The new intern cohort has been encouraged to introduce themselves to the IU-blog-readers. As there will soon be suitably embarrassing pictures and bios on this very site, I can head straight into more substantial things. I didn’t have to scout far for subject matter for my inaugural post, as my very first piece of work threw up plenty to think about.
Last week I spent a day transcribing pages of cryptic, penned notes from the Helsinki meeting of the Global Education Leaders’ Program. Apart from the slight headache induced by deciphering handwriting, it was a very enjoyable way to catch up on the work of this huge project.
As I went through the pages, one comment in particular made me pause. Someone had made a side note reflecting on a “correlation between degree of ‘consumer’ power and degree of innovation”. They contrasted the situation in India, where innovation in education practices is driven by public demand, with that of other nations where the innovation is driven by the ‘suppliers’ – government bodies, technology companies, or select groups of schools. The note-taker then posed the question: ‘How do you build the conditions for change to be pulled from the bottom up?’ What this question asks is, how do you get ordinary people – parents, teachers and students – calling for transformation in Education?
This question is nowhere more relevant than in the English context. In the past month we have seen the public (by which I mean newspapers’ letters pages, and more on that problematic proxy another time) drawn into a debate about whether we should reinstate an old qualification system. I'm not here to criticize government proposals, especially one leaked and half-formed. The relevant, and concerning, point here is that the ensuing public discussion involved no mention of the new forms of assessment currently in development around the world, many of which are more appropriate for a 21st century context. In this area of transformation, the question is how to shift the focus of assessment from testing the ability to temporarily hold fixed bodies of content, to supporting the growth of capacities to handle and manage content. (If you’re interested in this topic, see a piece I wrote for the RSA’s Education Matters blog).
Calls for change to the nature of assessment cannot grow from parents until they realise how different things could be. The mainstream media has a serious role to play here in helping to expound alternative practices. However, as the GELP members were all too aware, spreading word of new possibilities is only half the battle when it comes to creating demand for transformation. A further major difficulty was voiced by one of the delegates: “Parents are hungry for change; they really want to see something different, and yet when they see something different they snap back and say ‘that’s not how it was for me when I was in school!’.”
Again, there is all too much evidence of those kind of reactions here in England. It is an understandable one, but, as the delegate neatly pointed out, it is not always based on sound logic: “So you say, ‘well how was it for you?’ And they say, ‘well it was awful, I hated it!’”
We can all smile at this kind of perverse thinking. Admittedly, there is an element of wisdom in it: many of the best things in life involve hard work. Moreover, that delegate saw that parents, quite reasonably, like to stick with “what’s known and safe”. But these causes for hesitation are compounded by network effects: we value what others value (on which, see Paul Ormerod’s recent book Postitive Linking). This means anything new faces an initial struggle to break through and become valued before it can be embraced on a wide scale.
Of course, no one wants to be following fads or jumping on a bandwagon before it is ready, especially when the subject in question is children’s education. So, yes, there is cause for caution, but we must also be wary of inertia, and our collective immunity to changeIf we consider education in the context of a globalized, digitized world it is increasingly difficult to justify continuing as we are.