When GEMS Wellington Academy Silicon Oasis in Dubai implemented the first blended IB curriculum, they assumed that their greatest challenges would involve infrastructure and technology. Courses would be delivered by instructors from outside of the region and students would be guided by their teachers in Dubai. The benefits were clear. Students could engage in more self-paced learning, participate in a wider variety courses, and engage with topics in more depth with their Dubai peers and teachers.
While the implementation of the program has been successful and IB exam results have been strong, the assumptions school leaders made about the roll-out were somewhat off-base. The technology and the delivery of the IB content worked seamlessly, or close to seamlessly. Yet, teachers, students, and parents struggled with this new model of education. Some students came to class unprepared; teachers felt insecure; parents wanted to know who was in charge.
In January, 2016, Deputy Head of School, Tracy Moxley and a team of four secondary teachers and middle leaders decided to dig into the challenge and the promise of truly blended education as part of the Creating Communities of Innovation research project with Harvard’s Project Zero. At the outset, they assumed that their research question would be focused on the environment success factors and skills required for blended approach to education. Before jumping into research, however, they spent time learning from their environment - interviewing students and teachers, collecting feedback from parents, and observing classroom interactions.
Within several months, the research team found that the anxiety felt by stakeholders resulted not from a lack of skills (they had these), nor did it result from problems with program delivery (which was effective). In fact, they found that students, parents, and teachers struggled not to understand the blended program itself, but to understand their shifting identity within the program. The sands at this progressive school in the desert are shifting. And, with that, the community’s understanding of themselves - and of learning overall - is beginning to shift as well.
The next step for the team at Wellington Academy is to fully outline these dispositions and the environmental and leadership frameworks that help to create them. Yet, their nascent work speaks to the overall challenge of real school improvement.
In his book, Difficult Conversations, Douglas Stone outlines three forms of discord that may arise in a conversation:
Difficult conversations, he posits, emerge from disagreements that challenge identity. Identity is connected to our tacit knowledge and, I would argue, there is no area of tacit knowledge stronger than education. We have all spent a great deal of time in school. We all have strong feelings associated with our own education and beliefs about what did and did not work.
Teachers enter the field of education in order to make a difference and have strong personal experiences that guide them in their choice and in their practice. Parents tell students what to expect and how to behave in school. This is mirrored by their hopes and dreams for their children.
And most of the time, this works. Or at least this has worked. Relatively homogeneous communities share cultural norms around education and goals for their children. When this is shaken, passions are aroused. For example, the appointment of Betsy DeVoss, as Secretary of Education, challenges what many educators and communities believe and value resulting in anger and frustration.
There are two challenges - and opportunities - on the near horizon that schools must address before we, as a community feel fully prepared. One is the availability of AI and adaptive technologies to create more personalized pathways for students through their education. The second is the need to develop a largely different set of skills in order to thrive in today and tomorrow. This month, the World Economic Forum met to discuss “Shaping the Future of Education, Gender, and Work.” As their report stated:
“Technology and globalization are significantly transforming work. However, education and training systems, having remained mostly static and under-invested in for decades, are largely inadequate for these new labour markets...We must therefore rethink the way talent is developed and deployed in the world.”
Education, at best, has always been a cultural and academic agreement about what matters most. At worst, it’s been a guess. New technologies, richer data, and a sense of economic urgency can all be levers for more effective and impactful delivery of education. It’s clearly time for a change - and that change will need to come from the inside out.