Education reform has a ‘Wizard of Oz’ problem

In the Wizard of Oz, the heroine, Dorothy, finds herself on a quest with three companions; a scarecrow in need of a brain, a tin man with no heart, and a lion without courage.

In our uncertain times, as schools seek to navigate the complexity of the immediate future and think about how they need to adapt, this story is a good metaphor to encapsulate some of the biggest problems educational reformers are facing today.

Not enough brain

In some ways this is not quite true — there is no end of experts who can explain what they think needs to be done to ‘fix’ schools. Indeed, anyone who has gone through 10+ years of schooling is of course entitled to suggest what works well and what needs improving, based on their own user-experiences. And in these times of home-learning, where our pedagogy has been laid bare (all the good, the bad, and the ugly) for all to see, there has certainly been no shortage of things to say about the state of the art of modern schooling. We can also point to the exceptional number of educational think-tanks, research groups, and inspirational thinkers who are shining a light on what schools could be (or even if they are needed at all).

So when I suggest that there is not enough brain, I am suggesting that it is still not enough and that educational reform can not take place unless the right brains are engaged, at the right time, and in collaboration with each other. COVID has certainly accelerated educational reformation, but this sector has proven to be remarkably resistant to transformational change. Paradoxically, rather than transforming education, much (but not all) of the heralded educational-technology has actually been leveraged to restore the inefficiencies with the current systems of education. You need a remote learning solution? We got that. Falling behind? We can help you with that. You need to run exams at home? We can do that too.

But we don’t need a more efficient system: I think we need a new system. Educational reformers and leaders need to bring their brains together to make a compelling case for change. We might not want to rely on the Wizard here.

Not enough heart

One of the shifts in education has been to put the child at the centre of their own learning — and this is certainly evidenced in educational frameworks such as the (updated) International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme (PYP) which promotes the development of learner agency through Voice, Choice, and Ownership. This is a framework that is not focused on tests but on the child and the learning. It certainly feels like we are going in the right direction. But of course, this all comes to a shuddering halt once we reach high school — where we feel the need to start filtering out the winners and losers. In the UK, where I first taught, I could not get my head around how and why a nation would stand behind a system that each year tells roughly a third of its young people that they have failed school after over a decade of learning. Failed. And I have since found that the UK is not alone in the spectacular waste of human capital, with all the subsequent social and emotional damage that comes with it. And it only gets worse, when you consider the number of winners who subsequently drop out of higher education.

So, I can not understand the purpose of systematically failing young people — certainly not from an educational or societal standpoint. I can, however, agree that not all young people have either the ambition or aptitude to succeed in higher education. But is this really the only purpose of education? Those with the brains (see above) would suggest it is not. So why put them through it? If we had more heart, we would surely extend the gift of Voice, Choice, and Ownership to those in high school. What would that look like? More pathways; more ways to succeed; more ways to define one’s own success; more ways to contribute; and more ways to matter. I would happily take a potion if offered.

Not enough courage

Sadly, even if we can muster enough brain and enough heart, it may not make a difference if we lack (immense) courage to make a change.

The thing is, it’s a big step between talking about change, and actually making the change. The nature of schools is that they are incredibly busy with little (or no) spare capacity for ‘above the line’ strategy development. So when teachers are invited to re-imagine their craft, their curriculum, their ways of working and thinking about learning and teaching….often without extra time or resources, that’s obviously a difficult sell. Leaders, therefore, need to have the courage to take the teaching staff on this most uncomfortable of journeys.

Then there are the parents, potentially the audience who are being asked to exercise the most courage (or trust). My experience is that parents are the most aware, and the most supportive, of the need to reform education for their children. But they can also be reluctant for that change to be made to their own children if there is a feeling that it might adversely impact their life-chances. On the other hand, when parents are convinced of the need to change, there is no greater force for change — an educational ‘nirvana’.

The End?

The great irony of the film is that it turns out each of the characters had exactly what they needed all along. There was no real magic. They each found exactly what they needed when it was really demanded of them.

Can we?


I have unashamedly borrowed the ‘Wizard of Oz’ leadership model used in this blog from one of my old teachers (Directing Staff) at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. You can enjoy his excellent, article here as well as many other inspirational leadership insights.

One thought on “Education reform has a ‘Wizard of Oz’ problem

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: