Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Curriculum is not Content

I wrote this for the Financial Times and it was published in July 2013 as an opinion piece for FT readers to reflect on as the summer holiday season began. They ran it just as I wrote it, pretty much, although the last paragraph got lost in the sub editing - and important conclusion, I thought.

Anyway, here is the piece:

In Hong Kong in 2011 I watched Under Secretary of State for Education Kenneth Chen telling school leaders that Hong Kong would not remain top of global science teaching tables "by continuing to teach science in the old ways". He implored them to "move away from a focus on Content Knowledge" and to embrace the "learning to learn" that he had placed at the heart of education reforms. Technology was a key to open that ambition. Precisely a decade earlier, at the end of an ambitious tech research project in Singapore, Teo Chee Hean, then Minister for Education there, observed that "The pace of change of new technology is more rapid than the typical timeline for educational research studies". He confirmed that in Singapore "teachers need to be action researchers who can produce and publish research findings on a more rapid cycle so that other teachers can build on their experiences, learn from them and implement these improvements in their own classrooms".

By 2012, looking back over the past decade, Heng Swee Keat - Singapore's current Minister for Education - noted their movement from an initial survival driven focus on national cohesion, into an efficiency drive in the 70s to improve school drop-out rates and "boost industry-relevant skills", before finally moving onwards to today's focus on "developing a broader range of skills such as critical thinking and creativity, and to devolving more autonomy to our schools to encourage innovation".

Although much else contributed too, it seems to be working. Between 2007 and 2013 Singapore's GDP Growth Rate averaged over 5%. Hong Kong too is currently growing GDP at close to 3%. Perhaps the key difference is that for both economies education is an investment, where much of Europe and the USA sees education as a cost. For that investment's outcomes Singapore and Hong Kong are seeking a lot more than just kids who can remember and recall a finite set of facts. They want collaborative ingenuity. Unsurprisingly, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) educational survey, in the face of some criticism about its own measures of educational success, has noted Singapore's focus on equipping "students with critical competencies, such as self-directed learning and collaboration skills" and will be introducing Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) as a new international measure of educational effectiveness, from 2015.

How well might English children perform on those CPS tests? In parallel to the South East Asian focus on creativity, critical thinking and reflective practice, in England we are watching an alternative Coalition experiment in education. Encouragingly it has given us a huge diversity of school types, from Free Schools to Studio School, from University Technical Colleges to Academy clusters, - precisely what is needed for the kind of "vibrant learning communities where exploration and experimentation are integral" spoken of by Heng Swee Keat. That diversity is necessary but not sufficient. Rather less encouragingly, the other half of the bold Coalition experiment sees a refocus on Content. It was perhaps wonderfully ironic that in a month that saw a newly fact based English history curriculum launched, Richard III's skeleton was unexpectedly discovered under a council car park in Leicester. As English schoolchildren were being told of the irrevocable supremacy of their history text books, archeologists were saying "we will have to rewrite the text books now". Oh dear.

Focussing on Content is a familiar economic mistake. Back in the last century, in parallel to the expensive misunderstandings of the dot com bubble, education based companies thought their market would be Content Delivery. Surely, Content was King, and Delivery was Dollars? They weren't. In a world awash with content, much of it free, markets turned out to be about memberships and mutuality, whilst ingenuity and creativity were increasingly scarce and valued. Will English schoolchildren, newly returned to rote learning, sitting down to an exam paper and hoping there are no surprises, be ready for the certainty of uncertainty and the constant surprise that characterise our current economic circumstances? It is a gamble, but it doesn't seem likely. At this stage in the world's race for economic survival, an educational refocus on Content starts to look like a suicide note.

At a time when probably every company in the City aspires to be a Learning organisation, and every corporate mission statement mentions learning, agility and creativity, it should be clear that Education is far too important economically, strategically and socially to leave in the hands of a Department of Education, whoever the minister at the time might be. The hot economic debate is thus: if education is to move forward quickly enough who should we now entrust it too? The global answer emerging in the world's high flying economies seems to be: "give it back to the schools, the teachers, the parents and the children; ask them to make learning better". Maybe we should too.

© professor stephen heppell july 2013

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