Leading Futures: Flip the System UK: A Manifesto for an Education Evolution

In this post, the editors of the new volume Flip the System UK, JL Dutaut and Lucy Rycroft-Smith, offer an introduction to the main ideas of their work. The book focuses on major issues confronting teachers today and what can be done, through teacher agency, to address these issues. This post is part of the Leading Futures series. Previous Leading Futures posts include a series on Future Directions of Educational Change and Alternative Perspectives on Education Reform.

flip system

JL Dutaut and Lucy Rycroft-Smith

Let’s begin with this simple premise: Imagine that your country does not have an education system. As a reformer or as an educational thinker, where do you go from there? What is your priority? How have you determined this priority? The premise is provocative. It invites you to start from scratch, to imagine anew.  Adding in a Rawlsian veil of ignorance might further deepen the thought experiment to include concepts of equity. There should be schools, clearly, but what type of system would support high quality learning and teaching? How should you judge system performance? What agency would teachers have to instigate change and innovation? Your thinking quickly leads you to think of an educational future that is not incumbered by accountability, standardisation and privatisation.

In this thought experiment, you have allowed us to turn you into a politician. You have exercised a whole raft of decision making. In the effort of imagining a new education system, you have considered the consequences you seek, while discounting the strategies unlikely to achieve them. Did you give any thought to the agency of parents, students, employers and communities in your new education system? When the system comes before the people it is designed to serve, democracy has already been de-prioritised.

Who are we then, you might ask, to be publishing a book on system change? And where do we get the audacity to call for the UK’s education system to be flipped?

By ‘flipped’, we mean an ostensibly simple premise:

“Replacing top-down accountability with bottom-up support for teachers.” (Evers and Kneyber, 2016, p. 5)

As teachers in England, we have both suffered the iniquities of being at the sharp end of accountability and decision making in our education system. We found ourselves, and each other, at a dark time in our teaching careers – subjected to the full weight of accountability measures and the dulling grind of questionable professional development. In an effort to find a path back to the realities of the classroom, we met the editors of a book called Flip the System: Changing Education from the Ground Up. This book changed our lives.

Fast forward two years, and we have published our own edition: Flip the System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto, a book that has added to a global movement and has begun to shift the ground under the feet of policy makers both in the Netherlands and internationally. We are proud to be part of a growing chorus of teachers calling for the re-professionalisation of their work – and to have written a call to collective action for the UK context.

Flipping professional expectations

Flip the System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto contains 37 chapters by over 40 teachers, headteachers, educational thinkers, researchers and policy makers – and it could have been many more, such was the interest in participating. The book brings people together who often disagree and finds a common cause among them.

“So I started researchED as a conference-based project to bring educators, academics, researchers, policy-makers and everyone else in the eco-system together: to present the best of what they knew, to challenge, discuss and learn.” (Bennett, T. in Rycroft-Smith and Dutaut, 2018, p.7)

“researchED, the brainchild of Sam Freedman (then advisor to Education Secretary, Michael Gove) and doctor/journalist Ben Goldacre (then advisor to the government on research in education) was handed to a high-profile teacher to give it credibility, yet in my opinion its purpose serves the government’s agenda very well.” (Kidd, D. in Rycroft-Smith and Dutaut, 2018, p.65)

Despite disagreement on motives and the very purpose of education, Bennett’s and Kidd’s views on teacher professionalisation offer complementary prisms through which to identify problems and potential solutions. For Kidd, politicians get in the way. For Bennett, they can’t help. Both agree that professionalisation is not only desireable but necessary, and offer unique insights into what it entails.

Not only does flipping the system transcend ideological divides, it also transcends the boundaries of the devolved governments. To a greater or lesser extent, the policy-as-imposition paradigm is the status quo across the UK. In England, it is arguably more advanced but it is unquestionably the case that that professionalism in education has been downgraded and devalued across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland too. The impact on teacher wellbeing, retention and recruitment is evident.

