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A Student-First Approach: Effective Change in the Education Sector

Students outside Langside CampusWhether at school, college, or university levels, changes in education are a constant presence. From new legislation to innovative theories in pedagogy, these changes often help students and educators overcome hurdles in learning and teaching. Of course, implementing them is often a hurdle, too.

With people to manage, admin to organise, and – lest anyone forgets – students to teach, educators across the sector must constantly understand, implement, and assess changes to their practice and profession. At colleges, where students are often at that pivotal stage of preparing for university study or entering the workforce, we must work doubly hard to ensure that the changes which affect them are, in fact, effective.

What constitutes an ‘effective’ change, however, and how do we make the time to get it right while chipping away at a to-do list that could easily stretch from Shetland to Stranraer? At Glasgow Clyde College, we believe the answer to both challenges is to take a student-first approach.

When considering whether a change is effective or not, I often recall a conversation I once had with a manager in a previous role. I told him I was feeling eager but anxious about some recent changes to my role. He told me that change can be invigorating and often provides a motivating new challenge.

Thankfully, he also told me something a bit more practical, too. He said that the changes to my role could potentially benefit me more than anyone else: new experience to include on my CV, new skills to utilise on future projects, and a new chance to prove my leadership ability to my team and my managers.

I took his advice to heart, and the benefits followed. So, how can we apply this good advice when processing changes in the education sector?

In most workplaces, employees consider how a new change can best benefit themselves. In the education sector, however, we must consider how a new change can best improve the situation for students, either academically or administratively. By identifying the best potential outcome for students, we then have a clearer path of how to implement and measure the change – which often makes the process that much simpler for us, too.

Unfortunately, even a clear, student-first approach can seem daunting if you don’t have the time to effectively implement it. Thankfully, the solution lies in the challenge.

The French novelist Victor Hugo once wrote, ‘Change your leaves; keep intact your roots.’ Although I suspect Hugo was speaking on a more personal level, the sentiment applies to change management in the workplace, as well. As educators, our roots are our students. How we go about navigating the daily joys and stresses of being a good educator? That’s the leaves.

By taking the time to identify which outcomes would best benefit your students, your path becomes clear, reducing the risk of unsuccessful tangents and unnecessary administrative work. Time might be money, but stopping and considering the student-first approach to a new challenge or change will save both.

One example of this student-first approach in action at Glasgow Clyde College is our website. Redesigned and relaunched last year, the website eschews typical college jargon, instead using student-friendly language and featuring far more videos than we previously did – requests which came straight from our students. By working with students to build a site around what they told us they needed instead of what we assumed they needed, the site went on to win the students’ award at the College Development Network Marketing Awards.

The principle applies beyond the education sector. Consider Amazon, one of the world’s largest, fastest-growing companies. Why is Amazon so successful? We don’t have to speculate, because they tell us right on their website: they endeavour to be ‘the world’s most customer-centric company.’ By placing their customers’ needs at the forefront of every decision, from buying and growth to hiring and marketing, their path becomes clear: choose the option which best benefits the customer.

And so, too, our paths become clear as educators. To effectively implement the continuous cycle of new changes – and do so in a reasonable amount of time – always take a student-first approach. Everything else will follow.

By Margaret Gilroy, former Assistant Principal, Faculty of Access and Continuing Learning