Painting the fence or building a new one!

Alberta Education is involved in a high school flexibility project that is focusing on how learning can be improved outside the Carnegie Unit. The Carnegie Unit was developed from a business point of view and is based on the factory model of education. It was initiated to standardize education. A parallel process in Alberta is Inspiring Education. Inspiring Education is about transforming what we do at the core of education. It is based on developing, engaged thinkers, ethical citizens with an entrepreneurial spirit. Reviewing it on a superficial level, will cause some excitement for most parents, staff and communities. Who wouldn’t want those motherhood and apple pie outcomes? But if you really delve into both of the initiatives you have to begin to ask, “Are we building a new fence or just painting the old one?” If we truly want to meet the needs of all students instead of just some, we must build a new fence. Painting the old one may look nice, but it will have little long term effect on the changing educational needs of our students and society as a whole. Building a new fence requires a significant shift in how we deliver education and how we account for our results.

Pedagogy leads Curriculum

The driver for educational change must be pedagogy. Our instructional practice must meet the needs of current students in order to prepare them for their future and not our past. An interactive whiteboard is nothing more than a glorified chalkboard and blogging is just a journal if the pedagogy remains 20th century. Learning centers can be examples of highly, engaging students with choice or the same task performed in a group setting. We know our students are different, our society is different and therefore we must recognize that our teaching practice must also be different. We will only shift from compliant students to committed learners with innovative and creative practices. Building a new fence of teacher practice is challenging on both a competence and confidence level. We are asking teachers to drastically change their approach to education to meet the needs of all students and not just some. And, how we have taught in the past has been good- there is no argument there! But in order to become great and more importantly ensure success for all, we need to build a new fence.

Pedagogical reform cannot wait for new curriculum.  The development of curriculum is a long and arduous task at best. Decisions (usually disagreements) about curricular outcomes, alignment with colleges and universities and choice of resources all contribute to this painstaking endeavour. With the fast paced world we live in, often the best curriculums or at least the resources to support, are almost outdated prior to their full implementation. Curriculum development is cumbersome and so to wait until we get it just right is just too long. In the past, we have had some excellent curriculum developed in Alberta with less than desirable results. If teachers simply look at what is different from one program of studies to the next, without understanding the rationale or philosophy, great curriculum is lost. New curriculum doesn’t transform education in isolation; innovative and creative teaching practices do! Even with the tremendous work of Alberta Education on Curriculum Redesign, the driver of educational change must be pedagogy!

Responsibility trumps Accountability

A favorite saying of mine is, “As responsibility increases, the need for accountability decreases.” I believe this from a parenting and system management point of view. However, there are some caveats that need to be established before this statement can be fully realized. The first condition that must be present is trust. Just as parents must trust their children to make right choices, organizations must offer trust to their employees. Trust is built with environments that encourage risk taking, innovation and creativity without fear of retribution. The teaching practices that are required for students’ futures may often fail miserably at the beginning and be messy throughout the process. But, teachers must feel liberated to fail and try again without the “big bad wolf” looking over their shoulders. Trust must be initiated from both top down and bottom us for success. Trust focuses on “what could be” instead of “what is.” It is a vulnerable position and one that must be navigated carefully and openly.

The second condition that heightens responsibility is action. Once leaders offer trust through the creation of liberating environments, teachers must take full advantage in evolving their own practice.  Teachers cannot just paint the fence, they have to build a new one. Trust from leaders dwindles rapidly when the conditions are right for change and action lags behind. Action does not indicate immediate success but it is at least moving forward. I’ve worked with some skilled leaders who have become extremely frustrated due to this lack of action. Teachers who choose to remain stuck in 20th century practices are a disservice to our students. The old paradigm of sorting and selecting students in the factory model will not meet the needs of all students. Although it may be comfortable to continue to instruct students as we always have, it simply does not work for all students. In order to decrease the amount of external accountability, responsibility must be action orientated!

Thirdly, responsibility is never selfish. The act of being responsible is never about us individually but always about our students.  Responsibility eliminates all excuses. Responsibility moves us from “I can’t” to “I”ll try.” It moves us from thinking about “if only…” to “why not?” Responsibility is our professional duty and is based on informed professional judgment. It doesn’t mean that we will move mountains but it certainly suggests our attempt!

Finally, I have long suggested my disdain for our current accountability system. Even though I have shouted from the rooftops, “Don’t worry about test results”, the external pressure is seemingly difficult to overcome. When I look at the desire of our provincial system to develop “Engaged thinkers, Ethical citizens with an Entrepreneurial spirit”, I fully realize that those cannot be accurately measured by a single test result. I am confident that learning will be greatly enhanced when we build that new fence both in the classroom and from the system/government level. Realistically, we need problem solving students not knowledge regurgitating drones. We need students who have solid literacy and numeracy skills AND who excel in the competencies needed in the 21st century.  This will not come to fruition if we continue to narrowly define student success as we currently do.

In order for pedagogy to lead curriculum and responsibility to trump accountability, all levels of the education system must be prepared to open their doors. The hands of trust must be extended with vulnerability from all organizations. It is time for everyone to lay their cards on the table and be willing to be fully transparent as we shape an educational system that prepares students for their future and not our past. This is not easy for any of the levels of organization but trust must be extended in order to “Build a new fence!”




1 comment

    • Corinne Sampson on February 5, 2013 at 9:52 AM
    • Reply

    Great article! This shift in attitude (motivation, participation, expectation, etc) is pivotal for success and must be echoed among parents, teachers, and students. It will shape all our activities from educating new teachers, interviewing for teachers, supporting teachers, writing lesson objectives, to conducting appropriate evaluation. Wow! The wait IS too long, which demands that change happen from within the present status. Our future is worth it, and our students are worth it, individually! Thank you for your succinct words.

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