“Today’s report found more teachers are now leaving before retirement than five years ago, and schools are finding it difficult to fill posts with the quality of teachers they need.” (NAO, 2018)

“A growing teacher recruitment crisis is looming unless greater support for teachers is forthcoming, the President of NASUWT Scotland warned.” (NASUWT, 2016)

“Welsh Government figures showed the target for trainee teacher intake in secondary schools and for PGCEs had both been missed in 2015-16. Owen Hathway, Wales policy officer for the NUT, said the pressures and stresses of the job were putting people off entering the profession. […] The Welsh Government said it would be looking into the “downwards trend”..” (Betteley, 2017)

“Speaking ahead of this morning’s conference, Ms McGinley said: “Schools are like pressure cookers about to boil over. Teachers are becoming more and more bogged down and are disappearing under a tsunami of initiatives – target setting, monitoring and evaluating.” (Rutherford, A., 2018)

Whether the cause of this is simply well-intentioned yet fundamentally misguided policy making – or a deliberate and sustained attack on public education from vested interests in the shape of what Pasi Sahlberg calls the Global Education Reform Movement, is irrelevant as far as Flip the System UK is concerned. In their original book, Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber make a strong case that the GERM is a destructive factor, but we feel no need to revisit old ground. Our book is resolutely about finding solutions and arguing for collective professional agency.

This is remarkably simple. It stems from taking the word – professionalism – and defining it, re-appropriating it with and for teachers. Indeed, we might say that we have flipped the very idea of professional expectations, no longer to be expectations of us, but our own expectations as professionals. All we ask is the wherewithal to meet them. The effect can be transformative It leads inexorably to reprioritising the agentic and collective nature of practice.

“An understanding of the nature of collaboration, joint exploration and learning also requires a reformulation of the nature of schools as learning organisations that are democratic, fluid and transformative.” (Gibbs, S. in Rycroft-Smith and Dutaut, 2018, p.133)

Indeed, in taking ownership of our professionalism, it becomes evident that ideas previously vociferously contested can be easily re-framed as complementary. There is room for pluralism in our vision. More than that, the very vociferousness with which they have been argued is revealed as a direct consequence of the disempowerment felt by educational professionals with respect to their professional identity. Disconnected from any effective exercise of power (in our classrooms, our schools or our national policy), teachers compensate by attempting to exercise power over what they can. Pedagogy comes to replace curriculum in educational thinking and ‘what works’ methodology usurps questions of purpose and ethics as passionate teachers take to social media to exercise some sense control over their very identities; such is the lack of agency in UK education.

Of course, methodology matters as much as purpose. Pedagogy matters as much as curriculum. But until we attend to agency in all the ways set out in our manifesto, teaching is doomed to continue to suffer the pendulum swings of political whim.

Five facets of professional agency

In collating the contributions to Flip the System UK, it became evident that there were five distinct facets of agency pertaining to education (pertaining perhaps to all public sector professions). Three, it seemed to us, defined that professionalism while a further two developed the context within which it can take root and flourish.

Defining professionalism

It is our conclusion that professionalism in education stems from:

  • cognitive agency – teachers as consumers and producers of professional knowledge;

“Greater research engagement has the potential to lead to a more responsive form of accountability, whereby practitioners continually analyse and modify their own professional processes. Doing so requires teachers to have control over what they do in the classroom, and so the movement towards teacher research engagement has an intrinsic link to teacher agency.” (Firth, J. in Rycroft-Smith and Dutaut, 2018, p.22)

  • collective agency – networks of teachers as self-sufficient developers and deliverers of accountability;

“Those of us who continue to regard teaching as a profession and ourselves as embodying professionalism in our classrooms and staffrooms already have a strong sense of internal accountability. Effective leadership, teaching and learning take place when that internal accountability is harnessed and celebrated.” (Clarke, Z. in Rycorft-Smith and Dutaut, 2018, p.40)

  • ethical agency – teachers and networks of teachers as democratic, purposeful and community-oriented policy makers.

