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What's Stopping Us From Transforming Schools?

Thursday, May 29, 2014

By Erin Millar, journalist and author

Image © Bart Everson

“New technology is common, new thinking is rare.” - Sir Peter Blake

In 2006 grade seven teacher Mitch Breton was only six months into a new gig at the Canadian International School of Hong Kong (CISHK) when principal Dave McMaster announced an ambitious initiative. McMaster wanted CISHK to be a little more like the real world; students would be given tablets and laptops, be permitted to bring their own devices to school, and have access to wifi everywhere. Teachers were encouraged to integrate technology into their classwork at their own pace, with the help of dedicated coaches.

Breton had moved to Hong Kong with his wife in part for the adventure, but in part because he was frustrated with teaching in the Ontario school system. He felt like too many schools in Ontario were stuck in the past, unable to evolve or improve despite his and his colleagues’ best intentions.

So, when McMaster announced the 5-year plan to modernize CISHK’s approach (which would also include more project-based and community-connected learning), Breton was enthusiastic, but also apprehensive. “I wasn’t sure how I was going to do things,” he told me. “I didn’t know how to control kids with unlimited wifi. I didn’t know how to make the best use of these thousand-dollar machines.” Many of his colleagues shared his apprehension.

I met Breton after visiting CISHK in late 2013. I visited Hong Kong just after the OECD’s most recent PISA results were announced, revealing that the city state had risen to third place in the highly anticipated global ranking of 15-year-olds’ ability in reading, math, and science, surpassing even education superstar Finland. CISHK was known as one of the best, and was recently named an Apple Distinguished School for how it uses technology to personalize education. I thought it would be a good place to observe how Hong Kong was achieving success.

The school itself was impressive. But, then again, it is a private school in a wealthy city with a lot of autonomy and parent support. That’s why speaking to Breton struck me. Even an open-minded, motivated teacher like Breton, teaching at a innovative school with a strong leader in McMaster and lots of support, was full of apprehension at the prospect doing things differently. So deep is our innate fear of change.

The present past

Michael Fullan, education researcher and former dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, often talks about schools that are stuck in the “present past.” If a time machine transported a delegation from the early 20th century to today, they’d find our jobs unrecognizable but they’d feel right at home in most of our classrooms. While there are islands of education innovation, much of our school system seems stubbornly fixed in time.

Yet, everyone I interview as part of my job as an education journalist, from parents to teachers to ministry leaders, seems impatient with the rate of change. So what is holding us back? What is standing in the way of change?

This is the mystery that the Canadian Education Association (CEA) spent the last few months probing in workshops across the country. Stephen Hurley, a former long-time educator who coordinated the workshops, was struck by how representatives from all levels, including students, shared very similar aspirations. “There is this assumption that everyone is in this for their own interests,” Hurley told me. “But they all point to the student being the centre of schools.”

Even in B.C., where a tense labour dispute between teachers and the government is underway, strain in the room dissolved when the conversation turned to students and solutions. “These people would not normally be in the same room, never mind having these conversations face-to-face,” he told me.

Conditions of change

As part of the workshops, CEA received more than 600 written statements. Here are some common conditions of change that participants identified:

  1. Trust and collaboration: There needs to be trust between teachers, between parents and teachers, and – most importantly – between students and teachers. Hurley noted that trust in teachers has been damaged, which has negatively impacted the profession. Also, “students are becoming increasingly cynical about what formal schooling can offer them, which depletes trust."
  2. Flexibility: Successful organizations encourage risk taking and collaboration. Our education systems too often require control, compliance and conformity. In Hurley’s words, “We are limiting the amount of creativity and imagination that teachers are permitted to bring to their schools. We’re so afraid.”
  3. Patience: We need to tolerate innovation and leave room for failure.
  4. Resources: Schools and systems need the resources to implement change. As Ron Canuel, president and CEO of CEA, puts it, “Have you ever heard someone in education say, ‘We have enough money’?”
  5. A culture of questioning assumptions: We need to ask critical questions of every aspect of the system. For example, why do we assume that kids learn best in age-based batches?
Under the threat of H1N1, widespread behavioural changes – like coughing into your elbow – became common practice in schools and other public spaces.  Image: Centre for Disease Control

Where is our urgency?

For Canuel, one of the most surprising things about the workshops was the lack of urgency. “No one said 'we need to do this in five years.'”

Canuel recalls working with Uruguay, which consulted with school districts here in Canada when rolling out its 1-to-1 laptop program. “There was urgency,” he said. “Developing countries see how fixing their education system is essential to improving their societies.”

He often hears people urge patience, that education change happens necessarily slowly. Canuel’s answer? He points to schools’ rapid response to the H1N1 outbreak, when there was concern that schools would have to shut down. “We saw education systems mobilize and shift within three months. Why? Because it was urgent.”

Present future

Now, seven years after McMaster began his initiative at CISHK, Breton no longer thinks of the change as being exceptional. “The days of standing in front of a class and lecturing at kids are over,” he says. “When I imagine going back to teaching a classroom where all we had was paper and pencils, I don’t think I could cope.”

WGSI is proud to support "What's Standing in the Way of Change in Education?" as the Canadian Education Association's Initiative Partner. Visit to join the conversation about barriers to change in education and use the hashtag #CanEdChange on Twitter. 

Erin Millar is a journalist and author with a lifelong interest in education, innovation and creativity. For nearly a decade she has written for leading Canadian and international publications including Reader’s Digest InternationalMaclean’s, The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, The Times of London and others. Her work has been translated into 20 languages and published in 34 countries.