'Shift can happen'

15th May 2009 at 01:00
"Transformational" change in Scottish education is important

"Education is inevitably about the future." As Karl Fisch put it in his famous "shift happens" presentation: "We are currently preparing students for jobs that don't yet exist, using technologies that have not been invented, in order to solve problems we don't even know are problems yet."

That's not easy. We can't just extrapolate the existing system and expect it to fit with these sorts of needs. Which is why Fiona Hyslop's aspiration for "transformational" change in Scottish education is important.

The weight of evidence from around the world suggests she will be disappointed. What we observe is a pattern of steady, incremental improvement in education that continues to push the relevant statistics on participation and attainment ever higher, but a singular lack of transformative innovation.

This time, in Scotland, could be different. Teachers and school leaders recognise the scale of the challenge to match the pace of change in schools with that in the world outside. There is a desire to innovate and a recognition of the dilemmas involved in introducing the new in the presence of the old.

And, while it may be interpreted differently in some quarters, A Curriculum for Excellence is framed as a new kind of policy instrument: a permissive framework for local innovation, rather than a set of universal instructions from the centre.

Two years ago, under the auspices of International Futures Forum, we initiated a programme of research, workshops and strategic conversations with a variety of educational practitioners and policy-makers to explore how to realise the potential in ACfE for transformational change. Our conclusions are published this week.

The booklet explains how the push for "incremental improvement" has crowded out space for anything more visionary. It is, however, written for practical innovators - teachers and school leaders. We believe ACfE could be improved as a permissive policy framework to encourage transformational change by developing six features:

- a compelling vision of the "third horizon" which pulls innovation towards transformative change, rather than merely making the "old" system work better;

- encouragement for the "pragmatic visionaries" who are willing and able to make shift happen but need to be supported and encouraged in their endeavours;

- a realistic view of the policy landscape - recognising and acknowledging tensions and dilemmas of change and the need to resource adequately innovative efforts to resolve these;

- intentional identification and sharing of innovations that are not just novel or interesting but have real strategic significance;

- a centre that consistently supports the emerging community of innovators engaged in visionary, system-shifting practice;

- a disciplined framework of local self-evaluation which acknowledges the realities of tensions and dilemmas and how these are being wrestled with and resolved.

The challenges facing ACfE come from the forces of conservatism and incremental improvement. By moving the emphasis in current policy towards our suggested six-point plan, it's possible the new curriculum will help to transform the learning experiences of Scotland's young people. Shift can happen.

Transformative Innovation in Education: a playbook for pragmatic visionaries, by Graham Leicester, Keir Bloomer and Denis Stewart (Triarchy Press).

Graham Leicester is director of the International Futures Forum and

Denis Stewart is a director of education consultancy CELT Associates.

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