28 April, 2010

School Improvement - a conversation

Earlier this year the University of Tasmania advertised several 'New Stars' positions in various disciplines, including one for the Faculty of Education specialising in School Improvement. They couldn't recruit anyone suitable in School Improvement. This would indicate that the lack of expertise in School Improvement may be a much wider issue.
Goldratt has identified a change management strategy based on three simple questions
  1. What to change?
  2. What to change to?
  3. How to cause the change? That is, "By what method?"
Most people are confident about their expertise in relation to Questions 1 & 2, especially in relation to specific changes. The world is full of experts, who know what's wrong and how things should be.
But a gaping void exists in relation to Question 3. This usually leads to attempts to drive school improvement by
  • focusing on outcomes (MySchool, Tasmania Tomorrow...) and/or
  • mandating changes to teacher practices (often based on notions of 'best practice')
 [The continual search for best practices is based on the largely unexamined assumption that 'best practices' are universally best, and are also readily transferrable] 
These approaches tend to make school improvement initiatives
  • disparate
  • episodic
  • inefficient
  • ineffective ('after the horse has bolted')
  • lacking in overall coherence
  • often mutually disruptive: most schools struggle to meet the demands placed upon them
On the other hand, there are a whole range of proven improvement strategies available. However, they seem have little or no traction in the field of Education. Tasmania is ideally situated  to redress this situation.
 Change management strategies worth considering include
  • Action Learning* (Revans,...)
  • Activity Theory (Engestrom,...)
  • Complexity Theory (Snowden,...)
  • Theory of Constraints (Goldratt)
  • Continuous improvement (Deming,...)
  • Sense Making (Weick, Snowden)
  • Solution Focus (McKergow,...)
  • Communities of Practice (Wenger,...)
  • Knowledge Management (combines with complexity theory and sense making)
  • Key Factors (Webb)
  • and even SWPBS (Sugai,...) - as per my recent email
  • ...

The latter two strategies are currently understood to be specific to particular school contexts: the implementation of ICT and student behaviour respectively. In fact,  both have the potential to be generalised in such a way that they become applicable  and useful in improving most aspects of the life and work of the school.
Interestingly, all of these strategies are constructivist and they boil down to being Action Learning in one form or another - not really surprising!!
Thus, there is an urgent and important conversation to be had around the question
  • School Improvement -  by what method?
 And the conversation needs to be fostered at all levels and with all stakeholders.