2 – Change, Innovation and the School (*)

1. Linking with the Previous Article

In the previous article (“Looking Anew at Education”) the following theses were defended:

  1. All that we need to live our life with autonomy and that is not innate to us must be acquired through education (apud Rousseau);
  2. Education, in this sense, is learning-centered, not teaching-focused, and learning is a lifelong endeavor that begins at birth and ends only at death (apud UNESCO);
  3. Education, thus understood, is too rich a process to be limited to the confines of a single institution or organization, such as the family, or the school, or even a combination of both, and must be seen as the responsibility of the entire society (apud UNESCO, OECD, and others);
  4. Society, therefore, in all of its complexity, must be seen as the learning environment in which education (i.e., learning) takes place: the locus par excellence of education is the world, not the school (apud Illich and others);
  5. In this learning environment we educate one another through continuous interaction and dialogue, always mediated by the world, and in this process we all use resources that, in traditional education, are reserved for the school to be deployed only by the teacher (apud Freire);
  6. The final goal of education is human development: through education we, who at birth are unfinished beings, become conscious of our incompletion and attempt to become always more fully human through the implementation of our strategic life project (apud Freire, UNDP, and others).

It is clear that, in this paradigm, the distinction between formal and non-formal education loses importance, and, therefore, the role of conventional schooling in education is considerably diminished.

It is also clear that in the transition from the present to the new paradigm, which can be quite long, we cannot do without the school. But the school must undergo a process of change and innovation in order to participate in this transition.

2. Change and Innovation

The twentieth century was a century of change. If we compare the beginning of the twentieth and of the twenty first centuries, 1901 and 2001, we see that the world, in most respects, was not same in those two occasions. The fact that in 2001 a new millennium, and not merely a new century, began, helped feed the sensation that the world had radically changed during the previous one hundred years.

It is undeniable that technological innovation, even though it was not an agent of change (this role is reserved exclusively for humans), was an important tool of change. The telephone, the movies, the radio, the record player, the automobile, the airplane, the computer, the Internet, the television,  the video camera, recorder, and player, the mobile phone, and many other technologies (medical technologies, for instance) came to fruition in the twentieth century, even if their roots were in the second half of the previous century (mostly in the latter portion of it). In due time, all of these technologies, which originally were quite different from one another, became digital or computerized, in a mechanism frequently labeled convergence.

The changes that these innovative technologies leveraged in the world were broad, deep and pervasive. Pervasive in the case means that almost every aspect of private, social, and professional life was affected by them.

The school was, and has remained, a notable exception. It is true that there were small changes and innovations within the school, but they were mostly superficial or cosmetical, and very often affected only a single dimension of the institution: the institution as a whole was not transformed.

In order to better understand this assertion we must have in mind the relation between change and innovation.

Innovation involves change, but not every change brings innovation.

As many authors have convincingly argued in recent times, after Thomas S. Kuhn’s seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), change can be of two kinds:

  • Ordinary change, or change that is contained within the established paradigm;
  • Extraordinary change, or change that leads to the replacement of the paradigm.

In the first case we usually have small, piecemeal, incremental, gradual changes — surface improvements of an established paradigm. The changes or improvements do not question the paradigm: they take it for granted. When they have to deal with practice (and not theory), these changes and improvements do not depart too much from the conventional, almost universally accepted, way of doing things.

In the second case we usually have to deal with broad, profound, systemic (holistic), radical, often abrupt changes, that lead to the destruction of an established paradigm and its replacement by another. The changes here subvert the established paradigm, since they aim at replacing it by another paradigm. When they have to deal with practice (and not theory), these changes significantly depart from the conventional, generally accepted, way of doing things.

If we extend a bit further the use of a political analogy, we could say that the first kind of change is reformative, while the second is transformative. Reformative change is “change within the paradigm”. Transformative change is “change of the paradigm”. Transformative change is very close to, if not the same thing as, revolutionary change. It is also very close to, if not the same thing as, recreating or reinventing that which is the object of change.

The main indicator that helps us differentiate between the transformative and the reformative nature of a proposed change is the degree of innovation that it represents in relation to what presently is thought or done. Innovation has to do with what is new. Its degree can be measured by comparing what is new in thought or practice with present thought or practice. The greater the degree of innovation, the greater the departure from present thought or practice and so the greater the breadth, depth, all-inclusiveness, and radicality of the change.

The following figure, taken from a small book by David Hargreaves called Education Epidemic, available for free on the Internet, helps understand what is being said here.

