Saturday, July 26, 2008

Towards Understanding the Need for Systemic Change in Mass Education

Towards Understanding the Need for Systemic Change in Mass Education

By Dr. Peter Zsebik

The concept of mass education has been with us for some time, and yet the way that it appears to have evolved, or perhaps better said not evolved, has led to a perhaps less than satisfactory systemic sociopolitical environment for today’s needs. Evidence of this sense of disenchantment can be found not only perhaps around the staff room but also with a good deal of the scholarly literature that is swirling about in the academic world – literature that espouses the need for change to, and for, the current academic environment.

Fullan, for instance in his relatively recent book release, Change Forces with a Vengeance (2003), details a number of underlying concepts that relate to changing the nature of education. It is the third book in Michael Fullan’s chaos theory trilogy (which he calls complexity theory). This series explores notions that have been uncovered when complexity theory is applied to education and how complexity theory has pushed the envelope further by providing new insights and lessons of change concerning the need for a moral purpose, and the need for what Fullan calls tri-level reform – the school and community, the local district, and the state.

Fullan believes that in order for any change to occur, it should start at the top of the educational structure and then trickle down. He understands the many dangers of too much or too little change, usually with the end result, when this happens, that nothing changes because the ‘prescription’ was not appropriate for that system. He believes that systems therefore must be guided not managed, for it is with management that things deteriorate. In contrast, he believes that social systems such as that found within an educational context have a seeming life of their own, where growth, development, and change occurs naturally within the confines of the system dynamic that has been created. It is only a question of, as said previously, guiding any positive initiatives already taking place so that these initiatives can best enhance the whole organization (Fullan, 2003)

It is also interesting to note that now, and I concur on this aspect, that Fullan seems to appreciate the fact that there is a need for educational discourse to be rooted in chaos/complexity theory for the simple reason that the educational environment has become so convoluted. One could speculate that this convolution occurred because of the nature of public education, but if that is the case, then a move such as this would require societal maturity at a level that one could daresay is not yet forthcoming in our current sociopolitical environment.

To a large extent, Fullan is right. Anyone who is in education can see that the complexity of the mass educational process has risen exponentially since its inception, and to at least properly identify and explain the majority of those features now within the western educational context, a solid understanding of complexity theory would indeed come in handy. Having said that, however, one could speculate that the issues and challenges facing mass education are rooted much more deeply then perhaps one would expect, and that perhaps the notion of undertaking an analysis utilizing complexity theory discourse may not prove all that more substantial to the evolution of mass education than anything previously offered.

One of the problems that may stymie this or any process of analytical insight is the simple fact that mass education arguably has placed itself into a reactionary stance, where it is attempting to please all people all the time. This can be evidenced by the broad swath of curricular foci that are currently in the discourse of western education. This is not a bad thing, unless it creates an environment where the overall educational direction is lost through continuous and perhaps internally and externally conflictive appeasement. (see figure 1 below).

If this is the case, then it becomes increasingly clear that something very fundamental may need to be adjusted - that not only Fullan’s, but possibly everybody else’s overall initial sensibilities about mass education may need to encompass a shift in thinking – and that this shift may occur in a deconstruction of the educational setting that no longer relies on past sensibilities and assumptions. In essence, what is being posited here is that the very foundations of mass education that were instituted during the industrial revolution may no longer continue to be the most appropriate framework for today’s post, postmodern sociopolitical dialectic.

If we look to other areas of society, as we should considering that the whole process of mass education was created to serve society, then we must ask ourselves if the majority of the other areas of our society are still residing within the same paradigm with which education also began. With very little reflection, one would probably agree that this is no longer the case. In other areas of sociopolitical influence much re-shifting of paradigmatic centering has occurred, and this re-shifting can be evidenced in areas as diverse as technology, feminism, civil rights, immigration, and the media. Whether this re-shifting is fully progressive for our society is yet to be seen, but nevertheless it helps to bring into focus society’s current state.

This raises an interesting question, however. If the systemic discourse of mass education has managed to mutate to the point where it requires complexity theory to produce an analytical framework, which also seemingly implies that there is no longer a central focus to guide the educational process anymore, then is there room for speculation as to whether the current educational dialectic – the one that Fullan is attempting to constitute through his notion of complexity theory - is still appropriate for today’s current sociopolitical climate? Is his postulation actually playing into education’s current game of catch-up to society through the honourable but perhaps frantic notion of subservience? Is he postulating the fact that mass education should maintain solely a reactive stance to society? And if this is the case, then to what degree are educators serving a function that promotes proactive learning? Perhaps to question at a more succinct level, what precisely is the role of mass education with regards to socio-political development?