“Democracy involves shared decion making and building a joint vision through direct, deliberative and representative processes. […] Scholarship provides a means by which – practically and through drawing on evidence and theory – professional communities can menaningfully co-construct a vision. Activism involves building networks and communicating more widely the needs of the profession and the nature of education. Solidarity requires us to imagine our disparate sufferings as a common obstacle to overcome. Ultimately, to flip the system we need to construct our actions with respect to all four” (Watson, S. in Rycroft-Smith and Dutaut, 2018, p.74)

Empowering professionalism

To create the conditions for this radical re-professionalisation of teaching, the social context must be one that fosters:

  • political agency – the power of each professional to exercise their voice meaningfully (that is, with impact), to enrich accountability as a two-way flow.

“If more of the readily available expertise in the system was re-admitted into the tiny bubble from which current policy emerges, then ministers might begin to realise that [the education system is not broken and is not in need of urgent substantial change]. A period of ‘benign neglect’ would almost certainly be of greater value to schools, teachers and children than the culturally disconnected, ideologically faith-based hyper-activism we have suffered for the last twenty years.” (Critchley, J. in Rycroft-Smith and Dutaut, 2018, p.184)

  • global agency – the power to compare and contextualise policy and practice from teacher to teacher, classroom to classroom, school to school, locally, nationally and internationally, to enrich decision-making at all levels.

“To everyone serious about education as an evidence-based profession for the maximum benefit of all: Reach out and take part! Participate in the live, ongoing multitude of voices – sharing, informing, communicating, collaborating. Do it with an open mind and you will not only get help when you ask for it, but also learn to be a better judge of what you encounter and make better decisions.” (Hjelm, S. in Rycroft-Smith and Dutaut, p.249)

The manifesto advocated by the writers in this book explores professional agency in the UK context, and in a global sense. Contributions from Sweden, the Netherlands, Australia and even a refugee camp in Northern France show powerfully the similarity of the challenges we teachers face, and the importance of subverting hierarchies to solve them.

They are complemented by a host of examples of grassroots collaborations that do just that, often despite the systems within which they operate. Teacher agency must be global, and we must connect across national and international boundaries to ensure we don’t keep repeating the same mistakes in different time zones.

Evolution, not revolution

Flipping the system means evolving and expanding our conception of educational professionalism, and it requires everyone to play their part if we are to avoid going around in circles.

So, let us end with this premise: Imagine that your country does not have an education system. As a reformer or as an educational thinker, where do you go from there? What is your priority? If you’d like to work with us on some solutions, Flip the System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto is out and you can contact us at http://www.flipthesystem.uk.

Let’s keep the conversation going!

Betteley, c. (2017), available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-40300850

Evers, J and Kneyber, R. (2016), Flip the System: Changing Education from the Ground Up. Abingdon: Routledge.

NASUWT (2016), available at http://edgazette.co.uk/latest-news/unions/nasuwt/nasuwt-scotland-annual-conference-2016/

NAO (2018), available at https://www.nao.org.uk/press-release/retaining-and-developing-the-teaching-workforce/


Rutherford, A. (2018) available at https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/teachers-workloads-turning-northern-ireland-schools-into-pressure-cookers-claims-union-36856539.html


Rycroft-Smith, L. and Dutaut, JL (2018), Flip the System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto. Abingdon: Routledge.

LEAD THE CHANGE SERIES Q & A with Elaine Simmt

Dr. Elaine Simmt is a professor in the Department of Secondary Education at the University of Alberta. Her scholarship is in mathematics education. She began her career as a secondary school teacher of mathematics and physical sciences. She completed doctoral studies in mathematics education under the supervision of Dr. Tom
Kieren. Dr. Simmt also serves as Associate Dean and the Co-Director of the Centre for Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education. Dr. Simmt’s research is focused in mathematics education. In particular, she explores teaching and learning as understood through the frames of enactivism and complexity thinking with colleagues Brent Davis, Lynn McGarvey, Jo Towers, Lyndon Martin, Jerome Proulx, Jennifer Thom, Joyce Mgombelo and Florence Glanfield. A second and complementary area of study is centred in teacher education, specifically mathematics-for-teaching. In her most recent work, Dr. Simmt has been involved in international projects in Tanzania and Oman where she and colleagues are working to build capacity for mathematics teaching and learning. Dr. Elaine Simmt can be reached at: esimmt@ualberta.ca

In this interview, part of the Lead the Change Series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest Group, Dr. Simmt talks about her work with mathematics teaching and learning as well as complexity theory. As Simmt puts it:

