Inertia to educational change

A recent paper on the issue.

Jón Torfi Jónasson. (2016). Educational change, inertia and potential futures. Why is it difficult to change the content of education? European Journal of Futures Research,  4: 7  doi:10.1007/s40309-016-0087-z JTJ Published version

Seminar for the CRADLE group Helsinki University, Thursday, February 18th: 2016 abstract

Inertia in education

the problem of changing its content

My analysis of change in education is at two levels. At the first level to distinguish between at least three categories of changes, macro changes (system level changes, running of schools, choice, testing regimes, etc.), micro changes (learning environments, didactics or methods, etc.) and substantive changes (aims and content of curriculum, - of education). At the second level of analysis – with focus on substantive change – I suggest there are three major issues to explore: First how does the issue become a focus or object of discussion and by whom is it lead and on what grounds? Second, by what mechanism(s) can changes be encouraged or implemented? Third, what are the inertial forces at play which may dampen, or restrain or stifle changes in this arena? I argue that these forces are neither sufficiently understood, respected nor attended to. I claim that there are many reasons why this topic of the substance of education seems to be largely ignored in the mainstream reform discourses. I argue that this is a problem because this substantive category is perhaps the most important one of the three mentioned above and that it really needs to develop for the sake of our students and societies. Having explored this issue for quite a while, under the heading education and the future,  I am concerned and surprised how little attention it receives.
In my presentation I will suggest and briefly discuss more than ten different categories of forces or factors that, in concert, but to a varying degree have a restraining or repressive effect on this subject matter. If the advocates of change don’t attend to these, little change will take place within this arena. The different categories I will bring up are presented under the following headings: General conservatism, the system, standards, what is happening elsewhere? new ideas are fuzzy, the old ideas are still good? vested interests, teacher education, no consequence, lack of information, research is conservative, lack of space for initiative, the logistics of change within education. I am also looking for theoretical framework(s) within which to place my argument.

The impediments to change within education

Why is it so difficult to develop the important ingredients of our education? There are ample reasons to move ahead with the content of a new curriculum, while preserving what is valuable, in order to ensure powerful knowledge and education for everybody for the decades to come. But if we want to change, we have to negotiate an incredibly difficult labyrinth, filled with hurdles of all sizes; these have to be seen (understood) and crossed, one after the other. I have enumerated at least ten categories of these, that I describe and discuss how we can tackle. But note I am not arguing that all change is for the better and we must combine creative and visionary thought with critical insight and wisdom while moving ahead.

The detailed approach here takes as a point of departure that there are very powerful reasons for change, both in the form, but particularly in the content of education. These are demanded by a whole spectrum of massive changes in the modern environment. The paper will, however, focus on three aspects of the dynamics of change story.

A) The envisaged agents of changes, as seen by the change literature and the problems inherent in the two main storylines, i.e. the top-down and the field-driven ones.

B) What changes are we talking about? What are the categories or dimensions of change

C) The inertia(s) to change, as defined by the cultural, historical or institutional reasons but also various social, and even organizational issues or agents that impede or resist change; if these are not understood by those advocating change, much less will happen than the proponents anticipate. We will briefly but critically discuss (explain) the following categories of inertial issues (they are not all forces or active agents) and match them against the theoretical stances suggested above. The categories can be characterized by the following description.

  1. The conservative character of the general or public discourse and sentiment. Thus tradition, respect and good historical performance, may hold change at bay. The academic discourse on subjects may also be included here.
  2. The conservative nature of standards and accountability may be quite forceful. A high-stakes competitive environment may become very conservative and thus impede change of these standards.
  3. It can be justifiably argued that new ideas, e.g. new content, are not always for the better; the old ones were very good and thus one should be vary of change. Also some of the new ideas are often somewhat fuzzy.
  4. In a policy borrowing environment, it may be noted that no substantial change is taking place elsewhere. Why should one change if those that one respects are not moving discernibly?
  5. One should not react as if in a panic. Nothing bad happens, even if don’t change? But the problem is, that one is preparing the young for a somewhat distant future.
  6. The vested interests have a firm grip. It should be discussed openly how strong vested interests, supported by tradition and wide ranging nets of interests may hold new ideas at bay, even if those have a good case but a relatively weak group of proponents.
  7. One of the interesting problems is that very few agencies within the educational edifice have the overview and foresight necessary to argue for change. The necessary expertise may not exist.
  8. Educational research that is often heralded as among the prime agents of change, may under close inspection for various reasons turn out to be more conservative than anticipated.
  9. The field workers within the system of education, which are sometimes seen as crucial agents of change, may not have the knowledge or capacity to take the initiative.
  10. The logistic problem of changing a system, irrespective of whether it shall be done from the top or by a field based synergy (or both) is enormous.