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Education XX.0

Posted by 498371 Aug 17, 2011

PISA surveys are crafted to answer the question: Are students well prepared to meet the challenges of the future? The OECD is not alone in asking. In a provocative opinion piece published recently in The New York Times, Virginia Heffernan cites an astonishing statistic: fully 65% of today’s grade-school students may wind up doing work that hasn’t even been invented yet. For her, the answer to the question is an unequivocal “no”.


Heffernan’s article is largely based on the findings and analysis presented in a new book, Now You See It, by Cathy N. Davidson, co-director of the annual MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions. While the book is ostensibly about the brain science of attention, it also, as Heffernan writes, “challenges nearly every assumption about American education”.


Take that old warhorse of secondary and university-level education – the research paper. Davidson, a professor at Duke University, laments the quality of some of the papers her students submit. But, she asks, “What if ‘research paper’ is a category that invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledygook?” (As a former writer of research papers and current editor, who had a prose-saving stint as a journalist in between, I would go out on a limb – a very solid one, I think – to say that the “what if” that opens Davidson’s sentence, and the question mark that punctuates it, could safely be deleted…)


Davidson compares her students’ papers to blogs they have posted and concludes: “Online blogs directed at peers exhibit fewer typographical and factual errors, less plagiarism, and generally better, more elegant and persuasive prose than classroom assignments by the same writers.”


So how can education be redesigned to absorb – and exploit – these new realities? Davidson offers a few suggestions: de-emphasise solitary work and focus, instead, on fostering collaboration; devise new ways of measuring students’ progress more attuned to the times in which they’re living; and build on students’ digital literacy, including by encouraging students to contribute to web-based projects.


Davidson’s observations reinforce one of the findings that emerged from PISA’s ground-breaking survey of digital literacy in 2009: Students learn more about navigating their way around the Internet at home than they do at school. They develop these skills naturally, using home computers or hand-held devices, in their unstructured exploration of the web. As Heffernan writes, “We can’t keep ignoring the formidable cognitive skills [students are] developing on their own.”


We welcome your thoughts…



Posted by 64189 Aug 8, 2011





















It seems that one way to see the fabric and true face of a society is to learn how it responds to a crisis. I witnessed how nature can destroy anything mankind builds within seconds, but also how human strength of mind, local initiative, and the joint forces of people can overcome seemingly unsurmountable challenges and rebuild society.


For hours we drove along the coastline through endless areas where entire villages had been swept away, leaving nothing behind but the foundations of houses. In some areas, one ruin after the other was marked with circles and red crosses, signalling where people had lost not just their shelter but also their loved ones.


While the establishment of temporary housing and the public infrastructure is proceeding at an impressive speed, re-establishing human capacity proves to be the far greater challenge. That was most clearly visible in Otsuchi Town, where the tsunami had killed the Mayor and destroyed much of the public administration and its corporate memory: This town was far behind others in its reconstruction efforts. Looking at it the other way round, this was illustration of how important local initiative and capacity is in rebuilding the area. I spend almost an hour with the superintendent of Yamada who was a great example of local leadership, and when I listened to him, with tears in his eyes but also full of determination to help create a new Japan, Tokyo seemed far, very far, away. He stood in sharp contrast to the Western stereotype of Japanese bureaucrats waiting for instructions from above.


The school principals of Funakoshi and Ohtsuchi Elementary School running the temporary Rikuchu-Sanriku Youth House were other illustrations of the immense dynamism and creativity that Japan can have, if it chooses to unleash it. In fact, just before I met them I had visited the remnants of the old Funakoshi elementary School, a school that looked like you imagine a school anywhere in the world, there were long dark corridors providing each class with its own classroom, and one floor up there was the teachers’ room. But the Rikucho-Sanriku temporary school was different, the Gymnasium hosted three classes in a grand open learning space and the teachers’ rooms of two original schools faces the “classrooms”. Together, students and teachers found creative solutions to ease the difficult conditions, fostering mutual respect and responsibility at the same time.  As the head-teacher explained, when one class had a music lesson, the others would go outside for sports. The teachers could not preserve much from the old school library, but the community-based support groups had chipped in to donate books and whatever else was needed, and there seemed nothing that you cannot build from cardboard. Children from all over Japan and the world had connected with this school and offered their sympathy, solidarity and support, the walls were not large enough to hold all the postcards, letters and toys they had sent. In some ways, the tsunami had transformed a school of the past into a learning environment of the future.