I explore mathematics teaching and learning in “classroom” contexts. That is, contexts that are complex by even everyday definitions of complexity. While working with data from a 7th grade mathematics class that I had taught, Brent Davis, Dennis Sumara, and I
had been co-teaching courses in cognition and curriculum, and doing in-service work with K-12 teachers. The synergy from these activities resulted in us specifically focusing on learning systems in complexity terms. Particularly we were interested in the emergence of “the class” as a collective learning system (Davis & Simmt, 2003; Davis & Simmt, 2006; Davis, Simmt, Sumara, 2006). This work continues today among a group of colleagues (McGarvey et al., 2018).

This Lead the Change interview appears as part of a series that features experts from around the globe, highlights promising research and practice, and offers expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change. Recently Lead the Change has also interviewed Kristin Kew and Kirsi Pyhältö.

Forging the Ideal Educated Girl: A Conversation with Dr. Shenila Khoja-Moolji

This week, IEN shares a conversation with Dr. Shenila Khoja-Moolji, Assistant Professor in the Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women Studies at Bowdoin College. We discussed her latest book, Forging the Ideal Educated Girl: The Production of Desirable Subjects in Muslim South Asia (University of California Press, 2018). The book is available for free download here.

Dr Khoja-Moolji 2

Photo credit:  Dennis Griggs/Tannery Hill Studios


IEN: What was the impetus for the book?

Shenila: I had been researching and writing about the convergence on the figure of the girl in international development policy and practice for some time. I noticed that many development campaigns portrayed girls in the global South as not only threatened by poverty, disease, and terrorism, but also as holding the potential to resolve these problems. Education was often presented as that ‘silver bullet’ that would help girls overcome any issue they faced. I explored if girls really were the key to societal progress, and contemplated on the kind of girlhood that was portrayed as being desirable. Crucially, I wrote about how the burden of development and ending poverty was being shifted to black and brown girls, without any due consideration to how poverty is political and an effect of historical relations of power.

As I did this work, I was reminded of how this girl resembles her predecessor, the “Moslem woman” or “Musalman woman” who, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in colonial India, emerged as a figure to be saved from backward cultural practices of purdah, seclusion, early marriage, and religious superstitions. We find writings where colonial administrators, Christian missionaries, as well as Muslim social reformers—for different reasons—claimed that education would save/civilize/reform native women.

So, in the book, I decided to track these multiple articulations of the figure of the ‘educated girl’ in the context of Muslim South Asia during the last 100 years or so. In a way, I wanted to discover her allure and promise.


IEN: Can you offer an overview of the book?

The book is a genealogy of the figure of the educated girl and it is situated in the context of colonial India and postcolonial Pakistan. I have organized the book into three time-periods—the turn of the twentieth century, the early decades after the political establishment of Pakistan, so the 1950s and 1960s, and the turn of the twenty-first century. I explore a broad range of texts: novels, political speeches, government documents, periodicals, advertisements, television shows, and first-person narratives, with an eye to examining how the figure of the ‘educated girl’ is being conjured: What are rationales given for women’s and girls’ education? What is the ideal curriculum for girls? What are imagined as the most suitable spaces for girls’ education?

I found that calls for girls’ education are often entangled with other societal goals. During the turn of the twentieth century, for instance, women were to be educated so that they could signal a respectable status for their families; after the establishment of Pakistan, women and girls were to be educated in order to become ‘scientifically-inclined mothers’ or ‘daughter-workers’ and by doing so contribute to the development of the state and family; and since the turn of the century, girls are called on to educate themselves and become flexible workers for the neoliberal economy.

Of course, there is a lot more going on in the book. For instance, I discuss how it is crucial to pay attention to social class; that there are different expectations for girls from different economic backgrounds. I also trace the rise of mass schooling as a central institution for disseminating knowledge and how this shift has elevated particular forms of knowledges over others. Finally, there is also a discussion of how over the course of the century different kinds of dispositions and practices of women have come to signify respectability, and how they are linked with advancing the welfare of the patriarchal state and family.


IEN: Can you say more about the expansion of mass schooling?

