Do we really want a better education system?

Change is an interesting dilemma! There are those in the world who are continual non-adopters of change and others who jump on every change that comes about, good or bad! From a leaders point of view, I can understand both, accept both and need to work with the two ends of a very diverse continuum. The most frustrating group to work with is neither of the above. Instead, I’m frustrated by those who openly advocate for the need for change but actually construct barriers to change or worse, practice open non-compliance.

There are few fields of study that more rigorously debate change than education. We are constantly looking at ways to improve instructional practice, enhance curriculum relevance and to further intellectually engage students. It would be my belief that I would receive a resounding affirmation if I posed those improvements to the general society. Who would not agree with efforts to improve instructional practice, enhance curriculum relevance or further intellectually engage students?

Unfortunately, here is where the struggle manifests itself. While there is certainly agreement with those needed improvements in our education system and many will even suggest that the system is “broken”, few are willing to accept the monumental changes required to get there! There is a “yes to this” and a “yes to that” BUT “don’t you dare change that” mentality that stalls most transformation plans. In other words, I want you to climb the mountain of change but I’m just going to cuff your hands and shackle your feet before you begin!

A sad example of this thinking came last month in a small rural division in Alberta. Battle River School Division made a monumental leap in terms of their assessment practices. Not only was their move well based in research, it was the right thing to do to move from 20th century learning to 21st century learning and beyond. It was a bold action because it challenged our existing views of how students learn and how we assess that learning. Unfortunately, it was met with significant hostility forcing the Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Larry Payne to issue this letter.

We have very different students in our classrooms today. In fact, we have a very different society. Knowledge is available 24/7 and technology has created a world that is flat and almost without borders. Our North American education system, as good as it is, cannot ever meet the needs of our current or future students without radical transformation. This transformation will require us (educators and society alike) to move away from what we know to the unknown. We can no longer embrace the traditions of schooling that we’ve held on to so dearly when we are being required and rightfully required to educate ALL children and not just some!

Every child that enters our classroom is unique. Each have special talents, hidden abilities, hopes and dreams. Every child has the ability to create and innovate. The education system and society in general can ill afford to place an abrupt end to any of those talents, abilities, hopes and dreams. But to accomplish this monumental task, we must let go of the old and the comfortable; practices and structures that only further enshrines the 20th century model of schooling and instead dream and be open to the  limitless opportunities we have in the future. The education system needs modern leaders (trustees, administrators, teachers, parents and community members) who refrain from holding on to the known, especially when stepping into the unknown is what’s needed.  




  1. Very enjoyable and thoughtful post, Chris!

    I’m thinking the first step must be to start involving parents in these conversations more. And maybe not just presenting ideas to them, but involving them in some real way at the school level around what they value and want us to focus on with their children. A Great School For All, by the ATA talks about real forms of community engagement that I hope comes to pass, someday.

    I think school districts are reluctant to make changes, despite the raft of supportive research for them, because of experiences like that of Battle River School Division. In a presentation from teachers recently, I heard that they try new things in groups of two to four, so that “they have each others’ back” in their ideas and what they are doing. They feel comfortable in taking risks (where 90% of the risk is of “backlash”, not of any negative impact on student learning).

    I know you say to keep you and other administrators in the loop as well in trying to stretch the box, create pilots where possible and the like. People like Seth Godin says that when you ask your boss to do something, they will likely say “No” because if what you are trying works you get the credit while, if it doesn’t, the boss gets the blame.

    I wonder if there isn’t something that could be done with CASS, where different boards could come together to innovate with a very similar or identical initiative at the same time. With a little coordination, each board could contribute to supporting the other, pool resources and collaborate in following through in that initiative. Plus there would be that bandwagon effect, and other boards would be encouraged to react and innovate in turn, as the evidence for your initiatives are so strong.

    Think of Doctors who prescribed antibiotics for too long for viral infections. Eventually, some of them convinced all the others to stop and endured a backlash for a time as patients who expected medication for everything suddenly were sent home with nothing. We’re not doctors, but there comes a time when the educators have to take the lead in Education to move practice forward for the benefits that brings.

    I believe teachers are waiting for some type of invitation to innovate from our leaders. Alberta Education is saying encouraging things but they don’t employ us. I think most Boards are reluctant to go through the experience of Battle River just as teachers fear experiencing the same backlash at their level.

    Many of us talk about how to get more teachers on board all the time and lament the fact that more aren’t getting involved in an active way. I think many are ready to make the jump and are waiting for some type of invitation, or sign that their boards are also taking risks and pushing forward. Some type of “enabling framework” that draws its frame of success more broadly than standardized tests would be terrific, for example, in terms of allowing for new possibilities.

    I think we all have to do things together more and more. Everyone has to find someone to work with, take a risk and do our part in a group. I see it as the way for these good ideas to bubble up and overtake the outdated ones as a whole.

    What do you think?

    1. Wow- great response Paul. Here are some of my quick thoughts:
      1. Parents are critical in the transformation piece. They know school as they experienced it and therefore they need to be part of how school needs to be and not how it was but that is a very difficult paradigm shift.
      2. The situation in Battle River is similar to many other divisions trying to make wholesale changes. The pressure to remain with the status quo comes from both external (community) and internal (staff). Remember that there are still staff out there who would prefer not to get out of their comfort zone and not implement any change.
      3. I’m not getting the backlash argument. I don’t believe there are superintendents out there that practice that sort of leadership. More often than not, I’ve heard the backlash argument as an excuse to not transform or be innovative. And unfortunately the backlash comes from within as well. Interesting speaking to some of our new student teachers about this one. I also expect that most great leaders and we have many in Alberta take very litte credit for successes publicly and always take the blame publicly. Great leaders surround themselves with people who have a better skill set in many areas and then empower them to “run with their ideas. The reason to keep the “boss” aware is for protection of the individual innovating not visa versa.
      4. There are already collaborative practices in existence throughout the province. Zone 6 is well known for this type of collaboration between school divisions. It is often easier to collaborate with smaller divisions as resources are limited and therefore need to be shared.
      5. Finally, while I don’t agree with everything in the ATA document, “A Great School for All”, it has some great merit. The idea of empowering teachers to co-create and innovate is critical in trasnforming education. The leader’s ability to create that type of enviroment is critical and then it is up to teachers to “run” with it as well. We can no longer do business as we’ve always done it and that requires all of us to look at what we do from different vantage points. Teaching is far too complex to do it alone in isolation and students are far too important for us not to move forward.

  2. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for your reply.

    What I’m calling “backlash” you’re calling “pressure”. I’m not talking about backlash from our senior leadership at all. Every time we have someone question or raise an eyebrow for anything we’re doing that moves beyond an information delivery model of education is what I am considering backlash, here. Battle River’s experience is an example. (“Pressure” is probably a better word, but it feels like backlash when there is push back for maintaining the status quo.) A question from a parent, a student who expects to be spoon fed information in preparation for tests and things of that nature.

    It feels like we’re moving impossibly slowly while making great strides at the same time. I agree with all that you say, above. We’ll keep working on that internal and external pressure to maintain the status quo.

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