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Education transformation: Pipe dream or possibility?

“Face new challenges, seize new opportunities, test your resources against the unknown and in the process, discover your own unique potential.”

John Amatt

Case for transformation

From a social, economic and environmental perspective, the world is facing a significant number of complex challenges – spurred on by pandemics, growing globalisation, climate change and an increasing rate of scientific and technological advancements. While the future is undeniably uncertain, and difficult to predict, schools around the world remain tasked with preparing students for this unknown future, for jobs that have not yet been created, for technologies that have not yet been invented, and to solve problems that have not yet been anticipated. Against this background, it is critical that schools, curricula and practices continually evolve, and in radical ways.

The scale of the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic is a “black swan” event that’s already having profound impacts on our established routines – the ways we learn, work, worship, how we live, interact with each other, and how businesses operate. As we continue to grapple with the scale of this pandemic, one thing is certain, the daily and unfolding challenges that we are facing across the globe, are indicative of more permanent changes that we must make!

A growing number of parents, business leaders, politicians, and educators are united around the idea that education should have a much greater purpose than that of preparing young people for the world of work. The general consensus seems to be that it needs to prepare and arm students with the competences they need to become dynamic, responsible, contributing and engaged citizens. Progressive educators and school systems are already seeking and adopting new ways to innovate and redefine how they create, deliver, and capture value for the communities they serve.  They understand that education should aim to equip learners with agency and a sense of purpose, and the competencies they need, to shape their own lives and contribute to the lives of others.

education transformation

In his book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, Sir Ken Robinson makes a passionate case for education transformation, using a great farming analogy;  “Farmers base their livelihoods on raising crops. But farmers do not make plants grow. They don’t attach the roots, glue on the petals, or colour the fruit. The plant grows itself. Farmers and gardeners provide the conditions for growth. Good farmers know what those conditions are, and bad ones don’t.”

“The fact is that given the challenges we face; education doesn’t need to be reformed – it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardise education, but to personalise it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions”

John Palfry and Urs Gasser explain in their book; Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives, that the children in our schools today are digital natives (born after 1980) born into a new culture. These digital natives believe in the value of the participatory culture which the Internet advances, and in the Internet’s capacity for fostering creativity, collaboration, entrepreneurship, and global citizenship. They view expertise as collective knowledge not based on age. For them, knowledge is collaborative, open, accessible, non-hierarchical, and frequently presented in digital form. For boomers and other older generations, knowledge is largely presented in text-based form, individually controlled, owned and originates from experts. Those of us who are digital immigrants, coming later in life into this new digital world, have two choices; we can choose to adapt, accepting that we do not know this world as well as our children and look to them to help us learn, or, we can be inflexible immigrants, reminiscing and paralysed by nostalgia.

The truth is, today, learning is no longer something people do exclusively in traditional, established institutions, and anyone with a smartphone and access to the Internet is now more networked and has more access to information than ever before. If the serious intent of schools is to help nurture these digital natives, then it must adapt, it must face-up to the fact that these students are no longer the people the current educational system is designed to teach – and there is plenty of evidence to support this view. Today’s students are bored, they are very different from those of past generations. They are motivated differently, they learn differently, and therefore, mostly unenthusiastic with the current “business-as-usual” approach to teaching and learning. Moreover, educational research has demonstrated the significant limitations and shortfalls of contemporary approaches, particularly for those students who don’t learn or aren’t motivated in a way that is consistent with established practices.

As the demand for deeper and more multifaceted student learning intensifies, practitioners, researchers, and policymakers need to think more systematically about how to improve teacher’s learning from recruitment, preparation, and support, to mentoring and other nuanced leadership opportunities. Sophisticated forms of teaching are fundamental for the development of 21st century student competencies, such as deep mastery of thought-provoking content. In his book, Deep Learning: Engage the World, Change the World, Michael Fullan breaks down deep learning into the process of acquiring six global competencies, which he describes as the six C’s: character, citizenship, collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking, and warns that students’ passion for learning will not be sparked if we fail to accommodate these competencies.

Unfortunately, there is a general belief that teachers already have these competencies, and if only they could be released from the present day’s stifling standards and accountability metrics, then transformation is all but guaranteed. This perception marginalises student-centred approaches, underestimates the difficulties involved in the implementation of such methods, and disregards the dearth of capacity in the field today. Without some urgent and fundamental changes at the pre-service training level, better teaching that is supported by job-embedded professional development, better curriculum, and better assessments, the emphasis on 21st century skills will be a superficial one that will only sacrifice long-term gains for the illusion of short-term progress.

