Guest post: Education System part two

In New Zealand education policy, the failure of Talent2 and the Ministry of Education to build and deliver the Novopay payroll system has been widely covered in the media. This failure occurred for a number of technical and contractual reasons, many of which have been laid out in reviews.
The recently released Ministerial inquiry lays the blame for failure in a range of places. But in reading some of the Novopay timeline details, and the technical review, you get the sense that during the process, failure was not tolerated or accepted.

Despite concerns,  and reports detailing “147 software defects and 6000 errors“, the contract was still signed off, and the project went ahead. The Minister of
Education, the Associate Minister of Education and the Minister of Finance all
signed off on the project, despite knowing there were defects in the system.
Four independent advisors gave the system the go ahead, despite, we can only
assume, having a similar level of knowledge about the weaknesses in the system.

On the face of it, it appears, the possibility of system failure was almost willingly ignored and was quite literally, not an option. Why if everyone appeared to know that the system was faulty, was it allowed to be launched? After the fact, it’s easy to say that remedial work is being done, and Talent2 is learning from each cycle of errors, and that more people are on the help desk, and the Ministry is addressing faults in internal systems and staffing, but it’s difficult to avoid the fact that it appears a fear of
non-delivery meant a failed delivery from day one.

Obviously hindsight allows us to critique the Novopay implementation process and the technical aspects. I do wonder how and who within the Ministry of Education has learnt from the failure. I wonder how schools have learnt from the failure, and have changes
been made to some of their processes? I wonder if their have been any measurable gains or successes provided by the Novopay system, for schools and the Ministry?

The Network for Learning, (N4L) one of this government’s flagship initiatives is another example of where it is arguable, the “failure is not an option” culture is in play. Touted as “unleashing learners” and with a promise to not deliver any school, less than it currently has access too, the Network for Learning has been almost crippled by huge levels of expectation and in some quarters, entitlement.

After the failings of the Novopay process, the government and the N4L itself is moving quite slowly through the procurement and implementation process. Is this to avoid being seen as a failure, and to avoid failing to deliver? This slowness and at times lack of communication has been criticized by some in the education sector. An education sector that can be notoriously demanding. Will high and entitled expectations mean the N4L is regarded as a failure when it finally arrives? Or even before it finally

Will it be a success if the network and services can be built and delivered, but be unaffordable for the schools that need these the most? In the quest to create a “something” that will raise student achievement, will the N4L be defined and by test scores and measurements that it has little to no quantifiable way of affecting?  Or will the assessments be designed to measure the N4L’s services, rather than the
student’s abilities and needs that we actually want to address.

At its heart this Network for Learning is just a collection of wires and boxes, that allow schools to connect. What those connections allow are varied and exciting, but the network cannot make change of itself. How schools actively and critically choose to use those connections to meet the needs of their students will make the most difference.

I do hope the premise and promise of the Network for Learning succeeds, but I’d rather call it a ‘Network for Education’. It’s a provision to support the delivery of education in New Zealand. What learning emerges from that network could be amazing, can be plain and useful, but ultimately should just be a part of how we in Aotearoa provide for our young people.

Lest anyone think that I’m defending teachers or schools that display signs of failure, I am not. I’m conscious that there are poor practitioners in the education sector, and poor administrators, and that students can be letdown by the choices of those who we entrust to guide and support them.

But I don’t believe any teacher or school leader actively sets out to fail their students. By stating “failure is not an option”, the Minister sets up a false assumption that anything less than constant success, means our teachers and schools are failing, and thus changes must be made.

So let’s change this conversation in which we are constantly defining success and failure points, and measuring to meet those standards. Let’s have broader conversation that starts with saying “In education, success and failure are part of the process of learning.” While we don’t aim for failure, we don’t deny that it may occur. That will we constantly look to build on our failures and successes, to refine and make ourselves and our places better.

If as adults, we’re OK with both success and failure, neither too emotionally distraught, nor enthusiastically hyped, our students may come to see that gratitude in the face of success, and resilience in the face of failure, are what determine our well-being in this life.

