Category Archives: Networked 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apparent during the pandemic were the many situations where what was ‘normal’ at the beginning of the year had been superseded by a ‘new normal’ six months later.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