Well, the book traces how the institution of the modern school, with its systems of learning, bureaucratic administration, and examinations, gradually becomes the hegemonic institution for educating young people. The modern school has displaced the multiple community-centered and home-based educative spaces that were prevalent in colonial India. In doing so, it disturbed some of the ways in which the elite reproduced their privilege through education but replaced it with new hierarchies. For instance, it was “English schooling” that conferred upward mobility through access to the British administrative apparatus and exposure to Victorian norms.

Schooling in contemporary Pakistan, like elsewhere, is viewed as a pathway to obtaining jobs. For low-middle-class girls – who were the subject of my study, as you know in chapter four – schooling, unfortunately, did not really deliver on its promises. This group of girls desired more vocational education, which has been excised from formal schools. So the book also traces the promises and failings of mass schooling for girls of a particular socio-economic class.


IEN: With whom is the book talking?

The book is primarily aimed at an academic audience in the fields of gender studies, South Asian studies, and international education. However, I also think that it would be a useful read for development policymakers and practitioners to situate the current enticement of the figure of the girl.


IEN: What does it/can it say to policymakers / how might it be of use to policymakers? What possibilities are offered for policymakers and the like?

The purpose of a genealogy is to de-stabilize taken-for-granted categories and truths. So my hope would be that the book compels policymakers and practitioners, particularly those in the field of girls’ education, to interrogate some of the assumptions around girlhood and education. In particular, it calls on them to pay attention to the range of meanings that are often subsumed in calls for girls’ education. These meanings are frequently linked to reproducing particular privileges; in the book for instance, I focus on the reproduction of social class and masculine privilege. So I would hope that the book serves as a case study so policymakers and practitioners can engage in similar analyses in relation to other contexts.

Headlines Around the World: The United Nations General Assembly and Girls’ Education

Last week in New York City, the UN held the 73rd session of the General Assembly. Though many headlines focused on stories like diplomats laughing at Donald Trump’s claims, education featured prominently in many sessions. “Education really came of age at this year’s UNGA,” Joseph Nhan-O’Reilly,  Save the Children ’s head of education policy and advocacy was quoted as saying in Devex ’s review of education stories. That review described a series of announcements of new investments as well as a high level meeting on refugee education. Among education issues, a renewed focus on girls education emerged as the most prominent theme.

Canada, Kenya, Niger, Jordan, France, and the UK released a joint statement on ensuring that the world “leave no girl behind

Coverage focused both on speeches that reinforced the message and the potential impact of new initiatives for girls’ education:

  • French President Macron focused part of his speech on girls’ education
  • British Prime Minister May spoke at an event for girls’ education
  • An article from Kenya about educational equality and conflict
  • Another article focusing on the British Foreign Secretary and Kenyan Education Minister co-chairing the platform for girls’ education meeting
  • NGOs and other organizations lauded the commitment as a “milestone

Of course, other headlines remind that nations, multilaterals, and organizations have already taken up many campaigns for girls’ education in recent decades. Furthermore, headlines on girls’ education have not exclusively focused on the commitments coming from UNGA. Just yesterday, for example, it was reported that $600 million of World Bank money intended for girls’ education had not been used.


For more information, we have provided some organizations focused on girls’ education:

A list of organizations working specifically in India

A broader list of organizations around the world

The UN’s girls’ education initiative

The Plan International page for girls’ education, which includes facts and ways to take action





Dr. Kristin Kew serves as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Management and Development at New Mexico State University. Dr. Kew’s teaching and research interests include educational change, school reform, community organizing, and the principalship. She has taught at all levels of schooling and assisted in the creation and management of educational leadership networks. Dr. Kew was awarded the College of Education Service Award and the Dean’s Teaching Award. She is serving as the Chair of the Educational Change Special Interest Group through the American Educational Research Association. Her new anthology, co-edited with Helen Janc Malone and Santiago Rincon-Gallardo, and published in 2018 by Routledge is titled, The Future Directions of Educational Change: Social Justice, Professional Capital, and Systems Change. Dr. Kew may be reached at kew@nmsu.edu

In this interview, part of the Lead the Change Series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest Group, Dr. Kew talks about her work with the Educational Change SIG and her transnational research on immigration and education. As Kew puts it:

I am doing some transnational research in this area of the NM/Mexico border as many
pK-12 students come across every day for school. Around 850 students make a one-hour
trip across the border, passports in hand. They are U.S. born but their parents are not citizens so they send their children to get a public education in the states. Crossing is a pretty normal phenomenon for those living near the southwest border as families have been visiting one another for generations. As per the census count in 2017, 48% of the
population in New Mexico is Hispanic, 37% White, 11% is Native American, 3% Black or
African-American, and 2% Asian.

