Category Archives: Transition of schooling

4. Schools and the Evolving New Normals

Mal Lee

Society will expect, possibly unwittingly, the natural evolution and transformation evidenced in daily life and near ever organisation to be mirrored in its schools.

It will moreover expect the lessons learned from the COVID experience also to be taken on board.

In the last two years the transformative impact of these two developments has seen the popularisation, and global embrace of the term, the ‘new normal’. It has come to mean

a previously unfamiliar or atypical situation that has become standard, usual, or expected (OED)

It particularly pertains to the new ways of doing things society expects to be an everyday facet of life, work, and learning. 

While in some senses a redundant expression, in that the societal norm automatically evolves as society changes, the problem is that the term ‘normal’ has become synonymous with a sense of conformity, constancy and a lack of deviation from the established ways. 

The desire would appear to be to use a term that better communicates the speed with which some societal norms are evolving. Particularly apparent during the pandemic were the many situations where what was ‘normal’ at the beginning of the year had been superseded by a ‘new normal’ six months later.

Leaving aside the semantics the crucial point for teachers and heads to recognise is that inherent in the transition of schooling is the expectation that schools will continually accommodate the ‘new normals’.

While much of the accommodation has been, and will likely continue to be, relatively easy there has been, and always will be a set of issues, trends, and developments that will challenge the accepted ways and ask hard questions.

As the digital disruption accelerates, widens, and becomes that much more transformative so schools will likely be expected, implicitly and explicitly, to address evermore of the hard questions.  Fountain pens, immersion in a library of old books, pull down blackboards, teachers ability to control the flow of information and being free to teach as one wishes behind the closed classroom door, no matter how treasured the ways of a digital and networked world are no longer.

There might be well be good educational reasons for choosing to stay with the traditional ways that the parent community will accept.

There might equally be reasons that appear sound to heads and staff that the students and parents don’t believe mirror the thinking and ways of today’s world.

Heads are going, likely increasingly, and forever on, to have make some difficult calls and lead.

Ideally schools, like businesses, should be ready to naturally accommodate the evolving new normals. The thinking, the culture, the processes, the staff, the curriculum, the school community should be attuned to providing the desired constancy while simultaneously continually providing a contemporary education.

It is likely however most schools today are still attuned to a world of constancy, continuity, and conformity, ill prepared to handle rapid, uncertain, potentially transformative change.  

Many, possibly most, principals and schools still likely see the pandemic as a temporary irritation that once over will allow them to return to their ‘normal ways’.

What is thinking in your school?

Businesses wanting to thrive within the ever evolving world have long chartered changing client expectations with highly sophisticated tools.

Most schools have likely not followed that path. Indeed, experience as a head and educational administrator suggests that many loath the idea that students and parents are clients, whose expectations must be heard. Rather they, and often government, remain strongly of the belief that only they have the expertise and understanding to decide what is appropriate for the students.

The past 25 plus years suggests that mindset can accommodate the less disruptive of the new normals. 

How well a top down leadership approach can accommodate the more challenging new normals described in the next post is moot. 

In an increasingly socially networked world, where the digital mindset is so pervasive, organisational transformation is accelerating and where trust, agency, collaboration, working in teams and being highly agile and flexible is increasingly important unilateral control from on high might well be ineffectual, and indeed unacceptable to most staff, students, and parents.

The latter is very much the view coming out of the research with those digitally mature corporations that have successfully accommodated both the digital evolution and COVID (Deloitte, 2017, (Kane, et.al, 2016), (Kane, et al, 2017).  It reinforces the imperative of the chief executive officer distributing control and responsibility and giving the professionals the agency to assist shape the desired ever evolving digital ecosystem.

That distribution of agency is crucial to readying schools to naturally accommodate the new normals.

3.Inexorable Natural Evolution

Mal Lee

The transition of schooling from its traditional, insular paper based mode to one that is increasingly networked has been in the main a natural evolutionary development.

It is moreover an inexorable evolution, that is on trend to become faster, more sophisticated, wide reaching, transformative and to be part of schooling forever.

