The Educational Dartboard

By Mary Coverdale, Director of The Learner First, Australia.

Educational change strategies tend to be a bit like throwing darts at a dartboard. We know what we’re aiming for, and we hope for the best. The intention is there––the desired outcome often isn’t.

Investment in education has largely been short term, highly accountable, and expended on various unsustainable strategies, strategies which tend to pass from practice following the investment. Often, they’re targeted at a small cohort of students, making those students feel different from their peers. “They need the support . . . They aren’t making the grade”––it’s negative identity creation, and it can last for a lifetime. The strategies are piloted or prototyped with a small cohort of teachers as well, meaning the changed teaching and learning practice isn’t embedded into daily, whole-school ways of working.

The perception is that fundamentally changing practice in classrooms is too hard to manage from a system level. Ironically, in trying to support schools with maps of curriculum content and achievement standards, the system sets expectations that those elements are the holy grail of the work––so sacrosanct, in fact, that school leaders are held accountable to both their documentation and implementation, as though having them in place will improve student outcomes. It hasn’t, and the reason is simple and clear. They’re not only missing the mark on the dartboard­­––they’re throwing the darts at the wrong board completely.

This has to do with systems’ definitions of success. As long as the success that systems are aiming for is wrapped up in content and achievement standards alone, then students won’t get what they need to succeed. Only when success is inclusive and fair will we even have a chance of finally hitting the bullseye.

The moral purpose is clear: every student deserves an equitable opportunity to succeed. However, every person in every school must first know what that means in practice. In practice, it has to be more than a test score or grade. In practice, it must include the skills and dispositions kids need to contribute to other people’s lives and to the world. Real change must come from changed practice in the classroom. And for changes to occur as desired in the classroom, the picture of success has to change in the system.

Creating an effective learning environment is key to every child succeeding. The basis of such an environment is student agency and voice. When these are enabled by teachers, each child is respected and valued for who they are. It’s the hallmark of a classroom that develops social, human, and relational capital. It’s the hallmark of a classroom where students engage intrinsically, are more accountable for their learning, and work collaboratively, and where they reciprocate their thinking and co-create understandings. In these environments, loosely structured and guided by professionals who know their students deeply, the culture shifts so that content isn’t paramount but instead the learners––their learning and well-being––take center stage. Students engage with curricular content more deeply than ever before, and what we all value most––their motivation, well-being, and continuous progress––is actioned in classrooms and beyond, every day.

A classroom where every child is known, where inquiry is the driving methodology for every subject, where connections are made between the learning and the world, where time is given to think independently and collaboratively. . . . These are some of the key attributes of successful learning environments. They look and sound different to classrooms of the past, and the classrooms of today can’t just replicate old models. The world is asking us to support our students to develop skills, dispositions, and learning attributes that help them thrive in a complex, ever-changing environment. Many of our students are anxious about their futures, and about the short- and long-term impact of some of our biggest global issues, like sustainability and safety. They don’t want to wait around as the world falls apart––they believe they can make a difference if they’re given the chance.

Too many current educational tools still serve the old paradigm, the old picture of success. New tools have to respect the new paradigm, that learning environments are places of purpose––where students learn self-understanding, connection, knowledge, and competency, and where they each can contribute. Imagine if our systems focused on supporting those of us who are looking at measures that really matter. Imagine if assessments were employed that helped students demonstrate how well they know themselves, how well they connect to improve people’s lives, and how much they contribute to the greater good. Accountabilities need to shift to match what we value, what’s fundamentally important for the students we serve.

Changing our tools is a proxy for unlearning. We can’t rely on past tools, or on past lived experience. School systems have to be agile and flexible. And while for systems this leads to an existential crisis––“We’re losing control . . . The old rubrics don’t apply . . .”––the time’s come to improvise, not to conform. The “overlearned behavior” is a barrier to change. We have to make sense of what students really need, so that we aim at the right dartboard––and our darts hit the mark.