TESS Article 8 – Revolution, not evolution


The oft-repeated mantra for managing change in education is “evolution, not revolution”.  Such a strategy takes account of the sensitivities involved whenever change is proposed and recognises the tacit (and explicit) resistance to change that can exist within any large organisation. The accepted logic is that we make change gradually and incrementally by building upon good practice and hopefully extending this across the entire system.

Such a cascade – or “viral” approach – where new practice is supposed to create a dynamic, or critical mass, which sweeps the system into the new world, is generally accepted as good practice. Unfortunately for us research into change strategies in education on a worldwide scale have shown the singular failure of such approaches. Initiatives which depend upon the willing volunteers, who create the perception of change within a system, disguise the majority who have learned to ignore the initiative, safe in the knowledge that “there will be another one along later”.

Yet even a cursory glance at the history of the social and physical world tells us that evolution is not always a smooth and gradual process.  On occasions in the history of the earth significant change has taken place in a relatively short period of time.  Perhaps we might have been reading this article today with scales on our bodies had not a meteor struck the earth and ended the dominance of the dinosaurs?

My point here is that it might be time to consider whether or not we should engage in radical change to our curriculum and delivery systems.  Of course another powerful metaphor is often used to counter such a suggestion “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water”.  Yet this seems ignore the consensus within Scottish education that there is an imperative for change and that the plug does perhaps need to be pulled from the bath?

In recent discussions with head teacher colleagues and teachers from throughout Scotland I have been impressed and encouraged by their willingness to engage with a more radical agenda that will best meet the needs of young people, which if translated into action would result in a revolution which could create a curriculum framework around which new professional practice can be developed, nurtured and supported.  I would even suggest that such a change would enable Scotland to take a leading role in educational development.  So what might such a revolution look like?  As with any revolution there are many aspects, which are already in existence in many areas of Scotland to some extent or another.  However, revolution would require that we fundamentally change the landscape upon which the large beasts of Scottish education currently roam.

The following are a selection of five agreed actions identified by a group of head teachers that might collectively make a contribution towards significantly changing that landscape in a revolutionary manner.

Each young person will have a unique learning programme (timetable) that will include home and school learning in its widest sense – Such a concept presents learning as extending beyond the school day and school grounds and begins to actively engage the young person and the parents in designing learning experiences.

Young people over the age of 16 may devise their own curriculum by accessing courses available at their own school, other schools, further education and higher education institutions, and on-line learning environments – Again we begin to conceive of education as being something more than what can be offered within a school.

Children and young people will be progressively taught, from an early age, how to make the best use of virtual learning environments – Such a development reinforces our obligation to consider how the learning process and environment has changed and will continue to change in the future.

Every child will have an on-line space in which they can keep a record of their experiences and achievements that will track through with them from the age of 3 – 18, – Perhaps even from birth where they reflect upon their learning, their experiences and achievements.

Schools will develop and promote their identity through a strong emphasis upon wider achievements such as music, creative arts, performing arts, sport, community volunteering, local politics, outdoor education, community leadership – these will be referred to as “core activities”  – By inverting the core we build the traditional curriculum around those activities which often have “real” personal meaning for children and young people.

Vive la revolution!

9 thoughts on “TESS Article 8 – Revolution, not evolution

  1. Nicely put, Don. This past six months I’ve been using a John Hunter quote – “Don’t think, try” – to sum up my feelings on change. Whenever I visit a group of people they always seem to know where they want to go, and even have a rough idea of how they might get there, yet they feel the need to defer decision-making for another day. The list of reasons/excuses is as long as my arm: more consultation, more tweaking, “it’ll never work”, “we need to change culture further up before we can create change ‘on the ground'”. Yet, when you speak with those ‘further up’, they just want to see the change happen asap.

    Change, I’m convinced, is most effective when it is this combination of bottom-up innovation, but on a reassuring lead and backing from the hierarchy (where there is one). Yet, these ideas still get a slating from those who think that the most effective strategies can only be pure “bottom-up”:

    Any thoughts? I remember having similar discussions a year ago with you, where we pushed and pulled over the ratio of these revolutionary and hierarchical powers.

