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April 1, 1995
Vol. 52
No. 7

Renewal in the Age of Paradox

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We live in exhilarating and terrifying times. We are experiencing greater economic flexibility, more technological complexity, more multicultural diversity, heightened moral uncertainty, and crises of national identity. Some have called this a postmodern age (see Hargreaves 1994 for a review) and an age of paradox (Handy 1994). What does it mean to teach, to lead, to renew ourselves and our schools in the midst of these transformations?
Above all, we need new guidelines and principles of change that aren't merely borrowed uncritically from the profit-centered business world. I will propose several principles of school renewal to help teachers navigate the turbulent currents of postmodern times. First, however, a brief rundown of what educators are up against in their renewal efforts.

Five Paradoxes

  1. Many parents have given up responsibility for the very things they want schools to stress. In the same week the Canadian public clamored for schools and school systems to adopt “zero tolerance” policies against violence, “Mortal Combat” was the top game rental at video stores (Barlow and Robertson 1994). Similarly, as parents increasingly demand that schools produce more literate graduates, they continue to allow their children to watch television for hours on end.
  2. Business often fails to use the skills that it demands schools produce. Lasch and Urry (1994) point out that there is “better education yet more joblessness among black American males,” and that despite rising literacy rates and graduation rates among black high school students in inner cities, jobs there have disappeared. The American economy is becoming pear-shaped, with highly skilled workers at the top, and a much larger underclass of unemployed, underemployed, or employed people in undemanding jobs at the bottom (Clegg 1990).
  3. More globalism produces more tribalism. As Secretary of Labor Robert Reich (1992, p. 3) has observed, global economies and ceaseless currency trading are making national borders irrelevant. At the same time, the U.S. National Education Goals stress national superiority, proclaiming that “United States students will be first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.” While the economic world is increasingly dominated by transnational corporations, national education systems encourage national curriculums and standards, retreating behind parapets of parochialism.
  4. More diversity and integration is accompanied by more emphasis on common standards and specialization. Society demands that students acquire more flexible work skills, so educators must emphasize problem solving and critical thinking and create interdisciplinary links among separate subject domains. Society calls for schools to respond to multicultural diversity, so educators must consider multiple intelligences, different learning styles, heterogeneous grouping, and the integration of special needs students into ordinary classes.At the same time, the obsession with national strength and identity are spawning standardized tests, international comparisons, and even school-by-school competition based on traditional performance evaluation. This evaluation emphasizes restricted definitions of intelligence, narrow learning styles, rigid sorting and tracking, and reaffirmation of subject specialties that most tests seem to value. No wonder many teachers are perplexed.
  5. Stronger orientation to the future creates greater nostalgia for the past. Complexity and uncertainty are leading many people to long for golden ages of traditional subjects, basic skills, and singular values in a world of clear moral certainties. Outcomes-based education precipitates fundamentalist insistence that the curriculum reassert Christian values (Brandt 1993). Multicultural diversity leads the privileged classes to retreat to private schools and charter schools and other such safe havens of traditional values (Soja 1989).

Six Principles of School Renewal

How can educators work with perpetual paradox? How can we be integrated and specialized, standardized and variegated, local and global, autonomous and accountable, embracing change and continuity? The existing literature of educational change offers only limited help. It either addresses problems of a bygone age (like the effective schools of the 1970s) or relies too heavily on pop-management corporate models of change. As a beginning, I propose six principles of school renewal that take these paradoxes into account.

1. Moving missions

Shared visions and common missions have their source in the corporate management literature. Drucker (1993, p. 53), for example, argues that “the organization must be single-minded; otherwise its members become confused....” This may work for business organizations, but is it appropriate for public schools?
Of course, teachers should have moral purposes and talk about their purposes. But common missions that require complete consensus, such as “educate all children to their full potential,” may become bland and vacuous because they must appease or appeal to so many different interests. At the same time, mission statements can become too fixed to enable sufficient responsiveness to changes in policy mandates, personnel, or student populations. Not that we should dispense with missions and visions altogether, merely that missions will work better if they are temporary and approximate, and do not require complete consensus.
Teachers and schools should therefore review and renew their purposes over time. Many people enter teaching because they care about children in particular or want to contribute to social improvement in general. Often these purposes become submerged as teachers fall prey to daily classroom pressures and routines (Fullan 1993). Teachers' purposes can also differ, leading to confusion and inconsistency for children and creating difficult or superficial staff relationships.
We must recognize, however, that people cannot be given a purpose: purposes come from within. My colleagues and I recently studied work cultures and educational change in eight high schools. We found that the teachers most likely to resist a newly legislated mandate to de-track 9th grade were those in academically successful suburban schools (Hargreaves et al. 1992). For them, the mandate addressed alien agendas of student equity in multicultural communities within the inner city. Policymakers often impose purposes in this way. So do some school principals. As Fullan (1993, p. 13) says, “It is not a good idea to borrow someone else's vision.”

