Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Six Themes of the TES Summit

On a long journey to and  from a place to eat it was time to reflect on the key messages from the Abu Dhabi summit on transforming education. There are six:

  1. Context is everything. We can only understand a school and its potential in the context of its socio-economic, religious and cultural setting When there is poverty, inequity, censorship, violence, corruption or anything else which impacts thinking, feeling and action, the school is impacted. Transferring "solutions" from one education system to another (or even from Dubai to Abu Dhabi or Finland) is problematic since context is different.
  2. Vision drives and shapes behaviour. Vision should be in sight but out of reach and should be long term. Vision doesn't change with new Ministers or new conditions. Vision persists, challenges and enables.
  3. Those nearest to the learner have the most impact on the learner. We can talk policy and innovation all we like. Its teachers that make the most difference. Teachers need optimal conditions of practice, recognition, respect, support and investment (in professional development, in initial education). They also need to be led by teacher leaders who understand effectiveness, efficiency and the process of innovation. Until we support teaching and teaching excellence we have very little to work with.
  4. What matters as much as how. How students are taught really matters. Authentic or "real learning" is what students ask for when you ask them what makes for a great school for all students. They also ask to be treated as persons, not "fodder" for the system. But what became clear in the discussion at TES is that what we teach matters too. This is why the Delors framework from UNESCO needs to be looked at again. It is also the case that less is more - a focused, mindful and deliberate curriculum is better than a rag tangle gipsy kind of curriculum.
  5. Equity matters. Pasi Sahlberg, in an insightful presentation, made clear that school systems that pursue both quality and equity are more likely to succeed for more students than those who pursue quality or equity. In Finland there is little difference between schools on learning outcomes and performance. This means that there is no need to focus on inequity of outcome when seeking to improve quality. It is more of a level playing field. This has tremendous socio-economic consequences.
  6. Resources matter. In a place where money appears not to be the issue (the Emirates in general and Abu Dhabi in particular), resources matter. What matters is that resources are used strategically, intelligently and that they are managed well. One significant resource is time - how do we make the best use of time for learning, time for learner support (special needs) and time for professional development? Is "time on task" as important as time on mindful work - you know the answer. Resources need also be used to support effective teaching (teachers need to be paid in such a way that pay is not getting in the way of the work), meaningful learning and relevant technology.
There was some references to technology here, but, as one colleague put it, "if technology is the answer, what question were we asking?". Technology is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It is a support for learning.

One caution raised late yesterday resonates still. It is that we should not confuse the abundance of information available online with a students access to knowledge. Students need to be enabled to see learning as the development of knowledge and understanding as well as skills and competencies. Gathering and representing information is not the work we need them to do. Developing understanding so that skills and wisdom are enabled is.

One final point. In my blog post the other day I made a sly comment about 21st Century skills - essentially saying that Socrates was a role model here. My point was that we need not be excited by the 21st century skills "product family" and marketing. Many of the skills - critical thinking, communication, compassion, creativity - have been at the heart of education for a considerable time. There is nothing much new about them. What is different is context. That was my point. Thanks (Brent) for calling me on this.

All in all, some excellent presentations from Andy Hargreaves, Pasi Sahlberg and a short and focused presentation from Gordon Brown. Smart Technologies Mick Adkisson and Pearsons Anders Hultin were also interesting (at least to me).

Today (Wednesday May 9th) at the summit we look at cases. Alberta is to be showcased by our own Diane Millard (AISI) and J-C Couture (ATA), with whom I have just completed a collection of new material (see Rethinking School Leadership - A Great School for All Students  available on Kindle and at lulu.com). 

As an aside, I am delighted by the appointment of Hon Jeff Johnson, MLA for Athabasca, as Alberta's new Minister of Education. Smart, thorough and insightful, Jeff is a man who will listen and engage. He was involved in the work of Inspiring Education and is likely to pick up where Dave Hancock left off. The brief interregnum of the "in between" Minister, Thomas Lukaszuk, is over - he is now Deputy Premier. A good all round development.

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