RIsky Business: Moving Towards Real Change in Education

Feb 09, 14 RIsky Business: Moving Towards Real Change in Education

This entry was originally written for the WGSI #learning2030 Initiative.

The idea of risk-taking in the world of schooling often conjures up images of innovative, entrepreneurial educators, prodding and poking at the boundaries of their context, looking for new approaches that will bring about the changes they want to see. You may be one of these educators. At the very least, you have met a couple of them along the way.

I would argue, however, that there is little that could be considered risky in the behavior of these change agents. In fact, most of them have an admirable level of knowledge about the learning process, about their subject matter and about their students to ensure a good, if not excellent, level of success. Their work is important and extremely valuable, but I would say that they are not the real risk-takers in education today.


Silhouette of hiking man jumping over the mountains

Those who take the leap or those who stand on the edge?

Ironcially, the true risk-takers in today’s world of education are those that, in fact, are going out of their way to be as unrisky as possible. Failing to sense the real urgency in the calls for substantial change in our systems, they are happy to tinker and toy, but aren’t willing to do much to alter the status quo. These risk-takers can be found at all levels of the system, but have the greatest effect when they find their way into positions of leadership. It is here where the real risk is amplified and refusal to approach the need for change with courage and tenacity makes the greatest impact.

I realize that this argument may fly in the face of common sense. In fact, there are some that would hold that, at the system level, there is a great aversion to risk in today’s school culture. It would seem that our schools are designed to invest energy and resources into activities and initiatives that carry a more certain, but possibly lower, return.

And if we look at assessment data from both local and international sources the claim could lead us to believe that we’re doing well by many of our students. Many, but not all.

Therein lies the rub – and the risk

Even a cursory glance at the Ontario Ministry of Education policy and curriculum documents will reveal a strong conceptual commitment to equity of opportunity for all students, regardless of socio-economic status, learning need, culture, or any other factor that may have traditionally allowed us to make excuses for lack of success. These political commitments resonate very deeply with the visions of education and schooling that are consistently being articulated by individual parents, educators, students, and thought leaders.

An increasing number of us are growing more and more uncomfortable with the deep pockets of inequity that exist throughout our systems of education. Look at what is being written about the effect of family income on education opportunity. Look at the ongoing issues surrounding schooling in our First Nations communities. Look at the increasing concern over decreasing levels of student engagement. All of these are issues that point to the need for substantial change in the way that we imagine school. In fact, it is precisely these issues that are driving some of the most innovative ideas and initiatives currently on our radar.

What’s really  standing in the way of change

So, if we have the political commitment (at least on paper), an inspiring vision and a growing number of innovative educators who are making both come alive in their classrooms, why do we seem to be moving so slowly?

I believe that the real clues lie somewhere among those who, in their desire to avoid what they hold to be risky behavior are, in fact, engaging in some of the riskiest business in town.

There is no longer safety in simply tinkering with the status quo. In fact, there is great danger that a substantial number of our young people will continue to be disadvantaged by a system that, in a desire to hold on to old models and dated modes of thinking, is simply paying lip service to the voices for change.

Where are we going to find the real risk-takers in education today? Very likely, in the most surprising places!

About Stephen Hurley

I've been privileged to spend the last 30 years serving the public education system in Ontario. Through opportunities to work at most levels of the system, I have developed a heart for big picture thinking that is grounded in the reality of today's schools. I'm passionate about my own learning and look forward to nurturing that passion through my presence at voicEd.ca

1 Comment

  1. So many teachers, principals and board-level admin want to have their cake and eat it too. They want innovate practices, new ways of teaching, “21st Century Classrooms”. At the same time, they want to make sure those “new” practices result in increased achievement levels on assessments based on the more “traditional” practices. When will someone (with the power to make change) stand up and make a choice, one way or the other. Differentiate, or standardize. Meet the needs of each individual learner, or try to move all learners to a determined level? Of course, most people prefer the system they are familiar with, and most people are familiar with the more “traditional” school system/environment. Why would any politician (minister, director, Superintendent, MP, trustee) advance an idea that is “different”?

    Individual teachers might see the risks involved with the status quo, because our primary responsibility is to the students. But, a system-wide change of the status quo? I don’t see where the pressure is going to come from to get that done. I see 30 more years of half-measures: reports printed on glossy paper, meetings, PowerPoint presentations, motivational guest speakers, conferences, blogs, tweets, and other well-meaning but toothless.

    Over the years, perhaps more and more teachers will come to see the “riskiness” of the present system and make changes in their own practice. As far as they can, in this system. But I see many, many years of this “uneven” system change. Teacher-by-teacher.

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