I've been invited to participate in a rather fast-paced panel on the future of education at the Global Competitiveness Forum in Riyadh, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and would appreciate your help in sense-checking my thoughts, below.
There are two key challenges being raised in the debates at the Forum, the key global event exploring how all countries, especially those in the Middle East, might become tomorrow’s leaders in industry, education and commerce.
Firstly, education keeps reappearing as the sparring partner of competitiveness: research shows that, not only does talent follow money, but money follows talent, meaning that education really is one of the few Government departments where money is truly invested, not spent.
Second, the need for innovation is spurred by entrepreneurship, companies that start small, but they all need to have ambition to scale, according to Harvard’s Daniel Isenberg.
This notion of scalability, though, is one that is troublesome in education. Away from the spreadsheets and the grand strategy planning, what are the real influences on a child or young university student? Family and close friends, for sure, but school comes a joint first in most cases. What each individual school, and each individual teacher within it and the parents do, has a direct influence on the outcomes of each student. This is the most unscalable model of innovation and sustainability in quality that one could ever imagine - two parents for every child and their teachers, all needing to act in concert and help that young person learn in an effective, entrepreneurial, student-driven way. You show me the algorithmic model that permits that, without loss of signal.
The unit of real change in a child’s life is the individual school – not the “system”. How might we design strategy that provides a solid foundation from which individual schools can grow with success in their own way, rather than policy from on high that all too often ends up straightjacketing innovation?
Second, the content of that strategy - what teachers and others need to do - needs to be based on what we know works for learning, not what we remember from when we were students at school ourselves. What Pierre Bourdieu calls the “identity” and “field” of teachers and teaching is one of our greatest challenges - people enter the profession most likely because of a vision of what teaching is like based on how they saw themselves being taught. It means that most of our young teachers can expect to start teaching with methods at least a decade out-of-date, or worse.
For example, most schools continue to value critical linear thinking and logic far higher than creative thinking and abductive reasoning. Creative thinking needs taught, not caught, for students to flourish in a world where our greatest innovations require an equal dose of critical and creative thinking. This creative thinking, including the use of failure to improve one’s efforts, is strongly tied to the notion of assessment, and is often the reason schools and teachers argue they “don’t have time for creativity”: assessment.
One key example of Bourdieu’s blinding “identity” as a teacher in the “field” of teaching is the attitude taken by policymakers, Head Teachers, teachers, parents and the general public to the word “assessment”. The word “assessment” is consistently misunderstood by those designing them, implementing them and insisting upon them. The biggest educational business trends this coming year - in big data - are all driven on the false premise that more testing is what is required. “Formative” assessment, a very clear set of nonetheless soft thinking skills, that put assessment in the hands of students and their peers, are what we know make the big difference - not data gathering, analysis and teacher-led interventions on each and every young face in front of them.
While big business, particularly with players in North America, invests its money in summative assessment and learning-by-numbers, there is ample opportunity for States and private enterprise elsewhere in the world to invest smartly in working out how we take the skills of great teachers and make those more accessible to everyone else.