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November 20, 2013


Another Brick in the Wall

by Peter Skillen

What’s standing in the way of change in education?

Originally posted on the Canadian Education Association website.

CC by Eager Eyes NC SA

CC by Eager Eyes NC SA

It is not a simple answer. Nor is it a simple question!

There are many ‘bricks in the wall’ that block systemic educational change. I do not have a short coherent response to this – especially since this is a blog post not a tome!  But I will briefly describe a few ‘bricks’ for your consideration and response.

IB ImageBrick #1 – Practise what you preach.

“We want students to be 21st century learners!”  This is a common call to action we hear from educational leaders and speakers these days.

I like it.

However, all administrators and leaders (never mind the teachers!) should be 21st century learners too!  If all educators aren’t there, it is unlikely that all students will get there. The sad part is that many of those advocating this idea are actually not practising it. They know the language – but have no visceral knowledge.

IB Image

CC by Dominic’s Pics

Educational leaders now have to deeply immerse themselves into the ‘participatory’ culture of the Web 2.0 world in order to legitimately understand and promote it. During this learning curve, they must also develop an authoritative stance on the pros and cons of the issues and concerns related to the ‘always on,’ ‘over-connected’, ‘superficial’ aspects of life in the Web 2.0 world.

“The culture of education outside the classroom must reflect what is desired inside it – or little educational (r)evolution will occur.

They should able to authoritatively discuss issues such as attention management, multitasking, intentional serendipity, co-construction of knowledge, technology supported knowledge construction, substantive collaboration, shared leadership, transmedia consumption and creation, and so forth.

It is important that leaders model their ‘learner’s stance’ for their administrator colleagues and for their teachers.

The culture of education outside the classroom is not inquiry-based. It is not self-directed. The culture of education outside the classroom must reflect what is desired inside it – or little educational (r)evolution will occur.

IB ImageBrick #2 – We perpetuate myths through one-line wisdoms.

Many educators are living on a diet of abstracts, one-line wisdoms from Twitter, and drive-by professional development. We hear things like:

  • “Kids don’t need to memorize anymore, they can just Google it”.
  • “Students should be in charge of their own learning.”
  • “Lectures are bad pedagogy.”
  • “It’s not about the technology, it’s about the learning.”
  • “Multitasking is a 21st century skill we must all learn.”

Brenda Sherry and I have had many discussions with education leaders about the danger of popularizing these simplistic, decontextualized one-line wisdoms. We understand the intention underlying these statements – but they may lead to malignant misinterpretation by those new to our profession.

The current nature of information science and media causes people to be reading snippets rather than long texts that may provide greater depth, context and nuance.

We suggest some questions to help people to unpack these statements with colleagues.

  • How and why do these statements arise and gain popularity?
  • What is the intention behind the statement? (we often believe that they are well-intentioned.)
  • What are the effects of such statements?
  • How could it be better said?
  • We wonder about the responsibilities of the more expert among us in light of the novices in the community who hear these.

I don’t think that these abstracted one-line wisdoms serve us well in the reconstruction of the education world. But, they will continue to be present and prolific so use them as a springboard to deep and meaningful conversations.

IB ImageBrick #3 – We need to educate – not subjugate.

A.S. Neill on his birthday via Wikipedia

A.S. Neill on his birthday via Wikipedia

What do we mean when we say that we want ‘students to be in charge of their own learning’? I think we have a very limited view of what we mean when we use this phrase.[1]

Do you really think that we want students to be ‘in charge of their own learning’? Maybe to some degree.

Maybe we mean some control – as in Universal Design for Learning —> but not as much agency as ‘Summerhill’![2]

“It’s about power.

Clearly, it is about ‘power’ – power over choices, who has the power, how the power is shared, individual power vs the collective needs.

We often feel that we are empowering students:

  • if we are engaging them in their areas of interest
  • if we are giving them choices about all that is mentioned in the differentiated instruction literature – choice over process of knowledge acquisition (construction), content, and product
  • if we are engaging them in the assessment/evaluation process (e.g., collaborative rubric creation).
  • if we engage them in their ‘preferred learning style’ – although this often is a simplistically applied construct.

I don’t dismiss these notions. In fact, I am generally in agreement with them. But, it’s not sufficient.

“What we often do is still rather contrived – often by the structures of the institution.

We need an holistic approach. 

School is only a narrow slice of their life.

The kids are whole when they arrive at our doorsteps – and come with a full life replete with desires, passions, problems, issues, excitement (not necessarily about school) and confusions.

“We need to deal with the whole child.

