The Science of Transformation

Where does school improvement end and transformation really start?  I don’t know about you, but more and more I am hearing the terms used interchangeably, and if you throw in school reform the conversation can get very muddy.

While reform is a term most often applied to ‘fix’ a school or school system that is described as ‘broken’,  it’s therefore most often used as intervention language by the charter movement within the American context.  But the extent to which this might in any way be genuinely transformative of course depends very much on your perspective.

On the other hand, school improvement is a sort of universal motherhood goal that you would hope every school aspires to, even if only limited numbers are signed on to a formal structured school improvement initiative such as Craig and Hopkins’ Curiosity and Powerful Learning that is focused on clear goals and built around solid theories of action. This sort of approach contrasts dramatically with the more common ‘initiatives’ that are crudely based on increased testing and assessment rather than pedagogical effectiveness.

So where does this leave our beliefs about what we mean by school transformation and just how well are we articulating that in conversations with our school communities and beyond?

I for one am more and more convinced that in many ways we simply take transformation for granted. We think if we continually change things, then ultimately our school will be transformed. But it is so much more than that. It is in fact a science which accordingly warrants much closer study, it must be intentional and it starts with shared language.

Seymour Papert, in typical style, put it rather simply in a conversation I was fortunate to have with him following a radio interview in 2004, when he said…’Incremental improvement or fundamental change; the question is not so much which is right, but rather why has there been so little discussion about the question?’

What he was referring to of course was our failure to build shared language around the topic has indeed meant that we rarely if ever, discuss the topic in any depth which ultimately opens the door for conversations around transformation to be trivialized and ultimately hijacked by inaction and gradualism masquerading as fundamental change.

It’s interesting when I ask school leaders in workshops to define where they see their school on a 4 point continuum from incrementally improving to fundamentally changing.  As you’d probably expect, a majority of leaders see their schools as currently improving but they ultimately believe this will lead to ‘transformation’. But will it… and more importantly, at what point would they believe their school is being transformed and in what ways would that impact the learning experiences of their students?

I think that maybe it’s time for us to shake off our feeblemindedness about transformation and start addressing its very make-up head-on. For myself, I have to admit that for many years I was sure the small steps we saw up until around the turn of the century would eventually lead to the fundamental change that technology-richness was teasingly foreshadowing in our schools at that time.

Sadly, I now recognize that my optimism was severely misplaced, and again it is Papert who best illustrated the problem with his famous refrigerator metaphor, which I include for the benefit of those readers who may not read it

“Incremental change can be self-defeating; it’s not a step on the way to the big change. A silly example: suppose that the inventor of the refrigerator found that the only way to persuade people to buy them would be to make a refrigerator that could drop the temperature by just one degree.

Now that thing would be no use as a refrigerator, it would be a kind of step towards a real refrigerator. If you distributed these around people would develop ways of using them, they’d use them as storage boxes, they’d use them for all sorts of things because people are ingenious beings and they try to use what they’ve got.

So, there’d come about a refrigerator culture based on ways to use refrigerators for purposes that had nothing to do with what we know refrigerators are good for… this is what’s happened to computers in schools. They’re being used in ways that have nothing to do with the potential of the computer to allow the possibility of a radically different way of learning…”

The consequences of our timidity are now becoming much more evident, which leads me to a rather ‘interesting’ series of articles that were featured last week in the Australian media questioning the value and impact of technology in our schools. While the arguments are certainly not new, not only do they continue to be made, but I do get an increasing sense of unease when I think about just how far we have…or have not come since Papert made his point nearly 20 years ago.

I think what we have developed is a misplaced faith in incremental change which has almost become a sort of security blanket inside which we can be comforted from the rapidly changing world outside while desperately holding on to legacy pedagogies.It gives an illusion of transformation without any real commitment.

It’s our ‘doing something with technology’ cliché that has paradoxically opened a door to exactly the sorts of criticism that was raised by that media last week; and it’s been fuelled by the insaneness of dropping hundreds of thousands of limited function ‘devices’ into the hands of our students when we should have been raising the bar, not consorting with the lowest denominator. No wonder we are also now seeing more kids becoming disillusioned with the trivial uses being made of such devices within our schools.

Maybe we can start to address the issues by asking a very simple question which ironically is also derived from another of Papert’s wisdoms… ‘To what extent are our students using technology as a constructive medium to do things that no child could do before, to do things at a level of complexity that was not previously accessible to them?’

How many math classes have you walked into recently where the computers are being used in this way?…what about music, science? If ever there was a call to action that should have set the transformation bushfire alight then surely it should have started with STEM. Thank goodness we have the Maker Movement, but where else is the evidence that there has been fundamental change at any real scale? In the meantime we are drowning in iPads, Apps, flipped classrooms and the mechanics of curriculum delivery. All for what?

Our timidity in the face of unprecedented opportunity is now really starting to bite us on our backsides. I think that maybe it’s about time we transformed how we think about school transformation.

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2 thoughts on “The Science of Transformation”

  1. Jilian S

    Hi Bruce,
    Can you help me with this thinking…? I’m reading Elliot Eisners book The Kind of Schools we Need. Something grabbed my attention in the chapter “the Celebration of Thinking”. He Makes the case that the root word of imagination is image. And and image is constructed from sensory experience. So- imagination makes new images. But only if we have experienced first. I guess what I am getting at is, do we have to be cautious, when we’re talking about innovation, to be sure that time for quality and repeated sensory experiences are given just as much importance? Or we’ll run out of innovative ideas? Jil

    1. Bruce Dixon

      You make an excellent point Jillian; unforunately so much of the school experience is about dulling or kimiting those sensory experiences. We now have the opportunity to expose kids to an even wider range of such quality experiences as never before.

      Sadly our conversations around imagination and creativity are too often not supported by our classroom environments or the experiences we provide for our young people. Contrary to popular myth , computers extend these opportunities. It was Danny Hillis who in the Pattern in the Stone called personal computers ‘an imagination machine’.

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