To many, mass education is there to serve the public domain, and this should always be the case. But in order to do that more appropriately for today’s society, it may be that now is the time when it is actually necessary to rethink the whole systemic paradigm so that it made more sense within the larger social dialectic of the society for which mass education was meant to serve in the first place. In turn, it may be necessary to shake off the cloak of curricular tradition and engage the clientele in a more innovative curricular paradigm – one that allows for total engagement in the social dialectic currently inhabiting today’s sociopolitical environment.

Currently, one may be hard-pressed to find any research that places the tome of mass education on its ear in an attempt to address whether these societal changes have forced any such alignment as described above within the educational system. Granted much can still be said of the validity of all past educational research and discussion, and it has indeed pushed the ‘science’ of education further and further afield. But what do we have our current educational dialectic to compare to when pondering if said dialectic is still a valid instrument for today’s sociopolitical environment? It seems that the overwhelming majority of research that has been undertaken begins with the implied assumption that the current systemic identifiers for mass education have been taken for granted as providing the best mass educational blueprint. Some of these conventional identifiers can be readily observed as the following:

· The use of a physical plant resembling an industrial age factory
· The transference of preferred knowledge bases through strategic dissection of the chosen body of knowledge into specified subject areas
· Reporting procedures reminiscent of modernist managerial styles
· Curricula with primarily a historical reference introduced primarily for analysis, evaluation and regurgitation of ‘fact’, and usually with very little relevance to the current socio-political dynamic of the world
· Established relationships and expectations between the different parties found within the educational environment (see Zsebik, 2003)

There may be other aspects integral to the system that have not been mentioned, but their absence does not displace the notion that the system is self-contained. But is it so self-contained that it has lost its connection to the outside world?

To summarize, therefore, what is being argued are two things:

1) That the current system of mass education may no longer be able to efficiently maintain its relevance to our society
2) That this irrelevancy is due to reliance on a possibly outdated systemic structure that does not reflect the current state of our postmodern society

Socio-cultural Imperatives

In the beginning, mass education had a relatively simplistic function, and that was the education of the masses to fulfill the needs of that society (Zsebik, 2003), be it inculcating the necessary rudiments for manual labour, or the proper education and socialization of the elite. As society evolved from the industrial age, however, and as other factors began to make their presence felt within that educational paradigm (e.g. parents), much pressure was put on mass education to evolve so as to remain pertinent in the face of sweeping social change. In effect, mass education had found itself, and still finds itself, on an ever faster hamster wheel, in a cycle such as the one shown here (please imagine arrows indicating a cyclical nature):


Zsebik, Ph.D Thesis, 2003

Politically, Freire (1990) argued that the western education paradigm was based on what he called ‘banking education’. The teacher was to deposit the knowledge into the student; knowledge chosen by the educational dialectic found within the chosen sociopolitical environment, for purposes of socialization and skill development for that particular strata of society.

The current paradigm of western education can be argued as an accommodating intellectual education paradigm. This occurs when the child is given access to the knowledge and skills he or she needs to know and function within the established sociopolitical environment, but is not given the opportunity to fully integrate the necessary strategies and mental processes so that he/she can comprehend the implications and challenges of a dynamic social environment. (Zsebik, 2003) There may be found of course pockets of differing sociopolitical values within specific individual programs scattered throughout the world, but again they probably do not represent the vast majority of established curricular programs where the final outcome is an accommodating intellectual.

The educational paradigm of the future, however, may have to focus first on the creation of a new mindset. It may have to create an educational environment conducive to developing a transformative intellectual (ibid. 2003). What is meant by a ‘transformative intellectual’ is one who has the necessary skills and strategies to effect positive change within his/her sociopolitical environment. This implies that mass education in this context must do more than ‘bank’ or teach to the intellectual/cultural/ social norm established by the status quo. This in effect is too limiting, and perhaps also counterproductive as suggested above. Instead what we must create is an educational paradigm that allows for a transformative learning environment to occur. Of this we can be sure, but what should this paradigm look like?

To begin, it may be appropriate to once more see what has been said of how our current sociopolitical paradigm has been analyzed. As has already been mentioned, society has become even more complex through the now recognized development of postmodernism since the late 1960’s and its ambivalent influence on mass education (Slattery, 1995). This ‘complexity’ has been given some voice by, among others, Appadurai (Featherstone, 1983) who describes society as being influenced by five cultural flows, and these cultural flows are determining the directions and decisions of society. Briefly, these flows comprise what Appadurai terms as the ethnoscape, the technoscape, the finanscape, the mediascape, and the ideoscape. He considers these different flows as reaching tidal proportions where the control society has over itself may completely erode. Appadurai’s views suggest a one-way flow, from western to non-western cultures. Indeed, we find that the most rudimentary observations of educational dialectics around the world provide indication that the sociopolitical construct of education may be rooted in the culture of the society in which it is found, but the paradigm still remains relatively the same – a first world western perspective of mass educational dogma. This may be the case because western countries generally hold the power and wealth necessary to induce movement within these flows. Nevertheless, there is no reason to suppose that these flows are exclusively unidirectional. In addition to these aspects, one must add the element of various agencies attempting to manipulate and control these dimensions to varying degrees, (Appadurai, 1993) which in turn has a direct influence on an educational environment. When taking all of the above into account, one can begin to ascertain that in order for education to be effective in this present age, it must have a thorough understanding of these cultural flows so that it can best determine which information would be of most value to the learner. (Zsebik, 2003)

