What is standing in the way of educational change? Well, actually…nothing.

The Canadian Educators Association has recently asked for input from its bloggers on the question “What is standing in the way of change in education” . Here is my response. More commentary can be found at http://www.cea-ace.ca/


You know who is one of my favourite teachers of all time?

Jamie Sommers.

That’s right. Jamie Sommers. The Bionic Woman.

Now, that’s not because she could write notes on the board at super-sonic speeds with her bionic arm, nor because she could hear the whispers at the back of the class with her bionic hearing. But because she was the first educator to show me the potential of educational change.

Perhaps I should backtrack for those of you who may either be too young to remember or who came from populated enough centers to have had more than one channel to choose from and missed this particular televised gem. The Bionic Woman was a show that ran in the 70’s about a former tennis star who had several parts of her body replaced by robotics after a sky diving accident. It was a spin-off of the earlier TV series “The Bionic Man”, which followed a similar premise. And although the main character of that series, Steve Austin, was a full-time agent for the covert O.S.I. (The Office of Strategic Intelligence) Jamie Sommers had a much less glorious career.

In between tackling top-secret missions, she worked as a grade school teacher.

To this day, I can not remember one single “Bad Guy” The Bionic Woman defeated. Nor can I remember the plot of a single, solitary episode. However, I distinctly remember the way she changed my view of education forever.

In one of the episodes she arranged the desks in her class in a circle.

A small change, arguably. And granted, one instituted in an imaginary classroom surrounded by a ridiculous premise. However, I recall thinking, as a student at the time, that this was radical teaching, a new approach to the old standard. It represented a newer, younger, hipper way of schooling.

And I also remember very clearly how the next day everybody in my school wanted their classroom desks arranged in a circle too.

Change is an ever-present topic in the field of education. People are seemingly always a)  calling for change, b)  implementing change or c)  resisting change. Conversely, people are seemingly always asking a) why so many others are calling for change, b) why so much change is being implemented or c) why so many are resisting change. The very topic of change, it seems, is probably one of very few constants in our field.

But there is a tension within change. Teachers, as a whole, are often blamed for being anti change, mired in their chalk and talk routines, rolling their eyes at “the next new thing”. However, it’s not that we are anti-change. Teachers, are, on the whole, some of the most innovative and creative people I have ever met. It is not the change that is the issue, it is the ownership and implementation of that change that remains the sticking point.

Consider the past twenty years of educational activism that originated anywhere but in the classroom. From whole language to standardization, from “No Child Left Behind” to Obama’s “Race to the Top”, time after time, initiative after initiative has failed to “get it right”. Not because they were necessarily bad ideas, (although if NCLB was not idea I have never seen one), or underfunded, or under-resourced. They failed to “fix” education because their approach was all wrong. Education can not be “gotten right” from outside of the classroom. Getting education “right” is inherently an inside the classroom event.

And every single classroom is different. As is every educator. There is no “right”. There is no “fixed”. There is only different.

Recently, I came across a piece in the Leader-Post out of Regina. The headline read “Changes on Backburner: Focus Needed”  and it was all about how the government of Saskatchewan was “putting the brakes on curriculum and programming changes” for the time being. Instead of continuing to implement new initiatives around such important issues as anti-bullying and student achievement, Deputy education minister Dan Florizone has decided to take a moment and discuss with the school districts exactly what is working for schools and what is not. Florizone states that he recognizes far too many of these changes are coming from the top down. After all, he stated “If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority.”

This is the type of statement which makes classroom teachers stand up and cheer.

True educational change is happening. It is happening daily. It is happening in ways both high-tech and low-tech, both obvious and subtle. It can not be canned, it can not be forced. It can not be brought down from on high. But change is happening in our classrooms. In technology integration, in engagement, in assessment. Change is occurring.  And as long as teachers feel that they are the ones in control, as long as they are given the freedom to adopt what works for them, and as long as they are supported when they try what does not, then positive change will continue to happen for students.

There are no actual barriers to educational change unless you consider barriers thrown up by a system that insists change must happen in a very limited, very specific, and very systemic way.

Speaking of how education is changing, I was actually interrupted in the middle of writing this piece by the ringing of my home phone. It was my daughter’s 3rd grade teacher calling to introduce herself and ask if I had any questions about the upcoming year.

At 9:00pm.

On a Sunday night.

I find myself wondering if the desks in her classroom are arranged in a circle, too.



Filed under Education Policy, Educational Change, Public education, Quality education, Standards, Teacher autonomy

4 responses to “What is standing in the way of educational change? Well, actually…nothing.

  1. Hugh d'Entremont

    In most fields of endeavour change is driven by consumers and producers, that is those most closely connected to the product or service. In education change seems to be driven by those least connected to the end result. That may be the major barrier to implementing reforms that truly work.

    • Love that observation, Hugh. Now, when considering the idea of change, I wonder how we fix that “top of the hill knows best” mindset.

      • Hugh d'Entremont

        The union has power to do a great deal to force meaningful change but it would take willingness to make reform issues contract issues. As teachers we are our own worst enemy many of us are rule followers and have great respect for authority. We have allowed the gradual encroachment of the flavour of the month in education reform to take over our classrooms.

        Unless teachers through the Union say no or ask for evidence before the implementation of any more reforms we will continue on this same path.

      • You make an interesting point, Hugh. I have often found myself complaining that the policy makers seem to be able to enact change with the wave of a hand or the passing of a vote, and teachers are left to react through the snail’s pace of collective bargaining.

        One of the issues of educational change has always been implementation. The Province, in my experience, has been fairly good about discussing impending change with the NSTU through the various committees. However, the way in which that change is implemented varies from board to board. Each board seems to face its own challenges when implementing systemic change, and this results in difficulties unique to the situation. So, a change that has gone well in HRSB, for instance, may have gone poorly in Cape Breton.

        One of the things I continue to lobby for is more teacher input into how boards handle educational change at the local level. Several locals have excellent agreements with their school boards that allow for dialogue on how to handle change before implementation, during the transition and after the change has been completed. I believe that this increased discussion about change with the people who are actually affected is key to moving education forward.

        Again, thanks for your comments.

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