From the outside in

I’m in Singapore this week, giving a keynote and doing a workshop for the 3rd International Project Based Learning Symposium. It is easy to see why Singapore is among the world’s top five performing school systems when there is such a strong focus across the education sectors on developing learner and teacher skills such as inquiry, collaboration, deep knowledge and independent learning.

Interest in PBL is growing in schools across our system but it has been a success in transforming the learning for students at Parramatta Marist High. For me, Parramatta Marist’s experience is an example of our broad approach to improving learning and teaching based on the principles of inquiry (ref Timperley’s teacher inquiry cycle).

Inquiry is about open-ended questions – moving from having the right answer to being comfortable asking the right questions. Brazilian educator Paolo Freire believed that:

‘It is impossible to be human without curiosity, without questions. The questions is in the foundation of human existence…One of the sad things, for example, is how we sometimes become accustomed to the absence of the question. For example, pedagogy, as it is generally practiced today, is exactly a pedagogy of the answer….Professors enter the classroom on the first day of the term, for example, and talk, giving answers to questions that have not been asked by the students.’

In the case of Singapore’s National Institute of Education, teachers’ engage in inquiry so that they are better able to teach a curriculum focussed on ‘critical thinking, inquiry and collaboration.’

We are seeing that high performing systems are committed to teacher and student inquiry. Teachers learning about student learning and students learning through discovery.

Last week I attended a talk by Dr Ben Jensen of the Grattan Institute on what we can learn from the best school systems in East Asia.  What was interesting but perhaps no surprise is that these education systems have high levels of equity – there is less gap between high and low performing students in Korea, Shanghai and Hong Kong compared to other countries like the UK, US and Australia.  According to OECD figures, the bottom 10% of maths students in Shanghai perform at a level that is 21 months ahead of the bottom 10% of students in Australia.  This rises to 28 months in the USA. That is a gap of more than two years.

There are two points to make here. We know that key to overcoming issues of equity is having quality teachers and teaching in every classroom.  This is what is happening in East Asia.  The second is that the business of schooling is big business in the sense that economic growth is contigent on having a highly skilled workforce.

It is the second point that is the focus of the article ‘Rethinking School‘ in this month’s Harvard Business Review.  It’s estimated that if the US had closed its achievement gap with better performing nations, then its GDP could have been $1.2 to 2.1 trillion higher.  The figure is based on the work of Stanford economist Eric Hanushek who found that countries where students had higher test scores also had higher rates of growth in income per person.

This is why China which outranks both the US and Australia in maths and reading is a serious competitor and why the Obama administration has implemented education reforms such as Race to the Top.  The article makes the point that after forty years of research we know what makes the greatest difference to student learning but initiatives to improve the quality of teaching have not yielded the desired results.  In fact, according to the HBR article, ‘it will take 40 years for 80% of New York city students to reach math and reading proficiency, let alone the level of excellence that Chinese students are already achieving.’

I don’t believe that personalising learning using technology is the silver bullet to improving the US’ education system.  As I’ve said often enough, it’s not about the tools, it’s about the teacher.  What the Grattan Institute report shows is that East Asia’s education systems have implemented reforms that provide high quality teacher training, mentoring to continually improve learning and teaching and continual evaluation of teacher practice.

What is evident is the knowledge building that comes from inquiry – the application of new routines of practice explicitly linking learning and teaching.  And it’s the engagement in this collective inquiry that teachers and students will benefit from.

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