Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

At last, some sense about change

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A kind colleague, someone better read than me, pointed me to a recent Thinkpiece by Lancaster’s Paul Trowler.  In it, are the points he made in a talk to leaders involved in a sustainable university initiative.  He set out some tools for thinking and acting in ways which help increase the chances of effective and sustained curriculum change with a focus on strategic, large-scale changes in teaching and learning, and the curriculum.

Trowler began by arguing that common experiences of those set on change in universities include the following:

  • internal embedded practices act and interact to erode reform
  • structural processes are slow and internally contradictory: there is no institutional learning architecture and so structures are not fully joined-up
  • decision-making, review and accountability processes are also non-aligned
  • there is patchiness in delivery of core activities
  • prioritisation doesn’t happen, so that goals are multiple, unrealistic and frequently changing
  • there are unformed, inappropriate and changing implementation strategies and tactics
  • there is lots of talk, but little action, lots of strategic discussion, but business as usual
  • there is often defence of ‘turf’ and fear of change

These are all, in effect, barriers to change.  How refreshing, then, to find such an in-depth, and thoughtful analysis.  I usually have two tests of such statements:

1. Is it generic?

2. Does it have validity – particularly ecological validity?

And you hope that the answers are No – Yes.  In other words, [1] could it apply to anything, anywhere?  For example you often find the following cited as barriers: “There isn’t time.  Anyway, we haven’t been trained”.  These are often true, but utterly irrelevant as there’s no evidence that the offer of more time and training would make any difference.  And [2] Is it obviously about the context being discussed and does it reflect “real life conditions”?

The mere text of Trowler’s analysis doesn’t lead, for me, to an unequivocal No – Yes response.  However, 30+ years in HE, much of it change-focused, suggests that this is a valid analysis, and one that those engaged in sustainability-focused change might well heed.

Paul Trowler goes on to argue that, for leaders of change, all this can lead to some very common experiences:

  • only the ‘usual suspects’ are engaged with the reform, others quietly withdraw or actively oppose change
  • there is slow acceleration to a plateau and then entropy sets in
  • turf wars and other squabbles result in stalled initiatives
  • there are difficulties in scaling up and the short-termism of ‘projectitis’: reform stopping as funding ends

Sadly, all this rings horribly true.  To learn what Trowler thinks are appropriate "tools for thinking and acting" follow from all this, the Thinkpiece is only a click away.

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