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Levers for transformation

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I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the idea of levers–you know, those simple machines that allow you to raise a load with a certain degree of mechanical advantage. I attended a public forum on equity a few days ago, and one of the speakers posed the question, “What are the levers that will allow us to move towards greater equity in our schools?” After doing a bit of blogging on that for the Canadian Education Association, I got to thinking: What are the levers that we could identify as being important for true educational transformation? Before offering a few possibilities of my own, I wanted to do some thinking out loud about the metaphor, and some of the possibilities that it offers for thinking about transformation and scalability.

First, levers, themselves, are fairly straight and rigid. Too much flex or flop will prevent the lever from doing its work.

Second, levers depend on a fulcrum for their effectiveness. A fulcrum can be described as the point about which the whole system turns. Without a fulcrum, your rigid lever is just a straight and rigid object–a perfect weapon, but with absolutely no mechanical advantage! (Does this one resonate with anyone?)

Finally, the placement of the fulcrum is very important in the whole process. If the fulcrum is too far away from that which is too be lifted, the advantage of the lever decreases.

(I would love some critique of my physical analysis here; I may have some of it wrong!)

So, does any of this matter when we use the lever metaphor in our discussions about transformation. I think so.

Three quick connections, with the hope that some of your comments might allow me to explore this on an even deeper level.

Connection One: There are plenty of solutions offered for the educational needs of our day. Some are poorly researched; many are poorly implemented, being left behind before given a fair chance to work. If we are going to pursue a course of transformational action, we need to be assured of its value, commit ourselves to it, be prepared to follow-up with research, and not let go of it without good, evidence-based reason. This is where the rigidity comes in: it’s a rigidity of commitment, a respect for research, and a resistance to jumping from one thing to the next too quickly.

Connection Two: The fulcrum for each lever needs to be well-considered, well-understood, and have a wide degree of acceptance among all participants. For me, it would be difficult to imagine a fulcrum that is not grounded in student success, however that is defined. (Test scores may be one symptom of that success, but not success, itself)

Connection Three: If our school systems are designed to raise all students to greater levels of excellence, then the associated resources must remain fairly close to those students. I’m sure that you can all cite instances where copious amounts of time, money and energy were expended far from where our learners live and breathe on a daily basis. This is ineffective and inefficient.

I’m going to stop there with those three connections to the lever metaphor. (I don’t want to sound too pedantic or preachy!) But I would love your help in working these ideas a little more.

I will close with a few levers that I think could really help our work in educational transformation. I would love to hear yours.

Levers for Transformation (not necessarily in order of importance)

  1. The thoughtful and meaningful use of technology
  2. A commitment to critical thinking
  3. An understanding of the arts as a set of powerful literacies
  4. New models for architectural design
  5. Emergent, learner-centered curriculum
  6. Shift from grade level progress to a system that focuses on authentic assessment benchmarks
  7. More time in the woods!

These are some of the ideas that I’ve the opportunity to play with over the past few years. What are your levers for transformation?

About Stephen Hurley

After working for over 30 years in Ontario's public education system, I continue to work passionately throughout Canada, still very committed to the idea of effective, powerful learning experiences for all participants. A musician, technology-watcher, father, husband, I find life in the world of education, even when the conversations get a little contentious. If I were to be doing anything else right now, it would be hosting my own syndicated radio program on--you guessed it--education. I blog in a few spots. My personal blog can be found at I can also be found hanging around and, most recently, I can be found on twitter as @stephen_hurley


10 thoughts on “Levers for transformation

  1. I’ve been thinking about this one myself, see for my presentation on this subject.

    Posted by Maria Andersen | October 31, 2010, 3:10 pm
    • Thanks Maria,

      Watched this yesterday, and really enjoyed your take on the concept of levers at the post-secondary level. Are you familiar with the work of Mark Federman ( He works out of Toronto and has similar concerns about teaching and learning at colleges and universities. If you haven’t met, you two may find that your thinking resonates with each other.

      Thanks so much for the link to your work!


      Posted by Stephen Hurley | November 1, 2010, 9:20 pm
  2. I think something that you mentioned which is worth repeating is that the fulcrum of a lever must be placed close to the object you are trying to move. In other words, if our fulcrum (or focus point of change) is too far removed from the world we are trying to change, our ability to move or change the world is greatly diminished.

    In other words, although many of us are looking into radical reform, perhaps we might be better off with a lot of small incremental changes? It might be easier to change our system if we focus on a single area close to the current system and change it, and then keep making small changes.

    That being said, as Archimedes said, give me a fulcrum and a lever long enough and I can move the world. Or maybe I’m just taking this analogy too far…

    Posted by dwees | November 1, 2010, 1:12 am
    • Thanks for the comment David. I think that, for me, its the “keeping the small changes” that has been the systemic challenge. We don’t like to keep a whole lot when we move on to new things. Institutional memory is important!


      Posted by Stephen Hurley | November 1, 2010, 9:22 pm
  3. Maybe broad and useful national standards (a la Finland) are the lever, student success is what gets lifted, and teachers are the fulcrum with sane policy providing the force?

    I don’t think practice should ever be inflexible (or else what’s a teacher for?), but certainly humane policy and useful ends could be held to in pursuit of student’s success and joy in learning.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | November 1, 2010, 6:08 am
    • Chad,

      I agree that practice needs to be flexible…very flexible on the best of days. You’ve got me thinking a little more about the metaphor. Not everything in the system needs to be a lever; therefore, not everything needs to be rigid.

      Perhaps its the working principles and assumptions that we make about what we’re doing that need to be real solid.


      Posted by Stephen Hurley | November 1, 2010, 9:24 pm
      • The most absolute I try to be lately is in making sure that students understand our classroom to be the land of learn as you please, rather than the land of do as you please. It might take two or more years to stick, but that message, I think, eventually translates into a community of learning.


        Posted by Chad Sansing | November 2, 2010, 6:07 am
  4. Hi Chad,

    I agree with you. I also know how difficult it is to foster and develop this type of attitude towards learning in students–and other staff. Some days it seems like an uphill battle, but when you start to reach the top…the view is great!


    Posted by Stephen Hurley | November 2, 2010, 6:56 am
  5. Stephen,
    I like the foundational physics. How do we maximize our impact while honoring our energy expense?
    Perhaps a great question to begin each day.

    As always I am impressed with your work and how you teach us the functionality and form of Prezi among other things. Impactful on many levels.


    Posted by Jennifer Sertl | November 3, 2010, 10:16 am


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