The beginning of the school year provides us with plenty of opportunity to consider bringing new ideas and fresh ways of doing things into our schools and classroom programmes. Such thinking is a sign of a healthy system, with change coming as a result of the desire to continuously improve what we are doing, and to ensure we are providing the very best we can for our students.
The need to keep to core values
Any change we consider making should start with considering how such changes might align with our core beliefs, the fundamental ideas we have about what is important for our school and our learners. This is particularly the case where the change being considered is going to have significant impact on staff, students, and the community – e.g. rebuilding all or part of the school, changing the configuration of classes, or introducing new forms of assessment for instance.
As our school system seeks to adapt to the rapidly changing social, economic, and political pressures, the changes being considered can often conflict with the core beliefs, values, and principles we have established, resulting in tensions at all levels and a lack of any real vision for what we are doing or why we are doing it.
Transformation is the new buzzword
In New Zealand, as in many parts of the world, there are calls for a transformation in our school system. A simple search for “NZ Education” and “Transformation” on the Web will reveal just how pervasively this term is now being used across a range of policy and programmes. Yet, do we really understand what transformation means in practice, and is that practice built upon our own set of beliefs about transformation, or are we simply adopting the practices suggested by others?
The argument for and justification of a transformation of our education system is certainly gaining momentum, but a clear articulation of what this will look like is still to emerge, leaving many of the initiatives appearing to be nothing more than simply “different” to what they were.
What transformation really means
At the heart of this transformation is the shift from the school as the focus of education policy, to making the learner the focus of all educational decision-making, with a concerted effort to personalize the learning experience for each learner. Where previously many of our practices reflected an assumption that students start school as a ‘blank slate’ with an innate and fixed capacity to learn, a transformed system develops practices that build on prior learning and reflect a belief in the potential for all students to learn and achieve high standards, given high expectations, motivation and sufficient time and support. Placing the learner at the centre not only makes them the focus of attention in terms of policy and planning, but also involves them in the decisions made about these things. These thoughts are expanded on in CORE’s Ten Trends on Learner Orientation.
The three keys to unlocking transformation potential in our schools
Having established the fundamental premise of placing the learner at the centre of our thinking, there are three keys to unlocking the transformation potential in our schools. These three things define what is fundamentally different about teaching and learning in the 21st century, and help us understand the areas we need to focus on changing in our practice.
First, we must empower our learners by providing them with choices and the ability to act on those choices. This is the key of agency where learners have the ‘power to act’. Agency isn’t about abandoning our role as teachers and leaving everything to the learner, but recognises the learner as an empowered and active participant at all levels of the educational process. It requires us to re-think how we engage with learners and the role we take as teachers, and it requires an emphasis on a different set of competencies that will ensure our learners are able to make good and appropriate choices and act on them in their learning.
Second, we must acknowledge that learning is not confined to the four walls of a classroom, nor finishes at the school gate, but can and does occur anywhere, at any time and at any pace. This is the key of ubiquity, challenging us to find ways of embracing the wide range of contexts in which learning occurs, and to see our schools as ‘nodes’ on the network of learning provision. The increasing availability and use of digital technologies is enabling this to occur more easily, for example, learners are able to access what they are learning and doing at school from home or elsewhere, and they are able to access programmes of learning from other places, not depending purely on what is provided in their local school context.
Thirdly, we must embrace the idea that learning involves the process of knowledge building, and that this is no longer regarded as an individual endeavor, but occurs as individuals interact with each other, contributing, shaping and refining ideas so that the new knowledge is created ‘in the network’ of connections made. This is the key of connectedness, recognizing that ‘no learner is an island’, and that the connections between and among human beings is fundamental to learning in the 21st century. Again, the increased availability and use of digital technologies means that there is now no limit to how and where these connections are made. This is particularly significant in an increasingly globalised world.
Ready to make this the year of transformation?
Applied properly, these keys will require some fundamental shifts in our thinking as educators. They cannot be used in an ‘additive’ way, simply creating another layer to what we already do. Beginning by placing the learner at the centre of what we do, we have the opportunity to truly transform our education system, starting with what happens in our schools and classrooms. What better time to capture this sort of thinking and let it guide our actions than the beginning of a new school year? Let’s make 2015 the year of transformation!