There is an editorial in todays The National (www.thenational.ae) in Abu Dhabi suggesting that schools here could significantly improve by encouraging competition and market forces.
Yet the summit on transforming education being held here (it ended yesterday) did not come to this conclusion. Looking at case studies of high performing jurisdictions, like Finland and Alberta (the world’s most successful English speaking school system), one could discern a different conclusion. It is that:
1. There should be a standard, focused curriculum. Students and teachers should know what it is they need to learn and this should be in place through simple statements of learning intentions. For example, using the UNESCO Delors framework, Abu Dhabi should outline what students should be able to do at each grade.
The trick here is that “less is more”. The curriculum intentions need to be clear and specific, but the degree of prescription needs to provide room for schools and teachers to be creative, innovative and effective. Finland teaches us that “less is more” – Alberta is working on reducing the specificity and volume of curriculum objectives and focusing on strategic intent.
The other trick here, which Abu Dhabi could lead on, is to adopt a project based approach to learning rather than a subject based approach at the junior high / high school.
2. Build teaching capacity and focus on effective teachers enabling creative learning. By looking at teaching as the profession that makes the most impact on a social and economic fabric of a society, teachers in Abu Dhabi need to be trained in the subjects they teach and in teaching effectiveness for the students to be found in Abu Dhabi. Teachers need to be highly qualified on arrival in the profession but also need professional development and time for curriculum planning in their day to day work.
Teachers also need collective capacity. While leaders in Abu Dhabi reject outright the notion of a teachers union (for no good reason, by the way) they need to embrace the idea of a Teacher Professional Association whose aimed is to direct and focus professional development, research and innovation and encourage the adoption of next practices. The longer teachers are seen as individuals working in isolation, the slower transformation will be.
One clear learning from the best performing systems is that teachers are able to work in all sorts of conditions, but when we provide the optimal conditions for effective teaching, they will amaze us.
3. Don’t standardize, encourage innovation. Some jurisdictions have gone to league tables, standardized testing (also known as high stakes testing), radical intervention for schools that fail to meet arbitrary targets and so on. The trend in high performing systems is not to pursue this route. Instead, they are pursuing strategies of quality assurance and mindful student assessment aimed at student learning gains. I say more about this in my book Rethinking Education (available at lulu.com). Each school needs a school development plan which is supported by the governance of the school or school system and which makes commitments to progress, based on a realistic and evidence informed understanding of the starting state. By seeing schools as different, but focused on continuous improvement, innovation can be encouraged.
4. Resources need to be appropriate for the objectives. Spending more per student does not necessarily “buy” better results. For example, pouring funds into technology does not necessarily have much impact on learning outcomes. There are no “magic bullets”, despite the claims of vendors. The key resources in a school are teaching capacities, smart use of time, the use of students as knowledge co-creators and effective school based leadership. I am growingly of the view that time is a more important resource than cash. It is not more time that is needed, but intelligent use of the time available.
A key aspect of resources are the spaces we ask students to learn in. One insight from the Nordic countries (especially Norway) is that the space we provide impacts the experience of learning. By rethinking the physical nature of schools we can have an impact on retention and learning outcomes.
Technology now enables a different kind of pedagogy – rather than providing one lap top per child or developing iPad schools, we need to design learning challenges and learning projects which demand a lot of teachers and students where technology is clearly an asset for the work.
5. Reduce regulatory control and increase trust. The key unit of measurement in any education system is the school. Yet in many jurisdictions, we have built a massive non-school infrastructure – central offices for districts and government departments. Keep reporting simple, keep it focused on what matters most and don’t try and analyze every nuance of behavior or learning unless it aids learning. One school system in Alberta has a rule which is that “if the report you are about to complete will not help your students in a meaningful way soon, don’t do the report”. Makes sense.
6. Don’t import models and processes, enable co-creation locally and foster ownership. The UAE is very good at “buying in” solutions from elsewhere and adopting them for a period of time, then abandoning them and moving on to the next “shiny object”. Stop this. Grow an Emirates solution by blending ideas from around the world and letting locals leverage them, given the context here.
7. Focus on equity. Pasi Sahlberg, summarizing the OECD current position, made clear that seeking to promote equity and quality is a better strategy than pursuing either of these features alone. He is right. The key ambition is to make it possible for all schools to achieve similar outcomes rather than enabling competition for outcomes. Rather than schools competition, we should encourage co-opetition. Schools collaborating so that the system can compete with other systems in the world. Abu Dhabi needs all of its schools to be excellent, not just a few.
So I think The National has the strategy dead wrong. Lets hope that the leadership in Abu Dhabi sees this too.
This is my last report from the TES summit. I head home today. But it was a great experience – some wonderful people and some excellent conversations. The intention is to pursue this conversation virtually over the next two years and get back together in 2014.