Clutching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory
Cutting AISI Funds undermines innovation

June 22, 2011 Dennis Shirley

The accelerated pace of change, the rapidity of technological revolutions and the mobility of populations make our new century a time of breathtaking promise and infinite potential.

Instantaneous information is just a few short clicks away through the Internet, and friends and family can stay in daily contact and communication free of charge with Skype. Democratic revolutions around the globe raise the promise of new lives of civic engagement and government transparency for millions who have lived under the oppression of autocracy and surveillance. Boldness of leadership, courage of heart and a spirit of innovation have platforms for change and improvement like never before.

Wise and visionary educators and the publics who support them around the world know that now is the time to act and to have the perseverance and steadfastness to lead. They know from studying high-achieving jurisdictions like Finland that when economies struggle is the right time to increase investments in education so that young people will have the skills to thrive in an increasingly dynamic and unstable global economy. Educators know that environmental challenges must be met with technological skill, political strategy and civic engagement. They know that with so much change agitating cultures and economies on so many levels, now, more than ever before, the imperative for lifelong learning and self-questioning is paramount.

Yet how should we improve our schools so that they meet this leadership challenge in a way that is not episodic but embedded, and with learning that is not mechanistic but inspired? Top-down mandates from ministries of education provide some structure and coherence to schools, but such directives can disempower the very teachers who most need the freedom to experiment with and assess the learning of their students on a daily basis. In many settings, political leaders seize on public uncertainty about schools and use new testing regimes to drive through reforms with little sensitivity to their ramifications for the daily lives of children in schools.

How do we counterbalance government reforms that profess to improve learning but unwittingly contribute to the deprofessionalization of educators? Over the past decade, Alberta has become a global change leader through the stellar achievements of the Alberta Initiative for School Innovation (AISI). AISI has done what few other reforms have accomplished in any jurisdiction: it has promoted a model of teacher inquiry and leadership that is exquisitely attuned to the real needs of teachers working with students in schools. Go into Alberta’s schools today that have made the most of their work with AISI and you’ll find examples of assessment not for accountability purposes but for learning. Observe professional learning communities in those districts that have most absorbed the spirit of AISI and you won’t find teachers who are data-driven to distraction. You will find, however, educators who combine data with what they know of students from their daily interactions with them because they are mindful about what data can and can’t tell us. Visit one of Alberta’s remote rural communities and see how teachers and students use new technologies acquired through AISI funding not as high-priced flash cards to assist with memorization but rather to probe deeply and tenaciously into the most challenging issues that face the future of Alberta.

As a member of an international research team that conducted a multiple perspectives review of AISI in 2009, I learned that not all AISI projects were able to thrive. In some districts, superintendents seized control of the initiatives and distorted the potential of AISI by using resources for routine managerial purposes. But such distortions were a minority and AISI adjusted its policies skilfully to correct such misuse. AISI, in its new Cycle 4, now insists that project creators must devise strategies for how they will exchange their learning with one another. The peer factor of inquiry into improved learning for student bears more promise than the fear factor of external accountability and control.

The recent political decision of the Alberta government to reduce AISI funding in light of budget shortfalls reflects a failure to provide courageous leadership in a time of rapid change. With AISI, Alberta has modelled an exemplary network of learning across schools and jurisdictions that has attracted the attention of educators and policy makers worldwide. Now is not the time to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Now is the time to restore AISI funding fully. Now is the time to continue the province’s inspirational educational achievements. Those of us living and working in other settings need Alberta’s global leadership. We keep returning to Alberta because there is so much to learn here. Restoring funding to AISI will ensure that Alberta continues its promising path to even better, more humanistic and more inclusive schools in the future.


Dr. Dennis Shirley is professor of education, Lynch School of Education, Boston College. Along with Elizabeth MacDonald, he is the author of The Mindful Teacher. Shirley also coauthored with Andy Hargreaves The Fourth Way: The Inspiring Future for Educational Change.

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