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2.10.2020 | Christophe Menagé

Unshackling the System: Achieving Systems Change Through Educator Agency

This past summer the HundrED Community was invited to be part of the consultation process of UNESCO's Futures of Education initiative. The initiative is catalyzing a global debate on how education, learning, and knowledge need to be re-imagined in a world of increasing complexity, uncertainty, and precarity. Educational Ecosystems (e²) hosted on such discussion.

Progressive societies are built on thriving educational systems. In an ideal world, systems design should reflect the diverse needs of those who utilise and rely on the system. The design of such systems is invariably dynamic given its reliance on the collective wisdom of collaborative innovators. By its very definition, a dynamic educational system is adaptive and tailored. This infers a contextual reality that is relational, fluid, and infinite; one where the system affords opportunities and possibilities to self determine and exercise agency.

Yet by and large education, a most relational and fluid of human endeavours, has been characterised by a hierarchical, rigid and mechanistic infrastructure. Most existing educational models stratify processes and procedures to serve a purpose that is primarily transactional, functional, and predictable - the exchange or retention of information or knowledge from one person to another. Such operational systems use procedures and metrics adopted from economic models that overlay inputs and outputs to achieve predetermined outcomes. Such rigid and linear constructs view participants through relatively static, passive, and compliant prisms. The dominant models that currently hold sway systematically strip back the more nuanced, intangible, and creative elements of human interaction. Tension exists by virtue of the fact that education does not lend itself easily to measurement through arbitrary, standardised and quantifiable management practices. This restricts teacher agency and consequently limits opportunities for collaboration as a source of innovation.

So it was that e²: educational ecosystems (e²), under the auspices of and UNESCO’s Futures of Education project, organised an international online collaboration of fourteen cross-sectoral practitioners. 

The core objective of our collaboration was to illustrate the symbiotic nature of agency as the genesis for change and systems design. Our guiding question was: 

“How might we activate educator agency by connecting relationships and collaborations that in turn achieve greater engagement, opportunities, and possibilities for all?"

Several design intentions underpinned e²’s collaborative effort:

  • Highlight fourteen case study exemplars that showcase and reinforce just what, when given the time and space, educators can achieve in spite of the system as opposed to because of the system;
  • Replicate in real-time the iterative and generative nature of any creative process; that is, one where outcomes are not predetermined and the flow of the discussion meanders organically; 
  • Demonstrate and emphasise the exponential nature of what can be learnt and achieved if practitioners are afforded the agency to actively engage with each other and role model the learning competencies so often desperately called for.

The report submission unpacked a shared view of education and learning as non-linear, nuanced, connected and exponential. Education’s sole purpose as delivery and acquisition of content and skill in preparation for employment was uniformly rejected, considered too simplistic and antiquated a notion, unreflective of the needs or wellbeing of today's students, parents, teachers, and society. 

Rather, we felt educational systems demand deeply active, relational investments; one where all stakeholders have the time, preparedness, and willingness to embrace the inevitable permutations, trials, and tribulations that go hand in hand with any human endeavour. An endeavour in which connection and active engagement are key to a lifelong journey of self-discovery and self-determination, one that inevitably involves navigating intractable challenges and wicked problems created by uniquely situational realities (Climate Change being one example), a process now commonly referred to in the industry as straddling both Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Blooms Taxonomy. 

Our collaboration identified key recommendations applied across three levels, namely:

Micro (Individual)

  • Educator agency, where individuals striving towards self-actualisation are afforded autonomy, is viewed as important a catalyst as student agency. 
  • It is unsurprising, as by-products of a mechanistic process ourselves, that we have a limited belief in our capacity to effect change. However, this must (and can) change.
  • In so doing, we role model the imperfect, iterative yet transformative and enlightening nature of cognitive thinking. Discovery learning of lateral/divergent thinking (thinking outside the box) experiences role model of vulnerability and resilience, building capacity in pedagogical innovation. Individuals become catalysts who impact beyond their immediate context. 
  • Educators must be unshackled. 
  • Practical initiatives must be taken, including reviewing educator workloads and curriculum expectations to free up time and space for more iterative professional learning and development.
  • Greater capacity must be given to teachers to exercise professional judgement and decision making to rapidly seize opportunities and scale initiative. 
  • Achieving this requires the expansion of educator mindsets and the internalised understandings of new ways of seeing the world - so as to become comfortable sitting in discomfort. 

Meso (Collective)

  • Collective agency evolves from connecting flourishing individuals. Collaborative opportunities benefit from conditions ripe for interdependence. Trust generated from being vulnerable, encourages others to reach out, further enhancing future connections and thus amplifying innovation. 
  • This, in turn, ignites ideas, amplifies opportunities for heutagogical transformation and exponentially builds greater capacity within the system, ensuring its sustainability.
  • Processes and procedures must factor in more flexible and responsive elements to enable contextually relevant tailorisation and personalisation.
  • Stakeholder engagement must be more actively inclusive, wholistic and participatory. Institutions and agencies must walk the talk in terms of engaging with the audience. For example students, teachers AND parents need to be active participants canvassed in the design of educational policy or systems design. 

Macro (Systems)

  • Where systemic agency is achieved from exponential connectedness. Cultural change is an inherent by-product of the momentum generated from the validation of teacher agency. Scalability and impact increases, with more people privy to and benefitting from the exchange of ideas. 
  • The ever increasing encroachment of compliance, standardisation and risk mitigation measures into pedagogy needs to be better understood and adapted. Safety, accountability and transparency measures, driven by both good intentions and sound principles of good governance are universally accepted as non-negotiables, yet their application in education by non-educators has arguably led to a boom in the management of education (as a linear process), at the cost of education as a pedagogical and heutagogical journey (as a non-linear experience). 
  • Reliance on metrics (in and of itself not “bad”) as the single most dominant focal point of this mechanistic system becomes redundant. Quantitative metrics, as precursors to unilateral evaluations of success, are viewed as simplistic, limited and one dimensional. These are used fro deficiency perspective - to control, direct, coerce, induce, entice, or persuade - almost as punitive measures. Qualitative and longitudinal feedback rather than metrics must become the guiding objective as opposed to “nice-to-haves”. 
  • Instead, a shift to an empowering model that promotes, advocates and rewards is warranted. This necessitates multifaceted and nuanced ways in which to gauge progress, to review the what, how and why we measure, with “success” viewed in the broadest possible manner. 

In summary, our collaboration found the possibility of exponential shifts in the status quo if deliberate and concerted efforts are brought to bear to harness and liberate collective expertise and actively shape systems design.