Why school reform isn’t possible

After reading through the FutureLab publication referred to in my last post, I’ve been re-reading an article by Seymour Papert titled “Why School Reform is Impossible“, in which he considers two reviews of his book The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer, and another book titled Tinkering Towards Utopia: A century of public school reform by David Tyack and Larry Cuban.

Papert (the ICT optomist) describes his initial response to the reviews and to the ideas published in Tyack and Cuban’s book which look more pessimistically at the claims of the impact of ICT on school reform. He describes his initial response of being adversarial, wanting to refute the ideas presented in these writings  – but, on reflection, has moved in this article to a position of realising that there is a key difference being considered here – that of school change vs school reform. Papert describes the difference in this story:

In The Children’s Machine, I tell a story in terms of institutional and cultural dynamics rather than of cognitive science along the lines of the following brief outline: The first microcomputers in schools were in the classrooms of visionary teachers who used them (often with LOGO) in very personal ways to cut across deeply rooted features of School (what Tyack and Cuban neatly call “the grammar of school”) such as a bureaucratically imposed linear curriculum, separation of subjects, and depersonalization of work. School responded to this foreign body by an “immune reaction” that blocked these subversive features: The control of computers was shifted from the classrooms of subversive teachers into “computer labs” isolated from the mainstream of learning, a computer curriculum was developed… in short, before the computer could change School, School changed the computer.

The idea that reform is something that occurs as the result of intentional and planned interventions, while change is something that occurs almost ecologically is fundamental to the response that Papert is making. He explains further…

…to say that School changes the reform is very different from simply saying that School resists or rejects the reform. It resists the reform in a particular way — by appropriating or assimilating it to its own structures. By doing so, it defuses the reformers and sometimes manages to take in something of what they are proposing.

There’s a lot more in the article than what I’ve reflected on here, but it serves as a salient reminder that anything we attempt to introduce into a school system in terms of reform, innovation, change etc will inevitably be met by the considerable forces of resistance from within the system itself, and that, when evaluating our successes in terms of the reforms or innovations, we must be careful to make sure that we are looking for the emergence of unintended outcomes as well as those we had intended (or hoped for) to make sure that we are truly monitoring and aware of the changes that may be occurring before our very noses. As Papert notes in his conclusion…

…reform will not work to give advice to reformers about how to do it better. My own view is that education activists can be effective in fostering radical change by rejecting the concept of a planned reform and concentrating on creating the obvious conditions for Darwinian evolution: Allow rich diversity to play itself out. Of course, neither of us can prove the other is wrong. That’s what I mean by diversity.

One thought on “Why school reform isn’t possible

  1. I agree that we need to consider the unintended outcomes when thinking about change. I am sure those who planned the testing regime in the USA didn’t have in mind that teachers would teach to the test or that curriculum would narrow. I wonder if they could have come up with a different design had they given more it thought…
    The other thing we need to take into account is our own mental models and the effect our own assumptions have on moving forward, both individually and organisationally. Think of all those assumptions wafting around the universe and getting in the way (in some cases)! Part of developing the conditions to allow radical change is through developing norms and ways of working together that allow for risk taking; and by honing our personal listening skills.


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