Our faculty and graduate students in Educational Leadership and Administration
choose to conduct their research on immigration, transnational students, bilingual
and multilingual education and leadership, culturally relevant pedagogies and identity,
and culturally and linguistically responsive instruction and leadership. New Mexico was the first state in the U.S. to have a bilingual multicultural law (1973). The law was expanded in 2004, making the state an exemplar. There are also a number of indigenous languages spoken in New Mexico and these are also recognized in the bilingual/ multilingual law.

Regarding immigration and educational leadership in this area, schools are a safe
haven for students in New Mexico. School leaders and teachers do not ask or share
documentation information on their students with U.S. Immigration and Customs
Enforcement (ICE) http://www.aps.edu/about-us/policies-and-procedural-directives/procedural-directives/j.-students/immigrant-students-regardless-of- documented-status.

Deportation is a fear for many and there are thousands of children separated from their families because of raids. Everyone in the community, and country, is affected some way by what is happening on our borders. For more information and updates on the current immigration policy in the U.S, one of our SIG partners, International Ed News, has a wealth of information on their site.

This Lead the Change interview appears as part of a series that features experts from around the globe, highlights promising research and practice, and offers expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change. Recently Lead the Change has also interviewed Kim Fong Poon-McBrayer and Kirsi Pyhältö.

Arc of Progressivism and “Grammar of Schooling” (Part 3) by Larry Cuban

**This week, we are re-blogging the third part of a recent series from Larry Cuban‘s blog on School Reform and Classroom Practice. The first two posts in this series deal with education reformers’ attempts to get rid of the “grammar of schooling” within the U.S. This post pursues a similar theme but with a more international focus.

blog 1 image

blog 2 image

Take your pick of above quotes (or choose both) and you have the kernel of the story of progressive reformers actively trying to alter traditional teaching and school practices over the past century.

Well, at least part of the story since binary choices, the either/or dichotomy of success or failure omit the creation of hybrids, mixes of progressive and traditional classroom practices that have occurred over the past century in the U.S. and internationally.

Parts 1 and 2 of this series describe many attempts of progressive reformers to get rid of the “grammar of schooling” or reduce its effects on teaching and learning. These efforts, at best, have created hybrids (see here and here) and,at worst, have signally failed (see here and here).

Part 3 looks beyond the U.S. experience to see what has occurred internationally since the ideas of John Dewey and his acolytes about teaching and learning have entered many nations outside of North America.

In Classroom Change in Developing Countries: From Progressive Cage to Formalistic Frame (Springer, 2011), Australian academic and consultant Gerard Guthrie has synthesized many research studies and evaluations on the influence of progressivism in developing nations and largely found few traces of these reforms altering traditional ways of teaching and learning. That is, “formalism” in teaching and learning–Guthrie’s phrase for teacher-centered instruction–remained intact after determined efforts were made in African, Asian, and Oceania nations to introduce progressive education. Guthrie focuses on the risks connected to the error-filled assumption–what he calls the “progressive education fallacy”–that inquiry-based classroom practices are necessary to promote academic learning among non-western school children. He also lays out the strengths of traditional and didactic teaching. He concludes that the primary reason for continuity in traditional ways of teaching and learning in these nations spanning continents is the abiding cultural context of these nations favorable to teacher-centered instruction.

In his study, Guthrie has chapters on the Confucian tradition in education in China and efforts to introduce progressive classroom practices in African nations such as Botswana, South Africa, Namibia,and Tanzania. The bulk of the evidence he provides (research studies and evaluations) to support his case of traditional teacher-centered instruction overcoming top-down mandates to shift classroom practices to student-centered ones is found in Papua New Guinea, where he has had extensive first-hand experience.

