Tom Beresford, Project Coordinator and Researcher, Innovation Unit.
The challenge of the 21st century
Life-long teachers are becoming increasingly rare in the UK. Rumours are that there is a shortage of teachers just around the corner, and rates of teachers leaving the profession reached a ten year high earlier this year. But, why is this the case? What’s causing teachers to abandon (what many would call) their vocation?
You don’t have to dig too deep to find some theories: the de-professionalisation of the teacher; the out-of-control accountability structures; teachers feeling overworked; undervalued, the list goes on.
Demands in the 21st century are increasing complex and fluid, and inevitably our education system will have to adapt and change to find solutions to the challenges that it faces, for fear that it starts to fall behind other systems around the world. So, what does this mean for the role of teachers in the education systems of tomorrow? We think that design thinking is key, but will system conditions in the UK, ever allow for this?
The barriers to bottom up change
Let’s start with the elephant in most school staff rooms: strict accountability structures that hold schools and their staff to account, and keep many of them up at night. While these structures have (according to narrowly-defined parameters) generally been successful in improving outcomes in struggling schools, it has increasingly acted as a barrier to teacher-led innovations.
Many of the teachers I speak to feel disempowered, on edge and completely undervalued by the scrutiny and manner in which they are held accountable. Furthermore, the levels of scrutiny have inevitably eroded their sense of worth and professional identity. They are constrained beyond belief. It was only last year that Sir Michael Barber and Peter Hill conceded that “even top performing systems in the world have hit a performance ceiling”, with an emerging opinion that these top down accountability strategies were seeing diminishing returns.
The flip side of this argument is that actually, schools in the UK could be considered the most autonomous in the world. Whilst this is structurally true, culturally speaking it is a complete fallacy – there may be autonomy, but there certainly isn’t agency.
When we talk about teacher agency, rebuttals appears within the argument of ‘standards’. It is perceived that the system cannot accurately measure teaching standards in a way that is universal and reflects robust academic results. More agency around designing, innovating and constructing learning experiences leads us to those dreaded words – the ‘inevitable fall’ in teaching standards.
Simply. Untrue. The more we think outside the Ofsted and traditional examination box, the more we empower teachers and engage them, and the more rigorous their standards will be.
As John Hattie likes to remind us all, education systems are only as good as their workforce. So why not build design and innovation capabilities from the ground up?
The start of a revolution?
This is the question that many leading design thinkers and educators have started to respond to around the world. School Retool, a popular professional development fellowship in the US, seeks to help school leaders redesign their school culture using small, scrappy experiments called “hacks.” Similarly, Education Changemakers in Australia is looking to empower educators to create and execute their own powerful solutions that their school system faces, through Idea Labs as well as teacher and leader programmes.
Other efforts are more focused on providing specific design tools for educators to build their capabilities themselves. IDEO’s ‘Design Thinking for Educators’ toolkit has proved popular (now available in Portugese), with the Institute of Design at Stanford’s d.school also providing a fantastic array of methods and resources for educators to experiment with.
The Teachers Guild offers similar experiences and toolkits for educators, but with a more explicitly collaborative and transformative message: “teachers are the revolution education has been waiting for.”
There are emergent teachers revolutions in countries like Australia and the US, with commitments to building innovation and design capabilities amongst the workforce. The scope and success of such movements still relies on enabling system conditions, culture shifts and a generally more supportive and developmental attitude to the teaching profession.
If the UK is to educate well-equipped young adults, who have the skills, knowledge and attitudes to stand up to the challenges of tomorrow, we must “stop mandating and start unleashing”. Design thinking has the power to re-professionalise educators; to see them as innovators; as evaluators of their impact; as experts of their pedagogy, and to see the profession re-emerge as a ‘craft’ rather than simply a delivery service.