International League Tables For School Learning

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With some justification, people will be tempted to say that parents and pupils can only aspire to the very best of International 21st Century learning, when they have access to an education that delivers on the most basic of fundamentals first to at least a decent standard. The fundamentals of reading, writing, mathematical skills and ability to think scientifically are the core foundational skills that need to be acquired by any student from their years of schooling.

It was in order to measure, compare and raise standards in these areas that the PISA tests started to be used by OECD countries, the results tabulated, compared and widely circulated. The tests are taken by children aged 15 and the last set of published results were for the 2012 tests (the 2015 results will come out in December 2016).

Inevitably, the reality is that the data can make for very painful reading and some hard questions for government. For example, considering the wealth levels of the country and amount spent on education, the US data has long been a cause for considerable concern in that country. It has the potential to inspire, motivate and encourage innovation, but too often i fear it motivates knee-jerk reactions and a greater tendency to make achievement in a test the goal in children’s education – rather than a means to an end and a tool.

Here’s an article that carries an interesting analysis of the data. It highlights the unacceptable numbers of children who are being failed by the education systems in so-called developed countries that spend considerable sums of money on public education. If these people cannot achieve even the acceptable minimum learning levels they are pretty much denied the ability to play a full and active part in the economy throughout life. The article also, quite rightly stresses that there are so many factors that impinge upon the performance of education systems that the best comparisons are those between countries which are geographically and culturally similar. Such a comparison makes Malaysia’s results even more intolerable (when compared with the likes of Singapore). The final article is one of optimism – where the will exists, positive change can be achieved that brings great benefit to young people’s lives and the society as a whole;

World Economic Forum – The Conversation – Where Are Children Getting The Best Education?

India took part (once), but sadly found the results so embarrassing that they simply withdrew and said they ‘didn’t want to play’. The government (read Sheikh Mohammed) of UAE took their typical approach – they decree from the top that something will be a certain way, and then just demand that others do whatever it takes to make that happen. In this case, they’ve set an ambitious target (considering where the country’s students scored in 2012) to see the country placed in the top 10 worldwide.

For Malaysia, the evidence is clear – there’s much work to do. I’m not aware of whether the original data reflects just students from government schools, or whether private sector students were included. Nevertheless, the data reflects an education system that is failing to give enough students an adequate grounding in education basics and fundamentals, let alone aspiring to deliver a truly holistic Twenty First Century education. As private sector schools, and especially as the expatriates within them I believe we’re duty bound to do all in our power to share knowledge, techniques, principles and ideas, to help people to understand and believe in what’s possible educationally. We need to be ready to share key messages about what’s required for children to be educated in ways that will enable them to excel and succeed in the wider world.

As I mentioned earlier, there is an inevitability that countries that jealously eye those top spots in the league tables look to see what they can emulate (copy), in the shortest possible time in order to drive similar results through their education systems. We see this in the UK and US conservative interests in the systems of Singapore and Shanghai. Where there are cultural similarities (Singapore and Malaysia) the temptation to simply mimic is even stronger.

However, here’s an excellently written article that delves in to the Singapore system that carries all the warnings about simple mimicry. In fact, it shows that Singapore, just like China has recognised that topping these league charts is only one element in a much more complex education equation and that, in fact, there are ways in which their rigid, teacher-centric, delivery based models carry fundamental weaknesses, however well they’re implemented. Thus, as others begin to see how to mimic Singapore, the small nation state is doing careful analysis about how they can reform and modernise the system they have;

The Conversation – Why is Singapore’s school system so successful, and is it a model for the West?

Among the senior team at Tenby in recent weeks we’ve been having a number of discussions about the critical importance of our educators (especially contractual expatriots) ‘leaving a legacy’. The growth in International education means that in the next few years there is going to be a shortage of talented, trained and motivated local talent. We have to play our part to make ours an attractive professional choice for local teachers and we need to ensure that the training, mentoring and support is there to enable the local teachers to understand and acquire the skills that put them on a par with teachers available from anywhere in the world.

Lots of work ahead.

Ditch Grades, Focus on Learning

What may, in the past, have been not much more than a trickle is becoming a wave as more and more educators are turning against the whole concept of grades. These teachers are recognising that there’s so much more that we can do for children by removing grades and, instead using portfolios and comment-based feedback to engage children in the process of how they think about their own learning, how they achieve and what they’re trying to achieve in the future.

As I’ve reported here in the past, moving to ‘comment only feedback’ also brings about incredibly positive changes in the communication between parents and their children to focus on learning as a continuous process.

Such initiatives need all our support:

The Journal – Panel – Ditch Grades Now, Focus On Student Learning

Noam Chomsky – Dangers of Standardized Testing

“Not everything important is measurable and not everything measurable is important.”
Elliot Eisner, Educator

In this short video (under 7 1/2 minutes), Noam Chomsky very neatly summarises what's wrong with today's obsession with standardized testing and the harm that it's doing in school systems, individual schools and at the level of the individual teacher and student.

For those who might want the interview in written form, the link is here:
Creative Systems Thinking - Noam Chomsky

Experience tells us, throughout the world, that when these standardized systems of assessment are challenged the people who defend them are the children who performed highest (or expected to) and their parents under the rigid system. They happen to be the children who have figured out how to 'play the game' of giving testers what they want and are happy for their A grades to just keep rolling in without any real effort. However, I would argue that even they are failed by the standardized system as they don't get stretched to fulfill their potential or challenged to go ahead of where they are. More formative assessment processes focus more on momentum and progress forwards for each and every student.

Probably the biggest hurdle to getting real, across the board, effective change is that the testing industry is now vast and highly profitable. I've seen suggestions that in the US alone the revenues from testing are around one and half times the revenues earned by cinema box offices. This is a powerful force with strong political connections that is determined to spread their approach throughout the world. A further challenge comes in those places where the teachers see their lives as easier where there is standardized testing and therefore don't speak up. Administering some multiple choice based exams developed by an external party takes far less effort than engaging mentally and continuously with the formative process of figuring out for each and every student in the class what they need, where they need to go and how they need to learn to progress from where they are.

We know there's something wrong when the teachers and learning have become subjugated to the testing, instead of the other way around. Never mind that the tests fail to give feedback of any real value or merit, especially when it comes to the development of twenty first century competencies and skills. There is very important work to be done in this area by educators throughout the world.

Craziness of Standardized Testing

Children don't go to school to become leading experts in taking tests. They go to Learn. Standardized testing doesn't only sap children's confidence and belief in themselves as learners, it almost certainly puts vast numbers off the idea of being lifelong learners and leaves little time left over for learning.

In such circumstances, who can blame the teachers who focus their teaching and classroom practices on the singular goal of children's performance in the tests.

It's time to bring an end to this cruel and anachronistic nonsense. John Oliver may be skewering the American system, but those in other countries hellbent on the belief that data is everything (and the only source of real hard data is tests) must also look to their actions.

Our children deserve better.