1. Introduction
  2. From Vision to Action
  3. The Vision: Towards Authentic and Meaningful Learning
  4. The Barriers: Towards Authentic and Meaningful Learning
  5. The Vision: A More Responsive and Personalized System
  6. The Barriers: A More Responsive and Personalized System
  7. Seeing Beneath The Barriers – Assuming New Mindsets
  8. The Road Ahead – The Journey Forward

What's Standing in the Way of Change in Education?

Reflections from the Canadian Education Association’s Calgary Workshop

What's Standing in the Way of Change in Education?
Reflections from the Canadian Education Association’s Calgary Workshop

On October 21st, 2013, over 300 delegates from across Canada accepted the invitation of the Canadian Education Association to gather around the question, What’s Standing in the Way of Change in Education? The two-day event was unique on a number of different levels. First, it drew participants from across all sectors of the education landscape: teachers, students, administrators, parents, aboriginal leaders, teacher association and ministry of education representatives, not-for-profit leaders, policymakers, faculty of education deans, and university researchers. Beyond the broad representation present in Calgary, however, was the fact that the event was specifically designed to directly engage an array of diverse voices not often present in the same room, let alone around the same table. In fact, a good deal of the expertise that drove the event clearly came from this sense of diversity in both role and perspective.

This two-day workshop was organized around three main points of reflection and dialogue. By way of introduction, and to help set a context, each participant was given an opportunity to write a personal vision for the schools that they wish to see. Using the prompt, In the School of My Dreams…, conference delegates used their vision statements to both introduce themselves to table group members, and to ground the conversations that were to follow.

Participants were then asked to identify those things that stood in the way of their visions becoming a reality. Recording each of their barriers on separate Post-It® notes, table groups were given the challenge of organizing their collective thinking into more general groupings of barriers and, when satisfied, assign a name to each of the clusters.

On the second day, delegates spent time examining the assumptions we have about teaching, learning and schooling – both conscious and unconscious – that held those identified barriers in place. In their final conversations, delegates returned to envisioning what our school systems could look like if some of our outdated assumptions were replaced with more current understandings, enabling us to move further towards the change that we wanted to see and experience. 

The intent of the workshop, therefore, was to create a type of conversation cycle, beginning with the positive visions that participants had for our schools, moving through the challenges of identifying what, specifically, prevents those visions from coming to fruition and, most importantly, an understanding of the underlying assumptions that anchor those barriers.

In the end, the goal was to instill a sense of hope that, change was, in fact, a real possibility, that the system was not set in stone, that it had been purposely constructed and that, by unpacking the deeply-engrained assumptions we have about learning, teaching and school, we can better understand how to change the system so that it better reflects the vision we have for our students.

We realize, however, that the change expressed in the visions of the hundreds of participants gathered in Calgary will require much more than sticky note schemes, chart paper reflections and pen and paper vision statements, regardless of how accurate and compelling they may be. After all, many of the desired changes that emerged out of the Calgary workshops are, for the most part, not all that new. Many, in fact, would resonate quite loudly in the history of education reform movements in this country and beyond.

That said, the very things that made the Calgary event unique are the things that give the CEA reason to be extremely hopeful. The sheer number of people drawn to the question is reason for optimism. The passion and enthusiasm that energized the individual table group conversations were invigorating. CEA designed a process to encourage diverse stakeholders to work collaboratively on these questions; bringing their unique perspectives and contexts so that understanding and trust could be built. CEA was pleased with the willingness of varied stakeholders to hold open a space for respectful, honest dialogue, despite the large variety of perspectives and we feel that this bodes well for the future of education in Canada.

The Calgary event provided a great deal of data for the CEA to collect, analyze and bring forward to the Canadian public. Close to 225 individual vision statements were gathered, along with the sticky notes and chart paper records from 40 table groups. All of this information – every word of it – has been recorded, organized and coded in order to be able to accurately and faithfully represent the voices of all participants. 

This report is designed to follow two major threads gleaned from these vision statements gathered in Calgary, reflect some of the conversations about barriers to change, and finally connect these barriers with some of the main ideas emerging from delegate conversations about assumptions and new possibilities.

While many conference reports are often written as ends in themselves, quickly finding a home on office bookshelves, it is the hope of the CEA that the work undertaken at the Calgary event engages readers as a type of starting point – a way of animating energetic and meaningful dialogue in staff rooms, board rooms, offices, libraries and in homes right across Canada. Indeed, some educators have already used their experience in Calgary to begin similar conversations back in their own school communities. In the months to come, the CEA will be refining the workshop process and embarking on a series of regional workshops designed to draw even more Canadians into the important challenges associated with change in education. It is our goal that through this work CEA will learn more about the barriers and assumptions that stand in the way of change in education so we can better understand the role we can play to facilitate the scaling-up of effective learning environments throughout Canada’s public education systems.