Critically the transition parallels the transformation occurring within most other organisations, private and public sector, as they make greater use of the digital and networking, and the digital convergence, AI and greater efficiencies promote more tightly integrated, synergistic, and interconnected digital ecosystems.

No world body, with visionary educators planned or shaped the transformation.

No government/s funded the phenomenon.

Rather it evolved naturally out of the confluence of a suite of global developments, linked in the main to the exponential growth in the power of the digital and the networking of the world.

The challenge for schools, likely including yours, is that most education decision makers, and likely most educational researchers believe, often fervently, that every facet of school growth must planned. Nothing can be left to chance. All growth must be approached in a highly rationale, largely linear manner, the progress measured, and the lessons learned factored into the next plan. 

Educational bureaucracies worldwide insist schools have detailed planning documents, that identify to the nth degree the learning outcomes that will be the focus of the school’s work and reporting.  In some of the more highly controlled education authorities priority is given those few outcomes to the near exclusion of all else.

There is little or no place for unplanned or unintended developments, or for the optimisation of the unintended developments no matter beneficial they might be.

With many schools there is little chance of moving away from ‘the plan’.

Implicit is the belief that humans can control every variable at play within in a school, within a tightly interconnected, rapidly evolving world, and plan accordingly.

It is a mindset that likely contributed to the failure by most not to see the transition by the world’s schools to the more networked mode.  While focussing on the forest floor they didn’t see that the forest had changed.

You’ll struggle to find any that acknowledge the students and teachers in their personal lives have been, and are naturally growing their digital mindset, the digital competencies they want and are continually adapting their ways to the global change. 

Similarly, it will likely be difficult to find any harnessing that natural growth in their staff development.

Significantly few schools appear to have factored into their planning the realities of natural, chaotic evolution (Pascale et.al, 2000), digital disruption, the inefficiency of the evolutionary growth or the importance of shaping the natural evolution to advantage.

What moves has your school made in this area in its planning?

Have you, has the school, paused, and wondered how it is that the digitally connected young of the world, all using their own digital devices in a strongly individualised, laissez faire, largely unfettered manner, use and learn with them in a remarkably similar way? 

It is a fascinating expression of natural evolution.  As far back at the late 90s Tapscott (1998) identified the universal mores and attributes that the Net generation had grown in but a few years in their use of the internet. 

The same similarity of thinking and use is to be found today, as we discuss in a future post.

Over 50% of the world’s 8 billion plus population are digitally connected (ITU, 2020), as are 70% plus of the world’s young (UNICEF, 2017), with the trend very much to near universal connectivity.

All have naturally grown their digital mindset, competencies and being digital in their 24/7/365 use and learning with the digital – not in a classroom.

Neither schools nor government have played any major part in funding the personal connectivity of the world’s 4 billion plus people, in providing the devices or in supporting their learning. The devices and connectivity have been bought by the families of the world.

Perelman astutely observed in 1992 that near all the users of personal computers had taught themselves and would continue to do so into the future.

That is the reality.

It is moreover a reality, and a capability that schools and governments were able to instantly capitalise upon when schools shut their doors in early 2020. Few have fleshed out why governments globally were immediately able to ask the teachers to teach from their homes, and the students, K-12, to partake immediately in a fully networked teaching. Neither government nor the schools have played any major part in growing that capability.

Indeed, a growing commentary suggests that most schools and education authorities even in 2021 still don’t fund or actively support their staff teaching from home. 

Does your school or government for example contribute to the cost of setting up your home office or connectivity?

In the early 1980’s Naisbitt (Naisbitt, 1984) alerted the world, but particularly the business world, to the megatrends shaping the world, and the facility at best to shape those forces to advantage.

40 years later, and 50 plus years since Gordon Moore enunciated his hypothesis the ability to shape the megatrends is that much more challenging.

Even more so is deliberately going against the megatrends. Societal expectations, particularly with businesses, but also with schools would soon render unviable any that chose not to adapt.

The critical leadership skill today for both heads and increasingly teachers is to better understand the evolutionary megatrends impacting schooling and to shape those forces to continually provide the desired schooling.

