This guest post comes from Gerald Haigh, and is a follow up to a previous piece looking at the concept of transformation within school, with technology being used as the main vehicle for this change. If you wish to reads his initial piece (and we recommend you do), it can be found here:
Gerald Haigh’s further thoughts on the role of technology within educational transformation
Do you have an exercise machine in the attic. Is it, perchance, still in the box? As a nation we spend a billion pounds a year on sports equipment, and yet according to a survey by home insurer ‘Ecclesiastical’, half of it is unused. Exercise machines are at the top of the list – one in five of people surveyed had bought one and never used it.
It’s easy to work out why this is. Many people – perhaps all of us – would dearly like to be fitter, slimmer, better at sport, more attractive, with bulges only in appropriate places. But getting there is difficult and involves actual hard physical effort. However, there’s one part of the project which is much easier, and involves a favourite pastime, namely shopping. So we start our drive for athleticism by getting on the internet and buying stuff – shoes, bikes that go nowhere, sets of clubs, gym memberships. And that’s as far as it goes. Sports equipment suppliers and gym owners laugh their way to the bank while we look guiltily at our purchases until we banish them to the attic, a terrible secret, like the picture of Dorian Gray.
I thought of this when I read a good article on the American resources website ‘Education.com’ on the challenges of implementing change in schools.
With the title, ‘Helping Schools Overcome Barriers to Change’, it’s by consultant Craig Jerald, who, right at the start, quotes what is, when you think about it, the biggest education question of all –
‘Is it possible to get the schools we need by fixing the schools we have?’
It was asked in May 2004 at a meeting of American philanthropic groups involved in school funding. They wanted to know whether it was worth spending on school improvement, or whether they were making a bad bet.
Their conclusion was far from encouraging. Yes, they would support existing schools, but in a more limited way. In future, they’d rather spend money on new ‘startup’ schools.
The problem, says Jerald, is that those who set out to transform schools misunderstand the seriousness of what they face and too often, when they do get the picture, they back down and settle for something less than the original vision. Not helping is the fact that much advice on school improvement concentrates on the planning stage, which leads to the belief that if the plan is good, then it is bound to work.
‘In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The implementation stage is the most difficult of all. And it is the stage where the majority of serious improvement efforts fail.’
Jerald goes on to discuss the barriers, internal and external, which make school improvement a challenging, uphill task. They include, for example, not having a clear vision and/or failing to communicate it. (To which I’d add, jumping to the conclusion that everyone round the table shares the vision just because they nod at the right moment).
Then there are cultural blocks put up by, among others, successful teachers reluctant to tamper with what they believe to be a winning formula. All are familiar enough, but it’s good to see them so well articulated here. What’s really important, though, is to understand that the barriers will always be higher than expected, and will take much more effort and time to deal with than any of the participants expect. Jerald quotes Michael Fullan’s ‘Leading in a culture of change’.
‘Even when things appear to be working, the supposed success may be a function of merely superficial compliance.’
Jerald expands on that, pointing out that schools bent on improvement always manage to improve some things. Total failure on every aspect of the improvement plan is rare. But often, the tendency is to turn away from the biggest challenges, and deal with the easy stuff first. Jerald calls it an example of ‘regression to the mean’ – the overwhelming tendency of all communities, groups, and organisations to revert to what they see as the normal state of affairs. The trouble with this is that limited success is visible and usually emphasised, so that to the casual observer, transformation looks easier than it actually is. He writes;
‘The hustle and bustle of acting on less-meaningful parts of the plan, especially those that don’t require changing classroom instruction, make it appear that “implementation” is chugging along at a reasonable clip.’
It’s a long article, some of it USA focussed, but the call for honesty in dealing the too often overlooked problems of implementation makes it worth reading, and. there are sound recommendations for those who face barriers to improvement.
Getting stuff is the easy bit.
Craig Jerald’s article was written some years ago and hardly mentions technology. Arguably, though, the easy availability of devices and cloud-based software brings his point about ‘…acting on less-meaningful parts of the plan’ into sharp focus. It takes us, I suggest, back to the start of this blog, and ‘getting the stuff’. Because, when it comes to bringing about change in a school, sure enough the easiest place to start is at the BETT Show, with a cheque book and an eye open for the best gadgets.
And that, of course, is exactly why we have seen schools replete with under-used technology – interactive whiteboards with little evidence of interaction, one-to-one tablets used as substitute textbooks (or, in some cases, hardly used at all). And it is why educational technology industry leaders like Steve Beswick of Microsoft say, as he did at the recent Sandymoor School conference:
‘Stop buying stuff….The plan should not be technology, but technology can help the plan.’
You hear some teachers say, ‘Learning first’. That’s fine as long as it’s understood in terms of priorities rather than time. True transformation is achieved when technology and pedagogy advance hand in hand, step by step – and Microsoft’s unrivalled suite of educational applications is ideally suited both to follow what’s planned and to reveal possibilities that the planners did not anticipate and must be ready to grasp.
The evidence, in the schools which I’ve seen, is that all this takes patience, time and excellent leadership by people whose eyes are completely open to what they’re taking on. It means not settling for the easy wins, but building on them, trying to push forward on all fronts, working with the innovators but not abandoning the rest – and, crucially, involving the students.
As they say, the hardest step to fitness is the one out of the front door. Expensive shoes will come, and by then they’ll be worth every penny.