We need to encourage and support more student agency over other these aspects of their lives – attendance, tardiness, homework, schoolwork, use of their own mobile devices, etc. I am not suggesting a free-for-all, but I am suggesting that we need to respect the ‘whole’ person and the choices and decisions they make. It is harder than imposing compliance and invoking punitive measures of control – but, I believe that it is the right thing to do.

There is not enough space here to go into depth with this discussion, but I would invite you to explore Prochaska’s Theoretical Stages of Change, Harm Reduction, Asset vs Deficit and Appreciative Inquiry as models to use in developing a more democratic classroom or school. The first two models arise out of ‘addictions’ research but I have successfully used the principles with students in secondary school. It’s not easy and required a lot of re-wiring of my habits!

As for teachers…

If we want students ‘in charge of their own learning’ then we should also embrace a culture where teachers are empowered to be in charge of theirs as well!

“When teachers are treated as Pawns they don’t teach, they become drill sergeants.

Who is Pulling my Strings? CC by mellyjean NC ND

Who is Pulling my Strings? CC by mellyjean NC ND

We don’t allow teachers a great deal of autonomy. Their ‘locus of control’ has been largely withdrawn to the extent that they are now ‘pawns’ in the system, rather than ‘origins’ of their own behaviours. Richard DeCharms (Educational Leadership, 1977) said:

“When students are treated as Pawns they don’t learn, they misbehave.  When teachers are treated as Pawns they don’t teach, they become drill sergeants.”

We need education for our students and ALSO for our teachers – not subjugation.

IB ImageBrick #4 – We are ferociously fickle. We ‘surf the surface’.

We talk about ‘collaboration’ – and so we build collaborative tasks. We speak of ‘inquiry’ – and so we have kids generate ‘essential driving questions’. We speak of Project Based Learning (PBL) – and so we have kids ‘do projects’. Along comes Design Thinking, or the Third Teacher, flipped classroom, ‘maker’ movement, or backward design, and so on and we expect teachers to hop on this next train.

It’s a fast and furious world! We inundate teachers with new initiatives. Frequently.

I applaud many of these initiatives. However, they are pieces – parts of the whole. Somehow, we bombard teachers with so many new approaches and related techniques, it is difficult for them to manage. They become discouraged. Disempowered.

An important administrative role is to help teachers to understand the ‘essence’ residing in all these practices. Out of the distilled essence, teachers could then ‘construct their own knowledge and practice’ – the same as we wish for our students.

IB ImageBrick #5 – It IS about the tools.

As previously mentioned, one of the ‘myths’ I hear is that, ‘It’s not about the technology, it’s about the learning’. I understand the intent of this statement. I believe it arises from the focusing on the skills required to use the tool rather than on the ‘subject-matter’ at hand.

However, it is dangerous, in my opinion, to say that it is not about the tools. It is more about the tools than many of us might regularly think. Tools shape behaviours, cultures, classrooms, schools and contexts.

Seymour Papert said, “It is a self-defeating parody of scientism to suppose that one could keep everything else, including the culture, constant while adding a serious computer presence to a learning environment. If the role of the computer is so slight that the rest can be kept constant, it will also be too slight for much to come of it.”[3]

“If the role of the computer is so slight that the rest can be kept constant, it will also be too slight for much to come of it.

Indeed, we want the culture and context of the classrooms to change. Let’s explicitly embrace how technologies might impact this change.

IB ImageBrick #6 – Educate the public.

Annie Kidder, Executive Director of People for Education, says something that makes a lot of sense to me. She suggests that we need to educate the public. We spend so much time educating students – but we do a terrible job at ‘public relations’. The public has really no idea what we do. I agree with her. It seems to me that until there is wide acceptance of new ideas in the general public, things don’t change a great deal.

IB Image

Jenisse Crashing into Wall CC by Louish Pixel NC ND

Through deep conversations, we can construct new understandings and progress towards ‘tearing down the wall’.

In summary…

It is apparent that I have addressed only a small number of the very complex array of bricks that stand in the way of educational change. Although many more have come to mind, I set them aside to focus on ones where I at least have some expertise – not just opinion!

I am open to, and desirous of, your comments.


[1] Note: the ability to ‘be in charge of one’s own learning’ is not merely related to this issue of ‘student agency’. That is a complex issue – that involves cognitive, social, emotional, & societal aspects. A topic for another day!

[2] I am a Summerhillian at heart. Always have been. A.S. Neill started Summerhill in 1921. There are, of course, many who have piped in on this topic in one way or the other over the years – John Dewey, Alfie Kohn, Ivan Illich, Gary Stager, Seymour Papert – to name a few.

