March 23, 2023

Black Swan or Grey Rhino?

Author: Meg Melville

This week the school corridors will be filled with the sounds of returning students, a welcome sound as the new school year begins and the school comes back to life.

It must be a huge relief to all that this is the first time in 3 years that the uncertainty of Covid-19 has not reared its head (fingers crossed!) to wreak disruption. 

Of course we can never be sure what lies ahead and can only engage in risk management strategies for the foreseeable or unforeseeable. As Donald Rumsfeld so eloquently put it in his Pentagon Press Briefing in 2002, 

“There are known knowns; known unknowns; unknown unknowns.”

 The Covid-19 pandemic was originally labelled a black swan event, in other words an event that was not foreseeable, has an extreme impact and one whereby after the fact, explanations make the event appear explainable and predictable. An alternative perspective presented is that such a pandemic should have been foreseen. Pandemics, are a well-documented part of human history. So, in fact it was not a black swan event; it was a gray (American spelling!) rhino event. This term was first coined by Michele Wuker in 2013 and referred to a highly likely yet ignored threat. She described the background to this term with rhinos being big, scary, dangerous, unpredictable. So, neither purely all white nor purely all black but in reality more gray. They may be there under camouflage but you fail to see them-possibly until it is too late. A charging gray rhino, or worse more than one, is collectively known as “a crash”. It is inevitable. It maybe that you just can’t see it, as in, you are too focused on the trees to see the forest or that you are surrounded by spin that convince you that it won’t happen or be as dire as predicted. This is where diversity of thought is invaluable in a leadership team! Either way, the worst thing you can do is ignore it.

The black swan and gray rhino terms were originally applied to economic or financial crises but have much broader application and this includes education.

We all know that statistics taken in isolation at a point in time, don’t provide us with the full picture. Trends and patterns over time is what is important to focus on. Anyone paying even a passing glance at analysis and opinion pieces over the last decade or so, will see some alarming trends emerging or even entrenched. A number of reports have been released which point to this but any educator on the ground could tell this. So what do we know:

  • Numeracy and literacy standards are falling by international comparisons
  • The more challenging mathematics and science courses are on the decline
  • School engagement and attendance by students is declining
  • Behavior management in schools is becoming increasingly challenging
  • Numbers of students choosing ATAR courses is declining
  • Early offers for university placement are on the rise
  • The teaching profession is experiencing higher levels of burnout
  • Graduate teachers are choosing to leave the profession after 4/5 years
  • The ability to staff schools is becoming increasingly challenging.  The inequality gap is widening especially for those facing economic disadvantage
  • Gaps in numeracy and literacy in the early years become increasingly difficult to close
  • The social/cultural context in which schools now operate has become far more challenging
  • Time spent by teachers on admin duties detracts from their quality teaching time in the classroom

Any one of these would be concerning enough on its own but taken collectively, the broader social and economic consequences of this collective “crash” are alarming. It sounds very like a gray rhino occurrence. Almost daily, there is media coverage on proposed strategies to address this impending crisis, as per the National Teacher Workforce Action Plan but in the meantime, there is a whole generation of students caught in the time-lag. The likelihood of these students ever being able to make up lost ground is limited and this in turn will impact on their opportunities going forward. Increased funding to address the above has not as yet yielded the expected results. The additional $319b funding allocated for between 2019 to 2029 has yet to have any impact in the first four years, according to the recent Productivity Commission Report. It is acknowledged that the pandemic may well have impacted on the results reported however, we know that several of these trends pre-date Covid. Hopefully, there will be a deep dive into the effectiveness of allocation of this funding to ensure that the ultimate beneficiaries are the students, especially those with the greatest need.

At both micro and macro levels, we need to set high expectations of people and performance and ensure that they are well-supported in their progress along the continuum. Education Policy is one thing, effective implementation to yield positive outcomes, is quite another. Lowering expectations to address short term issues will morph into long term problems with widespread consequences; in short a gray rhino crash. We owe our students who are our future, much more than this.

It’s always good to finish on a positive note! Black swans are rare birds of great beauty. Grey rhinos are majestic beasts. Neither chose to become economic metaphors. They have however, become a reminder to be alert, aware, agile and above all to be responsive in a timely way to indicators of change. This is a good lesson in life, be it from the personal or professional perspective.