School planning, like that in every organisation is vital but it should be of a type apt for the day and situation, that accommodates both the planned and unplanned growth, and which has the capacity to readily adjusted to often rapidly changing circumstances.

The lesson the COVID experience has taught everyone, and every organisation is imperative of being flexible and agile, able to change plans literally within hours.

It is ever more important schools do what businesses have done since at least the 1990s (Thorpe, 1998) and be open to swiftly identifying the potential unintended benefits and disbenefits. The transition to a more networked mode will have its up and downsides. Schools should be ready to identify, adjudge and optimise the unintended benefits and quickly quash the inevitable disbenefits.

Contrary to the belief held by likely most educational decision makers one can argue that all the major worldwide educational changes that have occurred in the last twenty plus years have been unplanned. The emergence of digitally connected families, their lead role in growing their children’s digital mindset, and use of and learning with the digital, the growth of the young being digital, social networking, the shift from a predominantly text based mode of learning and communication to one that is increasingly multi-media and visual and the facility for the nation’s young to take charge of their learning anywhere, anytime 24/7/365 were all unplanned.

One will struggle to identify a planned global educational development that matches the aforementioned.

That reality should be factored into the school’s planning and workings.

Amplifying that need is the imperative of every school factoring into its planning and operations the accommodation of what society regards as the ‘new normals’.

  • Naisbitt, J (1984) Megatrends London Futura
  • Pascale, R.T, Millemann, M, Gioja, L (2000) Surfing at the Edge of Chaos NY Three Rivers Press
  • Perelman, L (1992) School’s Out NY Avon Books
  • Tapscott, D (1998), Growing up digital: The rise of the Net Generation, McGraw Hill, New York
  • Thorpe, J (1998) The Information Paradox Toronto McGraw-Hil
  • UNICEF (2017) Children in a Digital World. The State of the World’s Children 2017. UNICEF December 2017 – https://www.unicef.org/publications/files/SOWC_2017_ENG_WEB.pdf

2. COVID and The Transition

Mal Lee

The COVID -19 experience, coupled with the transition to the more networked mode is already shaping as a watershed moment in the history of schooling.

The pandemic alerted the world to the historic transformation underway, accelerated the transition, forced teachers, students, parents and schools to pool their resources and collaborate in the teaching, obliged schools to accommodate societies rapidly evolving expectations and bid them think about the desired nature of the school within a connected world. 

Importantly the pandemic, coupled with the network technology necessitated schools use the digital resources of the student’s homes, to collaborate with and actively involve the digitally connected families in the teaching and provide the parents a historic insight into the school’s teaching and workings.

It gave young parents an agency that many are likely not to relinquish lightly.

COVID, in its stress testing of every facet of facet of society and its organisations both transformed significant aspects of life, work and learning and posed fundamental questions of near every organisation. 

It did the same with schools. It identified their strengths and shortcomings and asked how fit for purpose were they to educate the nation’s young today. 

Significantly the pandemic revealed to school communities worldwide the extent to which ‘their’ school had transitioned from their traditional paper base to one that was more networked, and how ready it was to teach in an increasingly networked mode.

Whether the schools saw that ‘reveal’, as flagged in the first post is moot.

The pandemic showed that most all schools could, albeit to varying degrees, educate its students in a fully networked mode, as well as on site, and use a mix of the two modes.

Importantly it revealed that near all students and teachers had in their personal lives naturally grown their digital mindset and competencies, and had the home connectivity and infrastructure, and in the case of the students the family support, to partake in a fully networked mode of teaching and learning.

That said the COVID experience also highlighted the disturbing social inequities existent in most all schools, with the socially economically advantaged continuing to be advantaged while those less well off, and the marginalised were further disadvantaged. Very early in the pandemic the digital divide, even in nations with 90% plus home connectivity, became strikingly obvious.  As did the failure by near all authorities to have put in place the measures to guarantee equity of digital access and home connectivity for all students.

While, for example it is estimated that 9 million plus students (Tyton, 2021) were enrolled in ‘learning pods’ and ‘micro-schools’ in the US in 2020 during the shutdown all were paid for by advantaged families, for advantaged children. 