From Vision to Action

There is something uplifting and energizing about the act of committing to paper one’s dream for the future. Whether a vision for personal health and well-being or a larger scale dream designed to inspire a new future for an organization, starting with the highest aspirations we have for the work that we do reminds us of our values, our commitments and what is possible. For the 325 delegates who gathered in Calgary to explore the question, What’s Standing in the Way of Change in Education?, the invitation to reflect on their vision for Canadian schools was a way of setting both a rich context and sense of direction for the conversations that were about to take place. 

“To the person who does not know where he wants to go there is no favorable wind.”

—Chief Seneca

The vision statements written by delegates were as energetic and hopeful, as they were bold and uncompromising. They demonstrated a strong commitment to issues of equity and support; they imagined systems that are flexible and responsive, engaging and intentionally collaborative. The schools of their dreams are welcoming, collaborative environments, respectful of the many layers of diversity that now defines the Canadian social fabric. They are places where a strong sense of community participation and contribution adds to the rich set of resources that can bring learning to life. 

There were two main threads – more authentic and meaningful learning experiences and the capacity to build more responsive learning environments – that ran through a large number of the Calgary visions and seemed to provide a major piece of the context for the two days of conversations. The remainder of this report follows these two threads from a place of possibility, through the barriers that stand in the way of them becoming a reality, to the actions that might help overcome those barriers.

The Vision: Towards Authentic and Meaningful Learning

A large number of participants expressed a strong desire to pursue learning experiences that were much more steeped in the world beyond the walls of the school. Not only did this vision lean towards designing a more inquiry- and project-based approach to instructional design, but it also called for seeing the world-beyond-school as a rich source of both context and content.

There was a definite desire to better recognize the vast store of resources that existed in the local community, in the form of expertise, knowledge and opportunity for authentic application of learning. Participants saw a great opportunity to enhance the learning experience for both students and educators by, on the one hand, drawing these resources into the work of the school and, on the other, expanding the boundaries of that work to include more opportunities to move out into the community, both physically and through the use of information and communication technologies.

Schools that felt more like real life were, in many participants’ minds, a clear path to enhanced engagement on several different levels. In addition to the deeper intellectual engagement that would result from students clearly seeing the value and purpose in the learning opportunities presented, a stronger connection between the inside and outside worlds of school could foster a greater sense of efficacy in terms of citizenship and active participation in the community and beyond. Finally, by providing opportunities for new sources of knowledge, expertise and wisdom to become an integral part of the learning experience, a new dimension of community engagement is nurtured.

The Barriers: Towards Authentic and Meaningful Learning

As strong as the vision is for learning experiences grounded in more relevant and meaningful content and context, delegates recognized that there are some obvious barriers that offer equally strong resistance. Some of these barriers are endemic to schools as complex institutions, while others were identified as being part of the wider social context in which our education systems are rooted. Still others were identified as mindsets supported by years – indeed generations – of tradition. 

One of the most prominent things standing in the way of movement towards more authentic learning experiences actually cuts across all three of these dimensions.

A significant number of participants pointed to the way that curriculum is currently imagined, designed and managed as a major barrier to change. Largely discipline-based, grade-defined, compartmentalized and time-bound, the traditional approaches to curriculum implementation that form the life-blood of most Canadian schools stand in the way of the type of changes proposed by Calgary delegates. It was recognized that these observations about curriculum also had a strong effect on so many other aspects of the school experience including physical design, school timetables and assessment priorities.

There is a strong recognition that the rich, inquiry-based experiences that they dreamed about require a more interdisciplinary, integrated approach to curriculum design. Before expanding the walls of the school to allow greater access to outside contexts, the walls of many classrooms are in need of some renovation aimed at dissolving some of the divisions that have become part how schools are conceived. The arbitrary lines that separate students and subjects, and carve up available time into small parcels are what prevent many of these experiences from taking root in any sustainable way.

Many delegates pointed to the traditional mindsets around curriculum design and organization that continue to course through the veins of Canadian schools, with highly-anticipated and publicly-scrutinized accountability measures doing more to further ossify the very structures that are most in need of change.

