What’s Standing in the Way of Change? It better not be culture.

The CEA’s What’s Standing in the Way of Change in Education workshop series across Canada brings together a variety of stakeholders and innovators including students, parents, university deans, teachers, trustees, K-12 and university administrators, superintendents, and Ministry of Education administrators, and tasks them with determining what is standing in the way of change in education, and how to work around or eliminate the barriers.

In the Vancouver session, which I had the privilege of attending on Wednesday May 14th, it seemed most participants agreed on three challenges in particular.  Below, I share what I took from these discussions.

1. Mindset

Those who are in positions that can implement change may not have the mindset to do so.  They may be married to what they currently do, either to maintain tradition, to please parents who might resist change, out of fear of the unknown of might lay ahead, or fear that adopting new practice will make “old” practice and the practitioner look bad.  The idea of “best practice” is not helpful.  It suggests that there is one best way of doing things and switching the term “best practice” to “effective practice,” is perhaps a small but important step in inviting change.  Bruce Beairsto noted this Mindset is not so much a barrier or roadblock in the present or future, but an anchor dug into the past that slows or halts change.


2. Process

The BC Education Plan articulates many important goals for education:  personalized learning, flexibility and choice, learning supported by digital access, etc.  Even if the goals of change were understood to mean the same thing and agreed upon by all 40 000 teachers in BC, as well as administrators, School Board Office staff and Trustees, there is no clear process to implement change, and the process might look different depending on what form of change it is.  One of the strengths of education in BC is that teachers, schools, and districts, have a high degree of autonomy to personalize and contextualize learning experiences to best meet the needs of unique students and communities; needs that might be different elsewhere.  Interestingly, this strength is a weakness in implementing change rapidly.  This decentralized system is thus designed to satisfy context-specific needs, but also makes implementing systematic change difficult.

Further, innovators have relatively small spheres of influence.  An innovative teacher in a classroom has a huge impact on the many students they teach, and a district with a culture of innovation has a major impact both on students and educators, but classrooms, schools, school districts, and even universities, are relatively small spheres compared with the system as a whole.  For systemic change, who is to bridge these spheres?  The Ministry of Education’s Education Plan makes no connections, that I am aware of at least, between K-12 education and university, and coordination, particularly with respect to changing assessment practices, must occur between grades 11 and 12 and university entrance requirements. There is a separate ministry, the Ministry of Advanced Education, responsible for Universities.  Who is responsible for bridging the gap between K-12 and University?

While there are great benefits to a decentralized, diffusion model of change (described by Chris Kennedy here), it does not promote the quick implementation of systematic change.  In my opinion, it is better to do things well than do things quickly, so if speed is the cost for well-implemented, personalized and contextual change, perhaps it is worth it.

Peter Drucker noted that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and Jordan Tinney has written on this topic in relation to the hit television show Downton Abbey, explaining culture’s inescapable role causing change. The show shares the change of the place of the aristocracy in the UK, including how an aristocratic family interacts with each other and with servants and other “commoners.”  There are some major events like World War One that accelerate change, but for the most part, change happens in small decisions:  a daughter’s decision to wear certain clothing or disagree with her father, a butler’s tolerance of certain behaviour, a decision to marry a commoner, and for the family to slowly accept that commoner into their circles.  Occasionally, important laws such as female suffrage cause major changes, but it is for the most part, small decisions happening among relatively small actors that slowly shift and are then shifted by culture.  In a decentralized system, culture, more than process, shapes change.


3. Support

A third inhibitor of change is that many believe there is not sufficient support for educators to develop their skillsets, perhaps in inquiry, assessment, and self-regulation.  This support might include time for professional learning, support from collaborators or mentors/coaches, or learning resources such as books or technology tools that support professional learning or student learning.  Further, if class composition is becoming more challenging, even if an educator hones their skillset, there is, or might be the perception, that educators cannot make full use of their skillsets because they simply do not have enough time to offer their skills to such diverse learning needs.  If educators do not feel supported, financially and with sufficient human resources to meet the needs of learners, this third inhibitor of change – Support – can lead to the development of a mindset resistant to change.



It seems clear to me that if mindsets, process and support are identified as challenges to change, it is absolutely vital that classrooms, schools, districts and the Ministry of Education in general, must support a culture of innovation, written about by Chris Kennedy here.  Culture shapes mindsets, it permeates all spheres of influence, and it inspires educators to overcome limitations of support.  In a Downton Abbey model of change, which we seem to have, all innovators with influence must develop their convictions and take action if they wish to be leaders. And as this work cannot be done alone; educators must work together to develop shared convictions and take shared action to implement change.

The Age of Enlightenment?

