Category Archives: school change

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apparent during the pandemic were the many situations where what was ‘normal’ at the beginning of the year had been superseded by a ‘new normal’ six months later.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

Transitioning from Traditional to Networked Schooling

Greg McKay
  1. Transitioning from Traditional to Networked Schooling

Mal Lee

Schooling worldwide is moving inexorably from its traditional, largely stand-alone, strongly paper based mode to one that is increasingly networked and digital.

The extent of the transition has already been profound, even in the more conservative of schools, far more than most likely have realised, on trend to become even greater.

It has however been largely unseen, unplanned and undocumented, hidden in part by contemporary society’s ready acceptance of the evolving new normal. It is highly likely that most teachers won’t have appreciated the magnitude of the change, although being central to the development.

Indeed, this is likely the first article to describe the transition, and to alert the education community to the transformation underway. 

The implications of the transition for all schools, teaching, and indeed all school operations are already immense. However in many respects the world is still in the early stage of the more networked mode, just beginning to understand the ramifications of the development.

While coming blogs will touch upon some of those ramifications far greater analysis at the school and macro level by many more in the years ahead will be needed. 

What however is clear is that all associated with schools, but particularly the teachers and heads, need to better understand the global phenomenon. They need to understand the key features, the trends, how the teaching and school have already been transformed, the shift to more tightly coupled digitally based ecosystems, able to adjudge the impact of the transition on the desired schooling, and how they might best assist shape the natural, inexorable transition to advantage.

Serendipitously the COVID pandemic, in its stress testing of every facet of schooling, has alerted societies worldwide to the transition that has occurred since the 90s, and affirmed the world has reached the point where for the first time in human history schooling can be provided remotely, in a fully networked mode and not just within a physical place.

In the space of 25 years near all the developed world’s, and increasingly the developing and undeveloped world’s classrooms, K-12 have transitioned from being telecommunications deserts to being networked. Schools have transitioned from a few, highly guarded, 56K phone lines, with none in the classrooms to near all teachers and classrooms having ready connectivity to high speed, multiple media, broadband networks.

In the early 90s a head had several weeks to contemplate the reply to be posted to the office. Near all communication, and virtually every aspect of teaching was paper based, handwriting was all important, books were dominant, the photocopiers daily consumed reams, and the control of the mail stamps and long distance phone calls was paramount.

Schools, three quarters of a century on from their standardisation around 1920, were still insular, largely stand-alone, loosely coupled (Weick, 1976) organisations that operated behind closed doors, replicating year in and year out, what Tyack and Cuban (1995) termed as the ‘grammar of schooling’.

The basic grammar of schooling, like the shape of classrooms, has remained remarkably stable over the decades. Little has changed in the ways schools divide time and space, classify students and allocate them to classrooms, splinter knowledge into ‘subjects’ and award grades and ‘credits’ as evidence of learning (Tyack and Cuban, 1995, p85).

……Established institutional forms come to be understood by educators, student and the public as necessary features of ‘real’ school. They become fixed in place by everyday custom in schools and by outside forces, by legal mandates and cultural beliefs, until they are barely noticed. They become just the way schools are (Tyack and Cuban, 1995, p86).

Schools were viewed as places of constancy, continuity and sameness.

Serendipitously as much the same time as Tyack and Cuban their observation schools, usually unheralded, began to be networked, initially internally within the administration, library and a few computer labs, and then also externally via a series of ever larger connections to the Internet.

In historic terms the transition to a more networked mode has been rapid, starting slowly in the 1990s, gathering pace in the 2000s, and accelerating evermore since 2010.

As seemingly recent as early 2010 the world and its schools could not have handled the pandemic like it did but 10 years later. The iPad revolution had yet to be launched, apps were unheard of by most, the broadband connectivity was lacking, and the primary school age cohort had yet to grow its digital mindset and competencies.

By early 2020 they had. 90% plus of digitally connected families across the developed world had the digital mindset, infrastructure, competencies, broadband connectivity and vitally the desire to collaborate with their schools in a fully networked mode and to support their children. Indeed, few questioned the ability of Year 2 children to participate in Zoom lessons. It was part of the new normal.

Critically near all teachers, mostly of their volition, had also grown their digital mindset, competencies, home infrastructure and connectivity to a level where they could teach remotely from home.

On reflection it has been the networking technology, the connectivity and the facility for ever greater, inexpensive social networking that has been the game changer – far more so than the digital devices.

Significantly history has affirmed the transition to the more networked mode has been in the main a natural evolutionary development. It is on trend not only to increasingly impact every facet of society, learning and the operation of most every organisation, but should also oblige all organisations, including schools to rethink their workings, the desired human resources, their fit for purpose and the aptness of their planning in an environment that necessitates they accommodate both the planned and unplanned developments.