At the societal level, narrow views of success were seen as a real barrier to the type of change imagined by participants. An emphasis on grades, assessments and credentials that tend to resist exploration of a much broader conception of what it means to be a successful student, community member and global citizen strongly influence the type of work that becomes part of the school experience.

The Vision: A More Responsive and Personalized System

Success for All has become a type of mantra for most every jurisdiction in Canada. Enshrined in policy documents, the public mission statements of many school districts and one of the major pillars of virtually all school improvement plans, the ideal is that powerful learning opportunities are the right of every student, regardless of cultural background, family dynamics, socio-economic standing or learning ability.

It was also a thread that weaved its way through a significant number of the vision statements collected in Calgary. Implicit in most of these visions, however, was the realization that, while we publicly declare a commitment to full equity, our schools have a long way to go before that ideal becomes a reality.

One of the most prominent ideas expressed in participant visions was the dream of a school system that allowed educators to be more responsive to the individual needs of students in their care. They dreamed of a more personalized approach to teaching and learning – one that allowed educators to work with students from where they were and move them along a learning continuum.

It would be a system that found ways of identifying and leveraging student strengths to address areas of weakness. It would be a system that trusted educators as professionals, allowing them the flexibility to respond in the way that utilized their own strengths, expertise, and knowledge of their students. At the same time, strong supports and resources to help educators address the many levels of diversity would be part of the fabric of professionalism within the school. 

Participants imagined schools that afforded educators and students opportunities to engage creatively and innovatively with each other, with the curriculum and with the world around them. Flexibility in terms of content, context, instructional design and assessment were important elements of their visions. Offering students multiple ways into the learning experience, as well as multiple ways to express their understanding of what they have learned would be part of a more personalized school system.

Student voice and acknowledging student interests were a vital part of these visions, not only as a way of deepening engagement, but as a way of creating a system where the learner is truly and authentically the central focus of the work of schools.

The Barriers: A More Responsive and Personalized System

Many of the same barriers that stood in the way of creating richer, more meaningful contexts for learning were also cited as hindering true progress towards more student-focused learning opportunities and experiences. 

Again, overly prescriptive curricula throughout many Canadian jurisdictions prohibit educators from responding to learner interests, passions and strengths in powerful ways. Lockstep progress through topics that are handed down through a design process managed well beyond the classroom walls was identified as a reality that, in many ways, discouraged creativity, stood in the way of professional autonomy and quieted, if not silenced, the sense of student voice that many were attempting to nurture.

If all students are not the same, how can we stand within a structure that doesn’t allow them to move around and learn freely?

—Calgary delegate

This sense of constraint was also expressed in conversations about other familiar structures of school. Again, the organization of time and physical space, age/grade-based cohorts and provincial grade level assessments challenged the desire to accept students where they are and move them along a learning path that resonated with their needs, skills, interests and individual learning pace. Many felt, however, that the ability to do this in any real way was seriously undermined by a system that has become too heavy with content, too pressurized by time-consuming assessment and evaluation protocols and too overwhelming under the weight of conflicting expectations around what schools should be able to accomplish. 

Many of the traditions that hold both teacher practice and public expectations for schools in place can be traced back to a time when the same commitments to equity were not as firmly enshrined in policy as they are today. Calgary delegates voiced frustration about their attempts to transform a system – designed for the mass delivery of instruction that no longer resonated with a present-day commitment to equity – to meet the diverse needs of all students.

Seeing Beneath The Barriers – Assuming New Mindsets

There is no doubt that identifying the barriers that stand in the way of achieving the types of schools that we want is important work. Participants in the Calgary workshops were able to generate a list of over 1,000 things that stood in the way of the vision that they had for education. The tendency, however, was to focus on these barriers, seeing them as problems to be solved as opposed to systems and practices that are rooted in very deep assumptions about such things as teaching and learning, about school organization, about what it means to be successful, about where real learning can and should take place and about the place of the school in the larger community. 

The CEA believes that the deep, meaningful change that so many expressed as part of their vision statements is going to come by spending time and energy honestly exploring these assumptions and courageously challenging those that are no longer valid – those that, in fact, hold our systems in place. We realize that, moving forward, more support and guidance needs to be built into our facilitation process so that participants are better assisted in digging even deeper into what assumptions are supporting the barriers they identify and determining whether those assumptions reflect outdated understanding of learning, teaching and schooling.

That said, in following our two main threads of meaningful learning opportunities and more responsive learning environments, participants were able to uncover some important assumptions, connecting these with several practical action steps.

