I just read a thought-provoking blog from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, entitled “It’s Complex” by Louis Gomez (Carnegie Commons Blog: It’s Complex). The author notes that we use the phrase it’s complicated often in our speech, but what we are really talking about are small barriers that get in the way of our accomplishing something we already know how to do. Changing outcomes for students, and dealing with equity issues related to underachievement of students of poverty, for example, is not only complicated but complex. The author states: “The hallmark of complex problems is that there is no fixed recipe of steps that one can set up at the beginning.” He draws a contrast between successfully painting a room and implementing a new math curriculum that will build teacher and student content knowledge.
I believe that those of us who enter education do so with a passion for learning and for ensuring that our students learn. Yet we have not created conditions in schools, districts or statehouses where complex problems related to student learning and school success can be thoughtfully addressed. Those impulses toward standardization and control from the factory model of schooling, now two centuries old, still limit our thinking. In fact, we don’t have a common understanding of how to go about affecting systems change and are often stymied by context, policy and practice. We stop at “it’s complicated,” instead of pushing forward to “it’s complex.”
When we think about systems change, we need to think about more than school reform mandates which often prescribe a uniform way of addressing unique and multi-layered problems. Moreover, reform mandates most often come from outside of schools, rather than engaging those who work within schools—teachers and administrators—to explore problems, develop solutions, try them out and learn from the experience as they refine what will work for their students. The critical difference is that practitioners are at the center of systemic change. There is a wonderful passage in the blog where Mr. Gomez describes how a new math curriculum can be implemented in a way that makes sense for the teachers and students in the school:
Now, imagine a networked community of professionals engaged in coordinated efforts to learn in systematic ways from one another. Working together, such a group might be able to identify key contingencies affecting instruction and test the efficacy of possible responses. A community deliberately structured to support instructional improvement would create rapid feedback systems that reveal what works for which teachers, under what circumstances, in which schools. And such protocols would evolve over time, as school professionals document and share what they did and what outcomes occurred.
The description reminds me of what we are trying to do in Kentucky to develop teacher leadership that will elevate teachers and create deeper, richer learning for students. A number of organizations are engaged in this effort—the KDE, CTL, the KY Network to Transform Teaching, Educational Professional Standards Board, Kentucky Teachers Association, Hope Street Group, the Bluegrass Center on Teacher Quality, and The Fund KY (see draft KY Teacher Leadership Framework). As partners we strive to uncover how we can create conditions for teacher leadership to emerge in the classroom, school, district and larger profession, so that teachers play a critical role in developing systemic solutions to address curriculum, instruction, school culture and achievement needs. This cross-organization effort reflects the complexity of achieving systems change. There’s not a recipe or roadmap to get there, only the belief that working together to strengthen the role teachers play in their schools will lead us finally to transform schools.