Futurelab Newsletter: 63 November 2009. ‘A perfect storm’ and the strategy for its aftermath

‘A perfect storm’ and the strategy for its aftermath
November 2009. MerlinJohn. From Futurelab’s November newsletter.

Futurelab: www.futurelab.org.uk

World economic systems are in turmoil and global warming is becoming a reality, as is the realisation that most developed countries are testing their learners for entirely the wrong skill sets required for the 21st century. Despite increasing investment in education there is a perception that it is unfit for purpose and education leaders are looking for change.

Like all good strategists Michael Stevenson recognises a crisis as an opportunity rather than a disaster. He describes the conditions of “global connectivity, rapid technological change and unprecedented demographic shifts” as “a perfect storm”. The calming will be Education 3.0.

His strategy comes from global experience. At the start of 2009, Cisco, Microsoft and Intel launched “Transforming Education: Assessing and Teaching the Skills Needed in the 21st century – A Call to Action” and commissioned Australian academic Barry McGaw to lead a team to come up with answers that could be shared globally, and through the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), keeper of the PISA international education performance ‘tables’. And Cisco has been engaged in non-commercial transformational education work all over the world – from post-Katrina work in Jefferson Parish, New Orleans to New York, Australia, China and Mexico – where the accent has been on pedagogy and technology.

His vision for 21st century pedagogy is based on four aspects:

■”learner-centred pedagogy”, a concept that sits well with personalisation of learning, with assessment based on “attaining performance goals”
■”a repertoire of teaching strategies and skills” requiring teachers “who can instruct, facilitate, guide, and support as needed”, with priority given to nurturing “creative and collaborative skills”
■”interdisciplinary and project-based work” to “help students learn how to draw on multiple disciplines and recognise the interdependence of various systems”
■”authenticity” – “another way to engage students by appealing to their existing passions and interests”, integrating “real-life experiences into lessons” and taking learning beyond the classroom into the community, environment and virtual worlds.
These cornerstones are becoming familiar in UK education, and are already proving some of the most powerful motors for change. However, they are not explicit in policy, and the current testing regime is perceived as a major obstacle to their widespread adoption.

Michael Stevenson’s broad, philosophical policy brush was also evident in the presentations of two other keynote speakers at Innovation in Education, director general of the Finnish National Board of Education Timo Lankinen, and Larry Rosenstock, CEO of High Tech High in San Diego, USA. Echoing elements of Michael Stevenson’s strategy, their insights were both supportive and powerful.

For both of them, the primacy of teachers, and their professional development, was non-negotiable. In both their contexts the professional status and pedagogical freedom of teachers is impressive, as is the high level of competition among teachers to work in their successful schools (Finland requires Masters qualifications – one in ten applicants get to teach). And while they both espoused professional rigour, neither was involved in heavy handed assessment regimes, quite the opposite in fact.

Just as the pedagogy outlined by Michael Stevenson is hardly unfamiliar or rare, neither were the technology elements highlighted for support – apart from in the context of policy and strategy.

Social networking technologies are seen as powerful tools for engagement and learning. He highlighted the NotSchool service for out-of-school learners as a persuasive example with 98 per cent of its learners achieving recognised qualifications. The power of gaming, with its powerful engagement for problem-solving was also identified, and recognition given to the pioneering work being carried out in this area by Learning and Teaching Scotland’s Consolarium project.

The collaborative strengths of open source software and user-generated content were also identified as forces for good, like Sweden’s Lektion.se online service, which is attracting 50 per cent of teachers to take part and share their work within Creative Commons licensing.

Dealing with the pace of change required, he quoted Henry Ford’s line: “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.” And went on: “If you go for incremental reform, the best you can get is a faster horse – and in many cases, you get a horse that’s no quicker, just one that gets measured more often.

“What we need now… is ‘disruptive innovation’: change so radical that the most far-reaching reform won’t be enough…” There should be a new set of goals for learners he said. Learners should:

■“acquire a range of skills to succeed in a modern, globalised world
■“receive tailored instruction that enables them to reach their full potential
■“connect to their communities in person and digitally, and interact with people from different cultures
■“continue learning throughout their lives.”
The breadth and command of his presentation makes Michael Stevenson’s departure from the former DFES where he was director of strategy and communication, and the transfer of ICT policy to Becta, even more inexplicable in retrospect than it appeared at the time in 2006. But what was the Government’s loss has clearly been Cisco’s gain.

Top UK priorities: ‘curriculum, assessment and initial teacher training’

And his advice is now free and open. While his strategy is clearly global, what about the specifics for the UK? “The top priorities for me,” he says, “would be curriculum, assessment and initial teacher training. I think that if you have a vision for 21st century skills then those are the three things that are straight-up barriers in the UK to getting there.

“The curriculum because we put in place a standardised knowledge-based curriculum 20 years ago, which looks backwards not forwards, assessment because we are testing kids against that curriculum, and teacher training because I do not think that anywhere in the world, let alone this country, is preparing young people for the challenges of the learning environments we are now building. Quite the opposite.”

The urgency with which the UK should address the need for innovative change was emphasised by one of his collaborators, David (Lord) Puttnam, who pointed out that a problem with research was that it looked for neat solutions but never really considered how these could be implemented to scale. This was “a great disappointment”.

David Puttnam also warned that policymakers are often secretive and he gave the example of a secret US presentation he attended: “the most graphic, catastrophic demonstration of the failure of the American education system – it was shocking, absolutely shocking.” In fact it was so restricted that he was not even able to get copies of the presentation slides: “We are something of a priesthood in that we are quite nervous and reticent about acknowledging our failures… We haven’t always told the truth and we have allowed the forces of reaction to dominate us in a relatively unchallenged way.”

At the heart of the obstacles to 21st century learning, David Puttnam identified assessment, and this was his final warning: “Everything that we have discussed today, every project, every idea will come to nothing unless we can drag ourselves out of our 19th century assessment system.”

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