Making education work

14 October 2012 , Educational Issues

As the new school year gets under way, we educators come back from a summer break full of energy and enthusiasm to do an even better job, to benefit from our experience of last year, and perhaps to implement some ideas we may have read recently on “education reform”.

Indeed, “reform” is a recurrent idea in education — almost everywhere in the world. We hear about the successes of some countries, e.g. Finland and failures of some others, e.g. the US (with endless debates about “no child left behind”, standardised testing etc). We read articles and books continuously arguing about this successful practice and that wrongful experiment. And of course, we hear officials here and elsewhere insisting on various changes (instructional materials, examination procedures, re-training of teachers etc).

And so we become rather lost in the often contradictory ideas that we hear from various corners. For example, I recently read several articles in such serious publications as the New York Times arguing two opposite prescriptions for improving today’s education: many are insisting that we spend more time, indeed focus most of the school time, on core subjects (reading, writing, math, etc.); others are decrying the boredom and the poor atmosphere that has enveloped today’s schools and children because play time and extracurricular activities and even lessons in music and physical education have been significantly cut down.

Some education policy experts have admitted that both of the above arguments are correct and insisted that the solution to this conundrum is to increase both the number of hours of schooling in a typical day and the number of school days in the year. The latter varies greatly from one country to another: it is highest in Japan with some 240 days a year; it is 180 days (on average) in the US; yet in Finland, which is hailed for a very successful educational system, it is 190… as in Nigeria!

Others have argued that the determining factor in the success of an educational system is the class size — the average number of pupils that a teacher handles in a given class. Indeed, this will determine the amount of personal attention given to each child/student, especially in the earlier stages. It will substantially reduce the boredom that children have been reporting and that studies have identified as a key factor in students dropping out or “turning off”; and it will help set up individualised monitoring/testing of students in order to design personalised learning plans.

This possibility of turning education into an individualised process is emerging as the new paradigm, presented as the bi-product of the digital revolution. Indeed, if learning, class work, and monitoring of progress is conducted in large part via computers or tablets, it becomes possible not only to take advantage of the infinite possibilities of the digital world but also to tailor the learning, pace, and progress of each student. Unfortunately, this brave new digital world comes with disadvantages and risk factors (increased individualisation of children at the expense of positive social habits, fast-decreasing attention spans etc).

Success story

Another important component of today’s educational system is the mathematics and science curriculum and teaching methods. First, what makes Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, and other countries do so well in international tests of mathematics and science, while all Arab countries score near the bottom? Is it wealth? No, Qatar is near the bottom, while the UAE is near the average. Is it the number of days spent in school? To some extent, there is a correlation between those two factors. This needs to be explored.

I mentioned above that Finland is being hailed as an educational success story. Indeed, with no national examination system, it is found that the differences in performances between students in all schools are no more than about 4 per cent. More importantly, most children report being happy at school, and this may be the single most critical factor for success. Closer inspections of the specific educational methods applied in Finland have revealed the following: a) teachers are required to hold an advanced degree in the field that they will be teaching (a math teacher even in primary schools must have a college math degree) plus pedagogical training; b) collaboration is required among teachers of the same subjects in order to compare notes on what has worked and what has not, and best practices are quickly shared; c) continuous training of teachers through small seminars and workshops is conducted and stressed.

While education is hugely important for any society, it is a very complex field. Educators must not only exchange views and experience, they need to learn from the experiments and practices of other nations and school systems. The world is changing fast, and education must adapt quickly or risk losing large swaths of the new generation.