And this will be worth celebrating.

Guest Post: Fear of failure and the education system

On Saturday I watched TV3’s The Nation’s piece on the
current Minister of Education
, Hekia Parata.

I was struck by the Minister’s phrase, from her maiden
statement to parliament,
in particular her comments directed at education.

We must adopt an uncompromising attitude that
failure is not an option
. All our other aspirations for economic growth,
raised standards of living, and national confidence and pride will flow from
getting these basics right.

“Failure is not an option.”

It is, on the face of it, a fine statement, that speaks to
conviction, emphatic-ness and a desire to accept nothing less than the very
best.  All laudable sentiments from a politician. 

And I don’t deny that this is just one sentence from a wider
speech, but language matters, and I believe a statement like that helps to
frame the culture of practice that a politician leads. Can we actually frame a
society wide conversation about public education with that blunt rejection of
failure? What happens to our systems if we reject failure as an option?

Instead of stating that “Failure is not an option”, and living by
that dictum, should we as @therepaulpowers tweeted, consider that “Failure
is quite clearly an opinion.” With that perspective, can we allow
considered and critical opinions to shape our conversation about what failure
actually is and means in practice?

As a culture, we celebrate moments of success, gold medals
and world records. But behind each of those moments are effort, toil and
setbacks. Those setbacks are a series of failures, that when persevered through
and built upon can lead to success. But as a culture, we don’t often reflect on
that effort and that long progression of failure, nor do we celebrate it. 

In sports there are many examples of failure being a
reality. These excellent basketball players have never held aloft an NBA championship, while these footballers never even
made it to the World Cup. 

Would we consider them failures?

The 2011 All Blacks were rightly hailed as successful as
they won the Rugby World Cup. That victory salved the reminder of 25 years of
incessant failure. It’s possibly useful to consider that in that same time
period France, competed in three finals, while the All Blacks only two.
Naturally we see the All Blacks as more successful, because they won the two
they were in, but France have arguably a more successful RWC record than the  All Blacks. 

It’s just that possibly, as a nation they don’t base their
entire cultural worth or success on their national rugby team.

Consider also, that in those 25 years, rugby fans were
privileged enough to witness the feats of some of the most outstanding players
to ever play the game. Christian Cullen, Tana
, Andrew Mehrtens, Jonah Lomu,

Did these players fail? Depending on the criteria, absolutely. 

Were they successful players who achieved highly? Obviously. 

Steve Jobs is lauded as one of the pioneers and visionaries
of personal computing and consumer electronics. But not only was he let go by
the very company that he helped to found, he continued to make
mistakes after his return and
not all of Apple’s products have been successful.

Richard Branson has had over a dozen major ventures that
have gone bust under his watch,
and yet is widely hailed as a success and a entrepernurial leader.

James Dyson’s award winning bag less vacuum cleaner
took 5,127 prototypes and 15 years to get it right.” Even after the
success of that original product in 1993, Dyson has continued to refine and
continuously improve his product.  

All of their failures were a part of the successes these
three business leaders went on to create. As Dyson discusses in this article
from The Guardian, in business “Failure can be an option“. 

Sometimes though, we rewrite the rules, and despite failure
being the absolute state of reality, and being aware of the process by which
that point of failure was reached, we choose to define some things as “too
big to fail

We didn’t allow the banks to fail. The results would have
been catastrophic we were told. But five years on from that financial crisis,
are we any better off? Have those institutes learnt from that failure? Did
declaring them unable to fail cause them to change their methods?  Have
our economies become more effective, balanced and useful as a result of not
being allowed to fail

I find it interesting that the World Bank now hosts a Fail
, to
celebrate “innovation and risk-taking”. 

Are we doing that in New Zealand. Politicians often call for
innovation and risk takers, but do we allow for and explicitly let failure
happen, so that we can innovate as a result. Do our public sector environments
allow for risk-taking and the possibility of both success and failure? Do we
have a public sector culture that lets the individuals within it learn from
their mistakes.


Part Two of Tim’s post goes online on Thursday.