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Towards 2030: Risky Business

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

by Stephen Hurley, Learning 2030 Blog Contributor

Image © WGSI/Matt Piotrowski

The idea of risk-taking in the world of schooling often conjures up images of innovative, entrepreneurial educators, prodding and poking at the boundaries of their context, looking for new approaches that will bring about the changes they want to see. You may be one of these educators. At the very least, you have met a couple of them along the way. 

I would argue, however, that there is little that could be considered risky in the behavior of these change agents. In fact, most of them have an admirable level of knowledge about the learning process, about their subject matter and about their students to ensure a good, if not excellent, level of success. Their work is important and extremely valuable, but I would say that they are not the real risk-takers in education today.

Image © Paxon Woelber


Those who take the leap or those who stand on the edge?

Ironcially, the true risk-takers in today’s world of education are those that, in fact, are going out of their way to be as unrisky as possible. Failing to sense the real urgency in the calls for substantial change in our systems, they are happy to tinker and toy, but aren’t willing to do much to alter the status quo. These risk-takers can be found at all levels of the system, but have the greatest effect when they find their way into positions of leadership. It is here where the real risk is amplified and refusal to approach the need for change with courage and tenacity makes the greatest impact.

I realize that this argument may fly in the face of common sense. In fact, there are some that would hold that, at the system level, there is a great aversion to risk in today’s school culture. It would seem that our schools are designed to invest energy and resources into activities and initiatives that carry a more certain, but possibly lower, return.

And if we look at assessment data from both local and international sources the claim could lead us to believe that we’re doing well by many of our students. Many, but not all.

Therein lies the rub – and the risk

Even a cursory glance at the Ontario Ministry of Education policy and curriculum documents will reveal a strong conceptual commitment to equity of opportunity for all students, regardless of socio-economic status, learning need, culture, or any other factor that may have traditionally allowed us to make excuses for lack of success. These political commitments resonate very deeply with the visions of education and schooling that are consistently being articulated by individual parents, educators, students, and thought leaders. 

An increasing number of us are growing more and more uncomfortable with the deep pockets of inequity that exist throughout our systems of education. Look at what is being written about the effect of family income on education opportunity. Look at the ongoing issues surrounding schooling in our First Nations communities. Look at the increasing concern over decreasing levels of student engagement. All of these are issues that point to the need for substantial change in the way that we imagine school. In fact, it is precisely these issues that are driving some of the most innovative ideas and initiatives currently on our radar.

What's really  standing in the way of change

So, if we have the political commitment (at least on paper), an inspiring vision and a growing number of innovative educators who are making both come alive in their classrooms, why do we seem to be moving so slowly?

I believe that the real clues lie somewhere among those who, in their desire to avoid what they hold to be risky behavior are, in fact, engaging in some of the riskiest business in town.

There is no longer safety in simply tinkering with the status quo. In fact, there is great danger that a substantial number of our young people will continue to be disadvantaged by a system that, in a desire to hold on to old models and dated modes of thinking, is simply paying lip service to the voices for change. 

Where are we going to find the real risk-takers in education today? Very likely, in the most surprising places!

Stephen Hurley is a recently retired teacher from the Dufferin Peel District School Board in Ontario. Stephen regularly blogs for the Canadian Education Association and continues to work to open up public spaces for vibrant conversations about transformation of education systems across Canada.