Addressing attendees at the annual conference of the National Association of Elementary School Principals -NAESP, Fullan explains that, in order to be the change agents in schools, educators needed to be transitioning to the types of learning that is, “irresistibly engaging, elegantly efficient, technologically ubiquitous, steeped in real-life problem-solving, and involve deep learning — quality learning that sticks with you the rest of your life and learning that engages the world and changes the world.”

Now, more than at any other time, education leaders must reassess their organisations true capacity for change and take intentional actions that are aimed at bridging the large gulf between their stated aspirations and the experienced realities of their communities. They must recognise that simply spouting the noble purposes of education will not be enough to deliver the much-promised learning and education transformation. The true drivers of change are leadership actions and behaviours that foster interpersonal collaboration.

Organisational culture drives transformation

Transforming education will involve far more than simply getting educators to use new forms of digital technologies. Teacher practices, mind-sets and philosophies are critical considerations for improving the educational processes that drive transformation.  A modern view of teaching includes professional activities on the school level, such as co-operating in teams, building professional learning communities, participating in school development, and evaluating and changing working conditions (Darling-Hammond et al., 2005). A program studied by Allen et al. (2011) showed teacher collaboration to be an important driver of change and quality development in schools. However, it has also found that the more reflective and powerful professional collaboration, which has the greatest impact on modernisation and professionalism, is the less common form of co-operation.

Personal competencies, and more specifically Emotional Intelligence (EI), is now acknowledged as being particularly important for teacher effectiveness (Hassan et al., 2015; McCown et al., 2007, 2007; Sutton & Wheatley, 2003). Emotional Intelligence, and in particular emotional self-awareness allows teachers to recognise and understand their emotions in the classroom and to anticipate the effects of their emotional expressions on interactions with others (Jennings & Greenberg, 2009).

At Cinglevue, we believe that in addition to the adoption of new identities as evidence-based learning designers, to truly enable systemic level innovation and school transformations, educators need to be actively supported in the acquisition of these EI competencies. This can be accommodated through well organised, job-embedded professional learning that is designed around the activities and learning experiences they engage their students with, as well as the social settings and context in which they occur. We believe that enabling a culture that recognises and empowers the individuality, professionalism and skill of teachers instead of the method to which their teaching style should conform is a key condition for transformation.

Progressive teachers are more likely to consider students as active participants in the process of acquiring knowledge rather than view themselves as transmitters of information and demonstrators of “correct solutions”. Transforming oneself from an information and values conduit into a learning designer, and co-designer, may seem like a challenging proposition but educators are already in the midst of going through this transition, be they in-service teachers who recognise the need to change their prevailing practices or pre-service teachers who need to learn these new pedagogical approaches. In this sense, our perspective supports the notion that organisational culture is the primary determinant of success for any school transformation or growth and that technology or business strategy are secondary.

Professionalism improves teaching through the facilitation of higher standards of practice, and it is also likely to increase scrutiny of whether particular teaching is “good enough”. However, a healthy organisational culture should alleviate any worries associated with scrutiny, as psychological safety, continuous improvement and reflection, are cornerstones of good and effective cultures. The success of the required paradigm shift will depend more on the people and culture of the system than it would on the technology used. School systems that successfully change their organisational culture and embrace a culture of continuous learning, collaboration and digital options will accelerate success. However, becoming truly professional in this way is an ongoing, lifelong challenge which Siefert (1999, p.95) acknowledges as follows:

“Professionalism is a process more than an outcome – a way of encountering new students and new classroom problems and of finding meaning and solutions to them as you grow. It is not a thing acquired or worn like a piece of clothing; at no time will you have become professional once and for all.”

In 2015, Professor John Hattie wrote two papers discussing his thoughts as to what works best in education and what doesn’t; What doesn’t work in education: The politics of distraction, and What works best in education: The politics of collaborative expertise. In the politics of distraction, Hattie opines that too much discussion is focused on “between-school differences” when the greatest issue is the “differences within schools”. He argues that the main cause for the variance within schools is the variability in the effectiveness of teachers, and cites what he describes as “the politics of distraction“ as the reason why this variability is too often absent in discussions about policy, teaching and schools.

In Hattie’s view, we can only find a solution when we recognise within-school differences as the fundamental problem. He points to many decades of research on what really enhances student learning in this regard highlighting practices such as improving teacher and school leader expertise, ensuring that teachers and school leaders develop common understandings about progress, expectations, and teaching impact, school leaders who focus on developing collective expertise among their teachers, systems that have robust discussions to decide the purpose and desired outcomes of their schools, and students who want to learn the skills they need to become their own teachers. It is these policies that Hattie refers to as, “the politics of collaborative expertise”, because as he puts it, “it is only by resourcing and privileging collaborative expertise that a nation can have any chance of becoming one of the top education systems in the world. Recognising, valuing and enhancing the teachers and school leaders with high levels of expertise makes the difference. It’s what works best.”