[3] Computer Criticism vs. Technocentric Thinking, Educational Researcher (vol. 16, no. I) January/February 1987

Picture credit: Light Green Lego Brick – CC by Stilfehler SA

Irony – Do you see the irony in this post that indeed is a number of ‘abstracted’ ideas — and not very much in depth on any?!

This blog post is part of a series of thoughtful responses to the question: What’s standing in the way of change in education? to help inform CEA’s Calgary Conference on Oct 21-22, (#CEACalgary2013) where education leaders from across Canada will be answering the same question. If you would like to answer this question, please tweet us at: @cea_ace//





13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nov 20 2013

    While not an educator, I am guilty of perpetuating the “one-line wisdom” problem. That was an “ah-ha” moment for me, in this great essay.

  2. Nov 20 2013

    Thank you for taking the time to read it! And, yes, I am actually guilty of the one-liners too!! 🙂
    Thanks for your kind comments!


  3. Nov 22 2013

    Dear Peter,
    Really not sure where to start. Was left slightly shocked, but strangely refreshed, by your post.
    I agree that ‘one line’ wisdoms can be too simple at times. However, I still feel that they have an important place in starting a dialogue. I think that what needs to be addressed is not so much the one-liners, but the way we respond to them.
    I really liked your point about teachers as learners. I completely agree that until teachers come on board as life-long lead-learners, then we haven’t got much hope at all. I often sit there assessing students work according to the governmental curriculum documents and wonder whether staff could do these things, like breaking up goals into their parts or problem solving when it comes to the tools for learning. Instead, we often stick to what we know, what we are comfortable with.
    I think that Will Richardson puts it best in a post about the confusions associated with teaching:
    “When I asked decision makers to write down (anonymously) the most complex thing they had created with a computer, most of what they reported out was along the lines of slideshows and iMovies with some spreadsheets thrown in.” (
    Often teachers are shocked and amazed at my videos and images that I produce in support of PD etc… Suggesting that they do not have the time. (Not that I do that much, just a few apps in reality.) I just wonder whether the same answer would be accepted from a student.
    Hmmm, my head is still spinning.

  4. Nov 28 2013

    I really appreciate your considered response. 🙂
    Yes, I agree. The one-liners are a great starting point – a point for ‘provocation’ to further deep discussion – one hopes, right?
    How do you deal with them I wonder?

  5. Nov 28 2013

    As always, a very thoughtful post, Peter. If that doesn’t leave you thinking, I don’t know what does. As for your “bricks”

    1) Absolutely. It’s like Gandhi’s quote “Be the change you want to see”. Enough said.
    2) In a world of hard-hitting sensationalism, that’s seen to be the way to get attention whether it’s the evening news, the headline from a blog post, or a slide on a presentation. Have we, as a society, evolved to the point where we need to be constantly shocked in order to get our attention?
    3) No matter how many times I try to think my way through this notion, I hit a wall. We are the products of the system that educated us. Everytime you see a breakthrough, there’s the inevitable “ya, but” that brings us back to the reality of what the present school system demands of its members.
    4) You’ve nailed virutally every initiative that’s hit education. It’s hot and heavy at the start, lot of support, a celebration at the end, but weak on the next steps because by the time it’s time to do that, we’ve moved on to the next big thing.
    5) I love the Papert quote and yet can understand things. There is the teacher-learner who is starting to learn but still concerned about meeting existing expectation. Then, there’s the teacher way out there who often is an outcast to the staffroom. Finally, there’s the trite comment that “it’s not about the technology”. Really? If so, how much have we wasted acquiring it?
    6) Everyone’s an expert in education because we all have been there. We need to get folks to realize that things have changed; we understand the learning process better; we have new media and technologies and the classroom that doesn’t embrace this is quickly falling behind. Yet, we don’t acknowledge this with standardized testing – are we testing for our past or for our students’ future?

  6. Nov 28 2013

    Hey Doug,
    Thank you for taking the tie to respond so thoughtfully. As usual, you have me thinking again!
    You ask some pointed questions. “Have we, as a society, evolved to the point where we need to be constantly shocked in order to get our attention?” It seems so. There is a battleground for our attention these days!


  7. Jan 11 2014

    I was surfing online for the best quality of Steenstrips (Bricks) for my new home and landed on this post. I am glad to find these new “bricks in the Wall” bringing lines of wisdom are simply great. It has left me with lots of thought process running down my mind. Thanks for sharing the wonderful thought process above.


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