Navigating the space between educational paradigms



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Claire Amos believes the challenge lies in disentangling education from its traditional focus on assessment and results and daring to experiment with innovative teaching and learning practices.

Claire Amos, Hobsonville Point Secondary School

Claire AmosOne of the toughest things about being a champion for educational change is that you need to take people with you. In fact sometimes it is even tough to take yourself along for the ride.

Many times I have written and spoken about the need for educational change. I know I am not a lone voice; in fact, I get the sense that there is a veritable tsunami building up behind what initially felt like ripples and then waves of educators talking about this very issue. Sir Ken Robinson popularised the notion that schools need to change with his TED talks ‘How Schools are Killing Creativity’ and ‘Changing Educational Paradigms’. This was echoed and reinforced by the work of Sugata Mitra with his ‘Hole in the wall’ project and his TED talk ‘Build a School in the Cloud’ and I know we all cheered for Logan LaPlante, for whom Hackschooling made happy. Locally we have a growing number of educational leaders calling for change, with NZCER writing an excellent report ‘Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching – a New Zealand perspective’ and just this year we saw the official launch of Dr Jane Gilbert’s AUT Edge Work – Educational Futures Network. I am also proud to be part of the team at Hobsonville Point Secondary School who are developing different approaches to secondary schooling that can better meet the needs of our learners in the 21st century.

I don’t actually think the challenge is understanding why we need to change education, or even what we need to do in order to change it. For me, the central challenge is that we appear to be a bit stuck in the space between – the space between education’s past and education’s future. I suspect this period will be looked back on as that uncomfortably pimply pubescent period where we transitioned, painfully and unnecessarily slowly, from an industrial age education system to a more agile knowledge age model. But at present, we are neither there nor here.

Actually, who am I kidding? Plenty of people are still back there. And happily so. Some of us have hurled ourselves into the unknown whilst many others have stuck with comfortable old ‘there’ and are simply dangling pedagogical toes over the precipice whilst really clinging to the industrial mainland.

All around us are examples of businesses and industries that have made the transition – think about how you used to book travel, book a taxi, how you used to do your banking or share written communication. There are so many examples of change, because industries have to change; if they don’t, they simply lose customers – in business, it’s evolve or die.

However, compulsory schooling doesn’t seem to work that way. For many, there is what is perceived as an intellectual argument for change that might make them feel a little uneasy maintaining the status quo. However, as long as we have a system where schools can be positively antiquated yet publicly lauded as educational successes for hothousing students, focusing on little more than assessment and ‘results, results, results’, then we are unlikely to see any sizeable change in the near future. In recent months we have seen a number of “top schools” quoted in the media, criticising innovative learning spaces as “barns” and new approaches to learning as making our learners “guinea pigs”. Add to this that, for many, which school they attend is not their choice, and even if it was, there is so little choice that you are probably limited to choosing between co-ed, single sex and/or maybe religious character or not. Then there is the issue that criteria for a “top school” is so outdated that it seems based on little more than size, decile and league tables combined. In fact, the more antiquated the school the more highly it seems to be regarded.

Be a pioneer and make change anyway and you run the risk of being seen as risking student success and making a generation of students ‘guinea pigs’. Reimagine spaces and you are accused of putting students in ‘barns’ – even if it is an improvement on the cages they came from.

Regardless of the fact that we are all failing our young people in numerous other ways with our national focus on academic results and little else, I actually believe we can move forward and deliver a better educational model AND have our students succeed at qualifications such as NCEA. I just think it’s a shame that there is little enticing others to risk making change when the only thing that seems to matter to many are results that quite possibly have little, if any, relevance as an indicator for long-term success in the 21st century. Add to this the issue that if we do change schooling we must have the confidence of our students and community and often for parents, their only reference point is their own education. Even if they actually didn’t succeed in that system or even enjoy it, they are hugely nervous if we depart from a traditional school model and emulate what the school down the road is doing. So, as well as working hard to change and improve educational models, we have the additional job of translating and public relations, ‘selling’ one paradigm to those that came from another. This translation needs to occur for the educator as well. I know I have often faltered, knowing full well that we must make the change but at times being terrified at the thought of heading off into such a new terrain without a map or guide book. That said, moral purpose can make for an excellent compass if you let it.

Entering a new paradigm also requires extra resourcing. At Hobsonville Point Secondary School we are attempting all kinds of creative solutions to try and make future-focused learning happen on a budget and resourcing model that is well and truly based on an industrial age equation of one teacher to 25–30 students teaching students in eight discrete learning areas. I would argue that if our government really wanted innovation they would reward those who are doing it with a different resourcing formula that allowed for greater planning and professional learning to reflect that we are no longer simply serving up tweaked iterations of what we  have been serving up in schools for the last 25, 50 or 100 years. Change takes time; effective change takes a whole lot of learning and planning.

Personally, if I were ‘Joe (or Joanne) Bloggs’ I would be far less concerned that schools like Hobsonville Point Secondary School are ‘experimenting’ with new approaches and be far more concerned that many schools are not experimenting at all – in fact, they are being celebrated for engaging in damaging, high stress approaches to preparing students for little more than assessment success. That scares the hell out of me.

So what is the answer? I suspect we have to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. I mean, humankind didn’t create cars, learn to fly aeroplanes or travel to the moon by being safe and happily living in the past. I just hope we can find a way to have more educators, if not all educators, leave the past behind us as well and for communities to demand the change rather than fear it.

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