Sustainability: Out-Live Out-Last Out-Reach  Discussants Reflect

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Dean Fink's Reflections

Dean Fink
OISE / University of Toronto



I spent a fair amount of time visiting each of the posters. I was impressed by the quality, commitment and the ingenuity described in each of the poster presentations. I particularly appreciated the willingness of presenters to help us to learn from their wins and their losses. The magnitude of the challenges undertaken in all of the projects was daunting. In some ways the title of the poster hall could be 'Success Against the Odds'. Virtually all the innovators faced problems of political commitment, community understanding, resources, testing programs and competing projects and priorities. In spite of these 'odds', most projects achieved most of their original goals. Similarly, virtually all expressed reservations about the future and whether all their extraordinary efforts would be sustained over time.

This pessimism about the future suggests a number of questions:

  • Can major changes in one subject be implemented and sustained in a school or a district. Two of the projects (#7 and # 17) addressed this directly. Both presenters suggested that reforms in science or math need to be connected to systemic school reform efforts. One of the posters expressed this idea well. "The questions to answer is how do we reform science teaching and learning in isolation from school reform in general? In fact we cannot."
  • Can innovative programs based on the best principles of contemporary knowledge about learning survive in a climate of high stakes tests that seem to reflect dated approaches to learning? Rick Stiggins some years ago coined the phrase 'assessment literacy. He suggested that assessment 'illiteracy' was widespread among educators. I would submit that until educators learn the difference between good tests and bad tests themselves, they will never be able to convince policy makers that 'intellectual accounting' does not promote student inquiry and learning. Perhaps organizations like NSF that have access to some of the finest teachers and scholars in the world might invest in a political campaign to help policy makers at all levels recognize that the current test mania is undermining real science and real math.
  • Can inquiry based approaches to science and math be connected to other subject areas? Increasingly scientist and mathematicians are reaching across disciplines to address perplexing problems. Perhaps the time has come to end the fragmented curriculum and create more holistic, ecological approaches to curriculum and learning. Science in particular is a very useful integrator. A number of projects seem to have found success by building links to other disciplines.
  • Can a strategy of trying to accomplish less yield more? This may sound paradoxical but the breadth of many efforts seemed to spread resources too thinly. My colleague Andy Hargreaves and I have suggested that successful change efforts deal with three competing pressures. The first is going deeper. It is easy to introduce token changes. The projects described in the posters proposed deep and profound changes to teaching and learning. Secondly do the projects go wider? In other words are they isolated to a few 'model' schools or spread widely throughout the larger system. Since almost all projects undertook to influence one or more school districts this dimension was addressed. The third dimension is going deeper - was the innovation sustained. My studies suggest that there is an inverse relationship between the 'scaling up' of a change and sustaining an innovation. All the projects seem to have addressed the first two dimensions but were finding the third difficult. Perhaps the key is to focus on deep and sustained changes in a few sites and then over time spread the changes to other settings. It may be a slower and less high profile strategy but it might just weather the vicissitudes of a changing political climate.

    My final comment arises from the title of one of the projects 'Honor the Wisdom of Teachers'. Too often, change agents who are external to schools forget the daily reality of teaching. It is easy for very keen, subject-focused innovators to expect more than teachers are able to deliver. The multitude of change efforts that schools and teachers deal with are undertaken in many places in western society in which teaching as a profession and teachers as individuals or in groups have been denigrated by powerful and influential people and groups. I was struck by the recurrent theme of teacher and leadership turnover. While I have no magic answers, perhaps those of us who try to effect change should try a little harder to 'honor the wisdom of teachers'.