To this end, educational reforms operate within a larger framework of cultural, professional and systemic constraints that must be acknowledged and addressed in conjunction with the desired educational change (Burke, 2002). Ideally, each member of a school community should be able to describe how any proposed changes will improve the school, their own work group, and themselves. They should have a clear picture of the final outcome and how it will impact on student outcomes and wellbeing. In schools, this means that the vision for transformation must have clear connections to shared beliefs about the purposes of education, pedagogical approaches, curriculum, assessment, and pastoral care along with concepts of teacher professionalism.

From our various interactions with schools and educators, both here in Australia and in the United States, we see strong evidence which clearly suggests that teachers remain predominantly untapped sources of intellectual and creative talent. In this regard, school leaders have a huge opportunity to lead change by transforming the culture and conditions of teaching in a manner that truly empowers teachers as innovators and learning designers. Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work (Amabile & Kramer, 2011).

Innovating and executing purposefully

Learning innovation is the development of novel, repeatable and creative processes which are used to construct learning experiences that verifiably improve learning, in complex and people-centric systems. In this regard, we believe it is critical to ensure that all discussions about technology selection or development, are predicated on, and are fully informed by, those processes that create learning innovation. It is also important to stress that learning innovation is not an outcome; it is a problem-solving process.

The purpose of innovation in education must be to create continuously better learning environments for young people that schools and educators serve. Far too often, learning innovation agendas are hijacked by an unhealthy obsession with technology, without much thought or analysis about the nature of the problems these technologies are intended to solve. Digital technologies are unquestionably a part of the solution for solving particular learning challenges, but they should be viewed primarily through the lens of creating possibilities for improving learning efficacy, efficiency gains and improving user experience.

In a 2017 EdSurge article, Expanding Access to Edtech Isn’t Enough. We Need to Make Sure It Works, Too, Bob Wise – President of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia – writes that “The New Schools Venture Fund estimates that K-12 schools collectively spend about $9 billion per year on instructional software, digital assessments, laptops and tablets for students and teachers.” He questions how the leaders of these institutions know whether their investments will lead to the student learning outcomes they desire? What methods of evaluating whether the tools work will lead to selection of the best tools for learning? In his opinion, “many of them may never know because there simply is not enough rigorous research about what works — and good, existing research rarely makes it to the policymaking table.” He further suggests that, “high-impact practices and technologies remain comfortably at the “pilot” stage, never achieving the transformative scale they promise because little is known about effective scaling across diverse school and district contexts.”

We contend that several educational technologies currently in use at schools today are pedagogically regressive, as they cater mostly to the established education market, which has overtime, developed a strong aversion to innovation. This aversion has today, resulted in the myriad of digital solutions in schools that are, neither innovative nor capable of enabling any transformative processes. They are generally only able to support and amplify the traditional paradigm of schooling – i.e. age-based grouping of students, propagation of routinised, one-size-fits-all culture of instruction, and a preoccupation with standardised assessments.

Those educators and school systems that are now asking the important and defining questions of, “What new digital tools are available and how can these tools contribute specifically to a more powerful educational experience?” Are the innovative educators looking for a paradigm shift, and not just a way to overwhelm yesterday’s educational practices with the latest trending gizmos. Innovative educators understand that it is what the student does that counts. So, only when they determine what the students must be doing, do they establish appropriate roles for the teachers and the technological tools that would enable the jobs needing to be done. They also understand that innovation is neither a single event nor a pursuit that’s ever achieved by one person. It is a team sport, a long process of discovery, process re-engineering, and transformation.

Change will happen: how adaptable are you?

In a 2013 article on institutional innovation, author’s John Hagel and John Seely Brown argued that institutional innovation requires the acceptance of a new rationale of “scalable learning” which has, as its goal, the creation of smarter institutions that can thrive in a world of exponential change.  They posit that organisations will never learn fast enough if they limit themselves to the people within their organisation, no matter how large they are and how smart their people are. To accelerate learning, they suggest that organisations need to create architectures of relationships that reach beyond their walls in order to tap into richer and more diverse flows of knowledge. If organisations take scalable learning seriously, it should force a re-think across all dimensions of their operations – how they organise, how they mobilise, how they measure success and how they connect with others outside their organisation. It’s ultimately the most powerful form of innovation. From our perspective, this is co-creation.