For schools and education authorities still wedded to the belief that all change can and must controlled, planned and measured, natural, often seemingly chaotic evolution and transformation could be a significant challenge.  Many could struggle to reconcile the reality that one of the most significant and transformative changes in the history of schooling has been, and continues to be, unplanned, and that they not only failed to see the change but, in their planning, failed to accommodate the phenomenon.

In the accelerating digital disruption of the world there will in the adaption to the new continue to be the plusses and minuses, and inevitable tensions as people grapple with what of the old to retain, and what to let go, with some gaining power at the expense of others.

That will be true of near all schools.

Schools, like every other organisation, can at best shape the global transition to a more networked mode to advantage, optimising the benefits, remediating the disbenefits, while continually adapting their workings to provide the desired education. 

They cannot stop the transition.

Society will expect schools as public institutions to adapt and accommodate the new normal.

Approached astutely, with a clearly understood purpose, understanding the nature of the transition, the forces at play and being willing to factor in both the planned and unplanned individual schools globally have demonstrated they can not only adapt but thrive.

Neither this or the future posts will attempt to rationalise the world’s, or schooling’s transition to a more networked mode, or to discuss the pros and cons. 

It is pointless.

Rather the focus will be on working with the reality.

One of the realities is how readily all manner of societies have adapted their ways to the accelerating, all-pervasive, digital evolution and transformation, and embrace, invariably unconsciously, the evolving new normals.  Invariably it is only when one stops and reflects does the ease of much of the adaption to the emerging digital technologies and increasingly powerful digital ecosystems, and the willingness to abandon the old ways become apparent. Few comment on the normality in 2021 of near all elders using their smartphones and QR codes, but it is an immense social transformation that barely rates a comment. 

Parents, students, the media and government all speak in the COVID world of returning schools to ‘normal’. In reality most are likely talking about a return to site based, face to face schooling. A related reality is that post COVID most will unwittingly expect a ‘new normal’; a schooling that incorporates many of the plusses that emerged during the fully networked mode. Video conferencing in some form for example has likely already become a normal part of everyday schooling.

In reflecting on the transition and the evolving ‘new normal’ one will soon appreciate that the expectation will be that they are accommodated by the schools.

Their accommodation – or more likely the refusal to do so – has already created tensions, and will continue to do so, probably at an ever higher level as the transition accelerates. 

Think for a moment on the transition that has occurred in your school in the last couple of decades, the transformation that has taken place in near every facet of your school’s workings, and the issues raised and tensions generated as some staff sought to retain the ways of the past, while others wanted to take advantage of new opportunities. 

In reflecting consider the myriad of issues and options that accompany the development.

There is much to be gained by analysing the transition within all facets of your school’s workings in the last 20 years.

How that might best be done will be addressed in the next post.

What however will be immediately apparent will be the 

  • magnitude of the transition
  • shift from a paper based operation to one that is ever more digital and networked
  • ever greater use of networked teaching
  • shift to a more tightly coupled organisation
  • movement from a highly insular to more networked learning environment
  • inexorable, often unplanned nature of the phenomenon and the strength of the megatrends
  • importance of readying the staff and school to thrive within the significantly different teaching environment.

What should also be apparent has been the profound impact COVID has had in accelerating the transition to the more networked mode.

Tyack, D and Cuban, L (1995). Tinkering Toward Utopia. Cambridge. Massachusetts. Harvard University Press.

Weick, K (1976) ‘Educational organisations as loosely coupled systems’. Administrative Science Quarterly 21 1976

A Century of the Standard Model of Schooling

Mal Lee

2020 marked a century’s use of the standard model of schooling.

Standardised across the developed world from around 1920 the core elements of the model adopted by schools then remain largely unchanged a 100 plus years on –  it long being accepted as the norm globally.

It is very easy to forget how long the model, and its core attributes have been in place and universally employed by the world.

Schooling is one of the few common concerted experiences shared by most of the world’s people, with near 7.5 billion having a working understanding  and expectations of the standard approach.

Indeed it is that universal acceptance that makes it so important that all educators better understand schooling’s heritage, the evolution of standard model, the concerted, on-going but largely ineffectual efforts to sustain significant change, and the lessons to be borne in mind by all contemplating major change.

Suddaby and Foster (2017) in their research on sustained organisational change underscore the imperative of all organisations, public and private sector factoring a historical perspective into the change process. 

That need is ever greater in those organisations lacking corporate memory; a reality in many schools, and particularly education authorities, where career public servants are invariably the decision makers. 