2. Policy realization

If teachers are to continuously review and renew their moral purposes, they must have sufficient scope to do so. As it is, most educational policy inhibits opportunities for renewal, and, in fact, makes teachers mere tools of other people's purposes.
Insofar as possible, policy decisions should be determined at the immediate level where people will have to realize them (Corson 1990). Planned change that follows systematic cycles of development, implementation, and review is too inflexible and bureaucratic to respond to local circumstances (Louis 1994). Moreover, detailed documents that freeze policies in text become outdated and are overtaken even as they are being written—by changing communities, new technologies and legislation, research insights, and unanticipated problems (Darling-Hammond 1995).
Policy is best established by communities of people, within and across schools, who talk about the provisions, inquire into them, and reformulate them, bearing in mind the circumstances and the children they know best.
For example, I am working with the North York Board of Education, one of Canada's largest school districts, to create a process for realizing language policy across the curriculum. This district is one of immense linguistic and ethnic variety—more than 70 languages are spoken in its schools. Over half of its schoolchildren are categorized as English as a Second Language, and school populations are changing rapidly as new waves of immigrants come to the city. No one district policy can address these distinctive needs. So within and across schools, we are establishing teacher dialogue groups. These groups will revise a set of language learning principles, share good practices and initiate and review new ones, discuss case vignettes, and edit videos of teachers and university researchers speaking on language learning. They also will discuss how to accommodate the flexible teaching styles necessary to give all students a voice in large secondary school classes.
This approach does not eliminate the need for written policies about equity, standards, language-learning principles, and other matters. It merely enables schools and communities to make policies real through action and dialogue, thereby stimulating and sustaining renewal.

3. Reculturing

Before collective action and dialogue can take place, certain relationships must be built among teachers and others, relationships that form the culture of the school. To develop or alter these relationships is to reculture the school (Hargreaves 1991, Fullan 1993).
  • Cultures of individualism, where teachers have worked largely in isolation, being sociable with their colleagues, but sharing few resources and ideas, rarely visiting one another's classrooms, and engaging only occasionally in joint planning or problem solving (Little 1990).
  • Balkanized cultures, where teachers have worked in self-contained subgroups—like subject departments— that are relatively insulated from one another, and that struggle competitively for resources and principals' favors (Hargreaves 1994).
Both individualism and balkanization fragment professional relationships, making it hard for teachers to build on one another's expertise. They also stifle the moral support necessary for risk-taking and experimentation.
Reculturing the school to create collaborative cultures among teachers and with the wider community reverses these dynamics. It creates a climate of trust in which teachers can pool resources, deal with complex and unanticipated problems, and celebrate successes. Collaboration also furthers the development of a common professional language, so that teachers can resist the pervasive business vocabulary of quality control and performance targets that is now consuming education.
A key component of reculturing is the willful involvement of critics and skeptics, who might initially make change efforts more difficult. We must recognize that diverse expertise contributes to learning, problem solving, and critical inquiry.
A school improvement project my colleague Dean Fink and I are working on with the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education is a case in point. We have stipulated that in order for a school to participate, its school improvement team must include at least two teachers who normally are not considered to be on the leading edge of school initiatives. We wanted this project to be for all teachers in the schools involved—10 schools in Maryland's Prince George's County School District. We began with an orientation workshop in which we discussed the value of diverse expertise and viewpoints, and how experienced teachers who were rightly suspicious of change had often had negative experiences with change efforts.

4. Restructuring

Cultures do not exist in a vacuum; they are grounded in structures of time and space. These structures shape relationships. Structures of teacher isolation have their roots in schools that have been organized like egg crates since the mid-19th century: schools in which children are moved in batches through prescribed curriculums, from grade to grade, teacher to teacher. Similarly, balkanized teacher cultures are often a product of subject department structures based on the university-oriented system of Carnegie units, devised in the United States in the 1920s (Tyack and Tobin 1994).
If the schedule does not allow teachers to meet during the regular school day, they may become worn down and captives of their schedule—“prisoners of time” (National Education Commission on Time and Learning 1994). Under these circumstances, collaboration becomes exhausting and contrived—tagged on rather than integral to ordinary commitments and working relationships. It is time for teachers to work with the structural grain, not against it.
Some of these structural problems can be solved by administrative ingenuity. Routinely coordinated planning times can bring together teachers who teach the same grade or subject. Placing 1st and 6th grade teachers in adjacent classrooms can begin to break down stereotypes and the boundaries between the upper and lower ends of elementary school. Peer tutoring can have the same effect, bringing together not only students of different ages, but also the teachers who supervise them.
In the end, however, it makes no sense to devote so much effort to working around basic structures that are so unsympathetic to professional collaboration. Murphy (1991, p. 15) argues that restructuring “involves fundamental alterations in the relationships” among teachers, students, parents, administrators, and communities. For Sarason (1990, p. 10), these are relationships of power that we have avoided confronting, but we must now redistribute this power.
The Work of Restructuring Schools (Lieberman 1995) offers examples of new structures that encourage new ways of working. These include teacher teams, multi-age groups, and shared decision-making teams. To these we could add block scheduling; mini-schools or sub-schools, where no teacher meets with more than 80 students a week (Sizer 1992); and interdisciplinary programs that bring teachers of different subjects together.

5. Organizational learning

Working together is not just a way of building relationships and collective resolve. It is also a source of learning. It helps people to see problems as things to be solved, not as occasions for blame; to value the different and even dissident voices of more —al members of the organization; and to sort out the wheat from the chaff of policy demands. Collaborative cultures turn individual learning into shared learning. This is what Senge (1990) means by organizational learning. Learning organizations, he says, are organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free.... (p. 3)
Although organizational learning is becoming one of the strongest inspirations for educational change (for example, Louis 1994, Fullan 1993), the theory has limitations that derive from its origins in the corporate sphere. These limitations should make us cautious about transplanting it wholesale into education. For example, the commitment to continuous improvement can easily degenerate into interminable improvement, where no one values heritage and such vital ingredients of schooling as tradition, continuity, and consolidation.
In such settings, only incurable change addicts prosper. Some teachers are habitual explorers, voracious readers, enthusiastic conference-goers, and willing committee and task force volunteers. Others, especially classroom teachers in mid- to late-career, prefer to cultivate their own gardens, making small changes with their own classes where they know their efforts will make a difference (Richardson 1991, Huberman 1993). No one should be closed to change and continuous learning. But in institutions that value cultural transmission and stable socialization among their many goals, there are moments and places for consolidation and routine.
Another principle of organizational learning that does not transpose well from the corporate world concerns the dynamics of blame. That is, the idea that “everyone shares responsibility for problems generated by a system” (Senge 1990). Schools and teachers, however, have to deal with many mandates they do not control. To say that teachers share responsibility for the consequences of badly designed tests or inappropriate curriculums is unrealistic and unfair. This is not sharing responsibility; it is shifting blame to the victim. If organizational learning is to help us in school renewal, we need to renew the concept in ways more suited to public school realities.

6. Positive politics

Schools are intensely political places where power is everywhere. Teachers exercise power over their students, administrators exercise power over teachers, and the smarter teachers know how to manipulate or maneuver around administrators. In addition, schools are becoming more and more subject to the pressures of diverse groups with single-issue interests. Business organizations, computer companies, chambers of commerce; environmental lobbies; fundamentalist religious groups; and pressure groups opposing sexism, racism, and violence against women are all competing for space and influence in today's schools (Emberley and Newell 1994). The moves toward site-based management are also making schools and what they do more overtly political.
  • Understand the political configuration of your school. Who has formal and informal power? How do they exercise it? How are resources allocated? This will help you steer clear of moral martyrdom—pursuing noble causes without considering whose interests they threaten, and whose support you need.
  • Act politically to secure support and resources for the good of your own students and, indeed, all students. Use influence, persuasion, diplomacy, charm, self-mockery. Trade favors, influence power brokers, build coalitions, lobby for support, plant seeds of proposals before presenting them in detail, and find out how what you want meets the interests of others.
  • Empower others to be more competent. Assist students through cooperative instruction, active involvement in innovation, and by making them partners in their assessment through self-assessment and peer assessment. Empower parents by communicating with them in plain language, building partnerships with them (even when they are a problem!), and informing them of change. Empower colleagues by collaborating with them, involving them in decision making, sharing leadership, and sharing with them your vulnerabilities and uncertainties as a leader as well as your successes.
  • Embrace conflict as a necessary part of change. Productive conflict brings differences into the open, shows sensitivity to opposing interests and positions, avoids false or premature consensus, and promotes movement beyond early (and perhaps unfounded) anxieties about one's own threatened interests.
  • Reclaim the discourse of education. Challenge the business rhetoric that is consuming education and the way we think about it. Explain yourselves to parents and the public as well as you do to your students. Avoid defensive professional euphemisms. Instead, convey your principles through memorable phrases, vivid examples, and simple stories.
Teachers are highly skilled at explaining the world to their students, but are often much less skilled at explaining to the world what they do with their students. Language is power—use it. And use positive politics to help you take charge of change rather than being its conduit or victim. Pursue each of these principles of school renewal for those who matter most—the children you teach.

