Betting on the End of the World

For nearly two decades now, I have been dealing with the issue of change in schools. The literature and airwaves are filled with talk about how the education systems around the world are failing our children and how schools are unable to shift from an industrial model of education to one that is more suited to the 21st century.

It is at this point that the disagreements about what a 21st century education really means start. Some people believe that the answer lies in the use of technology, others think that the entire curriculum has to change. There are those who argue that we need to go back to the basics and that the standards have deteriorated from what they were in the past. “Children today” they say “do not know the meaning of hard work and teachers are soft”.

In South Africa they even have a name for those teachers, they call them the ‘Mandela’ teachers referring to the fact that corporal punishment was outlawed under the Mandela government and, as far as they are concerned, that is when the rot set in.
The truth, in my opinion, is that they are all correct to some extent. Peter Senge in his book The Dance of Change uses the metaphor of a tree seed when describing the change process. He explains that the possibility of a tree exists with the seed but that possibility only emerges if it exists within a “reinforcing growth process”. He also points out that if “the seed does not have the potential to grow, there’s nothing anyone can do to make a difference.” A teacher who does not attempt to learn new ideas and ways of teaching. One who does not read about educational thinking and innovations and is not willing to contemplate adapting their teaching to suit the reality of the children they teach – is a seed without the potential for growth. They must believe that the world has not and is not going to change.
Technology can act as an enabler or force multiplier for learning. The technophobes and alarmists who complain about the effect of screen time on children (often citing poorly conceived studies with limited sample sizes, done in very short timeframes) are ignoring the argument that any human endeavour contains within it the ability to bring about both improvement and harm. In Teaching as a Conserving Activity, Neil Postman points out that from the 1970s children spend more time in front of the television than they do in school.
A good teacher (and school) knows that they are responsible for making sure that the risks of using the technology are managed and limited and that the rewards are maximised so that the ability for the technology to become invisible to the learning is realised. Fullan described this as a ‘skinny’ solution. One that yields both engagement and efficiency. I am convinced that there were teachers who complained about the introduction of ballpoint pens because it would undermine the important socialisation that took place when the inkwells were refilled.
The proponents of curriculum change are also not entirely wrong. If I look at what has happened in South Africa (and in many other countries), there is a mismatch between the educational and political purpose of curriculum change. From an educational perspective, curriculum change needs to ensure that what children are doing in class is adapted to their strengths and learning style. It must ensure that it is relevant the society that they live in. It must be focused on providing them with the knowledge, skills and attitudes they need to succeed in the world. Politically, curriculum change is focused on ensuring compliance for the purpose of justifying the use of public money to the electorate.
One of the critical differences between these two mindsets is the timeframes involved. An educationally motivated curriculum change is slow. Managers of this change understand that there will be setbacks and implementation dips. They understand that it takes time for teachers to build the skills, understanding and experience required for the benefits of the change to be realised. Political curriculum change works according to election cycles. It is based on what Fullan and Hargreaves call the ‘business capital view of teaching’, this approach cannot result in high-quality teaching according to them because it relies on ‘fear, force and financial short-sightedness.’ They must believe that change in the world can be controlled by edict and unwanted change can be prevented.
The back to basics argument is related to the compliance movement. When teachers argue for a return to basics they are not entirely wrong. Willingham points out that “cognitive science has shown that the sorts of skills that teachers want for students – such as the ability to analyze and to think critically – require extensive factual knowledge”, so the basics are important. However, when this point is made as an argument against change the teacher is often choosing to misunderstand the purpose of the change. Their point can only be valid if the required change undermines their ability to adequately cover the factual knowledge required for competence at their grade level. The older the children are, the more this argument is undermined by the information revolution. They must distinguish between what is being taught (curriculum) and how it is being taught (praxis). Teachers with this mindset often believe that knowledge never changes or evolves and what was valid decades ago is automatically still valid.

There can only be one explanation in trying to understand governments, and teachers who resist change because they believe that:

  • The world has not and is not going to change and,
  • that change in the world can be controlled by edict and unwanted change can be prevented and,
  • that knowledge never changes or evolves and what was valid decades ago is automatically still valid.

The only logical explanation I can think of is that they must believe that the world is about to come to an end. They are not making the effort to change because they are betting on the end of the world.
Colin Northmore
Feb 2016

  1. Senge, P., Kleiner, A., Roberts, C., & Ross, R. (2011). The Dance of Change: The Challenges of Sustaining Momentum in a Learning Organization (The Fifth Discipline) [Kindle iOS version]. Retrieved from
  2.  Postman, N. (1979) Teaching as a conserving activity. New York: Delacorte Press.
  3.  Fullan, M. (2012) ‘3 Pedagogy and Change: Essence as easy’, in Stratosphere: Integrating Technology, Pedagogy, and Change Knowledge. Canada: Prentice-Hall (Canada)
  4. Hargreaves, A. and Fullan, M. (2012) Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School. United States: Teachers’ College Press.
  5. Willingham, D. T. (2010) Why don’t students like school? A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for your classroom. San Francisco, CA: Wiley, John & Sons.


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