Transforming our future together

June 4, 2012
Andy Hargreaves

Conditions of professional practice in rocky view schools

The following, by Andy Hargreaves, is the foreword from Transforming our Future Together—The Conditions of Professional Practice in Rocky View Schools, A Research Study, published in 2011 by the Alberta Teachers’ Association. The study of Rocky View Local No. 35 teachers’ conditions of professional practice was conducted in the spring of 2011.

We live in a world characterized by accelerated integration. There is not much left that is linear. The page has already ceded place to the screen. We open Windows instead of binders. We talk and we text. We no longer have to trudge to the bank or to the bookstore; we readily access their services and products online. Our bills also stalk us into the evenings. The desires and demands of our work lives are now our followers. Technology releases us and also invades us. We are both more flexible and more vulnerable.

Work and life, point and click, vocations and vacations—everything blends and bleeds into everything else. In 1967, iconic Canadian educator, philosopher and scholar Marshall McLuhan published a book entitled The Medium Is the Massage. The contents of this book were arranged in no clear order: images such as toenails and car mirrors—both profound and banal—were juxtaposed randomly. Far ahead of his time, McLuhan grasped how nonlinear digital learning and entertainment can enable images of human tragedy and of family pets to appear on a laptop screen at one and the same time. Profundity and banality exist side by side. The jackal lies down with the lamb.

These developments affect almost everyone. Watch the pedestrian who is texting and also listening to his iPod. Observe how work-related messages are still flying through the digital ether far into the night. Notice how long, challenging books are being replaced by shorter blogs and how books are looking more like blogs with each passing day. Yet who craves toiling with the toxic fluids of the Gestetner, which turned out thousands of worksheets a week, when one can now just click print or send and perform the same function much more cleanly and efficiently? And who has not experienced such joyous moments as receiving a text from one’s son to the effect that he has just ascended Mount Fuji at sunrise or videochatting with one’s daughter moments after she has survived a natural catastrophe? Skype connects us to people we love who used to be separated by hours and miles. Yet such easily available gossip and trivia diverts us from engaging more deeply in learning and life.

Digital technology, like steam technology, can be a force for good or for ill. For the good, think of students in Singapore who use Second Life simulation to walk around inside the aboriginal paintings they share with an Australian school in a remote community or shy students who use their cellphones to tweet instant responses to their teacher about their understanding of what she is communicating. For the ill, look at educators who surf the Internet in the middle of a professional development workshop or students who spend more time in front of computer screens than they do with their friends and family.

Digital technology is an integral and integrated part of students’ lives, a fact that we cannot ignore. Digital technology has also transformed the lives of adults, a fact that we can’t deny. Technology is not neutral—all tools are designed to change our behaviour, to enable us to do something that we could not do before. Digital tools are no different. They nudge us toward places we would otherwise be unlikely to go. We need to make sure that, as adults and as citizens, we have a collectively intelligent relationship with these tools. Those who prepare the generations of the future need to cultivate the most intelligent relationship of all.

Cultivating an intelligent relationship with technology does not always happen. In my own current research in Ontario, I am seeing assistive technologies provide enormous benefits to students with special educational needs. Yet I have also witnessed how some of these students abandon the very technologies that can help them when they are obliged to return to regular classrooms that have not integrated these technologies into teaching and learning. In such circumstances, students with special needs become stigmatized. I am also familiar with school districts that have introduced mandatory courses of online learning when there is no evidence that such courses benefit the majority of students who are required to take them. In developing a culture that makes us more technologically enhanced, we must ensure that we do not perpetrate a cult in which we simply become entranced by technology.

