Transformational Change or Professional Engagement?

The recent report by the Commission on School Reform, By Diverse Means: Improving Scottish Education, unsurprisingly had a major focus on change. In particular, there were no fewer than 10 uses in the report of the phrase ‘transformational change’. In its use of this terminology, the report follows a decade or more of public policy in Scotland. Assessment is for Learning (AifL) explicitly used the term, drawing upon writing about organisational change by Senge and Scharmer1. A quick Google search for ‘transformational change + Scotland’ throws up multiple mentions from policy fields as diverse as early childhood provision, policing and schooling. But what does it all mean? And more importantly, are we missing the point when we focus on change to the exclusion of issues such as educational purpose, engagement with policy and critical professionalism.

I propose here to briefly address the second question, suggesting that we need to transcend our focus on change (often for the sake of change). A key issue is that we tend to focus too much on what needs to change, and not enough on why things need to change. There are various potential consequences of this. It can deprofessionalise teachers. Teachers readily become technicians – people who carry out procedures set by others, rather than thinking professionals, responding intelligently and critically to the often problematic and complex daily situations in their work. Teaching can be thus readily reduced to a series of applied techniques that research has ‘shown’ to work, and these can be applied uncritically to tick the box. We have all seen how assessment for learning, for example, has been quickly reduced to such approaches – in stark opposition to its early development which was based around critical adaptation by teachers (see for example the Black Box series by Paul Black et al.)2. It is interesting that such tendencies are also evident in the modern construction of teachers as ‘agents of change’ (i.e. agents of someone else’s policy) as opposed to being critical, professional agents per se. My main problem with such approaches is that questions of change are often divorced from questions of educational purpose – this puts the cart before the horse as we apply change before considering why it might be necessary.

An alternative to such technicist approaches lies in consideration – by teaching professionals – of the purpose of education, and of the issue of fitness for purpose of school practices. This is, in some ways, a linear process. It is also a process that is fundamentally about engagement, rather than change – indeed such engagement may lead to stasis rather than change. First, when considering new policy such as Curriculum for Excellence, the first step should be about sense-making – collegial discussion about the big ideas. Second, once there is a good level of understanding about these ideas (and I do not mean shared vision [groupthink?] here), then it is possible to devise practices that are fit for purpose. Only at this stage does it become possible to talk meaningfully about change – and indeed in some cases existing practices may be already fit for purpose, entailing little change to them. Conversely, this sort of critical engagement with policy may necessitate far-reaching changes to practice. My point here is that it is important to talk about engagement rather than change, even where change may be a consequence of engagement.

There is a caveat to add here. This is, of course, rarely a simple linear process. It is instead one that is subject to micro-politics, the capacity of staff within the school, and resources, to name just three issues. This is neatly illustrated in our teacher agency research (for example, see:, where we found that teacher agency was often limited by a low capacity to imagine alternative possibilities for CfE, and by school structures. We saw changes (or otherwise) prompted by the new curriculum that did not always map neatly onto the purposes espoused by CfE – in effect, there was often a lack of fit between purpose and practice. A greater focus on engagement with purpose, rather than a primary focus on change, would therefore greatly help as teachers grapple with the complexities of CfE, bringing about a closer fit between purpose and practice.


  1. SENGE, P. AND SCHARMER, O. (2001) Community Action Research, in: P. REASON AND H. BRADBURY (Eds) Handbook of Action Research  (London, Sage Publications)
  2. BLACK, P., HARRISON, C., LEE, C., MARSHALL, B. AND WILIAM, D. (2002) Working inside the black box: assessment for learning in the classroom (London, King’s College)