Last week I learned that Harvard Professor Richard Elmore had passed away. For those of you who have been following The Education Hub for a while, you’ll probably remember Elmore’s name being mentioned across multiple reports and insight articles. Indeed, Elmore’s scholarship has been influential in shaping my own thinking and some of the ideas we have promoted at The Education Hub.
In this insight article, I reflect on some of the important lessons I’ve taken from Elmore’s work over the years.
1. That it’s ok for academics (and others) to change their minds
In 2011, Elmore edited the book I Used To Think…And Now I Think, in which 20 leading educators reflected on their personal experiences and intellectual journeys in school reform. His reasoning for compiling the book: “My fellow contributors and I hope to model, in a small way, what professional discourse might look like if professionals were expected to learn over the course of a career. It strikes me as ironic that in a field nominally devoted to the development of capacities to learn, there is so little visible evidence of what those who do the work have actually learned in their careers.” He continued to live this sentiment when he published his 2016 paper “Getting to scale…” it seemed like a good idea at the time”, which explained why he no longer believed in the premise of his 1995 essay on the power of policy-driven reform in education. This openness to make visible his learning and to admit that his earlier thinking had been “wrong”, is something many of us in education can learn from.
2. The need to rethink the concept of scale in education
Over the past two decades, Elmore questioned the rhetoric around taking reforms or “best-practices” to scale in education. His belief was that the types of scaling that more readily occurred in education focused on procedural change and change in organizational structures, and never actual got to the types of deep change, such as change in teachers’ beliefs and behaviours, that are needed in order to influence the fabric of teaching and learning and therefore lead to long-lasting school improvement. As he wrote in 2016:
People interested in pushing against the frontiers of knowledge and policy around human development and learning should learn to rely less on governmental institutions and more on the development of strong theories and their enactment. ‘‘Scale’’ for its own sake is less important than demonstrating that powerful ideas can work in diverse environments and creating powerful networks that are capable of operating with or without the cover of public authority. (Elmore, 2016)
3. The limitations of policy in effecting schooling improvement
For Elmore, policy-driven reforms in education were too focused on achieving uniformity without acknowledging or accommodating the wide variety of factors – social, economic, cultural, institutional – that influence how learning occurs. Furthermore, his work with schools and schooling systems around the world had taught him that:
The knowledge of what to do has to reside not in the mind of some distant policy wonk or academic, but in the deep muscle-memory of the actual doer. When we are asking teachers and school leaders to do things they don’t (yet) know how to do, we are not asking them to ‘‘implement’’ something, we are asking them to learn, think, and form their identities in different ways. (Elmore, 2016, p.513)
4. The importance of focusing on instruction
Perhaps of all of Elmore’s work, it is his work on the instructional core that has been most influential. Elmore contended that if we do not address the actual experiences of students at the instructional levels it is impossible to achieve meaningful and sustained change in student outcomes. That is, the nature of tasks (both the level of rigour of a task and the way in which it is implemented in the classroom) that students do on a daily basis predicts their performance. Elmore developed the concept of the instructional core, which comprises the the interactions between teacher, students and content in the classroom, to represent these ideas. To improve student learning at scale, according to Elmore, it is necessary to:
• Raise the level of content that students are taught;
• Increase the teachers’ skill and knowledge that they bring to the teaching of that content; and
• Increase the level of students’ active learning (engagement) of the content
Most recently, Elmore had turned his attention to learning environments and in particular how education needed to transform the ways in which it was thinking about learning and utilise the developing “neuroscience of learning” (Elmore’s term for this growing body of research) to fundamentally transform the design of learning environments. His early thinking in this area is equally insightful and challenging, and it is a shame that he did not have a chance to further develop it. I for one, would have been fascinated to see how he would have conceptualized the new possibilities emerging for school-level education.