In The Wrong Drivers, Michael Fullan (2011) identifies technology as one of four wrong drivers of attempted change in instruction. Fullan applies this label because technology is often used to drive pedagogy, even when there is no evidence that it has a positive impact. Pedagogy should be driving technology, not the other way around. Our attitude to technology needs to be characterized by openness, inquiry and a sense of curiosity and balance about what we might be gaining and what we might be losing. Billions of dollars are being invested globally to infuse digital technologies into our schools. At the same time, no countervailing investment exists to encourage young people to engage with the outdoors and nature, to interact mindfully and thoughtfully with their peers, or to develop such values as compassion or humility. And this is why teachers and their leaders, in whom the Canadian public places such very high trust, just behind firefighters and the medical profession, need to put forward a collectively intelligent response that will sometimes require a necessary push in the other direction.

I have long encouraged schools to become dynamic, innovative, inclusive and cohesive knowledge societies (Hargreaves 2003). Technology is a significant part in such a society. In this increasingly diverse and integrated world, we need to figure out how technology can make us more innovative while helping us become more inclusive.

Alberta’s Inspiring Education (Alberta Education 2010a) and its sequel Inspiring Action (Alberta Education 2010b) present important and admirable new directions that are far ahead of many other educational systems. At the same time, they raise questions about how well schools and school systems can bring these inspirational ideas to the forefront in ways that benefit students and their teachers. Rocky View Schools is making important progress in helping to address and answer these questions. In this district’s efforts, as in all efforts to transform teaching and learning, teachers remain central to the success or failure of educational change. So an evaluation by teachers of teachers’ practices and the conditions that support their development and transformation is a welcome contribution of the profession to this and all other efforts at systemic educational change. Teachers are often the last to be consulted when changes to education are being contemplated. As this study suggests, this kind of work ought to place them at the forefront of educational change, where they should be.

The study also suggests that, in general, Rocky View Schools is a well-regarded district and a good place for teachers to work. It also shows that teachers in the district are, in general, quite open to technological change. At the same time, the study reminds us that systemic efforts to effect educational change by increasing the integration of technology are haunted by such perennial problems as a lack of time and support, increased workloads and a disruption of the work–life balance. To say that these problems are familiar is not to trivialize them. Indeed, these problems are a consistent and persistent part of what Seymour Sarason (1993) once called “the predictable failure of educational reform.” Findings that are disturbing for teachers’ practice can be equally disturbing for school districts. In both case, the findings can also be a spur to undertaking productive changes.

One other upshot of this much-needed report is relatively new: the importance of finding a balance between improvement and innovation. Professional development intended to bring about improvement is often directed toward delivering district priorities. Professional learning oriented toward innovation tends to be more self-directed, not so much in terms of individual autonomy as in terms of collective professional autonomy and responsibility. To want more self-directed professional development is not to want to return teaching to what it was in the 1970s. Self-directed professional development is essential for bringing about successful innovation. Innovation in new knowledge of the kind promoted by Inspiring Education will not be achieved using a professional development model that is overly skewed toward implementing existing knowledge. Therefore, rethinking the balance between different kinds of professional development is important not only for teacher satisfaction but also for the likely success of any attempt at innovation.

Among the world’s teachers unions, federations and associations, the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) is, in my experience, one of the most transparently intelligent and collectively responsible. It rightly patrols the teaching conditions of its members even as it works with other educational leaders in the province to bring about changes in education, including technological ones that genuinely improve the teaching and learning conditions of all students and their teachers. In doing so, it resolutely refuses to capitulate to outside interests or passing fashions.

My colleague Michael Fullan once said that, if there are two of us in the room and we agree on everything, one of us is irrelevant. At the close of a book that Michael and I just co-wrote—a book in which we agree on many things but disagree on others—we reflect on what we learned in the process of writing the book. More important than learning to agree, we concluded, was agreeing to learn. That is the spirit in which this study was produced and in which, hopefully, all its readers will receive it. Education in Alberta certainly inspires and informs me every time I come to the province. This report is one example of how Albertans can and do inspire and inform one another.

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Andy Hargreaves is the Thomas More Brennan Chair in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. The mission of the chair is to promote social justice and connect theory and practice in education. Before moving to Boston, he taught primary school and lectured in several English universities, including Oxford. He was co-founder and director of the International Centre for Educational Change at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto.