Another dot in the blogosphere?

Posts Tagged ‘change

I used to conclude two courses I taught at NIE with this: Change is not about asking for permission first. It is about asking for forgiveness later.

Change is not about asking for permission first. It is about asking for forgiveness later.

I shared this at a panel after my keynote, and before I could elaborate, the moderator reminded the audience that they should not be doing this with budgets or financial transactions. Taken out of the context, it might have seemed like I was advising people break the law. I was not.

The context of my courses was taking ownership of problems in schooling and teaching. The content of my talk was about changing mindsets on how to learn in the workplace. I was advising participants and my audience to be change agents instead of waiting for change to happen.

It might be difficult to visualise this or see the impact of such actions. Thankfully, there is a YouTube video that illustrates this nicely.

Video source

An activist wanted to send Twitter-Germany a message about dealing with hate messages. As he kept getting stonewalled, he decided to take action.

He made stencils out of 30 terrible tweets and sprayed the messages in chalk outside Twitter’s office in Hamburg. The semi-permanence of the chalked text was more impactful visually than scrolling pixels on a screen. They were tough to ignore.

The video ended with Twitter doing in real life what it seemed to be doing online. It removed what was immediately outside its building on the pavement, but left intact the majority of messages slightly further away.

I do not know if there was a longer term impact of the activist’s actions, but his message spread on Twitter, RSS feeds, and news sites.

He did not wait for permission to take action because he saw a real and urgent need to do something. If he got into the good sort of trouble, he could ask for forgiveness later.

The lesson is this: It is not about guaranteeing a change as a result of action; it is about taking action when few, if any, are ready or prepared. It is about moving in the right direction even though the destination is not clear.

It is about not asking for permission to move, and if you make reasonable mistakes, asking for forgiveness later.

Reality. Facts. Are there objective truths or are things subjectively negotiated? Most people experience the law of gravity. Others believe the Earth just sucks.

In the hard sciences, laws are like reality, facts, or truths that are not negotiable. Education, on the other hand, is a social science, and it is littered with theories. Ideas and results can change with perspective and context.

Here is a simplification of this complex phenomenon. Let’s say you wanted to record a tranquil video of a tourist hotspot. How would you do it?

Video source

One way would be to give up and say this was an impossible task. Another might be to wake up really early and try to get footage. Still another way might be to visit when the place was closed.

The maker of the video above shared several strategies for being in the crowd, but not of it. These included taking low angles, selecting areas of focus, grabbing opportunities as they emerged, and relying on good timing.

The same strategies could be translated when implementing change in schooling and educational contexts. It becomes about taking different perspectives and using novel strategies in order to redefine reality.

I shared the photo montage below previously without the quote. I made another one with the text after reading an article about oBike’s shared bicycle service extending to London.

A system that relies on people to be thoughtful, courteous and responsible is doomed to fail.

One person commented on the article: A system that relies on people to be thoughtful, courteous and responsible is doomed to fail.

I agree. From a systems perspective, you cannot expect a group of individuals to behave formulaically by assuming good behaviour will override bad behaviour for a net positive.

Groups of people become meta-organisms like a hive of bees or a colony of ants. They become a different creature, not a collection of animals.

So this got me thinking about how leaders and administrators think about implementing change in school systems.

The tongue-in-cheek and in-your-face collection above bares some truths. But reality is more nuanced than assuming all leaders are dimwits.

Some do not know they are uninformed, some do not want to know, and some acknowledge the gaps. They are the optimists, pessimists, and realists of systemic change.

The optimists have good intentions, theories, and ideals. Policies are shaped in their mould, but they fail to translate on the ground because of practical and cruel realities.

The pessimists plan and implement incremental or piecemeal change because they view their efforts as fighting the tide. Whatever they do, they go with the flow because that is what wins in the short term.

The realists rely on praxis — the combination of theories and practices, or theory-informed practices. They know that people understand the need for change, but do not necessarily want to be change agents.

Comic on change.

Realists do not just plan and act on theories. They also collect meaningful and timely data to inform policy. They do not simply work on a hunch, they work on something with punch.

Realists know they must address mindsets before they can change attitudes and behaviours. They include incentives and disincentives to shape mindsets.

Realists do not simply charge ahead and say “Follow me!” without monitoring the followers. They pull from the front, push from the back, and mess with the middle.

Realists know that they cannot lead alone. They must mentor or identify change agents and informal leaders. These are individuals that are not appointed from above, but emerge from the ground instead. They lead not because of position, but because of reputation.

A system designed for people to not have buy-in, ownership, and direction is doomed to fail.

Leaders of change do not neatly fit into the categories. They form a continuum instead. The best ones are centred in reality and learn from the successes and failures of other systems.

You follow. You consume. You take for your use. 


Lead. Create. Give back. 


Routine. It is repeated, expected, and scheduled, so it feels safe. Just take as examples your typical commute to school or work, and once you are there, the mostly routine nature of schooling and work.

But therein lies the insidious harm of routine. Your brain switches off as you operate in autopilot. This is fine if you are a robot and your circumstances do not change. But you are a learning creature and learning is about responding to change.

Jedidiah Jenkins recognised this decided to make an extreme move. He quit his job and cycled from Oregon, USA, to the southern tip of South America.

Video source

From the blurb in the YouTube page and from the video:

When you’re a kid, everything is astonishing. Everything is new, and so your brain is awake and turned on … Once your brain establishes a routine, it stops … the alertness goes away

Once you’re an adult, that’s a choice… it’s about getting out of routine.

Routine is comforting, but too much of it is bad. It dulls your senses and it kills your joy for life.

Routine could also be the enemy of lifelong learning. It is the border wall that separates you from discovering and uncovering. It is the safe space that stops you from taking risks and embracing change.

But we do not have to do something as drastic as Jenkins. The key strategy to create discomfort or dissonance. We learn when we are pushed off balance and attempt to right ourselves or to go with the flow.

One way to learn like this is to read, watch, or listen to something everyday that challenges you. That is my routine: A routine of change.

Video source

I find Rube Goldberg machines fascinating. They are basically just chains of immediate cause-and-effect, but when well done, the whole is better than the sum of its parts.

So how did this Japanese group make a better Rube Goldberg machine? They added a narrative to it. The rolling balls were characters in a story that featured friendship, misadventure, a rescue, suspense, and a happy ending.

It is one thing to build a creative and intricate Rube Goldberg machine; it is another to let a narrative drive it. But ask almost anyone which they will remember and they are likely to say the one with the narrative. We are just programmed that way.

Now what do your change initiatives look and sound like? Be they piecemeal or systemic, is there a narrative that drives it? Does your change process look like a checklist, a spreadsheet, or a story? What connects and moves people? What is your next move?

Last week, news broke that seemed to rock the schooling and teaching worlds in Singapore.

The number of tweets about the school mergers, analyses [example], and opinion pieces [example] practically overshadowed the other hot topic of a few church leaders serving prison sentences.

Systemically speaking, the school mergers are a response to a generational change. The long story short is this: Singapore schools, junior colleges in particular, are feeling the impact of declining birth rates over the last 25 years. If you play just the numbers game, fewer kids mean smaller student intakes means fewer schools — and arguably fewer teachers — are needed.

If some teachers are worried now, they might look back with the benefit of hindsight of how their friends and relatives were retrenched during downsizing exercises in other industries.

While some of these job losses and changes might be due to cyclical events like the ebbs and flows of our economy, you cannot ignore the larger scaling down efforts due to declining birthrates.

The cyclic events are like hula hoops in that what goes around comes around. But the hoops are tumbling under the gravity generated by the birthrate slope.

The changes in school resource allocation might be driven primarily by population dynamics now. In the years to come, the changes might be due to automation as enabled by rapidly evolving technologies.

It might be difficult to see how teachers might be replaced with technology because teaching is such a human and subjective task. But we already know of people who teach “robotically” or we might be aware of vendors trying to offer automated solutions. The latter include “analytics” platforms and services that monitor, diagnose, and remediate students on-the-fly.

So how might teachers and policymakers respond to impending change? The current response provides some clues and I counter with alternatives.

The latest merger response is thinking inside the box. The numbers game is typified by comments [source] like:

Currently, there are 23 schools offering a JC programme including Integrated Programme schools. All eight JCs involved in the latest merger exercise can each take in up to 800 students annually, however their enrolment numbers have fallen – one of them, in fact, has a student population size of only between 500 and 600. Without the mergers, the Year 1 intakes at some of the JCs could fall to as low as 200 or 300 in the coming years.

In light of the impending mergers, Serangoon JC, Innova JC, Tampines JC and Jurong JC will not take in any JC1 students next year.


The ministry reiterated that falling cohort sizes would limit the co-curricular activities (CCAs) available at schools, as the CCAs require a minimum number of students in order for learning and participation to be meaningful. At secondary schools, declining enrolment could also affect the range of subject combinations which students can take in upper secondary level.

School mergers meet the number quota. These in turn allow school curricula and programmes to operate as they normally would.

This seems to solve the problem because the numbers look good in a spreadsheet and policy document. However, these measures still operate inside the box of business-as-usual (others might point out that this business is cruel).

Why not take the opportunity to try something different that leverages on other changes or helps educators work towards a fuzzy future?

Some outside the box ideas include, but are not limited to:

  • Co-curricular activities (CCAs) in centralised venues
  • Boutique programmes
  • Having more than one teacher per lesson (team teaching)

The centralisation of some CCAs is already partially outside the school box. Schools that do not have the numbers or resources send their students to other providers and venues. Think about sports like sailing, canoeing, dragon boating, bowling, shooting, wall-climbing, etc. Non-sports programmes might include computer programming, geocaching, community service, new media production, and more.

The affected schools and zones might adopt the boutique approach in that they embrace smaller class sizes. These run not on the efficiency-driven model but on one of effectiveness instead.

Hattie conducted meta analyses that concluded class size reduction only had a very small effect size of 0.2 (effect sizes of 0.2 and below are considered small). However, arguments persist for smaller class size (lower student-teacher ratios) thanks to conflicting research.

We already reduce class sizes for students with special needs or students who are not academically blessed. They undergo programmes that leverage on their strengths and alternative methods like e-portfolios, experiential strategies, and most importantly, closer teacher attention.

One boutique strategy is to have more than one teacher in each class. I do not mean administratively having two form teachers per class. I mean having two or more teachers in class during each lesson, i.e., team teaching.

This is already the norm is some Normal or Normal Technical subjects. This might also be the case when “special needs” students are integrated with “normal” students.

Having more than one teacher per class could address many issues:

  • The bean counter’s problem of having a surplus of teachers per school goes away because of the lower student-teacher ratio.
  • The teachers of the same subject could take turns to teach different sub-topics.
  • Team teaching could be part of teacher mentoring in terms of content expertise, classroom management, school culture, etc.
  • Teachers can share the workload of providing feedback and grading. A smaller burden could lead to more personalised attention to students.
  • Team teaching could allow teachers to specialise in different types of students and meet specific learner needs, e.g., some students need more remediation while others need more challenges.
  • Having less administrative work and a shared academic load could contribute to the ever elusive work-life balance.
  • Teachers finding better balance, deeper meaning, and more time to reflect and develop professionally all point to better retention and job satisfaction.

If the balance tips to a better quality of life, perhaps teachers might create more life (wink!), and possibly contribute to an increase in birthrate. The falling birthrate was officially the root issue after all, so anything to cause a sustained rise is good, is it not?

We cannot keep applying old rules to new changes, or using the tired excuses like “not efficient” or “not cost effective”. We should not have to wait until times are dire and resources are low to try something different.

We still have plenty and we can afford to change. If we do not try now, we might not be able to afford it when dire change arrives.

Click to see all the nominees!

QR code

Get a mobile QR code app to figure out what this means!

My tweets


Usage policy

%d bloggers like this: