The quest to achieve innovation and improvement at scale could be considered the holy grail of education reform, with governments and increasingly donor-funded initiatives, aspiring to achieve sustained, systemic innovation and improvement that reaches every student, in every classroom, in every school in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Despite a strong desire for achieving scale, there is in fact limited consensus about what is actually meant by scale, the types of interventions and ideas that should be scaled, or ultimately whether scale is a desirable intention or outcome in education. It is exactly this uncertainty about the very concept of scale, and its desirability and achievability, that prompted The Education Hub to write its latest report, The Quest For Scale, which explores the literature on scaling and potential new models for achieving system-wide innovation and improvement.
Traditional definitions of scale tend to focus primarily on expanding numbers. That is, getting an intervention into more schools, typically as quickly as possible. However, there is a growing recognition that conceptualising scale (and by extension the success of an initiative) purely quantitatively fails to capture the often significant variation in implementation and impact of an initiative across different contexts and populations.
Indeed, a growing number of scholars question the whole notion of scale, arguing that ‘going to scale’ rarely delivers the desired outcomes or intended systems change for schools.
Critics often challenge scaling on the grounds that it is antithetical to contemporary theories about teaching and learning. University of Harvard Professor Richard Elmore has suggested that “there seems to be endless optimism … that somehow we can make things better by ‘implementing’ something called ‘best practices’ ‘at scale’” which demonstrates “an irresponsibly simplistic and schematic view of human learning and development”.
The context-rich nature of teaching and learning means that any attempt to identify one “best practice” is futile. Consequently, we should be less concerned with identifying the right innovation to implement at scale or determining how best to adapt it to individual contexts, and more concerned with creating a culture of schooling that enables continuous improvement and innovation.
This rejection of best practice challenges the traditional ‘product approach’ to education reform, which involves the implementation and scaling of a specific programme or intervention, typically focused on a discrete problem or area of education.
While there is undoubtedly a need for programmatic approaches to foster improvement in teaching and learning, it is inconceivable that individual products or even a series of products and programmes can fully address the enduring challenges facing our education system. Furthermore, a product approach runs the risk of reducing teaching to a transactional model, which is based on the administration of a series of decontextualised treatments or discrete interventions.
This challenge to traditional notions of scaling is not to suggest that system-wide innovation and improvement is undesirable or even (potentially) unattainable. Rather, the quest for scale needs to be reconceptualised, and a new paradigm for innovation and improvement developed. There is growing recognition of a demand – rather than input-based approach to educational reform.
Such an approach takes developing an understanding of the needs of a local context as its starting point and emphasises building the capacity of local actors to implement sustained change initiatives. In this scenario, scaling is no long focused on an additive, one-size fits all model, but rather on building a culture of schooling that emphasises local ownership of the learning agenda.
While in theory, this reconceptualisation of scale towards a system of continuous improvements and innovations is infinitely appealing, the realities of implementing such an approach in practice is challenging. However, there currently are few examples, in New Zealand or internationally, where such an approach has managed to be executed across an entire education system.
Part two of this three-part series will explore in greater detail what such an improvement paradigm would look like.