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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.

Teaching Profession Opinion

Teacher Power Can Be the Force for Education. What Would That Look Like?

It’s time for teachers and students to work collectively
By Michael Fullan & Joanna Rizzotto — September 22, 2023 7 min read
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The current “system” of education does not work for the majority of students. The situation is worsening, battered by the pandemic that exposed the inner weakness of a structure and culture that does not support well-being and learning in the world in which we live. Many teachers are leaving the profession, or not showing up in the first place. Those teachers that remain are retreating to the one thing they can partially control—surviving as best they can behind the classroom door.

Our contention is that the centrality of teachers to the learning of all students has never been cultivated as a system quality. From the age of philosophers and tutors 2,500 years ago, through the one-room schoolhouses of the 1800 and 1900 hundreds, to the modern schools of today, teachers have been born to be alone with their students. Genetically and culturally, evolution has handed teachers a mixed message: Collaboration is good, but at the end of the day, you are on your own. Individualism is always the fallback.

To put it bluntly: Developing teachers and students collectively as a force for overall system change has never been tested. The question is, could teachers become a collaborative force for the kind of individual and societal development that is so badly needed? This is our untested hypothesis. Teachers working differently than ever before with each other and their students and communities could be the solution to learning that has evaded us. For a while, in the first decade of this century, there were sprouting examples of teachers collaborating at some schools and even within some school districts, but these were never intended nor designed to fundamentally transform learning. There were many structural and cultural barriers that barred the development of a new profession. Administrators always liked “professional learning communities” more than teachers did because they were partial solutions that could be controlled.

The old system and its drivers for change have failed time and again. The external levers—such as high-stakes testing—intended to change the system have not worked. Fundamentally, learning and well-being in modern times can never be furthered by top-down solutions. Today, teachers are confronted with the daily reality that they are mostly alone in their work overseen by many layers of authority. We need to restructure schools to establish time for teachers and students to work together while reculturing schools to use that time productively.

It is not that teachers are saints who will save the day. The untested hypothesis is that teachers potentially hold what is most valuable: the direct connection to, knowledge of, and compassion for students. Individualism means that good ideas fail to get shared and cultivated and that bad ideas persist. When innovations do occur in a hierarchical system, they can spread temporarily when certain leaders blunt state constraints or when they work around some teachers who believe that the current system can never work—preferring to take their chances on their own. Such exceptions prove the rule: The system never changes.

Most discouraging is that conditioned beliefs keep us circling back to tired solutions: making classes bigger, adding more layers to existing solutions, being superficially empathetic to the plight of teachers, making personal appeals to educators, and raising salaries—the latter, tantamount to combat pay for a war that should not be waged. Many teachers, and increasingly their students, are becoming clearer that it is not the work they object to but the structure, the culture, and nature of what they are asked to do—quick fixes that cannot possibly succeed. It doesn’t take long for students and parents to come to the same conclusion.

It is time for radical action. Replace the external hierarchical system with a flattened system where teachers and students and parents/communities learn about and shape their futures and where administrators help develop the local system. School principals would do so directly and external leaders (districts and states) indirectly through resources and enabling policies. Progress (with respect to equity, academic, and social competencies) would be measured and shared openly. Changing the structure and culture frees up more time for teachers to work together, thereby creating an opportunity to learn from each other for new purposes. It includes positioning artificial intelligence to help in this quest (something that some districts that we work with are already doing).

Advances in neuroscience, cognition, human functioning, and motivation have shed light on the fact that our current system is not working because it was designed with ideas about humans that we now know don’t work. Shifting our philosophical foundation in schools from “pressure drives behavior” to “cultures shapes choices” would usher in a compassionate system that cultivates regulation, restoration, and growth of individuals and groups. The result would be an organizational culture that incentivizes connection, growth, and contribution, not in word but in action. We need a new system that moves beyond the merely aspirational: “Teachers are important,” “Teachers deserve respect,” “Collaboration is key” to one where the strengths reside in the expertise of teachers and students learning together. It will not be teachers by themselves who save the day but rather discovering for the first time that the centerpiece of deep learning is teachers with their students.

Answering the call for internal need and development must precede external accountability (and actually delivers stronger accountability). A major part of the solution is to explicitly and publicly abandon the counterproductive test-driven obsession that has plagued us all of this century—a detached policy lever blowing in the wind if there ever was one. We have known for at least 50 years that you can’t mandate what matters. Replace the current counterproductive assessment system in two related ways. Add “global competencies” as an essential outcome (such as the 6 Cs: character/compassion; citizenship; collaboration; communication; creativity; and critical thinking). And refocus academic learning, including literacy and numeracy, on the well-being and learning of all students grounded in a new triple-E reality of equity, engagement, and excellence.

We are working with some school districts that are attempting this new powerful accountability. These new systems are more transparent and, ironically, are more specific than the detached testing system we currently have. There is no greater motivator for students and teachers than replacing the current yawning gap of de-motivation with the immersed learning of something that really matters: my future, your future, saving our withering planet. Replace the current accountability system with one that requires partnership, not obedience. Nothing will be lost, while a new world could be gained.

It remains true that individual teachers are doing phenomenal things for and with their students. Small groups of teachers collaborating can dramatically change the life chances of successive clusters of students. But teachers as a profession never seem to have enough time to develop what they can be and do. They witness the hype around generative artificial intelligence but cannot be helped to establish generative collaboration. The latter would be a profession of teachers and students resourced to work daily together that leads to better learning in and for society—a system that most teachers do not now experience.

We call for some systems (clusters of districts, even whole states or provinces) to declare and pursue this new direction. Our system transformation includes new structures and, correspondingly, new cultures. Structures need to be established to enable teachers to plan and work individually and collectively in partnership with students and parents on a new purpose for education (fostering engaged learners who are “good in and good for society”). Civic- and community-mindedness for oneself and for society is the main goal of modern learning. We say “build the base, strengthen the middle, and intrigue to top (school and district leaders)” in order to transform the system itself. The prize is a new world where we can stave off climate and social destruction, as we create a flourishing future.

A new structure enables time; a new culture requires and demands new purpose, values, and ways of working together. Depending on local situations, the gist of our argument requires teachers and their unions, as well as administrators and governments to confront their history as they recognize the impossibility of current solutions. The transition will not be smooth—remember we are in a system that is more than 200 years old which has recently become even more entrenched in ways that can only lead to self-destruction of society. On the other hand, once this new direction is started, it could become an internal, accelerating force (collective social energy can do that). Now is our chance to leapfrog into a flourishing future. Make cultivating and sharing tacit knowledge and actions the currency of a newfound system solution. Imagine!

The new system we advocate will be more interactive, more transparent, more specific in its actions and outcomes, and more accountable! In this new system, teachers’ power is only as good as students’ power, and local power is only as good as the ecosystem that supports it. It is time for a bold step forward.

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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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