January 19, 2014

National competitively through learning - what would you add?

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.


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Learning has no boundaries. Whatever the key influences, the learning will then be driven by the individual in the path of most delight. It is a very simple model. The secret is to utilise that innate desire to be delighted and to structure opportunities for the individual to have more options. I often imagine the learner in school is following a trail of sweets, head down, blissfully unaware of things going on around them. The path they follow has been marked out by someone who walked the path in their educational journey, but they fail to point out that the traps existed along the way. This is what I have referred to as an "Eyes Wide Shut", because by being over prescriptive, we are forcing the next generations, not to think, explore, question, but to accept and fit in instead of absorb and stand out.

The deconstruction of "life experience" to create what we refer to as 'education', is well rooted. Call it fields, call them subjects, the demarkation of the curriculum has created something that, in detachment from experience and reality, has created problems in itself. Teachers need to be able to help clear a path for learning and help interpret what the student meets along the way.

The opportunity now exists through the application of modern ICT tools, to reconnect the world of education (pathways to learning) to reality, to diversity, but this is held back by notions and opinions on what education should look like. Our "maps" need to be torn up. Thankfully we are seeing that change with the flexible approaches now being adopted in schools in those places where freedom of thinking, trust and an understanding of the way we all learn naturally is better understood.

Connection to the real world is vital.

Each individual is unique. As in the diversity of the rainforest, there exists an eco-structure of rich variety, diversity and surprise where genuine evolution occurs. We must not make the mistake of creating the deserts of tomorrow.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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