How do we develop the capacity of schools to innovate?

(Originally published in head to head magazine, September, 2013)

Recent curricular policy in Scotland (and elsewhere) has focused on the need for schools to change – to radically transform themselves, providing the means through which 21st century learners become 21st century citizens and workers. Inevitably new curricula have been controversial, with debates focusing on issues such as skills vs. knowledge, assessment and qualifications, and the role of teachers as professional developers of the curriculum and agents of change. I wish to focus on this latter issue in this article. In doing so, I draw upon our 2012 ESRC-funded Teacher Agency and Curriculum Change research project, carried out over a full school year in 3 schools in Scotland. The insights generated by this research shed some interesting light on the ways in which we engage with curriculum change, and especially the conditions within which such change is attempted.

A key notion in new policy is that teachers will become agents of change. For example, the 2006 Progress and Proposals publication stated that:

Our approach to change … aims to engage teachers in thinking from first principles about their educational aims and values and their classroom practice. The process is based upon evidence of how change can be brought about successfully – through a climate in which reflective practitioners share and develop ideas.[1]

This is a worthy goal, hinting at the need to not only develop the capacity of teachers, but also to create the conditions within which teachers are able work constructively and innovate. However, arguably subsequent developments have focused on the former, while neglecting the latter. The teacher agency work provides a useful lens through which to examine this; it highlights that, while developing teacher capacity is a necessary condition for curriculum change, it is an insufficient one. We also need to address the cultural and structural conditions within which teachers learn and work. This involves having well thought out policies and support mechanisms at a national level, as well as school leaders taking responsibility for creating conditions that are propitious to school-based curriculum development.

First, we must ask what is meant by agency, a concept that has a long and often contested history in social science, most notably through the structure-agency debate. This is a complex issue, and I cannot do justice to it in this short article (see for a fuller treatment). Agency can be defined as the ability to critically shape one’s responses to problematic situations’. Strong agency is therefore the ability in a given situation to consider (and potentially carry out) multiple possible responses in the face of dilemmas. Weak agency, conversely, is when our responses are limited or constrained.  It is important to see agency not, as is widely claimed, as something that resides in individuals to be exercised according to rational choice. Instead, it is something to be achieved by people in particular situations, drawing upon their own capacities and working within their environment, and utilising available resources. Seen in such a light, agency is thus partially dependent upon the past, for example the skills, knowledge and values that people bring to bear on everyday problems. These feed into forming aspirations for the future – and clearly if people’s experience is limited, then this will impact upon the aspirations that they form. Prior experience and aspirations will shape the responses that people formulate in the face of practical constraints and opportunities in their present daily lives, and the ways in which they are able to draw upon resources available to them. In this view, agency is not therefore something that people possess, but instead is something that people achieve. Clearly, the nature of the environment within which people work is important. Powerful people with strong aspirations may be unable to achieve agency due to the constraints of their environment. For example, excellent and experienced teachers may be unable to implement CfE properly because of demands created by accountability systems (see for a book chapter covering this issue).

This perhaps all sounds a little theoretical, but there are clear practical implications for how we organise schools. In other words, if we want professionals in schools to be able to act constructively and intelligently to enact policy, rather than simply reacting defensively to tick boxes, then we need strong agency. This means both enhancing the skills and knowledge of teachers through professional learning, and creating conditions which enhance agency. One key area lies in the nature of relationships experienced by teachers in their day-to-day. They play a major role in the complex sense-making processes that are necessary when policy change brings in new ideas and new terminology. Such working relationships can and should be actively developed in schools, for example through the creation of new spaces for dialogue, and mechanisms such as peer-observation. Moreover, our research suggests that strong working relationships foster collegiality, enhance teacher knowledge and facilitate the spread of ideas about practice – in other words changing the culture of schools. This can mean the difference between ‘floundering in the dark’ – to quote one teacher participating in our recent Highland research – or enacting a new curriculum with confidence and understanding. The big question here, then, is ‘what sorts of relationships matter?’.

Our research points to a number of dimensions of relationships that need careful attention in schools. A key issue is the orientation of relationships. Vertical relationships – the hierarchies all too common in Scottish schools – have their place. They are vital for disseminating information, for example. However, they rarely provide opportunities for professional dialogue – one teacher on our project described their school meetings as being ‘like school assemblies’. Horizontal relationships – reciprocal connections between peers – are more suited to the development of a collegial culture, but there are a number of caveats here.

First, entirely formal relationships of this type (for example working parties) can be limited, in that they frequently have a narrow, outcomes-focused agenda. Second, horizontal relationships in school can be inward looking, focusing on existing practice. Teacher learning communities and learning rounds thus need critical external input – for injecting new ideas, providing access to expertise not available in the school, and helping teachers develop the concepts and language for critical engagement with policy. Otherwise, as one cynic recently suggested to me, learning rounds may be spaces where learning goes round and round! Such external impetus is generally required to create dissonance, to interrupt habitual practice – the grain of sand in the oyster shell that stimulates the development of the pearl.

Above all, relationships need to be substantive. They need to be about sense-making and the development of shared understandings when complex, new ideas come along in the form of policy or research. Equally important, such processes help teachers to develop a future orientation – imagining what might be possible, articulating purposes of education, and becoming cognisant of long-term effects of their teaching. Our research suggests that informal relationships can be fit for this purpose – providing mutual support and access to new ideas. In turn these contribute to enhanced teacher agency and the development of collegial and collaborative cultures – in short the sorts of conditions in schools where CfE will develop effectively. Of course such relationships do not develop in a vacuum. They need to be fostered, and they need space to grow. And finally they need support, encouragement and resourcing from school leaders. There is thus a significant role for leaders in shaping the environment where certain types of professional relationships flourish. Leaders have a clear role – to articulate a vision, to establish processes and structures within which relationships (and innovation) can thrive, and to mitigate risk. This is facilitative, rather than authoritarian leadership – leadership where power is put to good use, where trust and reciprocity are part of the deal, and where teacher agency develops readily.

[1] Scottish Executive (2006). A Curriculum for Excellence: progress and proposals. Page 4.