The most important thing is people
Whenever we are faced with a problem we have two choices. The first is to put the problem in the centre and come up with a way to fix it, or the second is to put the people in the centre and spend time and energy figuring out why they have the problem, what causes them to have the problem and what they need to solve the problem.
Too often we take the first option because putting the problem in the centre results in much quicker fixes. Unfortunately, these quick fixes rarely fix the problem and are more likely to just transfer the problem somewhere else.
Putting people in the centre of problems is messy because people are complex and they lead complex lives within complex communities. It takes time and energy to use a human-centred approach when solving problems. But when we do the solutions we come up with are much more likely to be effective and provide a long term solution even for the most swampy of problems.
In education, we regularly adopt a ‘problem at the centre’ approach. When New Zealand’s long tail of underachievement first came to light our government’s responses were to implement National Standards for primary students and a goal of 80% of students leaving secondary school with NCEA Level 2. What did this achieve? A cohort of students who have experienced a very narrow primary curriculum; a cohort of teachers with little experience at implementing the front half of our curriculum; and school leavers who have L2 NCEA but not the right combination of credits to access post-secondary qualifications such as apprenticeships.
Thankfully National Standards have been relegated to the past, and there is a reawakening of the front half of the curriculum for our learners. It is no coincidence that many schools are exploring play-based approaches to learning, in an attempt to give students the childhood they deserve. At a recent NCEA evening, we were told that part of the philosophy of the proposed changes to NCEA was to address the lack of literacy and numeracy skills for school leavers. We seem to be in fix-up mode.
But are we learning anything? From my perspective, I see little evidence of human-centred problem-solving for the current set of educational challenges we are trying to address. We are going flat out erecting large learning spaces, under the belief that these buildings will foster greater collaboration between teachers and more learning opportunities for students. In many places, these buildings are delivering on that promise.
But in other places, they are not. We see teachers operating in large spaces as though they were still in a single cell classroom (we clearly are not remembering the Open Plan phase of the 70’s and 80’s). We see groups of teachers acting as a single unit with one teacher teaching while the others are watching, kind of like turn-teaching. We see other teachers attracted to new positions because they get to teach in a single cell classroom again.
We have to hope that the educative endeavours in New Zealand are underpinned with the very best of intentions. But continuing to allow the problem to be at the centre rather than people, keeps us on the treadmill of quick fixes that in reality are just problem transfers.
Until we understand the needs of our learners and their whānau, and our teachers and leaders and use this understanding to innovatively solve problems, we will continue to ride the fixity train. It is time to acknowledge that many of the problems that education is expected to fix actually have their root causes elsewhere. We need to attack the root of problems, with a human-centred approach, if are to achieve long term sustainable solutions to the many complex issues currently facing our communities.
He aha te mea nui o te ao. He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata
What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people.
The challenge for every organisation, not just schools, is to put people at the centre of the problems they are trying to solve. Human-centred problem solving does take longer but the chances of it being effective in the long term are much greater.
Til next time
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