Tidying the Toys in the Sandpit

sandpit

It’s very rare that you can bring together a room full of educators to talk about where we should be going in education without pretty universal agreement that the status quo is not acceptable. All will agree – things must change! In such circumstances you then really have to wonder why so little really does change.

When there is change, I would argue that almost all of it really amounts to little more than twiddling at the edges. Somehow, despite the voiced acknowledgement of the need for significant changes, we just really haven’t changed anything very much. I find this the equivalent of lining up the toys in the sandpit. It’s still the same sandpit and the same toys and it can only be a matter of moments before those toys are thrown all over the sandpit just like before, with no evidence remaining of how tidy they were.

99% of change and reform in schools and in education is pretty much the same.  Incrementalism is the norm. So, a teacher or group of teachers take a process or a policy. Debate it to death. Tweak it a bit and then move on to the next thing. If enough of these little tweaks happen in a school, then the school gets tagged with the label ‘progressive.’ To some, that’s praise – to some, an insult implying that they just leave well alone.

Often these initiatives are so fragile and minimal that a change of personnel and the phrase, “this is how we used to do it,” can be enough to make them disappear leaving no evidence – just like the toys in the sandpit. The response from parents and students is often a rolling of the eyes and phrases like, “I wish they’d make up their minds what they’re doing.”

Attempts to reform, bring real change or to get people to look at education in different ways also come up against big challenges. I have noticed an invidious process whereby something new gets attacked with the challenge, “prove it works.” This leads to paralysis by data and supposed research. One striking recent example is in relation to Grit. This was a concept expounded on particularly by Angela Duckworth and expanded in her book:

Angela Duckworth – Grit

I found this book very thought provoking and intuitively felt that the ideas in it were valuable and had a real place in education. However, subsequently, since that book was published there seem to have been a whole bunch of ‘experts’ who have been hell-bent on refuting the key points behind the ideas. Their tools are to “teach” the principles of Grit to children and then “Test” to see what impact that has on students’ achievements. To me, this is just awful science, little to do with education and also deliberately distorts the intentions behind the original ideas. For example, if Grit gets built in to the values and principles in a school and that results in a pupil sticking through tough times in a job or a marriage 25 years later  – how can you have tested for that? How do you put a value on that? Also, what exactly are you testing for? Whether children produce higher/ better academic outcomes because this particular material was taught? I’m really not sure that was ever the idea.

Something is not only valid because you can do it, then test for it and prove some outcome in the traditional tests that have always been a part of the academic system. I would really want to see a far more optimistic, open and positive attitude towards change and new ideas.

In these circumstances, it’s easy to see how all real change can get closed down by narrow blinkered testing for ‘proof of impact.’ Then, that tempts people to focus only on the little incremental changes, the little tweaks.

I want to see us being far more bold, challenging and questioning big issues. In the coming weeks i have a whole bunch of these where I want to raise the questions. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but hope that I can stimulate debates and discussions that will shift the needle. I would also love to hear from readers with your ideas for the big things in education and schooling that we can and should challenge or question. Let’s bring forward the debates on these issues.

 

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