Barlow, M., and H-j., Robertson. (1994). Class Warfare: The Assault on Canada's Schools. Toronto: Key Porter Books.

Blase, J. (1988). “The Teachers' Political Orientation Vis-à-Vis the Principal: The Micropolitics of the School.” In The Politics of Reforming School Administration: Yearbook of the Politics of Education Assocation, edited by J. Hannaway and R. Crowson, pp. 113–126. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Brandt, R. (1993). “Time of Trial for Public Education.” Educational Leadership 51, 4: 3.

Clegg, S. R. (1990). Modern Organizations. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage.

Corson, D. (1990). Language Policy Across the Curriculum. Clevedon Avon: Multilingual Matters.

Darling-Hammond, L. (1995). “Policy for Restructuring.” In The Work of Restructuring Schools, edited by A. Lieberman. New York: Teachers College Press.

Drucker, P. (1993). Post-Capitalist Society. New York: Harper Collins.

Emberley, P., and W. Newell. (1994). Bankrupt Education: The Decline of Liberal Education in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press

Fullan, M. (1993). Change Forces. New York: Falmer Press.

Handy, C. (1994). The Age of Paradox. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Business Press.

Hargreaves, A. (1991). “Restructuring Restructuring: Postmodernity and the Prospects for Educational Change.” Paper presented to the Second International Conference on Teacher Development, Vancouver, Canada, February 1991, later published in Journal of Education Policy 9, 1: 47–65.

Hargreaves, A. (1994). Changing Teachers, Changing Times: Teachers' Work and Culture in the Postmodern Age. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hargreaves, A., J. Davis, M. Fullan, R. Wignall, M. Stager, and R. Macmillan. (1992). Secondary School Work Cultures and Educational Change. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Huberman, M. (1993). The Lives of Teachers. New York: Teachers College Press.

Lasch, S., and J. Urry. (1994). Economies of Signs and Space. London: Sage.

Lieberman, A., ed. (1995). The Work of Restructuring Schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

Little, J. W. (1990). “The Persistence of Privacy: Autonomy and Initiative in Teachers' Professional Relations.” Teachers College Record 91, 4: 509–536.

Louis, K. S. (1994). “Beyond Managed Change: Rethinking How Schools Improve.” School Effectiveness and Improvement 5, 1: 2–24.

Murphy, J. (1991). Restructuring Schools: Capturing and Assessing the Phenomena. New York: Teachers College Press.

National Education Commission on Time and Learning. (1994). Prisoners of Time. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Reich, R. B. (1992). The Work of Nations. New York: Random House.

Richardson, V. (1991). “How and Why Teachers Change?” In The School as a Work Environment, edited by S. C. Conley and B. S. Cooper. Needham, Mass.: Allyn and Bacon.

Sarason, S. (1990). The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Senge, P. (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday.

Sizer, T. (1992). Horace's School: Redesigning the American High School. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Soja, E. W. (1989). Postmodern Geographies. New York: Verso.

Tyack, D., and W. Tobin. (Fall 1994). “The Grammar of Schooling: Why Has It Been So Hard to Change?” American Educational Research Journal 31, 3: 453–480.

Andy Hargreaves is director of CHENINE (Change, Engagement and Innovation in Education) at the University of Ottawa, research professor in the Lynch School of Education and Human Development at Boston College, and honorary professor at Swansea University in the UK. He is cofounder and president of the ARC Education Project, a group of nations committed to broadly defined excellence, equity, well-being, inclusion, democracy, and human rights in education.

Hargreaves was president of the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement 2017–2019, served as education advisor to the premier of Ontario 2015–2018, and is currently an advisor to the first minister of Scotland. He holds honorary doctorates in the Education University of Hong Kong and the University of Uppsala in Sweden. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He has been honored in the United States, the UK, and Canada for services to public education and educational research.

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