Kentucky Fried Schooling?

31st March 1995 at 01:00
Andy Hargreaves believes it is time to re-think our approach to educational reform, and for teachers to be in its vanguard, not its victim. In his enigmatically-titled bestseller, The Empty Raincoat, Charles Handy remarks that "paradox has almost become the cliche of our times". We live in an age of paradox, of forces that simultaneously push and pull us in contradictory directions.

As Handy wryly observes "sometimes it seems that the more we know, the more confused we get; that the more we increase our technical capacity, the more powerless we become . . . We grow more food than we need, but we cannot feed the starving."

Responding to such paradoxes poses great challenges. But here we are undone by the greatest paradox of all, what Handy calls the paradox of aging, where "every generation perceives itself as justifiably different from its predecessor, but plans as if its successor generation will be the same as them." As we grope towards a better future, our feet are mired in the images and assumptions of our own pasts. This time, says Handy, it needs to be different. We need more informal and imaginative approaches to social change that are not projections of our own generational obsessions. Nowhere is this need for creativity greater than in educational reform.

Consider just five current paradoxes and the challenges they pose for educators: 1. Many parents have given up responsibility for the very things they want schools to stress. In my adopted country of Canada, for instance, in the same week the public clamoured for "zero tolerance" policies against violence in schools, Mortal Kombat was the top game rental at video stores. And while parents want teachers to get "back to the basics", they continue to allow their children to watch endless TV.

2. There is more centralisation and more decentralisation. Local management of schools was founded on an ideology of consumer choice, market diversity, and responsiveness to clients' concerns. Meanwhile, the national curriculum and national attainment tests have brought about greater uniformity and standardisation. The result has been Kentucky Fried Schooling. Schools compete and market themselves only as licensed franchises, selling remarkably similar products to their customers.

3. More globalism creates more tribalism. This is the paradox of globalisation. Economic globalisation eliminates borders and imperils national identities. The resulting ethnocentricism is being played out to extremes in the Balkans. But packing our national curriculum with British literature and British history shows that we are by no means educationally immune from our own ethnocentric panics about nationhood.

4. More diversity and integration is accompanied by more emphasis on common standards and specialisation. Calls for pupils to have more flexible work skills in the post-industrial economy, and for schools to respond to increasing cultural diversity, are requiring teachers to consider multiple intelligences, different learning styles, the development of problem-solving and critical thinking skills, and (in many countries beyond Britain) interdisciplinary links between separate subject domains.

At the same time, obsession with national strength and identity have spawned standardised tests, international comparisons and competitive league tables of school performance. These sorts of assessments emphasise restricted definitions of intelligence, narrow learning styles, and reaffirmation of subject specialisms that most tests seem to value. No wonder many teachers are perplexed.

5. Stronger orientation to the future creates greater nostalgia for the past. Our nation, like many others, is now one of multiple cultures, values and faiths. Global travel, information and entertainment multiply the contacts between these world views and beliefs even more. Information technology accelerates the pace of scientific learning and also the speed at which we can disconfirm what we have just learned. Morality is now more contested; knowledge more uncertain.

In the face of all this, many people long for golden ages of traditional subjects, basic skills and singular values in a world of moral absolutes and scientific certainties. Some retreat to private schools or to grant-maintained schools that will cherish and protect traditional values. Although, as the late Christopher Lasch put it, "nostalgia is the abdication of memory"; "back to the future" still seems to be where many people think schools should go.

How can teachers work with perpetual paradox? How can they be integrated and specialised, standardised and variegated, local and global, inquisitive yet compliant? Sadly, much of the existing literature and practice of educational change offers them only limited help for working with these paradoxes. It advocates brisk and bureaucratic management when what we need is collective visionary leadership instead.

Sweeping systemic reforms subject teachers to contradictory mandates, when what teachers need is more flexibility and discretion to respond to their children's needs in a complex, paradoxical world. Models and principles of school effectiveness are still pedalled which show us how to improve performance in conventional skills and subjects appropriate for the 1960s, but not how to create the kinds of problem-solving and critical thinking that are entrepreneurially necessary in the 1990s.

Drawing on my own analysis of educational change strategies in my recent book Changing Teachers, Changing Times, and on two school improvement projects in which I am involved, I want to propose five principles of educational change more appropriate to our post-industrial age.

1. Moving missions. In any change effort, teachers and schools should know where they are going. And broadly speaking, they should be agreed on where they are headed. Purposes matter a lot in teaching. Yet teachers cannot be given a purpose: purposes must come from within. Educational reformers find this hard to accept. Pursuing their own inspiring mission together is what can most help teachers to turn their school around. I have seen this in my own studies of secondary schools making change. The most positive approaches to change were where teachers faced overwhelming challenges in urban schools and were energised by the resolve to work on them together.

Still, we can overdo the "vision thing". We can make it stilted and unproductive by locking it up too rigidly in school development plans. These can make the passion of teachers' purposes into a rigid paper formula. Indeed, Mike Wallace's research has found that teachers often end up writing two development plans - neat, five-year ones that pacify the bureaucrats; and more realistic ones that work for themselves.