A traditional mindset around what school looks and feels like was identified by many as a barrier that had a profound influence on so many dimensions of education in Canada. The assumption that our current model of education has worked well in the past and, therefore, should continue to allow us to meet our needs was identified by many as a strong anchor. A sense of frustration was also expressed towards an apparent unwillingness to change. Other participants pointed to a lack of understanding about the need for change, while some suggested that there was an attitude of fear towards change within and outside the school community. 

A call for stronger and more robust communication emerged as a way of moving to challenge an entrenched this-is-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it frame. One recommendation was to launch a series of public advocacy campaigns designed to stir up a sense of urgency for change, accompanied by a set of robust communication structures designed to draw members of the wider public into authentic conversation with policy-makers, educators, students and parents. The sense that lack of understanding and resistance to change could be mitigated by finding ways to establish ongoing, authentic communication among all stakeholders, was suggested by several groups of delegates.

A call for new levels of trust among members of the profession, administrators, government and the community was also heard quite clearly. For many, this could be nurtured through stronger supports for intentional collaboration related to the desired changes. Conversations about authentic learning, current forms of assessment and broader questions about how we wish to define success could be brought to the table within these collaborative relationships.

The tension between standardization and personalization also allowed participants to dig deeper into underlying assumptions. The need for standardized curriculum, standardized assessments and standardized design models for the structural dimensions of school were called into question in light of the strong desire to create systems that responded to the needs of learners. That is not to suggest that less care be taken with instructional design, methods of monitoring student progress and designing effective learning environments; it was recognized, however, that current approaches need to reflect the values and visions that we have for a system that is both responsive and responsible.

Finally, another major theme that emerged as participants looked beyond their identified barriers had to do with challenging the assumption that schools were, primarily, places of individual academic growth and that the key indicator of success was the attainment of a graduation diploma. Instead, the understanding that schools are complex communities where strong relationships, health and wellness and attention to the whole person are essential calls for a different type of mindset. Many participants saw the potential for drawing a multitude of social services into the schoolhouse in an effort to effectively and proactively address the needs of the learner in a more integrated, holistic way. Others saw an opportunity to use this thread of the conversation as an opportunity to re-evaluate our collective values around the definition of success, failure and the importance of collaborative relationships.

The Road Ahead – The Journey Forward

Just as it would be unhelpful to dwell in the dream phase of any change initiative, it is equally limiting to spend all of our time focusing on barriers. Instead, an ongoing cycle that allows our imaginations to bump up against current realities will allow us to better define, refine and begin to act on that to which we aspire.

Some of us began the day a little intimidated by the variety of voices around the table but, by the end of the day, we felt that our voice was just as important.

—Calgary delegate

The gathering in Calgary was a way of modeling what that cycle could look like. Through a process of facilitated dialogue involving a wide representation of stakeholders, participants had the opportunity to give voice to their visions and imagination and ponder what might be standing in the way of those visions being realized. Many valuable alternatives and proposed action steps emerged in response to the guiding question, “What’s Standing in the Way of Change?” but the CEA recognizes that our education systems remain deeply rooted in strong assumptions that hold things firmly in place. In moving forward, the processes that guide our conversations need to do a better job of more explicitly shining a light on these assumptions – many of which are hidden by years of tradition and growth.

That said, many of the elements emerging from the Calgary event will ring true for a good number of people already immersed in conversations about change and transformation. This type of resonance is an important step to building a sense of energy and national momentum around what actually needs changing.

The CEA believes, however, that this energy can best be mobilized by continuing to provide opportunities for this type of conversation and action planning at more local levels. Understanding context is so important in developing strategies for change. In fact, the opportunity for more local, grassroots-inspired design was something that has been voiced by many, not only in Calgary, but in the context of other work in which CEA is involved.

A series of events, based on the Calgary model, is being planned for regions right across Canada. In addition to drawing more voices into this important work, these regional gatherings will help the CEA develop a strong sense of national purpose and vision around change in education.

All Canadians have a stake in the success of our public education systems and, through our work in Calgary, the CEA has learned that there is great value in having stakeholder groups engaging with each other in the same space. By actively supporting this vision of collaborative change, and by intentionally nurturing connections among the various conversations that will be happening across Canada, we believe that more profound and grounded change will begin to emerge.

About Stephen Hurley

After serving in Ontario’s public school system for over 30 years, Stephen Hurley continues to work to open up spaces for vibrant conversations about change in education across Canada. A writer, podcaster and father of two, he believes that our current way of "doing school" is in need of some bold new ideas that will breathe more fire into the learning lives of young people, educators and the communities in which they work.