The Evolutionary Stages of Schooling and Stage Indicators

Mal Lee and Roger Broadie

As mentioned in the previous post we have identified six stages in the evolution of schooling thus far, and within each of the stages a set of indicators; benchmarks that provide schools – at least within the English – speaking world – an international measure that allows them to readily position themselves on the school evolutionary continuum.

Importantly the indicators allow all within the school’s community – and not just the professionals – to both position the school and vitally to quickly identify the kind of variables to be addressed if the school is to evolve as desired.

Feel free to download the stages and the stage indicators. (Part B of the stages threads is being finalised.)

Evolutionary Stages of Schooling

Evolutionary stages threads A 2Jul13

Purpose of Blog


The desire with this blog is to help promote international discussion on

  • the concepts allied to the notion that once schools as organisations go digital they will progress along an ever-expanding evolutionary continuum
  • the many profound implications that flow for associated with schooling from an acceptance and understanding of those concepts.

The authors’ research suggests that

  • all schools will move along an evolutionary continuum once they leave their traditional paper operational base and move to one that is digital and networked.  Once organisations go digital and networked – be they banks, newspapers, hospitals or schools – they will move from era of relative constancy and continuity to one of on-going, often rapid and uncertain change and evolution.
  • that continuum will be ever-evolving, ever-expanding and vitally will be largely common in form regardless of school type or size, level of schooling, socio-economic standing or context, at least within the schools of the English speaking world
  • all schools will moreover move through a series of common stages, with each stage having a suite of remarkably common, interrelated attributes.

In 2013 the authors have identified the six below stages but are conscious the pathfinder schools are moving at pace to another.

  • the vast majority of schools will need to move through each of the stages before they are ready to move to the next.  To view the six stages and the stage indicators click here.
  • In moving along the evolutionary continuum the schools will undergo on-going organisational transformation and become ever more tightly integrated and unique ecologies.
  • Each school, and in particular its leadership has to chart and be responsible for its own movement along the evolutionary continuum.  While education authorities can assist individual schools the school itself has to take responsibility.
  • Once schools become digitally based organisations they will experience a significant degree of natural growth – regardless of government aspirations – and will need to shape that raw growth to ensure the desired education is provided.

In 2013 all of the above are novel concepts.

Governments in most instances like to project the image that all ‘its’ schools are basically the same.

Schools, education authorities and governments globally also perpetuate the perception that the basic form of the school is somehow immutable and unchanging, and that all that is required to enhance the schools’ effectiveness and relevance is some simple tinkering with the existing structure.  Daily one reads of the latest simplistic ‘silver bullet’ fix mooted by the governments of the world.

Allied is the assumption that government’s have in ‘their’ schools institutions over which they have near complete control.

The reality is that schools across the world sit at different points along a continuum, and indeed an evolutionary continuum that is growing ever-longer by the day, where the variability between the schools is becoming ever greater.

Vitally most governments, education authorities and indeed policy makers and educational researchers have prefaced their operations – probably unwittingly – on the assumption that schooling will always be largely constant in form.

That is not so and hasn’t been so since the early 2000’s.

The Research

Previous research (Lee and Gaffney, 2008) revealed that around 2002/2003 the first schools globally finally succeeded in getting all their teachers to use the digital technology in their everyday teaching, to achieve digital take off, to shift to a digital operational base and to embark on the path of on-going evolution.

Over the last five years Mal Lee has focussed his research on the work of those pathfinding schools globally (Lee and Winzenried (2009), (Lee and Finger, 2010), (Lee and Levins, 2012) (Lee and Ward, 2013) as they capitalised upon the opportunities opened by the digital technology and moved along the evolutionary continuum.

Conscious that 2013 was a decade on since the first schools succeeded in achieving total teacher use of the digital and 20 years on since the launch of Mosaic Mal embarked on the writing of a major work on Digital Normalisation and School Transformation that would explore the impact of the digital technology on all facets of the school’s operations in those pathfinders that had or nearly had normalised the use of the digital.

In researching that publication Mal set out to interview around 70 pathfinder schools/school leaders in the UK, US, NZ and Australia.

After interviewing around 60 it became apparent all the schools in reaching their current position had addressed in the region of 50 key interrelated variables and had experienced remarkably similar journeys, regardless of their situation, school size and type, financial situation and government.

A copy of those variables can be got here.

When each of the remaining schools affirmed the same experience it hit home that was one was not only looking at a potentially global common evolutionary continuum but also common stages with remarkably common attributes.

In sharing those observations with Professor Peter Twining at the Open University – who was analysing the evolution of 22 schools in the UK – and Roger Broadie from NACCE (the UK ICT educators professional association) who had been involved in examining some 70 UK schools for the Association’s 3rd Millennium Awards it was decided share the thoughts with educators globally both via this site and through the publication of a Taxonomy of School Evolutionary Stages.  Work is progressing at pace on the latter.

Coincidental with this decision the Project Tomorrow team published its reflective on the 10 years of the US Speak Up research initiative (Project Tomorrow, 2013) and in so doing re-affirmed the fundamental transformation that had occurred in the education of the young in the US in their normalised usage of the US, sadly primarily outside the school walls.

Our study of the journeys of the global pathfinder schools mirrored that transformation, but within the walls of an as yet rare cadre of schools.

What must be stressed is that the current six evolutionary stages and the stage indicators are indicative in nature.

They are a human construct designed to assist all with an interest in schooling address the notion of school evolution.

They most assuredly are not the perfect recipes for school evolution.  Some of the stage indicators could well be evidenced earlier or later in your school.

They, and indeed the Taxonomy and this blog, are intended to provide an insight into what is happening in the pathfinder schools in four English -speaking nations.  We suspect the same kind of evolutionary continuum will be evidenced in other developed nations but the research has yet to be done.

As stressed at the outset we recognise the concepts are novel and need more work by those with far more resources than us but in light of the potential benefits they provide and the many implications that flow it was decided to share them.

Before moving on to the implications it should be stressed that the research affirms the reality that while it was the digital technology and the shift to a digital operational mode that has occasioned and continues to occasion the transformation of schooling the overwhelming message coming from the pathfinders is the focus and major challenge for the later adopter schools has to be on promoting human and cultural evolution.  The technology is the simple part of the evolutionary process.

The Implications

In the evolutionary continuum and six stages, and in particular the stage indicators, schools and educational decision makers finally have a common international scale and set of benchmarks that schools and vitally their communities can readily use to adjudge the current position of the school and what is required if it is to move evolve as desired.

The implications flowing from that facility, as you’d appreciate are immense.

While as stressed only indicative in nature the continuum and the stages not only provide the later adopter schools an insight into where they at and what they have yet to address but vitally provide the pathfinder schools and policy makers with a suite of trend lines they can use to assist the schools’ movement into unchartered territory.

Importantly the associated suite of concepts affirm the imperative of schools, educational administrators, governments and vitally the media recognising they are not dealing with the one size fits all approach of the traditional world of school constancy and continuity but rather with immense and growing school variability with all schools at different points along an ever evolving continuum, each needing to a development solution apposite for its situation and community.

As we flesh out in the Taxonomy the implications are particularly profound for school principals, school councils/boards, education authorities, teacher development, professional development agencies, educational researchers, policy makers and governments.

There is in the global commonality of the evolution and the degree of common natural growth more than a hint that governments don’t have the degree of control over the development of schools, as they invariably like to imagine.

Vitally there is also the affirmation – contrary to so much government and technology corporation spin – that it takes years – not months – for schools to move along the evolutionary continuum and fundamentally to change their cultures.

The pathfinders studied have reached their current position after 15/20 years of visioning, astute proactive leadership and concerted effort.  While it should not take the later adopters as long one is still in most instances talking years – not months – to reach the digital normalisation stage.



Digital Normalisation


Mal Lee

Digital normalisation is a term I coined to refer to the everyday, natural use of the digital technology all us make of it, in all facets of our lives.

While the young have long normalised its use in recent years their parents have – usually unwittingly – done the same with the digital now a natural part, largely invisible part of all homes.

As you full well know that is not so in the vast majority of schools globally with only a few pathfinders actively encouraging the students to use the technology they use 24/7/365 naturally in class.

In coining the term I drew from the writings of Clay Shirky and in particular his 2008 observation

It’s when a technology becomes normal, then ubiquitous, and finally so pervasive as to be invisible, that the really profound changes happen, and for young people today, our new social tools have passed normal and are heading to ubiquitous, and invisible is coming.

Shirky (2008, p. 105)

In researching the impact of the digital technology upon the transformation of the pathfinder schools I asked all interviewed their views on the term, and their thoughts on the traditional terms like ‘embedded’ or ‘internalised’.

Universally the preference was to use the term ‘digital normalisation’ as the one all associated with schooling, and in particular the children, parents and teachers could soon grasp, in preference to the older more jargon like expressions.

Interestingly one of deputy principal interviewed observed that it was when he encountered the term ‘normalisation’ in one of my earlier books that he realised the school’s current approach to the use of technology was unnatural and forced, and that the school needed to switch to a BYOT mode that was natural and hassle free.

The more one uses the term the more you’ll likely to appreciate the importance of the word ‘normal’.  Thus far so much use of technology in schools has been controlled and corralled.  What is desired is that the children use the technology normally, naturally and when apt often in creative ways the teachers hadn’t considered.  It takes time for teachers to shed the belief that they must always be in control.

Digital Normalisation Stage

In using ‘digital normalisation’ within the descriptor of the stage of schooling I’ve given it a more specific meaning that includes the core features of that stage of schooling.

It is thus important to differentiate between ‘digital normalisation’ and the expression ‘digital normalisation stage’.

The latter is defined as

The digital normalisation stage is reached when schools that have adopted a distributed mode of control of the teaching process and which are collaborating with their homes in the provision of a holistic, networked education for the 21st century normalise the use of the digital technology in all facets of the school’s operations, educational and administrative, in and outside the school.

It entails all the key players within the school’s community – the students, parents, teachers and support staff – using their choice of personal digital technology naturally in all the school’s operations to the extent they rarely give thought to the actual kit they are using.

While digital normalisation is a key facet of the evolutionary stage it is also vital one recognises the centrality of the

  • distributed mode of control of the teaching and learning process
  • authentic collaboration with the student’s homes
  • provision of an increasingly collaborative networked 24/7/365 schooling.