One excerpt illustrates Guthrie’s summary of studies on teachers in Papua New Guinea responding to progressive-driven reforms amply funded and mandated by ministry of education officials.

The teachers were not necessarily averse to change as such. Although they
ignored many of the precepts, some had developed their own contextually
appropriate approaches for promoting student learning. Often these reflected
cultural tradition in assuming that teachers should centrally control teaching and
learning, and were contrary to the spirit, as well as the letter, of the new curriculum
Teachers expertly used a variety of strategies to transmit skills and
knowledge, including showing respect towards their students, an essential approach
in a shame-based society. Strategies also included speaking in short simple sentences,
providing examples relevant to students’ own experiences, providing concise
definitions, using visual aids, and scrutinising facial expressions for understanding.
[Researchers]found that non-implementation could be partly attributed to
the gap between the technical demands of the progressive curriculum and the
capacity of the teachers to meet those demands. Significantly, [one researcher] added, non-implementation could also be attributed to culturally embedded teacher resistance
to the facilitative roles expected in the classroom and to teachers’ scepticism about
constructivist learning theories.
In essence, these independent findings showed that the progressive ideas inherent in the new curriculum were little used, with improvements in teaching being predominantly within a formalistic rather than a progressive approach. The implication was that ‘policymakers should work with rather than against educational realities’….

One caveat about the evidence Guthrie provides. Classroom studies where researchers observe, interview, and document both stability and change in teaching practices are few and far between. The above excerpt, however, includes such direct classroom research.

Now what does any of this have to do with the “progressive arc’ of reform in U.S. schools that I laid out in Parts 1 and 2?

I see similarities and omissions.


First, the pattern that Guthrie found in developing nations of top-down curricular and instructional mandates to shift classroom practice from teacher-centered to student-centered has occurred in the U.S. on at least two occasions. Between the 1920s-1940s, and the 1960s-1970s, determined efforts to introduce new progressive curricula and teaching practices happened across the U.S. in big city, suburban, and rural schools. A few researchers using historical sources such as photos, teacher and student diaries, lesson plans, and journalist descriptions have documented the minimal changes that occurred across classrooms (see here and here).

Second, Guthrie documents the failure of progressive methods to transform  traditional teaching practices and recommends that existing traditional practices be improved rather than dismantled.

Among U.S. reformer ranks this suggestion has been made many times, particularly since the 1960s when nearly 90 percent of all students attended public schools. Divisions do exist among reformers some of whom wish to dump the existing system and erect new ones. Most reformers, however, seek improvements in the present system including building the capacities of teachers and supporting their  professional growth to carry out incremental changes in schools and classrooms.


Researcher Guthrie omits other possible explanations for “failure” of “progressive” reforms. His argument is clear: cultural context determines the fate of “progressive” reforms especially for those instructional policies out of sync with historical and cultural setting in which the reforms appear.

The first omission is flawed implementation of these top-down reforms. Researchers have pointed out (see here and here) the complexity of putting policies aimed at classroom instruction into practice. Moreover, that complexity often leads to some policies being inadequately and partially implemented. When that occurs the validity of the innovation or new program can not be assessed as worthwhile or worthless. Yes, in summarizing the studies and evaluations of other researchers, the idea of errors made in implementing the policy is mentioned, but the center of gravity in Guthrie’s argument rests on his claim that failed “progressive” reforms occurred because they were incompatible with the culture of the developing nation.

The second omission is instances of teachers creating mixes of old and new ideas and practices. Hybrids of traditional and “progressive” practices have happened among U.S. teachers over the past century (e.g., spread of small group activities in teacher-centered classrooms). At various places, Guthrie notes such occurrences but largely ignores the common practice of teachers throughout the world maintaining their dominant ways of teaching yet incrementally changing daily practices by incorporating ideas they believe will work with their students.

Guthrie’s study of the “arc of progressivism” and the strong influence of a “grammar of schooling” in developing nations gives the often parochial study of U.S reform-driven policies aimed at classroom practices a global perspective. And for Guthrie’s focus on the importance of context in shaping teachers’ responses to top-down mandates, classroom researchers owe him a thank you.

