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  • Writer's pictureKevin Graham

Change is the greatest change!

For as long as I’ve been conducting surveys for independent schools (25 years), we’ve been asking parents to rate a school’s success in contributing to the child’s growth across a series of skills or attributes. Every school has its own list of skills. Of course, there’s much overlap in these lists, including such things as: organizing time; critical thinking; creative thinking; leadership; collaboration, and so on.

Most lists contain between 16 and 25 skills and these are commonly described by schools as 21st century skills. Maybe I’m just playing with words here but most listed skills are not specific to the 21st century, having already served us for millennia. They’re all important skills, but not new. Questions I’ve been exploring lately include: Are there skills needed now more than ever before? If yes, what’s changed to bring this about?

In a word, change itself is the greatest change. When the model for our schools was created and developed almost 200 years ago, its purpose was to prepare students for routine work. Arrive on time. Perform a task over and over and do it the same way every time. Factory schools were very successful in preparing a workforce for the Industrial Age. Given that we are no longer preparing students principally for routine work, I’m curious to know which aspects of the factory model can and should be jettisoned? Given that, in some fields, entire bodies of knowledge turn over in a matter of years, are we inordinately focused in education on facts? Why do students still have no school during the Summer harvest months? Because we’ve always done it this way? What kind of answer is that? What else do we do because we’ve always done it this way? If we were to clear off the design table and re-invent schools based on current needs, what would they look like? If we were to re-invent schools based on unknown future needs, what would they look like? What skills will best prepare our children for a life we cannot even imagine at this point in time? I suspect that, with a blank slate, schools would look nothing at all like they do now. Failure to account for unanticipated change is a recipe for disaster. Complacency on this front in times of success is one of the best predictors of failure.

Don’t get me wrong. Schools are evolving, some better than others. Some are constantly challenging the assumptions under which they operate, and are thus well prepared when the rug is pulled out from underneath them. Others… not so well.

The ‘company’ employee, with just one career stop over a lifetime, is long dead. Our kids should be preparing for a journey that may see them passing through several very different checkpoints along the way. With this in mind, perhaps the most important question to ask and answer is: “How are we preparing our kids for such an unpredictable world?”

Many times over the years, I’ve declared that the one true attribute particular to our current and coming era is adaptability. Now, it’s true that adaptability has always been a favourable point of distinction for those in positions of leadership, tasked with strategic decision-making. My contention, however, is that the need for this skill has been thrust more broadly to the forefront over the past fifty years, not just for leaders but for everyone. I see every reason to believe that this need will only grow as we stumble our way through the 21st century.

The past 18 months has underscored this need emphatically. Recently, I was reviewing a set of surveys conducted for a school a few years ago. One of the questions was something like, “What changes in the world do you see that we should take into account as we carve out our path for the future?” Of course this is a question we should ask, but thinking about our path over the past 18 months, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I am reminded of Donald Rumsfeld’s line about ‘known unknowns and unknown unknowns’. In some respects, we literally have no idea what to expect. This being our harsh reality, I’m prompted to renew my declaration that adaptability will show itself as a primary enabler of success for our children and our children’s children.

We’ve all been forced out of our comfort zone, thrust into an entirely new paradigm of operation where some thrive and some do not. My own youngest completed her fourth year at university entirely from home. Not once on campus over the entire year, she was a thriver and graduated with distinction. Others have not been so fortunate. Why is that?

Since Covid-19 appeared, I’ve conducted more than 100 surveys of independent school parents, students, and teachers. The topic of adaptability was covered in each of these studies. Results confirm the notion that the acquisition of this skill is and will be pivotal to student survival and student success. I’m in a position to say with confidence that adaptability is key in the eyes of parents, students, and teachers. Parents who say that their children have adapted well over the past year and a half report dramatically higher ratings for other measures. Students do the same in their surveys. Teachers who have adapted well to this new environment are no different. Cross-tabulation of results tells me over and over that, in the eyes of all three groups, success in the development of this skill should be a central objective, not just a ‘nice to have’ bonus if we can find time for it.

From where I sit, there’s no question on the importance of adaptability going forward. The pace of wholesale change in the way we live and the numbers I see in my own research say this is so. The questions at hand, then, are:

  1. Does adaptability occupy an appropriate place on our list of desirable skills?

  2. Do we purposefully teach our children to be adaptable?

  3. If yes, precisely what do we do that contributes to the effort?

  4. If yes, how do we measure our success in this pursuit?

  5. If no, what do we do next?

I’m sorry to say that all of the answers I see point only to more questions.

With respect,

Kevin Graham


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