Schools + Change = How do you eat an elephant?

…One bite at a time.

When I started school it was the mid-1960s. I remember the controversy over Miss Crackenthorpe’s mini-skirt and her overall personification of the fashion of the Swinging Sixties. As a little girl I was in awe. I also vividly remember school life, the way that the classroom was arranged, learning ‘social studies’, spelling lists and reading, especially “Look at Spot” and “See Spot run” and the smells, particularly squashed banana.

One particular teacher, I remember in primary school, arranged us in rows according to our place in the class. I came about 6th, so I was positioned in the back left corner, pity help those at the “bottom of the class”, they were right at the teacher’s desk, where she actually spent a lot of her time.

School was fiercely steeped in the industrial era, cookie-cutter thinking and reflected the way that work was organised. At school:

–        The teacher did the teaching and determined what was to be learnt

–        The textbook was the curriculum

–        There was only one working/learning style

–        Only the best student work was displayed

–        Students learnt alone

–        Teachers had their own classroom

–        Didactic teaching was the norm

–        For every student there was a desk and for every desk there was a chair

–        Performing arts and sport were extra-curricula to the real work of schools

–        Buildings were designed with separated closed spaces along a corridor

–        Corridors provided the focus  linking the repeated, regular sized classrooms

–        Books were kept in libraries, which were protected by librarians

This list and elements may still characterise some schools today. Yet we live in a different era where pervasive technology and the breadth of career and life choices has necessitated change in how schools are designed and the learning that occurs, and as  *Marc Prensky highlights in ‘Engage Me or Enrage Me – What Today’s Learners Demand’ (Prensky, 2005,p.2):

Rather than being empowered to choose what they want … and to see what interests them … and to create their own personalized identity – as they are in the rest of their lives – in school, they must eat what they are served. And what they are being served is, for the most part, stale, bland, and almost entirely stuff from the past. Yesterday’s education for tomorrow’s kids.

So we want tomorrow’s education for tomorrow’s kids. But how? The process of change in schools and education is akin to turning around the proverbial ocean liner. Where do we start?

Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch: How to change things when change is hard (2010) presents a bite-sized model that supports the process of change, drawing from The Happiness Hypothesis used by psychologist Jonathan Haidt:

Our emotional side is like an Elephant and our rational side is like its Rider. Perched atop the Elephant, the rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small compared to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose… Changes often fail because the Rider [planning and direction] simply can’t keep the Elephant [energy to endure] on the road long enough to reach the destination. (p. 7)

The Heath brothers have a basic three-part framework for change:

  1. Direct the Rider – provide crystal clear direction
  2. Motivate the Elephant – engage people’s emotional side
  3. Shape the Path – adjust the environment or situation to make the change inevitable.

How can this model be directly applied to the school context. You will have to wait for the next post.

*Quote lifted from:


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