Suffer the Little Children

“What happened to my childhood?”

“OFSTED stole it!”

It’s said that persistence is a good thing, a very good quality that can contribute a lot to success. However, this comes with a caveat – it’s not persistence but foolishness to keep taking the same actions over and over in the hope that eventually, at some point in time, the world around you will change and make your actions the right ones to succeed. There’s are two other aspects to this kind of foolishness – going back to old ways of doing things when they’ve already been revealed to be positively harmful (and lacking in positive merit) and ignoring fundamental changes in the world around you that necessitate new and revised perceptions about the best way to move forward.

In relation to the education of young children in the first, early years of schooling there are those in the world who are currently guilty on both these counts. It might be OK if their guilt only harmed them, but sadly it means harm to untold numbers of children.

In a number of countries, but particularly in England, we’re seeing a big swing back towards discredited ideas of the past about emphasising heavier amounts of academic content in early years education. The most recent evidence of this has emerged in a report published by the Office for Standards in Education (sic) OFSTED. It’s entitled “Bold beginnings: The Reception curriculum in a sample of good and outstanding primary schools.” Focusing on the Reception Year means that it relates directly to the educational experience of children in the age range 4-5.

The OFSTED report says many things, but the tone comes through loud and clear in the following key recommendation;

“All primary schools should:
■make sure that the teaching of reading, including
systematic synthetic phonics, is the core purpose
of the Reception Year

So, teaching reading is the core purpose of going to school for children aged 4 to 5. This is then backed up with further recommendations that suggest strongly that these children are in a race and the aim is to get as much as possible of a head start to be ahead of the game in terms of what has to be learned in Class 1. Also, there’s lots of talk about learning how to sit up straight, how to hold the pencil exactly right and how to obey orders.

Here’s the full report:

28933_Ofsted_-_Early_Years_Curriculum_Report_-_Accessible (1)

And here’s some commentary on it:
Huffingtom Post – Third of Kids ‘Failed’ In Reception

It all sounds like something out of the dark ages. Does it sound like we are creating an environment in which future leaders flourish? Or, are we perpetuating the education of the masses which was about developing obedient disciplined grunts – and maybe more important, making them economically productive as early as possible!

A cynic might look for the source of all this hurry up and haste in the political inconvenience and embarrassment of the PISA and TIMMS exams – tests that suggest that English 15 year old children don’t hold up very effectively compared to their peers in other countries. But then comes the massive error – a chronically misguided belief that if we can just give children a faster start, all the problems would be addressed and our children would go shooting up the world charts. Of course, the big inconvenience in all that is that Finland sits right at the top of the tables for these comparative examinations with children who barely start school before age seven, certainly in terms of heavy duty academic learning.

And a real cynic might look simply for sheer ignorance and myopia of ignorant politicians wedded to old orthodoxies like, “Well, it never did me any harm,” and who desperately base their political ideologies on a perception that if Britain could just get back to some mythical good old days, then everything in the world would be perfect.

However, as educators we have to be futurists, not regressionists. Our major task is to prepare young people for the world likely to exist tomorrow, not to hanker after bygone familiar days that will never come again.

Anyone who tells you that they know what children will need to know even ten years from now, let alone beyond that, is delusional. However, we can make some reasonable predictions about their lives. Firstly, advances in medical science mean that the majority of them will live to the age of 100 or beyond. That alone is massive. Barring bad lifestyle choices, more than 50% of these children will live to 100. In those circumstances, how long will a working life be? If we think of those who reach 100 today we think about the massive changes they’ve seen in the world, especially in technology.

These young people will need to be the most versatile, flexible and adaptable generation that has ever lived. They will have long working lives (you can’t retire at 60 if you’ve got another 40 years of life ahead!). They had better find meaning in the work they do and be ready for the likelihood of multiple careers, not just many jobs. In such circumstances they can’t be like today’s employees – where surveys consistently reveal engagement levels in the workplace well below 20%. These will need to be people who get a big buzz out of the work they do. When they stop getting a buzz they will have the skills, competencies and the flexibility to move on to do something new that does appeal to them.

To prepare young people for such a life what we don’t need is to be in a tearing hurry to shove all the knowledge we think appropriate in to them as quickly and early as possible. In these circumstances we need to lose the conventional ideas of certain mileposts being based entirely on the age of the child. Instead, we need models of learning based on competency, passion and interest. When the child is ready to pursue particular learning, educators support them until they can achieve and prove consistent mastery. Then, the educators help them to make choices about where to go next in their learning journey.

