Who decided schools are broken?

As educators we focus on building on the strengths of our students, we start from the positives, the achievements and the understandings they already have. We use these to connect with our students, to build relationships, to build confidence and, most importantly, to design engaging, motivating and appropriate teaching and learning programs. I wonder why we seem (and by we I mean both educators and the wider community) unable to take this approach to our education system? Why are we so quick to say the system is broken, to condemn teaching methods as outdated, to decry those colleagues who won’t ‘move with the times’ and to seek to fix education? Why can’t we build on the strengths of our system?

This picture has been doing the rounds for a while: thought bubbles
It speaks to a concept about education, one where children sit in rows and teachers do their darnedest to squash any creativity or individuality out of them. This picture gets a ridiculous amount of retweets every time it’s posted, which begs the question, whose reality does this represent and what’s to be gained by posting it? Interestingly often the educators who are posting the picture are also those who are engaged in discussions about all sorts of different pedagogies such as project-based learning, flexible learning spaces, genius hour and the like. What’s their purpose in reposting it? Are they seeking to start a conversation? Are they suggesting that this is what others are doing? I’m at a loss. For me, this picture sets back the reality of education significantly. It perpetuates a myth. It sets up teachers as the ones who are ruining the hopes and dreams of children. It stops a conversation that we really need to be having. Who decided that this is what schools do? Where’s the evidence?

Recently I have noticed a bit of push back against the ‘system is broken’ mantra. George Couros started this conversation this week and it was heartening to see how many educators responded positively, identifying a number the ways in which schools are building on the strengths of their community, their system and the educators within them. This is all, clearly, anecdotal rather than research based. Which begs the question, where’s the evidence that our system is broken, that schools are ‘stifling the creativity’ of students?


Chris Cawsey (@chriscawsey) made this point in a different conversation in response to a post from Jon Andrews (@jca_1975).


She was questioning where the evidence was to suggest that the education system does make students ‘stick to dull pathways’? Again, anecdotally, I see plenty of evidence of schools using technology in powerful ways, empowering students to explore, connect, develop and evaluate using a range of technology tools? Why is it we are so quick to believe the worst, so quick to judge, so eager to start fresh, ignore experience and knowledge of those around us? The conversation that followed was an excellent example of the ways in which educators engage in professional dialogue about different ideas. I get such a lot out of seeing the conversations of such experienced and knowledgeable educators as the interact. Building on each other’s strengths.

There are a few programs running in Australia at the moment that actively take a strengths-based approach to our education. One of these is the Social Ventures Australia (@Social_Ventures) program ‘Bright Spots‘ through which school leaders are identified and supported to build on existing good practice in disadvantaged communities. Another program is the Learning Frontiers hubs established by AITSL. Schools are connected with other schools, practitioners from AITSL and the Innovation Unit to explore different practices and pedagogies in order to improve student engagement and outcomes. In both these programs schools are starting from a position of strength, building on existing practice and extending this. This, to me at least, feels a lot more empowering for our schools and our system than starting from the position of schools as broken institutions and teachers as mindless drones seeking to produce cookie cutter clones of students.

Sometimes, as a connected educator, it can be a bit tempting to suggest that whatever has happened before is wrong, or insufficient or short-sighted. When we do this we dismiss the vast expertise and knowledge of our colleagues. We employ a deficit model and we run the very real risk of alienating those teachers that we should be supporting the most. Those teachers who are already feeling apprehensive about the rate of change, the new initiatives, the technology. We aren’t building on their strengths, we aren’t acknowledging the richness of their experience. We are the poorer for this.

I’m going to try to focus on the strengths of the system, my colleagues and my students. I’m going to try and reframe this discussion to one that places the strengths of our system at the forefront of any conversation, one that recognises the value of experience, knowledge and a depth of understanding. I’m going to treat the system like a student, start from the strengths and build.

What are the strengths you see? What are the strengths you might not have seen? How can you use those for the benefit of your students, your school and your system?

The system isn’t broken, it’s a work in progress. That’s reality isn’t it?