To further extend this conceptualization of creating a different educational mindset, it may be interesting to turn to other discipline areas to determine if there is anything of relevance for the educational environment. Harrison and Hutchison in their relatively recent publication Culture Matters (2000, p.23) ponder the notion as to why certain cultures are more productive economically than others:

There have been numerous alternative theories of prosperity in this century, ranging from central planning to import substitution to factor accumulation. These ideas have become deeply rooted in societies via the educational system, the influence of intellectuals and government leaders, and countless other means…Second, economic culture appears to be heavily derived from the past and present microeconomic context…Third, social policy choices can have a strong influence on economic culture because they influence the economic context (ibid. 2000)

These notions are themselves cause for speculation with regards as to how education fits within the current social paradigm, but as an intellectual exercise let us now manipulate the above quote so that its focus is exclusively on education rather than economics. The changes have been italicized:

There have been numerous alternative theories of education in this century, ranging from elitist curricula to banking education curricula to accommodating curricula. These ideas have become deeply rooted in societies via the educational system itself, the influence of intellectuals and government leaders, and countless other means…Second, educational culture appears to be heavily derived from the past and present microeconomic context…Third, social policy choices can have a strong influence on educational culture because they influence the educational context

We can see with very little substitution that, at least between these two social science knowledge bases, there is much room for comparison in terms of their position in the sociopolitical environment they inhabit. This exercise is also valid because it demonstrates how both rely on the manipulation of information, on theories that attempt to promote development, and on the desire to create a more concrete, data-driven foundation to justify and promote that particular paradigm’s desired abstractions.

Further, Harrison and Hutchison argue that there is a constant need to revisit a paradigm structure. “There are segments of each society that hold different beliefs about what prosperity is and how it is created. Acknowledging and understanding this is the basis for creating change.” (Harrison and Hutchison, p.271) They then show that all cultural values and beliefs do matter in the process of human progress because they shape the way individuals think about progress. They suggest the use of mental models (ibid. p. 272) to help further develop cultural knowledge bases:

· A mental model consists of beliefs, inferences, and goals that are first-person, concrete, and specific. It is a mental map of how the world works.
· There are sets of beliefs and attitudes that are either pro-innovation and create the proper conditions for prosperity, or anti- innovation…
· A mental model can be defined, informed, and tested around a specific, well-defined objective….
· Finally, mental models can be changed. Although culture involves the transmission of meaning from one generation to another it is unlikely that it is a genetic process.

What these mental models say for education is voluminous, beginning with the notion that perhaps these mental models could be used as a starting point for recreating a more appropriate dialectic within the educational environment. They could provide reference from which a new paradigm could be developed where the determination of curricular materials and objectives were recalibrated to assume a multi(-)cultural education in its purest form, and it could provide flexibility within its framework that allows for cultural transfiguration, a process pertinent in today’s sociopolitical environment of rapidly changing demographic patterns and the alienation that may accompany the process. In every case, this paradigm would have as its focus the notion of a more contemporary and total metamorphosis so that education can play a ‘pro-innovative’ leadership role for the society it is serving.

Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist for the World Bank, writes “that development represents a transformation of society, a movement from traditional relations, traditional ways of thinking, traditional ways of dealing with health and education, traditional methods of production(s), to modern ways.” (Harrison & Huntington, p.272) This begs the question that if others not in the educational environment can see the necessity for change from current practices, then should we not also be looking beyond our paradigmatic borders to determine if our traditional educational practices are appropriate for preparing the student for this rapidly developing sociopolitical environment? If not, then what is the reason that we still hold tenaciously to the systemic paradigm introduced to us in an age long past?

The question has now been posed, and the world awaits our answer.


Appadurai A Cultural Flows in Featherstone M (1990) Global Culture: Nationalism, Globalisation, and Modernity Sage Publications Ltd., London, UK

Featherstone M (1990) Global Culture: Nationalism, Globalisation, and Modernity Sage Publications Ltd., London, UK

Freire, P. (1990) The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 32nd Printing Continuum, New York, USA.

Fullan, M. (2003) Change Forces with a Vengeance, RoutledgeFalmer, New York USA.

Harrison, L.E. & Huntington S.P. (eds.) (2000) Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress, Basic Books, New York, USA.

Slattery, P. (1995) Curriculum Development in the Postmodern Era, Garland Publishing Inc. London, UK.

Zsebik, P. (2003) Ph.D Thesis, University of Bath, UK

Word Count: 3,148

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Have you read any of Professor Richard Teese's stuff?