21st Century Learning vs Incremental Reform

It’s been an interesting week for me, in London, with two very different keynote speeches at educational conferences at either end of it.

At the start of the week I took part in the Innovation Unit/Guardian Conference. Yong Zhao kicked it off with a fascinating, if controversial, set of opinions on what we value in schooling and how we prioritise policy initiatives. If I understood him correctly, Professor Zhao’s point is that the anxiety in the US (and the UK) stemming from our relatively poor showing in PISA and OECD league tables, is misplaced. He argues that we  shouldn’t be trying to ‘catchup’ with the countries above us and should instead be concentrating on enabling students to develop the skills needed in the 21st century. His argument – that any form of standardised testing (both national and international) not only leads to homogenisation of national capacities, but also has damaging side effects – would probably be seen by many as counter-intuitive. He cited the Alfie Kohn quote: ‘Every time test scores go up we should be worried’. Instead, we should encourage schools to be ‘global enterprises’ developing skills that will give students an edge in a globally competitive market.

The keynote at the Teach First Conference was given by Sir Michael Barber, former policy adviser to Tony Balir, and now a partner at consultants McKinsey. Sir Michael argued (in an eloquent, humorous, self-effacing way) that it’s the likes of PISA that’s put the evidence into evidence-based policy development, which has now given us a direction for global school reform. We now have the basic design of schooling right, we just have to improve the details, was one of his assertions. He cited Labour’s introduction of the Literacy and Numeracy strategies as an example of how we’re using evidence to bring us up to the levels of our competitors.

Personally, I think he might have looked for a better example. There are many who argue that we got a disproportionately disappointing result for the massive investment in literacy/numeracy, with the damaging side effect of a generation of kids being put off books for life. And I don’t believe we have got the design for schooling right. No other public services look basically the same as they did in the 19th century – why should schools? To paraphrase Sir Ken Robinson, Michael Barber seems to be one of those who are ‘still trying to design a better steam engine’.

This is my second Teach First conference, and I really enjoy working with these bright and exceptionally committed young teachers. We had an interesting discussion in my workshop on what makes a great school. One young teacher, working in a comprehensive school in a tough area, asked me for advice. How, she asked, does she gain the respect of her students who were viewing her attempt to get them to think independently, and inter-dependently, as a weakness, not a strength? The school’s test scores have apparently risen in recent years, but she seemed to be alone in resisting the temptation to simply ‘give them the answers’ that her students had been demanding.

So, would a school – or indeed a nation – whose exam results had been ‘transformed’, but whose young people were unable to think for themselves, be preparing a workforce for the 21st century? Is it not a little like the surgeon who carries out a successful operation, but the patient dies in the process?

Leave a Reply