Drawing on our collaborative research with partner schools and university researchers from fields such as the learning sciences, informatics, human factors, cognitive psychology, and human computer interaction, we have designed and built an entirely new class of education platform – Virtuoso, a Holistic Education Learning Platform (HELP). Virtuoso enables a broad set of innovative and integrated processes which together, deliver impactful transformative teaching and learning models – all with the goal of achieving and understanding whole person development. The Virtuoso platform empowers teachers with tools and processes that permit evidence-based learning, enabling learning experiences that are engaging, efficient, and more importantly, meet student’s learning expectations.

We believe that transformational learning should be designed in a manner that offers educators and learners a reservoir of rich, memorable, and diverse experiences, in an authentic and safe learning environment. The multifaceted approach to teaching and learning that’s facilitated by Virtuoso encourages self-direction and occurs within a safe and secure framework for both learners and educators – thus enabling small, experimental learning strategies and reflective approaches to test and evolve innovative ideas, that advance learners and their learning goals. The platform also enables successful practices and processes to be readily shared throughout the wider organisation.

Working in partnership with visionary schools and educational leaders allows us to fast track conversations from “why” change is needed to the practical questions of “how” to effect the desired changes through the co-creation of opportunities that actually helps operationalise learning innovations in practical and sustainable ways. Leaders who are serious about driving innovation and new learning models need to be explicit and unwavering in pushing ahead with their transformation agendas. They should be equally resolute in ensuring their teams are properly structured and appropriately aligned to get the job done.

We have come to truly appreciate how crucial it is to integrate academic research expertise, operational expertise, and technological savoir-faire into our design, build, and deploy methodology. We’ve also learned that it is just as important to work with enthusiastic school partners who assist us immensely as early adopters because they share the same beliefs as us and value collaboration. However, it must be said that finding partner schools, districts or systems of schools that are interested in profound changes to the classroom experience has not always proven to be an easy undertaking.

Sir Michael Barber – Former Chief Adviser to the Secretary of State for Education on School Standards during the first term of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is credited with saying that most policymakers believe that changing hearts and minds is a necessary precondition for changing behaviour. He says that he has found the opposite has proven true: changing behaviour first is what ultimately changes hearts and minds. Thus, the best path to challenging the inertia that unwittingly protects the current grammar of school is to identify and support early adopters that want to be pioneers for new learning models while addressing the barriers that resistors employ to rationalise keeping things as they are.

Even at the risk of creating some degree of organisational agitation, forward thinking education leaders will need to create conducive conditions and opportunities in their organisations to support and pilot innovative education solutions that advance learning models. We remain fervently of the opinion that society will be forever indebted to pioneer educators and school systems that succeed in creating deep, engaging learning communities that build students’ capacity to think critically, and creatively cultivate the innovative minds that can thrive in the global knowledge economy.

In the words of the late Steve Jobs, “Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.”

Read more and references

  1. Sir Ken Robinson; The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything.
  2. John Palfrey, Urs Gasser; Born Digital: How Children Grow Up in a Digital Age.
  3. John Hattie 2015: What doesn’t work in education: The politics of distraction. What works best in education: The politics of collaborative expertise.
  4. Andrew J. Rotherham and Daniel Willingham; 21st Century Skills: The Challenges Ahead.
  5. Michael Fullan, Joanne Quinn, Joanne McEachen; Deep Learning: Engage the World Change the World.
  6. An Interview with Michael Fullan and Ken Leithwood: 21st Century Leadership: Looking Forward. Fall 2012
  7. Niva Dolev: Teachers’ emotional intelligence: The impact of training.
  8. Mihnea Moldoveanu, Das Narayandas: Educating The Next Generation of Leaders. Harvard Business Review March to April 2019 –
  9. John Kotter and Lorne A. Whitehead: Four ways to kill a good idea. Harvard Business School. October 6, 2010.
  10. Muriel Garreta-Domingo, Peter B. Sloep, Davinia Hernández-Leo and Yishay Mor: Learning design for teacher professional development. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education.
  11. McKinsey Quarterly: The four building blocks of change – April 2016.
  12. McKinsey Quarterly: The psychology of change management – June 2003.
  13. John Hagel and John Seely Brown: Institutional innovation: Part of a Deloitte series on innovation. 
  14. Sunnie Lee Watson and Charles M. Reigeluth, Indiana University. William R. Watson, Purdue University: Systems Design for Change in Education and Training.
  15. Darling-Hammond et al. (2017): Effective Teacher Professional Development.
  16. Darling-Hammond et al. 2005: Preparing Teachers for a Changing World: What Teachers Should Learn and Be Able to Do.
  17. Kelvin L. Seifert: Reflective Thinking and Professional Development: A Primer – 1999.
  18. Amabile and Kramer: The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. 2011.
  19. Bob Wise: Expanding Access to Edtech Isn’t Enough. We Need to Make Sure It Works, Too.
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