Change and innovation

3. The School: Reformation or Transformation?

The graphic shows that the two kinds of change mentioned can lead to:

  • Institutional or organizational reformation: when the change takes place within existing structures and maintains the present paradigm;
  • Institutional or organizational transformation: when the change goes beyond existing structures and replaces the present paradigm (to transform is to go beyond [trans] present form, to transcend existing structure, to replace the paradigm).

Something else that is important is the following. If, in a process of change, we concede too much to existing thought and practice, innovation will be the first victim: there will be little that is new and the end result will not be very different from where we started.

Three quotes, coming from widely different sources, corroborate this assertion:

“The only way to drastically change the world is to imagine it different from the way it is today.  Apply too much of the wisdom and knowledge that got us here, and you end up right where you started. If you want to get different results, take a fresh look from a new perspective” (Jay Allard, former Microsoft Vice-President – quote slightly altered for emphasis; bold and underlining added).

“If you keep doing pretty much what you’ve always done, you’ll keep on getting pretty much what you’ve always got” (Jack Canfield, well-known author – quote slightly altered for emphasis).

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” (attributed to many people, including Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein).

As already mentioned, the last sixty years brought about change in the world that was broad, profound, systemic (holistic), radical, often abrupt, and frequently unexpected. This change led to significant departures from existing thought and practice in almost every area of life – enough to cause many important authors to speak of a new Renaissance, a new era, a new civilization. It is difficult to imagine that this sort of change would leave an important institution of society, such as the school, unaffected.

And yet, as mentioned in the previous section, the school was, and continues to be, a notable exception among the institutions that the twentieth century inherited from the previous centuries. While it is undeniable that there have been small changes and innovations within the school in the past two hundred and fifty years or so, they are mostly superficial or cosmetical, and very often affect only one single dimension of the institution: either the curriculum, or the methodology, or the form of assessment, or the kind of technology used, or the other resources employed, or the style of management, or the relation with the world of work, or the relation with the surrounding community, etc. The institution itself has not been significantly changed. It certainly has not been transformed: the school is still basically the same institution created around two centuries and a half ago at the beginning of the Industrial Civilization.

There seems to be little doubt that the school will become an obsolete institution (assuming it is not there yet) and eventually die if we allow it to rest content with a lesser sort of change that keeps too close to existing thought and practice. But that is what will happen if we limit the degree of innovation that affects it.

So, when we speak of innovation, it is this second kind of change – transformative, revolutionary change – that we must have in mind: it is the reinvention of the school that we must pursue. This is the only attitude compatible with the paradigm proposed in the previous article. And yet this will not take place quickly: it will require persistence and patience.

To create itself anew, and before it can renew its practice, the school must rethink its theoretical framework, that is, its pedagogical vision, which includes its view of education and learning and its understanding of its own role in the learning of the students.

4. The School of the Industrial Civilization

The school that we know was created in the Industrial Civilization according to the model that prevailed in the factory. These are the main elements of this model:

  • First, you define the core function of the factory: in the case of the school, the delivery to the new generations of the cultural legacy of the past;
  • Second, you define and organize the processes: in the case of the school, you organize the legacy in compartments (disciplines) and divide it up in dosages adequate to the imagined capacity of those to whom it is going to be delivered (grades);
  • Third, you define a methodology, namely, the way in which this legacy ought to be delivered to the students: disciplinary teaching to groups of no more than forty students for several periods of no more than fifty minutes with small intervals (five to ten minutes) between them;
  • Fourth, you define the professionals you need to deliver the legacy through teaching: specialists in the content of the disciplines (which, if too complex, may require a specialist for the earlier years and another for the more advanced years);
  • Fifth, you define methods of quality control: regular assessments in the form of quizzes, tests, examinations that guarantee that everyone, in a given age group, knows basically the same about any given discipline;
  • Sixth, you define other norms that guarantee that the students attentively receive the delivery in orderly and disciplined regiments, that they do not talk or consult with each other especially during assessments, and that make it difficult, if not impossible, for any student to claim or receive individualized attention or personalized treatment.
  • Seventh, you define what should be the standard profile of the student as he finishes his schooling and final examinations that should guarantee that all graduating students conform to this profile

5. The School in the Learning Society

In the present stage we do not as yet have a Learning Society: a society in which all institutions have an educational focus and contribute to the learning of those that participate in them.

But we must create a new school that performs a transitional role in helping create the Learning Society and in preparing us to actively, interactively and collaboratively learn in it.

In the next article its contours will be discussed.

São Paulo, on the 12th of October, 2012, revised in São Paulo, on the 22nd of August, 2017

(*) I thank Microsoft’s Brazilian subsidiary for the authorization to use in this article material that I wrote at her request five years ago.


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