Despite periodic attempts to change the education system, the typical teaching process at today's schools looks very much like that of our parents' and grandparents' generation. The teaching process, both then and now, largely relies on the precise fulfillment of a standard program. Why have teaching attitudes not changed significantly when it has been years since new legislation, principles of management, systems of financing and other elements have been introduced?
When discussing this problem, people often place emphasis on the subjective or technical aspects of the issue. The failure of changes is often blamed on incompetent public officials, improper planning, insufficient decentralization and poor quality resources. Yet another widespread opinion is that conservatism is intrinsic to both schools in general and the teaching profession.
Although each of these opinions may have some rationale, none of them, taken either separately or in a sophisticated combination, is sufficient to explain why the educational process in schools has changed so insignificantly in spite of improved resources, the adoption of regulations, new knowledge acquired by teachers or other initiatives. What will help us better understand this issue is sociology, in particular, institutional theory.
For a more focused discussion, I shall refer to an example of a concrete failure. About eight years ago, the state rejected the application of curricula and assessments that were developed in a standard sequence by bureaucrats and scientists. The development of teaching programs for specific disciplines thus became the prerogative of the school teachers teaching those subjects. In the ideal case, teachers were to develop an optimal educational process on the basis of achievable performance indicators, as described in the national curriculum, while at the same time taking into account their own resources and their students' interests and needs.
It was predicted that this change would result in an improvement of the educational process as teachers were expected to channel their energy towards creating theoretically diverse and efficient programs. Despite the training provided, the development of print and video materials, the conduct of consultation meetings, the application of school evaluation and other mechanisms, signs of the institutionalization of this attitude have yet to be seen.
Institutionalization implies a situation in which a specific institution, value or practice is considered so natural that the origin or suitability of it is, by and large, no longer questioned. Institutionalized norms pass from generation to generation without any special sanction or regulation, whilst any attempt to change them, even when such change is badly needed, is met with resistance.
For example, the functioning of Georgian schools without the use of bells to signal the end of a lesson is so unimaginable for many that the lack of regulations related to this issue has not impeded the continued use of the bell. On the other hand, the regulation of each and every institutional step was so customary that several years ago even the president had to dispel the fears of schools by telling them that he would not allow anyone to abolish the bell.
Institutionalization of a novelty takes place not within a specific organization but in the wider environment. The institutional boundaries of the educational system far exceed both specific schools and other organizations subordinated to the state. The elements of this institutional environment include universities, various state agencies, the producers of textbooks, professional or religious institutions, parents, the media, et cetera.
In such a complex environment, a school becomes interested in meeting the often conflicting expectations of various influential groups in the most beneficial way. Education sociologists, namely those who follow institutional theory, believe that schools resemble one another in their application of strategies for self-establishment. A commonplace attitude in school structures implies the organizational separation of teachers and the state.
To better understand this principle, let's go back to our example. The state expects from teachers the maximal application of their professional freedom and the rational and maximally inclusive planning of the educational process. The Georgian state not only allowed the sequence of planned programs to vary school by school, but also declared that a well-planned educational process is that which is non-standard.
However, do parents evaluate educational process using the same standard? Are a segment of parents concerned about the fact that their children's program of study may be holding them back? Will that program of study impede them from competing with students from other schools in a general competition, for example, in the unified national examination? Are the authors of textbooks better aware of the best way to study a subject?
How should school administrators respond to such expectations? An inexperienced school director often acknowledges the primacy of state regulations and tries to force or otherwise motivate his/her teachers to act accordingly. With such an approach, there is a very high likelihood that the disregard of wider institutional expectations will cause conflict and damage the esteem of the director.
Somewhat more experienced school directors, those accustomed to numerous state requirements, try, according to institutional theory, to separate the state and teacher levels. Often with the tacit approval of teachers, they ensure the fulfillment of state requirements only on a ceremonial, superficial level. The school pays the state its dues, but provides teachers with the freedom to act in accordance with those institutional expectations it deems more important. Meanwhile, the state agrees to such a game because it does not possess sufficient resources to control each and every teacher.
That is how thematic, annual plans and syllabuses get drawn up in a large number of schools in reality. In such cases, teachers draw up "non-standard" programs by mechanically rewriting those of their colleagues, copying the results of national teaching plans or using the titles of chapters from textbooks. The key aim of doing so is to create the illusion that they are acting in accordance with the expectations of the state. However, on a day-to-day basis their energy is spent sticking rigidly to the sequence of the textbook and providing the maximum coverage of the material contained within it.
The absolute majority of school directors have developed a mode of interaction with the source of power. They thus speak about the results and indicators of teaching plans by using the language that suits the game as established by the state. For their part, teachers tend to speak about other issues acknowledged in the institutional environment: that an educational program is too complex, that topics need to be taken out of the program, and so on and so forth.
Bearing in mind these peculiarities of the institutional environment, does any attempt by the state to improve things make sense? As can be seen, the possibilities of the state are indeed limited, but the situation is not hopeless – proof of this can be seen in the changes that have taken place in universities in recent years. Even though it initially met quite a lot of resistance, the requirement for syllabuses to be drawn up by professors is now perceived as an absolutely natural and necessary approach, i.e. as an institutionally acknowledged necessity.
Clearly, the imposition of state sanctions (for example, accreditation) played a certain role in institutionalizing this change. No less important, however, was the creation of a broad institutional basis for the change. It may seem paradoxical at first blush that if previously there was no tradition of developing syllabuses, how then could the institutional source for their legitimization exist?
The inclusion of Georgian universities in the international education system broadened the previously existing institutional boundaries. Working without a syllabus in today's academic sphere is virtually unimaginable, not because of the requirements of the state, but because doing so would make it impossible to gain legitimization in the common European space.
From this example it can be argued that, in regards to schools, instead of, or in parallel with, sanctions the state must empower those supporters of change who will have a significant influence on teachers, parents and school administrators in the broader institutional environment. The broadening of institutional boundaries where necessary is also an important element in such an approach.
Along with rational planning and implementation, the improvement of the educational process in schools also needs to consider the restrictions existing in the institutional environment. Developing an understanding of the sources of legitimization, which have numerous and sometimes contradictory expectations, will help both policy planners and wider society in forming realistic expectations and, on the other hand, will reveal potential partners or competitors in the process of initiating changes.