The most moving reports were those from teachers. Even in normal times, Japan is a country where there seems no boundary between the public and private life of teachers, where teachers feel a deep commitment not just to the cognitive development of their students, but also to their students’ social and emotional at school and at home. The crisis has amplified this, with teachers taking on an incredible amount of additional responsibility with little material and psychological support.

There was, first of all, the immediate impact of the tsunami where I heard about many teachers who had risked their lives to save those of their students. One high school teacher recounted how he is unable to forget the moment when he had reached out to save a child whom the violent floods were carrying into the open sea, but failed to seize the hand by just a few centimetres. Another teacher had rescued all the children in the school after the initial earthquake hit and brought them to high ground. When the parents of one of the children arrived and demanded to take her home, the teacher was not convinced that it was the right act, but didn’t deny the request. The child and her family died on their way down to the city when the tsunami followed.


And in many ways this just marks the beginning for teachers. I learned that it was often only when students return from temporary shelter to their original environment that they and their families were realising the full impact of the tsunami. For some it is their lost family members, relatives or neighbours. For others it is the loss of their livelihoods, as a large share of the jobs have disappeared, and may have disappeared forever as the economy restructures and new and different jobs will be needed requiring new and different skillsets and thus placing additional demands on people for adjustment. There is no doubt that these scars of children and their families will shape the work and life of teachers until long after the towns and cities have been rebuilt. Japan can be proud of its teachers who are taking on this challenge, who don’t just feel as educators but as nation builders, but they will need strong and sustained support.


Then there are the unions. As an employee of a government organisation the first thought I tend to have about unions is that these are the people who oppose educational reforms. But I was deeply impressed by the more than 12,000 JTUC staff members who have volunteered in the tsunami area. And I have met few people who share such a deep concern and commitment for the future of the education and social welfare of Japan’s children than JTU’s vice president and her colleagues in Iwate prefecture.


Acknowledging that we don’t have the firemen, doctors and engineers that Japan needs in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, I was struck by the similarity in the answers I received when I asked what the OECD can do to help. Virtually everyone said that they knew how to rebuild the public infrastructure, that they will work hard to support their schools and teachers, but that they need the OECD to share the world’s expertise in building an education system that fills Japan’s curricular goal of “zest for living” with life – to which the tsunami has given an entirely new meaning. To build an education system that shifts from reproducing educational content for school towards strengthening competencies for life; from education to serve the nation state towards education for citizenship in the local community, the Japanese society and the global community; from education for competition in exam hell towards strengthening social skills and social cohesion; and from education for situational values – I will do anything the situation allows me to do – to sustainable values.

Community leaders and educators were also keen to share the experience which they had gained in the aftermath of the tsunami to help the world avoid some of the mistakes which they had made and to reduce the impact of future natural disasters.


And so many conversations ended with, please, don’t forget us.


Debates on the benefits and disadvantages of private schooling are as perennial as daisies – and the arguments tendered to justify each viewpoint are just about as common: a more innovative educational environment on the one side; social segregation on the other.


Results from PISA offer a more nuanced perspective. Most of the reasons parents cite for sending their children to private schools (which PISA defines as schools that are locally managed, regardless of how they are funded) are true: in general, privately run schools enjoy a more advantaged student population, more material resources, fewer teacher shortages and better disciplinary climates than public schools; and students who attend private schools usually benefit from the experience – and tend to achieve higher scores in PISA. But an analysis of PISA results, highlighted in the latest issue of PISA in Focus, also shows that students from similar socio-economic backgrounds who attend public schools, particularly public schools that have a high degree of autonomy over the curriculum they offer and how their funding is spent, do just as well in PISA as students in privately run schools.


Yet the very presence of private schools in a school system could help to improve the quality of education in public schools. Since private schools have to compete among themselves to attract the best students, they have to be both efficient and innovative in how they use the resources available to them to offer inspiring courses taught by the best teachers. To remain competitive in such a school system, public schools may then have to re-consider their own approaches to education if they want to retain the best-performing students and recruit better teachers.


However, such a spill-over effect isn’t apparent in PISA results. School systems with large numbers of private schools do not necessarily score any better in PISA than those with fewer private schools. This is because the proportion of advantaged students, who generally perform well in PISA no matter what kind of school they attend, is a constant in a given school system, and because public as well as private schools can be granted high levels of autonomy over curriculum design and resource allocation.


Count on PISA to join the debate with some revealing and provocative data. After all, PISA is not your garden-variety survey.

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