Stop Blaming ‘The System’

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the systemI often get asked to speak about engagement.

I outline that four key considerations are essential if we are to genuinely engage kids (and staff) in our schools. They are: establishing good relationships, developing a sense of autonomy, encouraging mastery and having a bigger purpose than just chasing grades.

Sometimes I hear that whilst these ideals are admirable – ‘The System’ means we can’t achieve them.

To be honest, I’m tired of hearing this argument.

I’m not even sure what people mean when they say ‘The System’ but they often qualify their position by saying, “We need to get rid of NAPLAN,” or “The ATAR kills learning” or “There’s just too much content to get through to do the things you talk about.”

I can only assume that when people speak of ‘The System’ they mean the politicians, policy writers, curriculum writers, ACARA and state and regional departments.

I often hear that things will never change until we get rid of NAPLAN or the ATAR and we can’t innovate in the current educational climate.

Well if that’s your position then it’s a bit of a cop-out. Because let’s be honest, they aren’t going anywhere.

Now I’m not saying there aren’t challenges. Of course there are. And it’s easy to become disillusioned when we hear leaders speaking of an Education Race and the like but…

Your idea of innovation cannot be dependent on the removal of the immovables.

Innovation will only happen if we have professionals who are willing to push at the boundaries.

I’m not sure if these people who rage against ‘The System’ see teachers as separate from it but personally I see teachers as the most vital aspect of ‘The System.’

And the point is – of course – there are countless teachers who are pushing these boundaries… which makes the whole ‘System’ argument even more redundant. 

So for what it’s worth, here are some suggestions to try to achieve the four ideals I outlined above.

Establish Relationships

Good teacher/student relationships are built on three things – Care, Respect & Trust. I don’t need to go on about this surely? Saying that relationships is at the heart of education is about as earth shattering as saying the sun is most likely to rise in the East tomorrow.


How can you allow kids to do what they want, when they want, how they want, with who they want? How might this impact assessment and learning? How might this impact project or group work?

Unless you work at Utopia High School, this might seem impossible, but look closer, how can we offer more flexibility in our offerings at school? Technology means this has never been easier to do. For example the Flipped Classroom offers one way in which kids can access content anywhere anytime. This could go some way to addressing the ‘too much content to get through’ argument.


How many of your kids really want to master their subjects, or do they just want to get a good enough mark to keep people off their backs? I’ve been going on about this for years.

The fact is grades kill learning. Schools become engulfed in a culture of performance, competition and anxiety. As Dylan Wiliam says here

If you write careful diagnostic comments on a student’s work, and then put a score or grade on it, you are wasting your time. The students who get the high scores do not need to read the comments and the students who get the low scores do not want to.

Get rid of grades and over time we can create a culture of learning.

And you know the funny thing? ‘The System’ agrees! That’s why every state and territory in Australia mandates that we give a grade to parents TWICE A YEAR…

Not twice a week, month, term or semester. A YEAR.

You might also want to look at Growth Mindset in regard to this aspect of engagement.

Get this right and when NAPLAN and the pressures of the ATAR come around students, teachers and parents are better equipped to deal with it.


The easiest way to give kids a real purpose for the work they do is to make it relevant to them today. Telling kids they might need it when they’re older, or even in the exam lead them to think one thing. “Sweet, I’ll worry about it then.”

Creating an audience for your students’ work is a fairly simple way to create relevance.

Consider how you might use Quadblogging, Skype in Education or Wattpad to offer just three suggestions.

I can’t remember who said it, but I once heard someone say, when kids are doing something for an authentic audience they want to do a good job but when they are doing something for the teacher they just want to do a good enough job. Big difference.

So the next time you hear a colleague taking aim at ‘The System’ for not being able to do what they want to do, why not get them to consider what they can actually do within the boundaries they operate, because that’s where real change will happen.

5 Comments on “Stop Blaming ‘The System’

    • I am a pre-service teacher who is still eleven months off making my midlife entry into primary teaching. I mention this because I feel a little presumptuous adding my comment here, but the line “Your idea of innovation cannot be dependent on the removal of the immovables.” struck a chord with me.

      It is true that limitations will constrain you, impositions from outside will often block you from achieving what you want to achieve in the way you want to achieve it. But it is also true that limitations can provoke you to tap into your creativity in ways that unrestrained freedom rarely will. I call to mind the story of Phil Hanson and his Embrace the Shake TED talk ( Sure the neurological condition he developed meant he would never be able to practice the type of art he had trained his whole life for, but look what it launched him into!

      What would “embracing the shake” look like for teachers. Hmm. I guess I’ll begin to find out in a year from now.

  1. Great post, Dan. I too am tired of hearing that this and that cannot be done (eg. Technology embedded in learning, PBL) because of the “system”. However, I don’t entirely think it is a cop out. I have not met any teacher who does not want the best for their students. I like to think of this issue from another perspective. For those teachers who do push the boundaries, what is it about the “system” that enables them to do it. While I don’t like to think of myself as innovative, I do push the boundaries. I can name so many aspects of the “system” that enable me to push the boundaries such as having a school leadership team that trusts teachers and let me run with my crazy ideas as long as they align to school goals and improve student learning. When I was on prac teaching and first initial years as a beginning teacher, I had mentor teachers who gave me permission to push the boundaries. I also had enormous support at home (eg, family members letting me be selfish at times and spend loads of time on developing learning experiences for my students). Not everyone has these conditions as part of the their “system”. So instead of blaming teachers for coping out, I think we should acknowledge that they do still have to report on grades, work to a timetable, etc etc but what support do they need from the system to achieve the four ideas of student relationships, autonomy, mastery and purpose.

    • Hi Alice, thanks for your comment.

      To be clear I was stating that blaming NAPLAN, the ATAR and the like and using that as a reason as to why we can’t innovate is a cop-out.

      The points you raise are all examples of what teachers, leaders etc IN SCHOOLS can do… that’s point of my my post.


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