The following is an edited text of an address delivered by Dr Tewarie, Pro Vice Chancellor, Planning and Development at the “Conference On Maximising The Role Of Education In A Changing Society” organised by the Faculty of Social Sciences, UWI and the Ministry of Education on January 21, 2011
The reason why we need to support, nurture and facilitate thinking skills, foster a learning society with learning communities, make the link between generating, acquiring and applying knowledge and promote creativity and enhance innovation is because thought capacity is the most powerful tool that a human being has. Because learning communities and societies can only exist where there is a free flow of information and a perpetual knowledge exchange. Because while knowledge is valuable, has always been valuable, will continue to be valuable – knowledge only creates value and generates wealth when it is applied to create something of value on a large scale and creativity and innovation are the icing on the cake because as Albert Einstein said once, “More important than knowledge is the imagination.” Because everything which does not already exist, everything new, springs from the human imagination.
So the reason why we want to maximize the role of a different kind of education system is to unleash human talent, spirit and energy and free the imagination so that creativity and innovation can flourish and so that the possibility of perpetual societal renewal becomes real.
So if we know what we are seeking to optimize and we know why it is important to optimize it then we need to begin to address in very practical terms what we need to do with our system of education in order to align optimized throughput (graduates) with the requirements of an ever changing society.
We are now engaging three important concepts here – the throughput which we are seeking to optimize; the system which produces the throughput and, based on your theme, we are seeking ways and means for the system to play its optimum role and we want to somehow leverage it to do so, cause it to adapt to do so. Finally, we want the changes in society to cause the system to respond in such a way that some synergy is achieved between the aspirations of the individual and the needs of a changing society. How can we make all these things possible? And what about change?
What we need to appreciate too is that change is constant. It may slow down, it may quicken, but society does not stand still and the reason why the pace of change is so fast now is not because of politics or government or policy decisions. It is because of technology. Indeed politicians, government and policy changes cannot seem to keep pace with the rate of technological change.
One important characteristic of a learning society is that it can generate new technologies or if it cannot, it can absorb them. The concept of a learning society is not an abstract concept. Any society is a sub-system in the world system; and if the world system is a technologically-driven, information overloaded, knowledge system where creativity and innovation deriving from the human imagination are the ultimate competitive advantages then collective learning capacity in a society is a fundamental requirement for adaptation to the inevitable changes in society.
So getting back to our three important concepts —one of which is an ever changing society—we need to appreciate that people need to adapt to change and they do that by learning the appropriate skills to cope in a different environment. And systems need to adapt to change. Systems will only adapt to change when the human subsystem within the system as a whole recognize the need to change behaviour so that the system can adapt as new behaviour patterns emerge and new structures are established to harness the modified/new system to make it work with the new behaviour patterns that have emerged to cause the system to transform/adapt in response to a changed/different environment. This may sound complex but it really is not. Human beings must adapt to meet the requirements of change. When human beings make adaptations, the system that contains them has to adapt to the new behaviours of humans and when that happens you need a new structure or business model to manage the system. Behaviour change leads to system change which requires structural shifts and the change in behaviour, system and structure facilitates the evolution of a new culture.
All of this is very well explored in a book written many years ago by Peter Senge called The Fifth Discipline. But let me now spend a few minutes on change and then another few minutes on systems and finally another few minutes on human behaviour. The three are very connected.
The first idea I want to share is that no matter how much change there is or seems to be – nothing changes everything. So that we might want to start with what do we not want to change in the students/graduates at various levels that we put out and then what do we want to change. The second thing that I would want to do is ask you a question – do you want incremental change or discontinuous change and what kind of change does the reality of the changing environment tell you that you need?
What does the answer to this question mean for the graduate you need to create, the system you need to support the creation of such graduates and for you personally as part of the human system in the wider education system in terms of change of behaviour? Let me proceed by asking some questions. We say society is changing but what is changing really? If an 18th century student walked into a primary school classroom, a secondary school classroom, a tertiary institution classroom, would that classroom be very familiar or unfamiliar?
