Interrogating Change Theory

In historical terms, it is not at all surprising that ‘change forces’ and pervasive restructuring initiatives should be sweeping the world at the moment. Since 1989, we have seen a seismic shift in the world in terms of the dominant political ideologies. Beyond the triumphalist ‘end of history’ line peddled by camp followers, lies the belief that American democratic and business values have now vanquished all alternative political and economic systems. Behind this ideological shift is, of course, a massive technological transformation, which many believe puts us within a ‘third industrial revolution’. Such huge transformations, quite understandably, lead to a passing belief that history is now irrelevant, suspended, over.

But in the everyday world of social life and social institutions, this glib dismissal of history does not stand scrutiny for a moment. Can the situation in Kosovo, Rwanda or Northern Ireland really transcend history? In the end, won’t the change forces, with all their smart bombs and surveillance technology, nonetheless have to confront human and historical fabric? The answer, of course, is inevitably that transformational change forces will have to confront existing patterns of life and understanding. This will also be the case with regard to change forces in our schools. Schools are great collectivising and socialising areas where our social memory is deeply embedded. Restructuring schools may not prove a great deal simpler than restructuring Kosovo.

John Meyer et al (1992) talked about school reforms as ‘world movements’ that sweep across the global arena: invented in one country, they are rapidly taken up by political elites and powerful interest groups in each country. But what then becomes clear is that these world movements of school reform ‘embed’ themselves in national school systems in very different ways. The national school systems are refractors of world change forces. Our task is to understand this process of social refraction, for only then can we develop a change theory that is sensitive to the circumstances, albeit deeply changed circumstances, of schooling.
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