Much has been made of Parks Canada considering Wi-Fi access at many National Parks across the country.  Many videos are appearing on YouTube warning cellphone users of social networking leading to people having poor social skills and hollow friendships.  Concerns are being raised about adolescents not attaining sufficient sleep due to texting late at night.  The more I learn about concerns with screen time, the more convinced I have become that schools need to offer students screen time, in part to teach them about the purposeful use of technology.  Screen time must not just lighten the faces of students but enlighten their minds.

Beginning next school year, BICS students in Grade 6-7 will be encouraged to bring their own device to school.  While many parents will see great value in supporting inquiry with digital access, others will wonder if this will simply mean students will have more and more screen time, at the cost of other important learning experiences.  For this reason, it is important that we start conversations around “bring your own device” (BYOD) by asking why:  Why is it helpful for students to have devices?  There are many reasons but I will share four.

First, most schools in British Columbia have moved or are moving towards an inquiry-based approach to learning where students ask questions that guide their investigation into a subject.  To do this effectively, students need a window beyond the classroom; they need access to a variety of up to date sources of information and varied perspectives made available through online resources as well as more traditional research approaches.

Second, learners need an audience.  Too often students share their learning with an audience of one, their teacher, or a small audience – typically family members.  Class and school presentations happen infrequently, but there are frequent opportunities for students to share their learning in blogs or online presentation tools. This kind of sharing increases accountability and engagement.

Third, learners need a place to store their work.  The BC Curriculum is providing more opportunities for students to connect learning among subjects and between grades and a digital portfolio of learning is helpful.

Lastly, students need to learn that technology is a tool, not a lifestyle.  Like using a calculator, it can be taken out for a purpose, and put away when unneeded.  Students need to learn how to use this tool and be good digital citizens:  how to use information ethically, comment on each other’s work supportively, and stay safe online.

These four points are part of the answer of why digital access supports student learning, but as BICS has parent and grant-purchased computers, one might wonder why students need their own device.  The simple answer is that a student device can be used seamlessly:  they have access to it whenever it is needed, not just when their teacher has booked the computers, they are familiar with how it operates, and they can save work to their files and access them from home easily.  The devices the BICS PAC has invested in over the last four years are used consistently and it is becoming increasingly challenging for teachers to reserve them for classroom use.  Encouraging students to bring in their own electronic device to school will reduce the demand on school devices and increase accessibility to support learning in a more streamlined, seamless way for all students. This creates greater flexibility for students to use devices when it best suits the class schedule, rather than when the teacher can book the computer cart.

I have not been easily convinced of the need for BYOD at BICS.  As noted, our PAC has invested heavily in a variety of devices and, up until recently, teachers have found these devices have, for the most part, satisfied demand.  I also share concerns with parents over the cost for families’ buying devices.  I understand that parents greatly value the many learning opportunities of BICS students that have little to do with technology such as learning from people who have insights that will never come up in a Google search.  But I also know that the balanced use of technology does not devalue other forms of learning.  And far from wiping our school goals of critical thinking and inquiry-based learning off the table, digital access is the table, or part of it; it enables inquiry and provides opportunities for critical thinking.

On Monday, May 26th at 6:30 pm in the BICS library, I will share a presentation on BYOD elaborating on the benefits and addressing concerns.  Parents who will have children in Grades 6 or 7 for the 2014-2015 school year are strongly encouraged to attend this interactive session.  Other interested BICS parents are of course also welcome.  After the presentation, I will invite parents to begin a conversation on BYOD that will shape implementation in September.  Please feel free to start the conversation now by commenting on the ideas shared in this post.

When is “Service Learning” Service?

ServieSea to Sky Outdoor School has long promoted the mantra of Wow, Wonder, and Work.  After learners engage with a topic with an inspiring experience (Wow) and reflect on this experience (Wonder), students can put their learning to use (Work).  The latter part operationalizes beliefs and makes learning relevant; and likely does the world good.

Often in school, all three of these occur during instructional hours making me wonder if the work truly is service.  Just as guided inquiry is needed as students learn to enter their own cycles of inquiry, perhaps a guided service cycle is needed prior to students entering into their own cycle of service, but the goal of service learning should be that students perform service on their own time, and not to earn points.  If the Wow and Wonder are truly effective, students will be motivated to share their learning with others and put their learning to use.

At Bowen Island Community School, School District 45’s academy outside45 has much work ahead in embedding service in learning, but I was pleased that approximately 40 students and parents came to help build our school’s second garden this past Saturday.  The event was organized by BICS’ Community School Coordinator Sarah Haxby and O45 teachers.  There were no service points awarded and many of the students who attended were in Grade 7 so by the time the garden will be built they will no longer be at BICS.  They do have the privilege of knowing that they helped the school and all of the students who come after them though.  Service.

outside45 has in its first two years really focused on the Wow and Wonder of education.  In future blog posts, I hope to share some thinking about the role of service in education and in speaking with students, parents, and outside45’s thoughtful educators, share what it looks like.

There will always be a place for service occurring within “school hours” but I think the standard of success for service learning is when students put their learning to use on their own time.