So, that’s the first reason I have issues with the Ofsted focus and direction reflected through their report. Worse, what Ofsted dictates, most teachers do, either because they want to get positive affirmation through Ofsted school inspections (or, at least, their Principals and Heads do). This kind of rushing like a bull at a gate is shown up in so many places. We only need to see this headline and article from The guardian some days ago:

The Guardian – Education – Children as Young as Two Grouped By Ability

This acts as a convenient lead to the second major reason why this approach angers me and why I believe it’s doing a massive disservice to children and blighting their lives in the future. At this point it’s useful to remind ourselves that, despite relatively rich budgets for spending on education for every child, Britain has at least 10% functional illiteracy. There are vast numbers of people who have gone through the UK schools education system and yet do not have adequate literacy ability to be able to achieve the levels necessary to carry out basic and common life functions. Clearly, the methods used in the country until now have been failing some people. Yet, this Ofsted approach and the trend of rushing to do more and more at an earlier age is going to make this worse, not better.

To understand why, we need to take on board the new knowledge that’s become available to us over the last 10-20 years through the field of Neurology. techniques such as functional MRI scanning have enabled scientists to build up new knowledge (and to jettison some old ideas) about how people learn, and particularly about the maturation and development of the infant brain.

On this, I share here the link to an excellent recent webinar that charts out in reasonably simple terms the latest understanding from neurology as it pertains to the acquisition of skills and competence in reading:

Neuron Learning – New Science of Learning for Struggling Readers
(You might need to open an account in order to see the video of this webinar, but there’s no cost and it’s worthwhile)

For particular types of learning to happen naturally, a given level or complexity of neural network needs to exist for the child that is ‘ready’ for the acquisition of that skill. This applies to everything from holding a spoon, to self-feeding, to crawling then walking, to reading and writing and basic concepts of number. Each child doesn’t reach the point of having a suitable network at exactly the same time. However, when we take the example of walking, except where there’s some significant mental impairment, every child walks. However, what we don’t see is late-walking children put in remedial classes for walking, given extra homework and subjected to the experience of hearing their peers praised for diligent walking (by implication condemning them as failures and let-downs for not making the walking teacher happy!)

However, when schools start pushing three and four year olds with reading that’s exactly what is happening. in those circumstances it’s inevitable that some will take longer than others. And in return for taking longer they will receive all sorts of subliminal messages that condemn them to low expectations – of themselves and on the part of parents and other care-givers. In those circumstances, some children will take on board certain negative beliefs about themselves. “I’m a slow learner,” “I’m never going to be good at this school stuff,” “Others are more intelligent than me,” “I can’t learn well.”

When education was seen as a massive filtering mechanism, children were seen as distributed across a standard bell curve. While some would flourish, some would inevitably be the floundering ones at the wrong end of the curve. Educators didn’t stop to consider that their own actions might be what was condemning those children to languish at that end of the curve. Nobody was willing to contemplate that their practices actually caused failure.

An education system for the Twenty First Century has to be built on principles of enabling each and every child to fulfill their potential. To achieve this, aspects of implied competition with each other or that learning and getting schooled is some sort of race are completely counter-productive. It also needs to be built on the principles that learning is fun, exciting and something that anyone would want to do for themselves – not something that others force us to do against our will.

Here’s further evidence that the priorities have to change and a plea from the World Economic Forum to apply the right priorities for education today, to enable tomorrow’s society;

World Economic Forum on Twitter

Here’s the link to the fuller article from the World Economic Forum that takes on this issue in more detail:

World Economic Forum – All Work and No Play Needs to Change for Kindergarteners – and Here’s Why

To conclude – in a changed world, there’s really no need for haste or rush for young people starting out on a long life, especially when all our new knowledge of brain sciences tells us that the rushing causes great harm and hurt to some children, thereby undermining their potential for the rest of their lives.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Questioning Stereotypes on Millennials

We’ve been told many things about millennials as a way of identifying them as a group and being able to understand how they differ from those who were the generation that came before. it’s been very tempting at times for people to hear the suggestions about what defines millennials and to then look for clues to back up those beliefs.

So, we’ve been told that millennials are the laziest, flakiest, neediest and most self-absorbed generation that has ever lived. It’s said that they’re almost impossible to employ because they are so desperate for praise for even the slightest of effort, jump ship at the drop of a hat without developing any sense of loyalty or commitment and that they have been so pampered that they can’t take criticism.

It’s a truism that any attempt to take a whole ‘category of people’ and to generalise them in to a stereotypical definition and place them in a box is doomed to failure. But, it’s useful when we get actual data to enhance our understanding of what really goes on in the minds of any pre-defined group.

This really matters when we consider that over half of the world’s current population is under the age of 25. Incidentally, there are many definitions of what is a millennial, but the generally accepted textbook definition of a millennial is a person born between the years of 1982 and 2004. So, today our Secondary Schools, colleges and increasingly our working places contain sizable populations of these people. It’s often suggested that many of the problems for this generation stem from the fact that they were brought up in a climate of the ‘self-esteem’ approaches to child-rearing – a set of beliefs that criticism and negativity should never be used with children, that everything must build their self esteem.

