Reformers and adapters

I’ve just finished reading two fascinating articles by Thomas L. Friedman and Marc Prensky .

There seems to be two camps when it comes to education – the reformers and the innovators who are adapters.  Like the US,  we spend millions of dollars trying to fix the system with programatic solutions that reflect a 20th century understanding of schooling, when the real problem is as Prensky writes ‘what is taught and how it’s taught’.

By contrast, countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea and Canada are adapters.  Despite being a small nation, Singapore is an education powerhouse. As the school principal quoted in Friedman’s article says they make connections between “what world am I living in,” “where is my country trying to go in that world” and, therefore, “what should I teach in fifth-grade science.”

Singapore is Bransford theory in action: context (world around us), connections (where is our country trying to go) and meta-cognition (what do our students need to know/learn/do).

What is evident from these articles is that Singapore has built its system around contemporary education whereas countries like the US and Australia have built the education around a 20th century system.   As a result, students continue to increasingly disengage from learning; aren’t sufficiently challenged or are working towards achievement levels determined by high-stakes testing.

In his state of the union address last month, President Obama told Americans they needed to “out-educate and out-innovate” as a result of a rapidly changing world and its impact on global economies.

President Obama said ‘nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science.  They’re investing in research and new technologies.  So, yes, the world has changed.  The competition for jobs is real.’

He went on to say that ‘when a child walks into a classroom, it should be a place of high expectations and high performance.  But too many schools don’t meet this test. That’s why instead of just pouring money into a system that’s not working, we launched a competition called Race to the Top.  To all 50 states, we said, “If you show us the most innovative plans to improve teacher quality and student achievement, we’ll show you the money.”

So the impetus driving US education reform is not relevancy but a competitive global job market.  What is absent here is any reference to learning.  Learning that develops students’ capacities for reasoning, thinking and knowing.

In his critique of the American education system, Prensky has proffered his solution for creating schools of relevance.  This includes introducing a cross-disciplinary and integrated curriculum that focusses on the 3Cs: character and passion, communication and problem solving and creation and skills.

Again, it goes back to asking the right questions – how is this relevant to today’s learners and today’s world?  Does ‘what and how we teach reflect current and future realities’?

One of the most confronting quotes in Prensky’s essay is from school superintendent David Engle: “Every student is damaged or cheated out of a more productive future by our continued adherence to an old, defunct system design.”

Unfortunately, there is no blueprint for making schooling relevant in today’s world because the technology we use and the global challenges we face have never existed before. We need to value the lessons of the past but not waste time and money re-creating it.  We need to consider the competition but not be distracted by it.  We need to design learning experiences for today’s learners not for adults.

How many of us are adapters, how many are prepared to step out of the existing comfort zones and dare to make real change?

5 thoughts on “Reformers and adapters

  1. Greg – I want to respond to your other posting, “Profession With a Practice” but am unable to access that page. So here goes…you and I met at the QUEST conference in Toronto in November 2010 where our breakfast conversation had quite an impact on my work. You may recall sharing with me your vision for instilling a sense of ownership, the ability to innovate and yes, accountability for your schools by all teachers/leaders operating under the following guidelines:
    1. Deprivatize practice
    2. Personalize the learning
    3.Use the best tools
    These guide lines underscore our thinking as we have been moving forward with what we call “job embedded professional inquiry” for our educators. This way of working is quite new to us this year, and we continue to learn “how to do it” effectively, but the results to date in terms of teacher engagement and sense of efficacy is very promising. Our sessions begin with teacher sharing around:
    1. What are you trying?
    2. Why are you trying it?
    3. Is it working?
    4. How do you know?
    Practice is becoming deprivatized as we engage in co-planning, c0-teaching and public sharing of our ongoing result and learning. We are better learning to personalize for our students and are beginning to better articulate the connection between adult decisions/strategies and student outcomes. We link our “tools” to strategies which are supported by research, but we are getting away from prescribing which strategies must be used when. It’s a very exciting time for our teachers and principals. As system leaders, we feel we are growing a culture of inquiry which is really developing a profession with practice. This morning, we are meeting with our Principals to engage in developing a similar process with them – job embedded inquiry for teams of principals.

    1. Susanne, great to hear about these initiatives with your colleagues and thanks for your kind words. Your response to continues to highlight for me the importance of teachers reflecting on their practice coming from a grounded theory base and understanding of today’s world. It is sometimes difficult to keep focussed on the things we know make a difference when we have competing agendas flying thick and fast. We really do know what makes a difference and that is good teachers reflecting on and sharing their practice. Good luck and keep me posted.

  2. Susanne congratulations on the journey you have embarked on. I believe it will be one that challenges and moves people from a static mindset to looking at teaching and learning from a different lens. This year in our school within the diocese of Parramatta where Greg is Executive Director we embarked on a structural change within a seconday school. I was always bothered by the question ‘Who knows our learners” stimulated by Greg’s question to leadership teams in the diocese ‘Who is your class” and in a secondary climate where we work primarily in subject faculties our students work in isolation in many cases because of their separate subjects and many teachers.
    This year we have implemented a Learning Advisor period in the timetable for students to meet with their advisor and track their learning over time. In this way we have a mentor for the students who is an advisor and works with the students on their journey. This is built into teacher loads and ultimately will develop into student learning portfolios as well as personalising their learning journey. We hope to encourage learning ownership and change the way we approach learning so that in a secondary school someone has an idea of how a student and their learning journey is progressing. I’m sure other schools have experimented with this approach and would welcome any feedback .Early days at the moment but structural change is also very important to change what we are doing and how as evidenced by Pretsky’s article.

  3. Greg
    We need to assist teachers to see that they can safely move from traditional pedagogies to pedagogical practices that reflect the world that they and their students inhabit. To a great extent this requires leaders who both understand and therefore support and challenge teacher to change the way they work in their school communities. Leaders are often fearful of the ‘new’ because of the’ high stakes’ accountability.
    It was interesting to read that the principal quoted in Friedman’s article on education in Singapore was working beyond the bounds of the national curriculum. This leader has the courage to work beyond the ‘system’ and trust in current best practice pedagogies.

  4. I’ll go out on a limb here ,however ,if the Principal is not prepared to explore the boundaries and challenge staff and students then give it away. We want students to engage in learning and staff to do likewise. Someone has to take the initiative and ask the crucial questions otherwise we will sit in the same framework we have done for many years without a reflective practice. I know many other Principals, Assistant Principls and Coordinators,visit classes on a regular basis and see teachers ,especially our beginning teachers engaging students in ways beyond my thinking. It is a truly enlightening experience as they push the boundaries. I would say the boundaries exist for us “oldies” not the the young!! Maybe we need to let go.

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