How well are nations preparing their young people for the future? In the face of unprecedented challenges, it’s fascinating to see how education debates, and government policies differ around the world. I’m fortunate enough to be able to work in a number of countries and, as I’ve been editing a book* specifically dealing with this issue, it’s very much at the forefront of my thinking.
But I’m far from alone: the film Most Likely To Succeed; the XQ Super School movement; the Richard Branson funded BigChange.org project – these are just a handful of examples, where serious thought is being dedicated to educational transformation. And that’s not to mention a slew of books published recently. As I’m currently in San Diego, I jumped at the chance to meet with the author of one of them. Grant Lichtman’s new book is called Moving The Rock: Seven Levers We Can Press To Transform Education. It’s been described by Yong Zhao (himself an advocate of radical change) as ‘an inspiring call to action for all educators’. I’d agree with that assessment. Meeting Grant gave me a chance to understand where our respective countries sit in relation to what he describes as the three stages of transformation: accepting why change is needed; identifying what those change would look like, and understanding how that transformation can be achieved, at scale.
Some countries – some would argue that New Zealand, Canada and Finland would be prime examples – seem to be well past the why, and are even at a point of agreement on the what. Even the most forward-thinking countries struggle with the how, but the how only becomes concrete once you’ve agreed on the why and what. Grant asked for my assessment of where the UK sits on that continuum. My personal view, and that of most of my co-authors, is that we’re still stuck on the why – at least in England (overseas readers may need to be reminded that each of the UK countries has its own education responsibilities and policies, and they’re beginning to differ quite radically). The political discourse around education reform in England is mainly centred on ‘standards and structures’: how to raise existing standards through various structural models. Very few politicians are talking about whether those standards are still relevant now, let alone in the next couple of decades. We’re still witnessing the same old turgid Twitter disagreements on whether ‘skills’ matter, or whether kids still need knowledge. Traditionalists ‘call out’ progressives (and vice-versa) for cherry-picking evidence, to support one extreme or the other. Advocates cite best practice – hardly anyone is talking about next practice. Let’s be clear: best practice is only going to address what’s worked in the past, not what we need to be ready for the future.
Speaking to Grant Lichtman confirmed something that Sir Ken Robinson had said to me at the end of last year: that in the United States, the argument, around the need for educational change, is largely over. Both Ken and Grant work with superintendents all over the continent. Their clear view is that there is a strong consensus that the historical obsession with standardised testing, driven by ‘PISA Hysteria’, has failed. Grant also feels that there is a pretty strong consensus on what should replace the drilling of a ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum into young American minds – what has been described broadly as ‘deeper learning’. Now deeper learning comes in for a fair amount of criticism from traditionalists, but to me it’s simply a shorthand umbrella for a shift away from the superficial ‘covering’ of great chunks of curriculum, teaching to the test and assessing only the amount of knowledge that can be recalled in a timed test, in favour of greater depth of time on fewer curriculum areas, and applying that knowledge in authentic contexts. In short, it’s a response to the challenge that employers – particularly those in the rapidly expanding knowledge economies – are laying down: the world cares less about what you know, and more about what you can do with what you know.
If these two elements – the why and what – are taken as read, then the how is still formidable (because everything: curriculum, pedagogy and assessment, has to change) but it becomes achievable. So, we’re seeing initiatives spring up like the Mastery Transcript Consortium – a growing group of US high schools committed to finding an alternative to the narrow grading testimony that faces university admissions staff, one that reflects all of a student’s skills and dispositions.
So, if you believe that change is both urgent and inevitable, the question then becomes what does the future look like, and what can we do to move the conversation on?
For my part, I’m committed to trying to get as many people as possible to read our book, (and books like Grant’s) come to our event, and do what I can to get people in the UK to accept that we’ve been on the wrong track for a long time. Because if we can’t agree on the why, we’ll never get to the what and how.
If we want to see what the future looks like, I guess Silicon Valley is as good a place as any. The new economies, the growth jobs, all start there. It’s also the home of some of the most innovative schools in the world. So, I’m about to take a bunch of school leaders from several countries (though sadly none from the UK) on a 10-day tour of future-facing schools located in and around silicon valley. I’ll send as many postcards from the future as time allows, so watch this space.
* Education Forward: Moving Schools Into The Future is published by Crux Publishing on October 14th
Also published on Medium.