Headlines Around the World: Back to School Edition

Schools around the world get started at different times of year (this Wikipedia page offers a calendar with a partial list) but here in New York City students head back to school in September.  Therefore, we did a quick scan to see what’s being written about the start of school in different places.


Around the World

An article describing different back-to-school traditions from around the world (Business Insider)
9 back-to-school traditions from around the world

National Geographic recognized the return to school with a fascinating collage of photos of classrooms from around the world (National Geographic)
These Vintage Pictures Celebrate School Around the World

Another perspective about students going back to school around the world, describing UNICEF’s work to help children go to school in the face of adversity (Independent)
Top of the class: Children go back to school around the world

Similarly, this UNICEF report on conference in the Lake Chad Basin provides a reminder that millions of children around the world remain unable to go to school.
Education at risk for more than 3.5 million school-aged children in the Lake Chad Basin



Some basic tips on adjusting back to the daily school routine (CBC)
Back to school? Here are some tips to help you and your kids get back to sleeping easy

As they head back to school, families face an increasing burden of paying for everything from school supplies to extra-curricular activities (CBC)
Back-to-school bills and unexpected fees dividing classes, says youth advocate

 An article about how British Columbia is set to start off the new school year facing a teacher shortage (CBC)
B.C. short 250 teachers as new school year begins

Introducing a new sex-ed program in Quebec (CBC)
3 Quebec school boards say they’re ready to teach new sex-ed program



Even as they face a funding crisis, half a million children headed back to school in Palestine (Their World)
Day of celebration as Palestinian children go back to school amid funding crisis



Some new education reforms as students return to school in France (The New Republic)
The French Plan to Fix Inequality—by Ignoring It

France has banned mobile phones from schools this year (The Strait Times)
Back to school for French kids, without their phones



Many new teachers to address the teacher shortage (Greek City Times)
Schools in Greece start their first day of the new school year



A poll finds that as students in England head back to school, nearly half fear returning as a result of bullying (Telegraph)
Half of children worried about returning from school holidays because of bullying, poll finds

The BBC offers a short quiz to help parents and students get ready for heading back to school (BBC)
Back to school: How much do you know?



An article from the Brookings Institution about different issues to watch in the new school year (Brookings)
As kids go back to school, these are the education story lines experts are watching 

A back-to-school reminder of persistent school segregation across the country (Hechinger)
Take a closer look at those back-to-school photos: Is something missing?

An article about tech trends for the new school year (Ed Surge)
10 Inspired Tech Trends Every Teacher Should Know About

Students in a number of districts are returning to a new schedule as some schools are set to begin later in the day
Students catch extra winks with later start times for new school year (Burrell school district, Pennsylvania)
Students Head Back To School, Some With New Start Times (CBS, St. Paul, Minnesota)

However, many schools have started earlier in the year, including a few places starting before Labor Day for the first time
Back to school coming earlier for more Michigan students (Michigan)
Elected officials, students, families rings the bell to start off new school year (Philadelphia)

In Tacoma, WA students will not head back to school as teachers strike for better pay (USA Today)
Teachers are striking again; in Tacoma, they’re prepared to picket for weeks
Students in Los Angeles are already back in school, but teachers have authorized a similar strike (LA Times)
L.A. teachers authorize strike as tensions rise

Teachers and other school employees in Chicago face issues with receiving clearances (Chalkbeat)
Chicago schools start Tuesday, but 511 employees don’t have clearance yet

New York and Virginia have added teaching about mental health to their curriculum (Governing)
New School Year, New Mental Health Lessons: 2 States Now Require It

In New York City, the chancellor and mayor opened the year emphasizing equality (Wall Street Journal)
NYC Chancellor, Mayor Greet School Year, Emphasizing Equity

Also in New York City, as teachers head back to school, social media plays an increasingly important role (Chalkbeat)
New York City teachers head #backtoschool, both in real life and on Twitter


Some information and statistics about students starting and heading back to school in Iceland (Iceland Monitor)
Back to school today