The history of schooling in the last century has seen billions spent on major school organisational change. Remarkably few of the structural changes have been sustained. Most rarely survived the change of head, or government. Those that sustained the change for more than 25 years remain a rarity. Look and you’ll find that virtually all the often considerable structural changes made post Sputnik in the 1960’s and 1970s have disappeared and the schools returned to the standard mode.

Notwithstanding the quest for school change continues unabated, at every level. Governments, education authorities, education reviews, individual schools, the idealists and the futurists all continue the quest. Invariably newly appointed ministers of education and superintendents seek to make their make their mark with substantial investment in a ‘revolutionary change’. Seemingly every new head must begin tenure with a set of organisational changes, even if it is only a return to old ways.

Teachers globally rightly complain of continual change but as Fullan and Stiegebauer (1991) rightly noted

The more things change the more they remain the same…(Fullan and Stiegebauer, 1991 p345)

The COVID-19 pandemic spawned a fresh batch of calls for major structural change.  The shift to a near fully digital operational base was seen to open the way to a host of new modes of schooling.

What most of the calls failed to do, including the more recent, was understand schooling’s heritage and appreciate why the standard model had weathered a 100 plus years obsession with change. 

History provides four key lessons;

  1. Major school structural change is incredibly difficult to achieve, and then sustain
  1. The standard school model has stood the test of time for very good reasons – despite its significant shortcomings
  1. That model, embedded as it is within contemporary society and modern economies, will remain the norm for many generations to come
  1. Major sustained school development and evolution can, and likely will only occur within the existing school structures. 

It is time to drop the obsession with structural change. History and experience says very strongly that far too much time, effort and money has been wasted on that quest. 

The existing structures are a given to work within. 

100 years says very strongly – before embarking on any quest for structural change adjudge the likelihood of achieving sustained enhancement and the degree of disruption of teaching that will occur, possibly needlessly if the change is implemented. 

In brief cease tilting at windmills and concentrate on where the likelihood of sustained enhancement is achievable.

History of standardisation

History informs us that the current model of schooling was standardised in the western world around 1920.

While the model had been existent for years it took until the 1920’s to standardise the approach.

The political skirmishes of the previous 50 odd years, the recognition of the need to better educate the young, the growing influence of a burgeoning middle class, the lessons of the Great War and the concerted efforts by a body of ‘educational experts’ combined to see developed nations like the USA, England, Scotland, Australia and Canada adopt a remarkably similar model of schooling (Campbell and Proctor, 2014) (Curtis and Boultwood, 1962), (McClure, 1971) (Tyack and Cuban, 1995). 

The ‘education experts’ within the new education bureaucracies – aided by the emerging education faculties – took charge of the schooling, deciding the mission, the structure of the schools, their location, organisation, curriculum, testing regime, staffing and operations (Tyler, 1971), (Tyack and Cuban, 1995.

They also took charge of teacher training, and teacher remuneration and working conditions.

The previous stakeholders, the community, parents and invariably the church, were eased out of the decision making.

The schools the experts created are those you know well.

The students attended a physical place called school, at set times, within state determined term dates, with the students organised into age cohorts and taught in class groups, invariably by a solitary teacher.

They moved in a lock step manner through their years at school, all taught using a common curriculum prepared by the ‘experts’, all assessed by paper based exams, with the major exams externally set.

The focus was strongly academic. Success equated with academic performance.

They were schools where the socially economically advantaged families of the society were further advantaged, and the marginalised, the labourers, indigenous, coloureds and migrants further disadvantaged. 

Core to the model was the sorting and sifting of the students, the schools charged with identifying the perceived future leaders while filtering out the lower quality and non-compliant students. 

The nature of the school buildings, with their corridors of teaching rooms, was much the same as today. Indeed, most schools built in the 1920s remain in operation today. Think of the schools in the older parts of the cities and the country towns, and note how many were built around the 1920s or earlier.

Structurally the schools were linear, strongly hierarchical organisations, that drew heavily upon Industrial Age manufacturing thinking and processes. The high/secondary schools particularly were segmented, loosely coupled (Weick, 1976), with a strong division of labour, where the subject teachers taught their speciality to students moving along the ‘production line’.

The principal was all powerful, using ‘his’ position and the hierarchy to unilaterally control every facet of the school’s operation. Teachers of that period were part of the educated elite, their word carrying immense weight in a poorly educated societies.

A century on most of these features still hold – now globally.

In 1995 Tyack and Cuban, in an aptly titled history of US schooling, Tilting at Utopia commented on what they termed the ‘grammar of schooling’.

The basic grammar of schooling, like the shape of classrooms, has remained remarkably stable over the decades. Little has changed in the ways schools divide time and space, classify students and allocate them to classrooms, splinter knowledge into ‘subjects’ and award grades and ‘credits’ as evidence of learning (Tyack and Cuban, 1995, p85).

……Established institutional forms come to be understood by educators, student and the public as necessary features of ‘real’ school. They become fixed in place by everyday custom in schools and by outside forces, by legal mandates and cultural beliefs, until they are barely noticed. They become just the way schools are (Tyack and Cuban, 1995, p86).

25 years later those observations still hold true of most all schools worldwide.

Indeed if anything the COVID – 19 experience has reinforced the standard model. The world has had underscored the critical social, economic and educational importance of the nation’s young physically attending a place called school most working days of the year. While significant strides have been made in the use of the digital, and opportunities with it abound, parents globally likely more than ever expect to send their children off to school in the morning safe in the knowledge that they can get on with their life and work.

It is time to better understand that reality.

Revealingly there are remarkably few publications that address that reality, which provide the historical perspective, and give school leaders the macro understanding of the evolution of school organisational structures needed to shape an effective change strategy.

There are thousands, likely millions of publications on the theory and practise of school change, and all manner of courses and post graduate programs which purport to provide the elixir to sustained change but few that address why a century on the standard model that emerged around 1920 remains the norm in near every country in the world.

Much of that research and analysis has yet to be done but the stress testing of the standard model occasioned by the pandemic already provides important insights.

Strengths and expectations

Unwittingly the pandemic has heightened our understanding of the models strengths – and shortcomings, what society expects of its schools and the opportunities the emerging digital technologies provide to enhance the model’s workings in the contemporary world.

The great and enduring strengths of the traditional model relate in the main to its facility to simultaneously develop and care for most of the nation’s young in a secure, safe physical site, for much of the year. The importance of face to face teaching and social interaction became increasingly apparent as the studies were undertaken, particularly for the very young and the already disadvantaged.

It frees young parents to work, to make a significant contribution to the national productively, while also providing families the monies to live their lives.

The importance of the latter was highlighted when economies worldwide were obliged to operate in a holding pattern until the physical places called school could re-open.

Tellingly the model performs that role relatively efficiently, combining as it does educational development, care, social growth and increasingly personal well-being.

The related strength is that the model continues to give society what it expects of schools. It is a politically and socially acceptable model. It is the model, with all its practises, rituals, ceremonies and traditions that generations have come to know, 

and importantly expect.

While the core structures might be difficult, if not impossible to change what occurs within them can, and does, in often significant ways. Some of the change will be a natural response to an evolving society but other can be readily school or system initiated. 

Today it would be impossible to move away from the northern and southern hemispheres school holidays or the expectation that the kids can be dropped off and picked up at set times most days of the year. That said schools can if they desire readily change such things as the learning environment and the culture, the nature of the teaching and the relationships with the students within the existing structures.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought to the fore  globally those schools which had been moving to a digital operational base. With all the staff and students ‘schooled’ in the art of using the digital astutely those admittedly exceptional schools were able to thrive and grow in full and part lockdown, and sustain the collaborative, all pervasive use of the technology on return to normal operations.

The key was that those schools understood they had to work with their parent expectations and the structures of the standard model.

Conclusion.

Understand the standard model is not about to change, and will continue to be used by the world for many generations to come.

Despite a century plus of crystal ball gazing and ‘futurists’ proclaiming dramatic change most schools will remain remarkably similar to that which you and your parents attended.  

That said it is possible to make and sustain significant changes within the existing structures if approached astutely.

One of the great, unheralded strengths of today’s digital technology is the facility to use it in teaching anywhere, anytime, be it in a heritage listed Victorian era building, an aged outback two teacher establishment, a school without walls or a modern flexible space complex.

  • Campbell, C and Proctor, H (2014) A History of Australian Schooling. Sydney. Allen and Unwin
  • Curtis, S.J and Boultwood, M.E.A (1962) An Introductory History of English Education Since 1800. London. University Tutorial Press
  • Fullan. M and Stiegebauer, S (1991) The New Meaning of Educational Change. London. Cassell. Second edition.
  • McClure, R.M (1971) The Curriculum: Retrospect and Prospect. The Seventieth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. Chicago. University of Chicago Press 1971.
  • Suddaby, R and Foster, W.M, (2017) ‘History and Organizational Change’. Journal of Management.Vol.43. No. I 2017
  • Tyack, D and Cuban, L (1995). Tinkering Toward Utopia. Cambridge. Massachusetts. Harvard University Press.
  • Tyler, R.W (1971) ‘Curriculum Development in the Twenties and Thirties’. In McClure, R.M (1971) The Curriculum: Retrospect and Prospect. The Seventieth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. Chicago. University of Chicago Press 1971.