Education Reform: What it is, and what it isn’t.

This is not going to be a post about my ideas of Education Reform, what needs to change, etc. Instead, it is a more general outline of what, in my opinion, actually constitutes Education Reform and what does not.

The reason for this post is that I hear Education Reform talked about and claimed very often when no such thing has in fact taken place. For the most part, it is in political discourse that the term gets abused the worst.

To politicians, Education Reform seems to be mostly an administrative term. It is generally used to refer to new policy, new standards for accreditation or new budgetary directions. These things happen all the time, and they are often labeled reform. However, they rarely have any real impact in the classroom at all.



Restructuring the budget is not Reforming Education.

In short, whatever Education Reform means, it has to mean change in the learning experience. If students are having essentially the same experience today as they did yesterday, then there has been no reform. Policy changes and budgetry adjustmens (usually budget cuts) does not very often cause this kind of change.

Certainly, real Education Reform would include changes in how money was being spent, and of course, there would be new policies written to accommodate the changes. But these things by themselves are not reform. And that brings me to the next point: education reform is no one thing.

Reform is an overhaul. Think of the word, reform. It implies changing the very shape of something. To some extent, it should be unrecognisable afterwards. True reform requires changes both deep and wide to the whole system so that it operates in new and different ways afterwards.

Here are some of the things that contribute to reform.

Primarily, reform requires a paradigm shift. This is both one of the most fundamental aspects of reform and one of the most difficult barriers to overcome. Fundamental, becuase a paradigm shift is what inspires, motivates and drives the other changes. At its core, true reform is about a change in ideals, objectives, philosophy. True reform comes not when an administrator decides to buy different textbooks, but when people decide that the very goals of their current system are misguided and need to be reconsidered.

This is very difficult to achieve for a few interrelated reasons. First of all, it is very easy to get stuck in one’s ways, going through the motions and doing things as they have always been done. It is comfortable; it is easy, even to the point of being automatic. It can also be blinding: we can get so used to doing something one way, that we don’t even see that there could be other ways, better ways. And that only talks of the individual.

Problems of this nature are systemic, meaning that even if one person has had some kind of epiphany as to how the system could be improved, that person likely does not have (or, at least, does not feel she has) the power to actually do anything about it. The first step, after opening your own eyes to a different way, is to then open the eyes of others. If making these changes yourself is hard, trying to persuade an entire organisation to change can feel nigh impossible!

Once you have managed to influence the sufficiently influential individuals, though, the job has really only just begun. It is at this point that whole new curricula might be written. The system’s very vision and mission might be renewed; new policies will be written. Everything will change, and if there is going to be any widespread and lasting impact, these changes will need to happen at an administrative level.

The danger of the dead end.

This can be the first big step in a great new future, or it can be the last step in a failed attempt to do something big. Here in Indonsia, the political non-reform that I talked about in the opening happens all the time. Every new government makes changes, and almost none of them really matter to teachers and students in the classrooms. They’re almost always political or fiscal in nature.

However, over the years that I’ve been here, there have been some promising changes made at the government level. New programmes initiated, new concepts written into the curriculum. And this truly is the stuff of real reform. However, they usually become nothing more than promising changes. This is because, too often, even when the changes are good and concrete and fundamental, they are not communicated to the practitioners—teachers and headteachers.

Several times now, over the last five or six years, I have been excited about some new thing that has been introduced in the curriculum. Usually, I don’t fully agree with how it is conceived or written, but I think of them as steps in the right direction. They don’t really constitute reform, but they are potentially reformational. However, when I visit schools and classrooms, I see very little has changed. Several of the exciting new policies/curricula that have been introduced in the last decade have then been retracted several years later because they were seen to have no effect. But what I know from actually working with the schools and teachers directly in a way that the ministry does not is that the reason these things have not been effective is because they have barely been implemented.

Time and time again, I have asked teachers and headteachers what they think of some new policy or curriculum change or what they have done to implement it, only for them to respond that they either don’t know about it or else they don’t really understand it, and as a result, they haven’t actually done anything in their classrooms to reflect the change.

This brings us to the next big and incredibly important step in effective reform: training.

If we want changes from the top to really matter, then it is essential that the teachers are sufficiently trained in how to implement these changes. This has to be more than a letter sent to school admins or a powerpoint presented at some annual ministry seminar. Teachers need to be given real, hands on training that helps them understand why the changes have been made—this takes us right back to that prelimary stage of changing minds, by the way, as many teachers are very traditional and are not readily open to change—and then demonstrates practically how to implement these changes in the classroom.

If this is not done, then the whole endeavour has been for nought. Changes to the curriculum are utterly useless if teachers do not understand them nor believe in them. This, incidentally, is one of the main roles that budgeting plays in reform, as far as I am concerned. Training that many teachers is no small feat, and it is certainly not cheap. It is, however, absolutely essential, and so a large portion of the budget during reform must be allocated to teacher training. This is necessary.

So now, the people in power have changed their philosophy about the old system, they have created a new system and they have sufficiently communicated the changes to the teachers and effectively trained them to implement the changes in the classroom so that students actually experience the difference in their learning experience. Have we finished? No.

The reformation era is forever.

Although we think and talk about Education Reform as a shift—I have done so in this post, even—in truth we should consider it a process that never really ends. Once a new system is in place—or an old system is significantly altered—we must continually monitor its impact and effects. There is a very strong chance that some of the changes, which seemed revolutionary and brilliant in their conception, do not actually work all that well in practice.

There are countless reasons for this. That’s why we must be ready to accept when something has not worked the way we had hoped and make the necessary adjustments. Sometimes, this will be a matter of finetuning and others, it will mean going straight back to the drawing board. But if we do not take this approach, then we risk replacing one rigid, ineffective and outdated system with another equally rigid and ineffective system destined to become outdated, and then we’ll have to start the whole process from the start, struggling to open people’s eyes once again.

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