In education, we often hear that we need to ‘transform’ the system. There’s many a debate on the topic and despite several ‘innovations’ meaningful change just hasn’t happened. So, why does most education reform fail? How can we make real change? And do we even need to change in the first place? Maths Pathway co-founder, Richard Wilson, explores these questions below.
We spend a lot of time debating “reform” in education, and how to go about disrupting, innovating or otherwise transforming the system. The sad reality is that most of the work done in this area hasn’t actually achieved meaningful change. In this post, we explore a little of why this is so, and what principles you should bear in mind if you want to achieve sustained positive change.
(Note: this post draws a lot of its inspiration from the excellent book Learning to Improve, which I highly recommend reading in its entirety).
Do we even need change?
Honestly? Yes. The societal outcomes we get, with regard to maths in particular, are just not good enough. We don’t have enough maths teachers, or students taking advanced maths courses. A third of students graduate from high school essentially innumerate; less than one in fifteen graduate with the skills necessary to pursue a STEM career. Most adults don’t understand or particularly appreciate mathematics. In fact, walk into the average cafe and throw a stone – you’d have to aim very carefully to hit someone who’s comfortable with numbers.
And unless we think that as teachers we have nothing to do with these outcomes, or believe we are powerless to change them — then yes, we need change.
(If you don’t think how we teach maths needs to change, if you think the outcomes we get now are fine, or that this reality has nothing to do with you — then the rest of this post is probably just going to annoy you.)
Why does most education reform fail?
Let’s take a recent systemic ‘innovation’. After various studies pointed out that the professional learning offered to teachers was of generally poor quality, we were introduced to a new role — the ‘instructional coach’. Many schools now have one, or a teacher whose job description includes that phrase. But what does an instructional coach actually need to know, and do at a practical level? How do we get teachers who don’t have coaching experience to magically become experts at it? What work conditions need to be present in schools for them to do this job successfully? These, and other questions remain unanswered — and so the implementation of ‘instructional coaching’ across our system is vague, inconsistent, and may or may not have any relation to student outcomes and better teaching practice.
Here’s a brief list of other systemic reforms that probably haven’t worked (I say ‘probably’ because in general no-one has bothered to measure them with any degree of seriousness or accuracy):
- After large high schools in the 1990s had a string of poor academic results, the US spent five years and more than $2 billion creating 2,000+ new, smaller schools — and then concluded that it didn’t help.
- Research that demonstrated that ‘teacher quality matters’ for student outcomes led, in some parts of the world, to ‘rigorous teacher evaluations tied to financial incentives and employment decisions’ — these two however don’t have any clear link to student outcomes.
- Research on the importance of principals as strategic leaders led to systems telling principals to become instructional leaders, despite a lack of clarity on what that meant, and the fact that principals are already incredibly over-stretched in their roles.
- Government frustration with the slow rate of school improvement led, in one of the great ironies of our time, to high-stakes testing protocols to ‘hold schools to account’.
- A quest for efficiencies preceded departmental downsizing and concluded with the massive and sudden decentralisation of almost all education decision making to individual schools.
All of these attempts have in common that they did genuinely set out to solve a real problem, and that they contained at least the start of a good idea. But the shotgun approach taken when rolling out these plans — rapidly introducing them across entire states or regions — disregards that schools almost always lack the organisational capacity or experience to implement them successfully. Along with this, policy makers regularly ignore the fact that to get actual change happening in the classroom, you have to engage (regularly and permanently) with the principals, teachers and students who are actually doing things in the classroom.
In essence, the education system seems doomed to the approach of ‘going fast and learning slow’. We fail to appreciate that to make a promising idea work reliably in practice takes hard work and time. If we don’t see dramatic positive results immediately (and we often make this mistake at the school level as well), we give up and move on to the next big thing. These days, we’re told that everything from VR goggles, to the latest adaptive AI technology, to classroom furniture will rapidly and easily improve student outcomes. Learning conferences are full of many magic bullet solutions that promise immediate engagement, quick results and instant improvement. But in a complex system (for that is what a school is) these approaches have never worked, and never will.
So how do we go about making real change?
So if you agree with me and actually believe that something different needs to happen in our classrooms, then here are four things to consider before you get started.
1. Be specific about the problem you want to solve
It’s not good saying you’re just going to change the whole system at once — there are too many moving pieces. Instead, focus on what seems to be the root cause of your particular problem. Choose the levers to affect change. To steal Dan Finkel’s analogy, one of the most common problems in maths classrooms is that we are not allowing students the opportunity to think like mathematicians. It is like setting up a soccer club, but not letting anyone play. We do the maths equivalent of fitness, drills, passing practice, maybe even some team formation work — and then the kids come back the next day and we do more of it. No-one joins a sports club for the practice — they join to play the game. And too often we don’t let kids play the game in maths (in our analogy, kids aren’t doing any Rich Learning).
2. See the system that produces the current outcomes
It’s tempting to think that as a teacher, you could change a few things, maybe get some new resources that will fix things. But you’re a teacher, not an island. There are many things around you interacting with your attempts to support students’ learning. Your school has communication systems, reporting programs, rules about parental engagement, year level coordinators. You need to map these out — see where the biggest levers for the problem you’re trying to solve actually live.
3. We can only improve what we can measure -— but think broadly about measurement
Be very careful about choosing a single number to judge your change or improvement work. If we’re saying that our system overall produces poor maths outcomes, we need to do more than improve NAPLAN scores, or boost ATAR rankings. For example, at Maths Pathway we have a philosophy about the components of a great maths education. It’s not simple, or easy to Tweet, or Instagrammable, but it captures the things we care about, and in many ways can be measured.
4. Focus on variation in performance
Consistency is key. The education system works by accident at the moment — kids have the occasional great lesson, the odd inspiring moment. It works for some kids, some of the time. If you want something meaningful to change, you need every teacher in your school working from the same blueprint, making the same changes, measuring and valuing the same things.
Can’t you just turn this all into an easy recipe for change I can follow?
Not exactly. Making a real difference to your students requires embracing the complexity of teaching and learning. But, after six years, and the learning from over 57,000 students, 2,323 teachers representing 270 schools, we have gained a lot of implementation experience, so if you want help, Maths Pathway can at least accelerate you along the journey. If you prefer to go it alone, and some schools do, then by all means, we hope these tips help you along the way and wish you good luck.
But a word of caution, your chances of success are greatly improved when you are part of a network. These accelerate learning, provide a sense of community and purpose, allowing you to go further than you would by yourself. If you’re serious about making a change for your students, then you should consider joining the Maths Pathway community of teachers and schools — there’s nowhere else in this country where you’ll find as many people this dedicated to a great maths education.
Forget Facebook — “Move fast and break things” mostly just ends up with a bunch of broken things. Work out what you want to change. Learn fast. And implement well.
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Driven by a passion for improving the futures of young people, Richard co-founded Maths Pathway while still a teacher. He steers the organisation in pursuit of a world in which everyone knows and enjoys maths.