The poor were left to fend for themselves.

The pandemic also reminded the world that schooling the nation’s young entailed far more than the teaching and testing of a few academic subjects. Schools are not and should never be simply about PISA scores.

Schools are nation’s tools for growing, educating, and nurturing all its young. The many concerns brought to the fore during COVID about student alienation, dropping student retention rates, poor socialisation, student well-being, mental health, digital inequities, the marginalised, racism and the treatment of girls are all matters society rightly should expect schools to play a major role in addressing.

Unintentionally COVID reminded societies and their governments schools were unique organisations. They have simultaneously to be constant while also contemporaneous, always adapting their ways to meet society’s evolving expectations.

The pandemic affirmed the constancy in making it clear to all, that the existing school organisational structures that the world has known for a century plus, could not be changed. They were immutable. Society expects schools, likely more than ever, to nurture and educate the students during set times each day, five days a week, for most of the year within the physical place called school. 

The social, educational, economic, and political imperative became daily more apparent. 

Tellingly the transition to a more networked mode has successfully occurred within the existing structures and will in most instances have to continue doing so in the decades ahead.

COVID laid to rest the belief by many futurists that that the core school organisational structures can be changed, and that the technology removes the need for site based schooling.

COVID also shattered the myth that all schools were the same. It revealed that all had not transitioned to the networked mode at the same rate, nor were all at the same point in their transitioning.

Rather it demonstrated to students and parents globally that every school was unique. Different styles of leadership, mix of staff, heritage, clientele, context, aspirations, shaping vision, culture and level of resourcing all contribute to that uniqueness. 

What the pandemic did was to alert school communities to the different stages schools were at in their transition, and that the differences would likely grow. While the astute, visionary heads were shaping highly focussed, tightly integrated networked learning communities, others were trying to retain the ‘grammar of schooling’ within the more networked mode.  One school observed tried to do the latter with a 100% migration of its site based schooling online, even to the extent of using the existing lesson times, mandating the students wear uniforms and imposing detentions on those who transgressed. 

The imperative of each school shaping their own desired transition became that more apparent.

As did that of schools accommodating, as best they could the ‘new normals’ expected by the wider society. The speed with which schools were required to adopt those changing expectations during the course of the pandemic will be long remembered.

COVID bid each school, like every other organisation, rethink its purpose, its fit for today’s world and to tackle the pitfalls that invariably come with digital disruption, and increased networking.

It should have prompted schools to clarify their educational purpose and the nature of teaching they want to use in a rapidly evolving, seemingly chaotic, networked world. 

Was there any such contemplation in your school?

What became apparent globally was that the digital and network technology can be equally well used to unilaterally control and micromanage every facet of the teaching and learning or to distribute the control, to trust and give agency to the teachers, students and parents and have them work collaboratively in the teaching of the young.

What approach would you take?

Which does you school employ?

Has your school begun to address the issues highlighted during the shutdown? 

  • Do for example all students need to physically attend a place called school, all the time? 
  • What mix of face to face and networked teaching should the school now use, at different age levels, in different areas of learning? 
  • Is yours a school where the socially and economically are further advantaged, and the marginalised are still disadvantaged or does it need to provide all a more equitable contemporary education? 
  • Should ‘success’ at your school still be equated solely with the ability to perform well in handwritten exams that assess academic knowledge, or should it embody something broader, that includes both academic attainment and the ability to thrive within rapidly evolving, uncertain networked organisations? 

This series of posts will not attempt to decide on the purpose or the nature of schooling.

Nor will they suggest any one mode of schooling is better, or indeed what mix of on-site and networked teaching is most appropriate. 

It leaves that to the school, and education authority.

Moreover, they will make no effort to provide a rationale for the natural transition to a more networked mode, or to identify the plusses or minuses of the global phenomenon.

Rather the posts will address the reality, and hopefully assist shape the desired transition, while at the same time factoring in living with COVID. 

  • Tyton Partners (2021) School Disrupted. Part 2. July 2021