evaluation means looking inwards; knowing our schools inside out. Most of us do this by analysing data forensically, by finding out what people think and using their views and, most importantly, by looking in on lessons to evaluate the quality of learning and teaching live.
We are also getting better at looking outwards, learning from others to challenge our own thinking. We do this by sharing practice with colleagues, by benchmarking our data, and through professional networks.
How often do we look forwards with a clear focus on what our students will need to be able to do in 20 years’ time?
This is the most vital perspective of all. Without a clear view of what students will need, we could well be doing brilliantly at teaching them things that will have no relevance in the future. That will probably impress our self- evaluation too. Take, for example, handwriting. Have you ever counted the hundreds of hours we spend in school teaching students how to write legible script? However, if we look forwards, do we really believe that handwriting will be an essential life skill in 20 years? Might some of that time be better spent on developing the skills, dispositions and values we need to use in the technosphere productively?
Perhaps now is the time to start thinking about the future, then, if we haven’t already. In my next article I will explore transformative tools that help us do just that – to help us all to think about how to change.
By Graham Norris
Graham is presently a principal inspector in the Middle East. As HM Assistant Chief Inspector and Assistant Director, he created and led school inspection systems and improvements for Scottish education. Graham is a leading international specialist in transformational change for education services and school performance.