So, it’s useful when there’s real research that seeks to determine whether/ how much truth there is in the stereotypes. The following video and article clearly demonstrate that (at least in the USA) the evidence is weak at best. For example, the interesting term ‘work martyrs’ (otherwise workaholics) applies more to millennials than to any other generation. These are the infamous American workforce members who don’t use all their vacation allowance.

World Economic Forum – Positive Narrative For the Global Community

The article also carries some other interesting data. It’s good to see that such a high proportion of millennials hold a positive perspective on the future. It would be easy to believe that, bombarded with negative media reporting, they would be beaten down to believe they lived in a world that was only going to get worse, certainly not better. They are, in fact a generation of optimists.

Their attitudes towards refugees in their countries or neighbourhoods shows that there is a caring and compassionate leaning that belies the reputation for self indulgence and self interest. The report and the survey don’t seem to touch upon why the levels of civic engagement by these people were so low in UK Brexit referendum or the American election. However, it does suggest that if they were more politically active and voting, their influence would lead to very different outcomes.

One belief of my own does seem to be borne out by the survey – these young people are more acutely in to money than those who went before. ironically, we know from other research that, at least until now circumstances have meant that they don’t make money in the ways of previous generations. It’s said that they are the first generation since the industrial revolution to make less in real terms at the same age than their own parents did. I think this highlights the need for leaders in organisations to engage these younger employees, to help them feel a greater sense of purpose, belonging and contribution to their organisations. However, we may still have to accept they’re more likely to gripe about the money! maybe we and they just have to live with that fact.

Whilst there’s encouragement in this video, the article and the research, I do believe that we need to paying more attention to changing the ways we educate and the ways we lead to get the best from these young people.

International League Tables For School Learning

PISA-2012-results-snapshot-Volume-I-ENG
(Right click on the link above to either download the pdf document or to open it in another browser tab or window. You will need pdf reader software such as adobe in order to open the document)

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.

World Economic Forum – The Future of Education

WEF Education

The world Economic Forum is largely an economics and business think tank. However, the influential body recognises that one of the most important drivers of future economic growth is education – today and in the future. The graphic above is not dissimilar to those produced by ‘Route 21’, the campaign for twenty first century learning. It comes from an interesting report that shares some of the key insights in to the provision of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL).

World Economic Forum – 5 Charts That Explain The future of Education

The report links to a fuller report that raises some concerns that are frankly not too surprising – change is happening, but not nearly fast enough. All stakeholders who care about the future of children have to get up to speed and the educators have to put in the hard work of envisioning how the SEL needs change the way schools operate and run.

Preparing Children for a Changing World

WEF 200116

The World Economic Forum gathering in Davos just got under way, against a backdrop of crashing world stockmarkets, currency turmoil and new lows for world oil prices. Rightly, the discussions and thinking there are as much on the longer term as the short term – there’s not too much that anyone can do to change what’s happening right now!

The image shown above was shared in today’s deliberations, along with a prediction that automation, robots etc. will eliminate an estimated 5 million jobs between now and 2020. That’s not even 5 years away, so when we think about implications for the children in schools today, the likelihood is even more stark.

Everything about this data tells me that we’ve been spot on when advocating that today’s school education needs to undergo major changes so as to emphasise on the development of soft skills and with a strong focus on young people who have high levels of resilience, self-actualisation and flexibility to deal with the speed of change in the world.

Five years from now is about when this year’s Board exam students will enter the world of work. When looking at the list of ‘in demand skills listed above, I find myself concluding that today’s standardized tests do little or nothing to further the development of those skills in young people. In fact, the focus on the standardized tests detracts massively from developing these skills. Students and their parents become convinced that they must direct all their energy towards squeezing out maximum achievement in the exams and tests whilst teachers and schools feel obliged to ‘teach to the tests’ and resort to excessive direct instruction, drilling and rote rigour to drive students to the best possible scores on these tests.

How much real, quality experience are children getting in school to develop their complex problem solving, creativity and critical thinking? How can we get far more emphasis on emotional intelligence, interpersonal and interacting skills?

Over the last 10 years, whenever economies have picked up positively, industry after industry has had its ability to ride the buoyancy held back by their inability to find the talent required with the necessary skills. Looking at this list and the massive mismatch between the predictions for skills required and the actual things going on in schools, I see this deficit getting far worse. This is very bad news for economies, but even worse news for the young people who will find themselves unwanted and unattractive to employers through no real fault of their own.

We need to be addressing these issues, and soon.

%d bloggers like this: