Big Dreams, Big Opportunities

I had the good fortune to attend a talk this evening by Greg Whitby, the Executive Director of Education for the Catholic Education Parramatta Diocese. Greg was the special guest of the Australian College of Educators, and was speaking to a cosy little group of teachers at St Cath’s Waverly.

Greg is one of those larger-than-life characters that has some fairly strong ideas about how education should look for the 21st Century, and I was pretty keen to hear him talk since I’d read quite a few articles about him. His views on school reform and his somewhat radical ideas on redesigning schools are aligned with a lot of my own thinking.

The talk focussed around a few key areas, among them the need for schools to reinvent themselves or to become dangerously irrelevant to our students, the need for teachers to engage in ongoing professional learning for themselves in order to truly embrace the notion of being a lifelong learner, and the way in which technology is simply an amplifier. Too often, says Whitby, the technology is seen in isolation as the “solution” to a school system’s problems, whereas in truth it does little except to amplify what is already happening. His talk was peppered with examples of schools who have done a lot to put the technology in place but very little else to change the underlying paradigm of learning in order to leverage the effectiveness of that investment.  What a waste.
There’s no doubt that Greg is an idealist and an optimist, but maybe we need more of them in the senior levels of educational administration. He can certainly lay claim to putting the talk into action, and taking a really holistic approach to school reform. It’s not about just the technology, it’s about the pedagogy, the PD, the architecture, the social design, etc… rethinking school really does mean RETHINKING school. That means taking a clean piece of paper and asking the hard questions about redesigning the process and every aspect of supporting that process, in order to better answer the fundamental question of “How to we improve the learning outcomes for every student?” That is a worthwhile goal, and really comes down to the heart of what education should be about… it’s not about remembering lots of stuff, not about getting better test scores, not about meeting some arbitrary standard… it’s just about improving the learning for every kid that goes through the process. And the first step in making that happen is to deconstruct the entire process from ground level, accepting no preconceived notions about what already exists, and to question every assumption about what we mean by “school”.

And it’s a hard process. We had the chance at my school a couple of years ago to rethink what we were on about when we rewrote our strategic plan. We had consultants come in and try to help us work through that rethinking process, and they really did try to push us to question every paradigm, challenge every assumption. They kept pushing us to reinvent what “school” might mean for the future, but it seemed to have fallen on largely deaf ears, with very little substantive change taking place, and – I think – large gaps in our long term strategy simply because we were unable to step back and disassociate ourselves from our idea of “school” enough to blue sky about what it could really be like if we let ourselves dream a bit. Instead, we just reworded the Mission Statement, created some new levels of hierarchy, and produced a fancy brochure to proclaim our success. Such a missed opportunity.

I’m glad that people like Greg are in there, giving it a go. I’m sure that great success will ultimately emerge from the process, even if it is just through his sheer force of will. I just hope there is enough people who share his vision, and most importantly his determination to actually make it happen, that these initiatives continue to take hold in a big way.

Thanks for the inspiration Greg.

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CC BY-SA 4.0 Big Dreams, Big Opportunities by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

One Reply to “Big Dreams, Big Opportunities”

  1. “it’s not about remembering lots of stuff, not about getting better test scores, not about meeting some arbitrary standard… it’s just about improving the learning for every kid that goes through the process.”
    That’s a nice thought, but it’s not what the schools are telling the kids. Of all the things I remember being told in school, “improving my learning” was not one of the things that stood out. What stood out was being told that if I wanted to go to college, I needed to be involved in EVERYTHING. Not focus on one thing–do EVERYTHING. I was told that if I wanted to get into college that I needed to give Kaplan a bunch of money so they could teach me the tricks of how to do well on the SAT. And yes, they are tricks. Well I did all of those things and now I’m a senior in college. So I guess what they were saying was true. However, if we want to change the ideals that the schools operate by, we need to also change what kids are told about what “learning” really is and why it matters.

That's all well and good, but what do YOU think?