Friday, 20 April 2012

Notes from the Education Seminars #2: The Times They Are a-Changin’, but what is the course education is taking?


Finnish Educator and Consultant, Sirkku Nikamaa-Berg, one of the panelists in the 'Lessons from the North' seminar, blogs about the future of education.

The pace of societal and technological change places increasing demands on individuals and communities yet schools seem to dawdle when they could and they should be fully engaged in the development. The task of basic education is to raise adults of the future, help prepare them for jobs that may not exist yet and to give them tools and capabilities for a good life. The goal of education cannot merely be the delivery of the curriculum, but the internalization of the underlying concepts, and the ability to think critically and act socially.

The slow pace of change in education is all the more astonishing and unacceptable given the fact that our understanding about what really works in learning is better than ever before. There is also an increasing amount of experience on how to implement new methods and how to overcome practical obstacles.

The goals for innovation and development strategies in education are similar everywhere. It is safe to say that every government is interested in developing 21st century skills, they want to engage and motivate students and prevent them from dropping out of education. They want to promote life-long learning, foster creative- and life skills and enhance wellbeing.

To achieve all this education authorities, researchers and schools are busy developing new pedagogies, boosting creative use of technologies in the classroom, encouraging collaboration, forming new partnerships and building bridges between formal and informal learning.

Development and upgrading of education and training are also seen as prime sources of national competitiveness. Rising creative industries, among others, have signaled that education is not meeting their needs. More opportunities for cross-curricular learning, for example STEM and arts is called for. Students also need knowledge and skill related abilities, ability and desire to learn, creative passion, enriching interaction and good self-confidence.

Courses of action

There are countless development initiatives and visionary projects to improve and change learning. Some of these projects generate new knowledge and put the latest research results to good use. As an example I could mention the “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” in Singapore, iZone in New York City, Innovation Unit’s Learning Futures and the RSA’s Opening Minds in the UK. Universities world over produce excellent cross-disciplinary research and NGO’s create networks and projects to improve education. In Finland numerous development projects are funded and coordinated by the Board of Education, Cicero-learning Network at the Helsinki University and other universities. It is not uncommon for municipalities and schools to undertake their own development projects.

Interestingly, many development projects in Finland and in the UK focus on similar issues. Invariably they deal, in one way or the other, with engaging and empowering the student and promoting responsibility for own learning. The most commonly used practices are learning by doing, project based- and enquiry based learning, self-directed learning, creating local public private partnerships, innovative use of technology and BYOD (Bring your own device). Methods often include spaced learning and flipped classroom.

An obstacle course

The Finnish municipalities are rather autonomous and the system is based on trust in schools and teachers. The central government leans towards "steering by information" rather than uniform norms. Governing through legislation and resource allocation still play a role, but in Finland municipalities have room to apply the guidelines according to their particular contexts. Project-based development work, together with dissemination of research outcomes and other information, are the key "instruments" of information steering. However, controlling and making the most of this myriad of national and local development projects is challenging. Dissemination of the research results and implementation of the best practices is halting and many good initiatives benefit a limited number of schools and students.

In the UK the education system is more fragmented with independent schools, public schools, state schools, grammar schools, comprehensive schools, foundation schools, Church of England Schools, academies and free schools… just to name a few. The English education model is based on high stakes testing, inspections and ranking of schools. These measures are considered by some people to be important for ensuring the quality of education. They can also seen as instruments for improving education outcomes.

Competition between schools and constant measuring is likely to make schools more risk averse and introduction of new, more radical ideas on education is not easy. The need to stick to relatively fixed learning objectives, to teach to national tests and the fear of inspections make implementation of new ideas and methods seem more risky.

Changing the course

The goals of education and the trends in innovation and development are broadly speaking the same in Finland and in the UK. Excellent work and good practice in individual schools and by individual teachers does not unfortunately amount to large scale change by itself.

Innovative and good practices develop in an atmosphere of trust and a degree of autonomy is necessary. However, dependence and interdependence are essential for system improvement. Increased and improved networking locally and internationally will benefit everyone. In the area of education Finland has a lot to learn from the UK and vice versa. I call for new ways to disseminate research results and to share experiences.

The growth of the community-led Transition Town movement is a good example of networked change, how local action sparked a global movement. The Transition initiative is about local responses to global challenges. Put together, small-scale responses create a big impact that will show the way to people, businesses even governments. Their concept is the same, but different (local) where ever it takes root. 

One of the most difficult things for beginner sailors to learn is to look ahead, not inside the boat, not back or to the sides – but ahead – for where you look, that’s where you will end up. Educators and decision makers have to keep their sight on the student and his / her future needs and co-operate internationally to reach the best results.

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