The other thing about visions and purposes is not to be too single-minded. Common missions that require complete consensus can easily become bland and vacuous because they must appease or appeal to so many different interests. Large secondary schools are particularly prone to this. They are too big and too diverse for everyone to agree. So in conditions of complexity and rapid change, missions will work better if headteachers can live with them being temporary and approximate, and with them not requiring complete consensus.

2. Policy realisation. If teachers are to review and renew their purposes continuously, they must have sufficient scope to do so. As it is, most educational policy inhibits opportunities for renewal. Its very language of implementation makes teachers mere tools of other people's purposes.

Where possible, policy decisions should be determined at the immediate level where people will have to realise them. Planned change that follows systematic cycles of development, implementation, and review is too inflexible and bureaucratic to respond to local circumstances. Moreover, detailed documents that freeze policies in text become outdated and are overtaken even as they are being written - by changing communities, new technologies and legislation, and other unanticipated problems.

Policy is best established and realised by communities of people within and across schools who talk about the provisions, inquire into them, and reformulate them, bearing in mind the circumstances and the children they know best. This means continuing and even extending some of the current principles of school self-management.

3. Reculturing. Before collective action and dialogue can take place, positive relationships must be built among teachers and others, relationships that form the culture of the school. To develop or alter these relationships involves what Michael Fullan and I call reculturing the school.

Among teachers, two kinds of cultures have prevailed. In cultures of of individualism, teachers have worked largely in isolation, sharing few resources and ideas, and engaging only occasionally in joint planning. In Balkanised cultures, teachers have worked in self-contained sub-groups - like subject departments - that are relatively insulated. Both cultures fragment relationships, making it hard for teachers to build on one another's expertise. They also stifle the moral support necessary for risk-taking and experimentation. Reculturing the school to create collaborative cultures among teachers reverses these dynamics. This creates a climate of trust in which teachers can pool resources, deal with complex and unanticipated problems, and celebrate successes. A key component of reculturing is the wilful involvement of critics and sceptics, who might initially make change efforts more difficult. Building real collaborative cultures means recognising that dissident views and diverse expertise contribute to learning, problem-solving and critical inquiry.

4. Restructuring. Cultures do not exist in a vacuum; they are grounded in structures of time and space. These structures shape relationships. Structures of teacher isolation have their roots in schools that have been organised like egg crates since the mid-19th century: schools in which children are moved in batches through prescribed curricula, from year to year, teacher to teacher. Similarly, Balkanised teacher cultures are often a product of subject department structures that go back at least to the Secondary Education Regulations of 1904 and that have been heavily buttressed by the subject-based national curriculum.

If the timetable does not allow teachers to meet during the regular school day, collaboration can become exhausting and contrived - tagged on rather than integral to ordinary commitments and working relationships. It is time for teachers to work with the structural grain, not against it.

Some of these structural problems can be solved by administrative ingenuity. Routinely co-ordinated planning times can bring together teachers who teach the same year or subject. Placing infant and junior teachers in adjacent classrooms can begin to break down stereotypes and the boundaries between the different ends of the primary school.

In the end, however, it makes no sense to devote so much effort to working around basic structures that are so unsympathetic to professional collaboration. So that teachers can share problems and information concerning pupils, and not just co-ordinate key stages and subject matter, we need to resurrect more pupil-friendly structures of the kinds that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s - structures that are now being instituted in the schools of many other countries such as the United States.

Examples of new structures that encourage more collaborative, flexible and responsive ways of working, include teacher teams; multi-age groups; shared decision-making teams; block timetabling; mini-schools or sub-schools, where no teacher meets with more than 80 pupils a week; and interdisciplinary programmes that bring teachers of different subjects together.

5. Organisational learning. Working together is not just a way of building relationships and collective resolve. It is also a source of learning. It helps people to see problems as things to be solved, not as occasions for blame; to appreciate that conflict is a necessary part of change; to value the different and even dissident voices of more marginal members of the organisation; to sort out policy demands; and to search continuously for ways to improve.

Collaborative cultures turn individual learning into shared learning. Attending to structures so they help people to connect, and designing tasks so they increase our capacity and opportunities for learning, spreads such learning across the entire organisation. This is what Peter Senge, in his book The Fifth Discipline means by organisational learning.

Learning organisations, he says, are: "Organisations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free and when people are continually learning how to learn together."

Schools that are good places for children's learning must be good places for teachers' learning also. As my colleague Michael Fullan has said, too many schools are not now learning organisations. We need to build more time and incentives for professional learning into the system, to create more opportunities for teachers to connect with each other in the classroom as well as in the staffroom, and to foster the kind of visionary leadership that includes staff collaboratively in the change process instead of imposing changes managerially on them.

Bureaucratic management, burdens of imposed content and assessments, and market orientations that divide schools and teachers from one another have created poor conditions for organisational learning or for effective educational change of any kind. Other change strategies are possible. Some schools already practise them. Perhaps future governments, as they tackle their own educational agendas, might be more willing to understand what those effective change strategies might be.

Professor Andy Hargreaves is director of the International Centre for Educational Change at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and International Research Professor at the Roehampton Institute London.

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