  2. It’s very refreshing to read this. As a lay person with children in the system at the moment, it always seems to me that there are two main groups acting against any significant change. First, people who’ve been and gone through the system and the media. This lot are the “if it was good enough for us…” and “standards are falling…” brigade. I’m sure they think children should still be matriculating with the leaving certificate or whatever or their children they did themselves. And then there are the teaching professionals who have been in the job for a long time. “It’ll never work…” and “we tried this ten years ago and it didn’t work then…”

    The latter group drove me mad when I was on a school board and I come across it regularly in sports clubs outside school. Sometimes (with the clubs!) you can just say “This is what we’re doing and if you don’t like it you can leave” and it usually works. I grind my teeth regularly at the former group.

    With children now approaching the final stages of school education, I’ve come to the conclusion that most changes are just tinkering around the edges and what is needed is a complete and major restructuring. So go for it!

    I’ll try & get myself round to writing a post of my own on this, I think.

  3. Another great article, Don. I particularly love the idea of inverting the core. This would ensure that emphasis is placed on creative and thinking skills being used and disable current prevalent practice (through necessity) of teaching to fixed goals of assessment.

  4. Where do we sign up 😉
    The revolution is well underway in work based and further education sectors.

    I don’t think there are really massive obstacles in your way – Ewan’s “don’t think try” mantra is pretty apposite.
    You are also building on a great track record of change from within in your own authority.
    What can we do to make this happen ?

  5. A great article. As Joe says I believe there will be many educational sectors developing/aspiring to develop in this direction and want to make such changes happen.I am of course always pleased to see that outdoor education is considered as one of the core activities in this revolution.

  6. As a PGDE student who is currently writing an essay on Curriculum, Teaching and Assessment, I was delighted to come across this piece. As John Dewey said ‘Education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.’ A Curriculum for Excellence has the potential to deliver this, yet in a climate such as you describe where there is ‘evolution not revolution’ I struggle to see how it is possible for it to evolve from the 5-14 product model which is fundamentally epistemologically incompatible.
    Lets start the revolution!

  7. Nice article, and I enjoy most of the things you said. On an overall note, I feel concerned about the expectations from children – learn….. learn…… learn…… to summarize.

    I appreciate the amount of effort and caring in these suggestions, but I can’t help but feel that if I were a child:

    I would have no time to stand and stare. My home and school programme would bring learning pretty much as the objective where ever I turn – and that is learning I have no choice about until I turn 16 (which basically means until its almost over). My experiences and achievements would be tracked from age 3-18…. You wouldn’t get away with invading an adult like that. Whatever happened to my rights?

    While I appreciate that children need assistance learning, this programme sounds a little aggressive for my taste. I can almost empathize with what Jim Carey felt in the Truman show – where he is well loved, but living a life designed by someone else with not much respect for how he would like to spend his life. The seeming lack of trust that children can’t make responsible choices for themselves until they turn 16.

    Another concern is the scene without the rose tinted glasses. The child who conforms to this learning thingy or a child with a natural inclination to achieve will blaze a trail of achievements through meticulously kept records. What happens to the not so bright child caught in a hi-fi education system (which incidentally doesn’t mean that he will not be successful in life)? Worse, what happens to the bright and responsible child, who would like to take a break from stuff and make space to reassess his direction, and as a result finds himself “lacking” in achievements on the records in comparison with other children of his age? I would like to understand how such a system would relate with people making choices other than the learning one, people not being able to cope with the intense learning, people not wishing to take on constant pressure and other odd balls. If it is to be a system, it will have to be able to deal responsibly with all sorts.

  8. Vidyut

    Thanks for taking the time to express your thoughts. I obviously got something wrong if this came across to you as limiting and constraining children’s experiences. My intention is quite the reverse. I see you are involvede in adventure learning – where learning takes place in situations outwith the norm. Learning takes many forms but so often in our country we only recognise the formal as opposed to those experiences which have much greater personal meaning for the child. I don’t follow why you think the child won’t have control over their home learning – e.g. swimming; playing football; making films; hill walking; horse riding; playing music? We want to try to enable children to engage more – not less – in education process.

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