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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

How to Address System Change in Education

School leaders should focus on “simplexity”
By Michael Fullan — January 16, 2023 4 min read
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In Part I, I focused on moving away from our state of academic obsession and toward a more human movement in schools.
In order to go from our current state of academic obsession to a combination of well-being and learning, research and practice have shown that it takes a while to get to specificity with complex matters. There are two absolutely core concepts, working in tandem, that are imperative: relationships and pedagogy (the nature and practice of learning). Included in these findings—and this is absolutely crucial—is that both these concepts must be context specific (what I call “contextual literacy”). Their use is grounded in the personal and cultural knowledge of the groups in question—always.

One of the mysteries of change is that it is difficult to establish and keep relationships and pedagogy working together. Yet, if you have one without the other, you do not progress. Teachers can be great at caring, including diverse groups of students, but if the pedagogy is not grounded in the culture of the students in question, overall learning will fail. Or teachers’ pedagogical knowledge may be great, but they fail to understand the cultures and lives of their students. The challenge of our times is addressing mental health and well-being while trying to meet curriculum expectations, i.e, crowded curriculum and difficult learning conditions laced with anxiety and stress. Understanding and addressing both relationships and pedagogy is the challenge of the century for schools.

To those who say that the status quo persists because it serves the powerful, I agree to a point, but: i) a dwindling number of people actually benefit from the present system; ii) existing strategies over the past 50 years have failed time and again; and iii) even those who are in favor of changing the status quo are failing to make a difference. Nothing we are doing works!

One of the interesting byproducts of the pandemic is that teachers, parents, and students have become more aware of the external context of schools. In this sense, people have the potential to become more system-oriented. In the hands of good leaders, this can be used to advantage. But with traditional leaders, it can become a hierarchical hell—making decisions about complex problems without knowledge. The idea is to listen to people who know the context, who live in it every day.

Students’ attitudes about the meaning of school means varies greatly. For example, some students are less likely to be forced (by parents) to go to school. On the flip side, teachers become more aware that school might be a haven for some students from danger on the outside. Here is an interesting twist relative to what I refer to as academic obsession: When a student does not show up at school, some teachers immediately worry about the mental health of the student (“I wonder if they are all right”) before they think of “lost learning.” Policy and wider practice have not caught up to this intriguing nuance—that well-being is key. The dissonance comes from top-level bureaucrats or politicians who continue to focus only on learning loss and state tests, when the contextual reality at the class and school level is to address well-being and new forms of learning such as the global competencies.

The strategy in action.
Simplexity requires us to identify the smallest number of key actions that can get us on the road to redemption—hit the ground running. Action is urgent because society with increasing alacrity is heading into what appears to be an abyss—the interaction between social degradation and climate collapse. With the knowledge that deliberate system transformation is rare, and crisis is upon us, people may be prepared to do “something” if it has promise and provides early momentum. Here is a summary of breakthrough change that seems possible to me:

1) Recognize that systems are extremely difficult to change even when large numbers want change.
2) Focus on relationships and pedagogy grounded in cultural context or you won’t have a chance.
3) Worry that the focus in No. 2 will wane if not constantly attended to.
4) Integrate academics and deep learning. Don’t slip back into academic obsession—the helping hand strikes again.
5) Beware of a more subtle academic priority problem. You may improve relationships, and pedagogy to improve literacy and numeracy, and be “successful” in that results increase but fail to address the deeper well-being goals or even academic goals related to the 6Cs that are crucial for coping and thriving in a complex society. In such a case, you would have achieved “improvement” but not transformation. In effect, you would have produced a better version of the status quo—getting better at an old game. Fit for schooling not necessarily for life. The old grammar of school can be subtle.
6) Build connections to the outside: community, civic agencies, technology, business, policy, world issues like climate, poverty, discrimination, and financial quality. The universe is a system, too, and you are implicated. If you haven’t developed your relationships and pedagogy, you won’t make a good partner in these endeavors.

I have also highlighted some additional considerations:

      1. Place priority on well-being (especially those doing most poorly).
      2. Link well-being and learning as early drivers.
      3. Revisit the purpose of education.
      4. Invest equally in relationships and pedagogy.
      5. Invite the kids to lead—students as change makers and best learners.
      6. Be visible in the community and in larger forums. After all, this is system change.

      Placing purpose as item No. 3 is counterintuitive, but purpose has little meaning, until it is infused with the emotion and experience of well-being and learning. They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The road to heaven is not paved at all. That is the lot of humanity in the 21st century!

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      The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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