Change Processes and Historical Periods

An International Perspective

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.

In his book, Fluctuating Fortunes, Vogel (1988) documented the changing cycles of power of global business. In periods of high business power, schooling tends to be driven towards business values. These periods move educational policy and economic policy into close harmony. At such times, educational questions tend to be driven hard by vocational questions; issues of competitiveness and economic efficiency are widely promoted. But the educational and the economic are, as a matter of fact, not synonymous. Sometimes they can be performed in harmony, but at other times they lead in very different directions if the educational needs of school students are scrutinised in their own right. At times, when business power is held in balance by other forces, the ‘internal’ professional power of educator groups can emerge as a major defining force.

Such a period began in the years after the Second World War. This period of ‘cold war’ between political ideologies set capitalist business values against systems of Communist production. In the west, egalitarian social policies were pursued and public education systems were heavily promoted as vehicles of common purpose and social good. Business values and the private sector lived in ‘mixed economies’ where public sectors provided a good deal of the ‘public services’ of national systems.

In this period, which lasted well into the 1970s - even into the 1990s in some countries (e.g. Canada) - educators were seen as having large amounts of professional autonomy. Much educational change was, at this time, left to internal educational experts, to initiate and define.

In these historical circumstances of substantial professional autonomy, change theory looked for the sources of initiation and promotion of change to the educator groups ‘internal to the school systems’. In conceptionalising curriculum change in the 1970s, I developed a model which scrutinised the ‘internal affairs’ of change and set this against the ‘external relations’ of change.
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Publisher: The Liffey Press
Subject: Education policy
Available in: English
Appears in: Curriculum and Ideology - Irish Experiences International Perspectives (C. Segrue, ed.)
Number of editions: 1

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