A stable foundation makes change possible

Schools and more broadly education systems, change at a pace that makes glaciers feel like sprinters. It is often noted that the classrooms of the 1880’s do not look that different from the classrooms of today. The typical reform effort in a school is set to run over five years or more and the slow and steady approach is very much the norm. Even with this slow pace of change it is a not uncommon to hear teachers claim that the pace of change it too fast. We might accept the need for change but need more time to adjust to and internalise the new ways of doing what we have always done. 

The technology industry moves at entirely different pace. Change, evolution, innovation, reimaginings and constant new features are demanded of companies. If any of the large technology companies fail to release a new product in an calendar year the media is full of stories claiming that they have lost their touch and are bound to fail. Rapid prototyping is the norm. Vaporware is released when companies are not quite ready to go to market but fear a competitor might release a new product first. Bug fixes are an accepted part of doing business at such a rapid pace that time to fully test a new piece of code doesn’t exist. The mantras of ‘move fast and break things’ and ‘fail fast, fail early’ continue to shape the thinking of technologists.

The mindset of the technologist is that change is the only way to survive and that the answer to any problem is a new technology or the transfer of an existing technology into a new field. This belief in a combination of rapid change and technology as the way forward was analysed by New York Times writer, Dr. Zeynep Tufekci in a reflection on Elon Musk’s response to the rescue efforts in Thailand. Musk had offered to build a submarine to rescue the boys trapped in a Thai cave; a very high tech solution to a problem that had captured the attention and imaginations of a global audience. Tufekci shows that this thinking is typical of technologists but suggests that such a response is not always the most appropriate. 

The Silicon Valley model for doing things is a mix of can-do optimism, a faith that expertise in one domain can be transferred seamlessly to another and a preference for rapid, flashy, high-profile action. But what got the kids and their coach out of the cave was a different model: a slower, more methodical, more narrowly specialized approach to problems, one that has turned many risky enterprises into safe endeavors — commercial airline travel, for example, or rock climbing, both of which have extensive protocols and safety procedures that have taken years to develop.

The stellar success of our current crop of tech giants has become the model by which innovation is measured and innovation is, or so we are told, what we need. Thanks, in part to the pace of change in technology combined with other shifts in the world outside our classrooms, there is little doubt that the skills and dispositions our students will need to master for their futures, are not what they once were. But does this mean that schools should embrace the mindset of the technologist and strive to match their pace of change?

Schools are very stable systems. While they have changed slowly they have evolved to meet many of the needs of the people they serve. It must not be forgotten that schools are made of, and made for people. The concept of rapid-prototyping a child’s education should ring alarm bells; after all we only get one shot at getting right. In this sense schools are like the ‘safety first’ industries that Tufekci references. You don’t want your pilot announcing that she is currently testing a new approach to landing the plane, ‘We’ll see if this works’. Rapid prototyping has no place in the cockpit and no place in school either. If we are to trial a new method we need to be reasonably certain it will work. This is perhaps where the greatest challenge for educators lies; we need to change our practice and we need to get it right first time around. History shows though that education has a tendency to try ideas that don’t work and many ideas have come and gone, remember whole language?

The foundational stability of schools might be our greatest strength. There are certain fundamentals that we are most certain about. These fundamentals are not subject to change and are the elements that schools must get right before they can achieve anything else. Schools must be places that facilitate supportive relationships and build individuals with positive self-images. Our students must know that they are safe, known and cared for. Before anything else schools must create a culture where all learners are nurtured.  Relatedness is a core component of self-determination theory according to Ryan & Deci, and the neuroscience of Immordino-Yang shows that emotions always matter for learning.

Once schools get these fundamentals right, they have scope to try new ideas, to explore alternate approaches and introduce change. When our students feel safe they are more likely to respond positively to new ideas. When they know that their teachers care for them, they are more likely to trust new methods. When this care and respect is extended to teachers, they are more likely to be open to trying new methods and in doing so step outside of their personal comfort zones.

Just as is the norm in the airline industry we need a set of protocols to ensure that new ideas are tested appropriately before they are broadly implemented. The actions of pilots in any circumstance, from the very normal to the worst imaginable scenarios, are dictated by checklists. There is a checklist for pre-flight, a checklist for take-off and a checklist for an engine failure. Before any change is introduced across the industry there are procedures to test the new method or part. At every step the aim is to ensure that safety of the crew and passengers is never compromised. Schools might do well to adopt a similar set of protocols and testing processes to ensure that as new ideas are introduced the safe, nurturing environment that is foundational to their success is not put at risk. 

There is a time and place for the rapid pace of innovation that has brought success to the tech industry, but by being aware of other models for innovation and selecting the one which best fits the circumstances, schools should be able to adjust to the challenges of the future without compromising learning. 

By Nigel Coutts

Immordino-Yang, M. (2016) Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience (The Norton Series on the Social Neuroscience of Education). W. W. Norton & Company.

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.