And if society has been changing over the centuries and decades and the pace of change is now dizzying, have people not been changing? Have their expectations been changing? Have their aspirations been changing and with the stimuli that we have now, has the framework within which 21st century people operate been changing?
So why are the systems not changing to keep pace with society and to take the changes in expectations and aspirations and the different framework within which people now operate, into account?
Is it reasonable to have 18th century classrooms for 21st century students? Is it reasonable to have 18th century methodologies for 21st century students? Is it reasonable for education in the information age, the knowledge era, the internet and Facebook society to be so content driven? Do you know that Facebook, if it were a country would be the third largest country in the world after China and India with 500 million people? Do you know that the opportunity is just waiting for Facebook Worldwide Primary School, Facebook Worldwide High School and Facebook Worldwide University with the internet as browser, online sources for research and online support systems and Facebook as a huge learning and knowledge exchange chat room? Why do we persist? We persist because we have been created in the image and likeness of the old system and we are afraid of the unknown, we are afraid to change, we are scared to move to a place where we might be uncomfortable. And that means that we ourselves are afraid to learn and worried that we will have to unlearn. How can we build adaptive systems, how can we build a learning culture , how can we lead change if that is the case?
But we do need to lead change in the education sector and here is why. Teachers and administrators are saying, “I don’t know what my job is any more.” Students are feeling the disconnect between classroom and society and with the future coming at them with the speed of light. Our education system plateaued a long time and now has a receding relationship with the reality of constant change. The only thing that we can expect from the system we have is diminishing returns.
A crisis has long been with us. In such a situation you have to move from thinking about improvement to making transformation happen. What will the new era look like and how do we prepare for it? Simultaneously we must solve existing problems, alter procedures, change attitudes, adjust assumptions and find and anticipate emerging problems. Yes we have to solve existing problems and find or identify new ones.
We can only act to change the present if our focus is on the future—the possible futures. Change is about the future. We need to do some serious foresighting here for Trinidad and Tobago and the region. We need to envision scenarios and chose a plausible future that we might collectively want to create. Some things are beyond our control but we can choose what we do if we have a sense of what might possibly come at us.
I have been able to persuade the University of the West Indies leadership that we need a foresighting exercise before proceeding to the next Strategic Plan 2012-17 and we are having such an exercise in mid-February. I am very happy for that but UWI alone will not get us to where we need to be.
We really need serious leadership now in education. We can’t waffle along much longer. Let me therefore close by sharing with you a thought on leadership.
A leader encourages people to do what they don’t want to do to achieve what they want to achieve. So we must come to a common understanding of what we want to achieve and leadership must be inspirational enough to get us to do, in spite of ourselves, what we don’t want to do to get where our aspirations say we must go.
There are many challenges that we face in the Caribbean that have implications for education
• Cut back in resources due to global economic downturn and other factors
• Demands of a globalised, knowledge-based international economy
• Leadership and will need to be summoned to transform the education sector
• The inability of Caribbean economies to grow and diversify to absorb throughput from the system in terms of acceptable jobs (migration)
• Mismatch of skills and available jobs
• Reinforcing the generational poverty cycle
• High vulnerability to international sources and forces
Each of the sectors—primary, secondary, tertiary, vocational have their own peculiar challenges. I have just mentioned the general ones.
Change does not come easy. It often meets what has been described as “a wall of resistance”. The stages of change have been described as Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and finally Acceptance. And not all will accept—some will come at first, others later, most will sit on the fence until they see where it’s going, and there will be laggards and naysayers.
Change, however, is not only desirable, it is possible. And even if you can’t change everything, you can change some things. And even if you don’t have an authority position, you can have influence. And finally leadership requires vision, courage and commitment to the vision and through that the generations of followership through inspiration and trust.
In his book Leading Change, John Kotter identifies eight steps in the process of change
1. Establish a sense of urgency
2. Create a guiding coalition
3. Create a vision that is shared at least at first by the guiding coalition
4. Communicate the vision
5. Empower others
6. Have a strategy for short-term wins
7. Consolidate improvements as they are made
8. Be relentless and produce still more change
Change is possible. Change is desirable. Change in education is vital to our capacity to compete and build a sustainable economy and social system. Let’s do it.