Oops! An Unintended Reform

I have been sorting papers to accommodate the move from the luxury of an office to the cosy reality of the open-space work room. When clearing out, you stop from time to time to reacquaint yourself with this paper or that book! That is how I came across a paper that has influenced me for the past 15 years – a book review that dealt with reform versus evolution in education. In these CoVIT-Panacademic times there has been some positive promotion and commendation of online learning and the weight of support seems to be swinging a little more in its acceptance. About time I hear you say!

I was reminded by this of the 1997 book which was the subject of the review, Tinkering Towards Utopia (Tyack and Cuban, 1997),  a time when reform seemed to consistently fail much to the inevitable despair of educators. Would the much vaunted reforms ever see result? The reform movement was huge, truckloads of resources were being thrown into wholesale reform  that had little impact – “So much reform: So little change” was Charles Payne’s summary. And especially in the area of online learning the future was slow in coming.

The book reviewer commented on the tension between change and reform and the mechanisms schools practised to resist change and left me with a feeling that perhaps the battle was swinging away from the traditional classroom. In some areas it seems quite clear and online learning was one area. This was largely because “…….the school exerts less influence on what children do with home computers, and as the number of these reaches significant levels, we are beginning to observe changes in the relationship between teachers and students brought about not by a reform, but by the fact that the students have acquired a new kind of sophistication but about ways to learn and methods of research.”

Come forward to the current swirl and add to it the imperative of the pandemic lock-downs. To to use an appropriate (some might say inappropriate) figure of speech, it could be that the DNA of schools as institutions is strong enough to rebuff the challenge of an attack on conventional practice but retain an immunity to change. The pressure to work differently during these times is overpowering. Seemingly there are no vaccines against attacks on the status quo in education and places called schools were quick to reclaim their children back into the places called a school, being there at times when schooling was prescribed, and re-establishing rituals of delivery.  Parents and their children who had perhaps discovered a new and different connection with learning, saw the whole palaver of the less relevant institutional mores such as assemblies, homilies from form-teachers, the wearing of a common uniform, bell ringing, and all that jazz – return into their lives much to the despair of some and the delight of others.

But to get back to on-line learning in educational institutions – will the new normal, which will never be the old normal, allow it to emerge and grow stronger in its new level of penetration into schooling and to bring with it a different balance of power between students, parents and schools or will it succumb to a pressure to return to the well-established, trusted ways-of-working with their mixed bag of outcomes.

As the reviewer said: when a school sets out to change its approaches, in the end the school changes the reform [and goes on to say that] one may at first blush see a tautology in using this proposition to explain failures of reform. But to say that School changes the reform is very different from simply saying that School resists or rejects the reform. It resists the reform in a particular way – by appropriating or assimilating it to its own structures. By doing so, it defuses the reformers and sometimes manages to take in something of what they are proposing.” So, will bits of our lessons from the pandemic shine through or will it be “back to business as usual?” And I am frustrated by having lost the name of this reviewer!

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