The restless globe

Trick(y) Question: Which is the fifth largest ‘country by population’ in the world today, and will be the third largest by 2050?

Answer: After China, India, USA, and Indonesia, the fifth largest today is ‘all the peoples of the world who are living in a country that is not the one they were born in’.

Scientists generally agree that about 70,000 years ago, Sapiens from East Africa spread into the Arabian peninsula, and from there quickly overran the entire Eurasian landmass. The history of humankind is one of restless migration. We happen to be witnessing at present, often in grim TV images, that natural human characteristic, but that restless urge to move has always been with us. We have long been global citizens, divided by our nation states.

Pundits and commentators in all spheres of human endeavour like to compare peoples and nations, and build news stories around international comparisons. Take the recently published Portland index of so-called ‘soft power’: the ability to achieve influence by building networks, communicating compelling narratives, establishing international rules and drawing on the resources that make a country naturally attractive to the world. Well, the UK comes 1st out of 30; Finland is fifteenth; China 30th.

In education, the international comparators come fast and furious. We can quote PISA (reading, maths and science) or TIMSS (maths and science) to cheer us up one year or depress us the next. Last year’s report from the OECD on literacy and numeracy proficiency placed Korea and Spain at the top, the US and UK at the bottom of a list of 21 countries. Yet another report suggested Britain could add trillions to its economy if it only had the education standards of Poland, Vietnam and Estonia.

We routinely position polar opposite ideas in order to determine which is right. Whenever we follow this process the result is people on both sides trying to thrust their views forward. Positions harden rather than consensus being achieved.

Let us take the recent debate promoted by a TV documentary set in a Hampshire secondary school where students experienced the Chinese way of doing. Have no doubt, Asia including China is indeed the ‘Asian Tiger’. It pulsates with optimism and evidence of rapid progress is visible at every turn. Education merely reflects this wider ambition. Each generation is a fresh start and all students have the chance to exceed the achievements of their parents. Their overall expectations are high and they deliver.

The Confucius education tradition has a proud history and dictates that education should encourage the student to think about how he should live his life and interact with others, and the forms of society and government in which he should participate. It’s not just learning facts but it does place the onus on the student to make the most of what they are offered. This is where the idea that the Chinese value hard work comes from. They do, but so do Singapore and Hong Kong. They believe that hard work rather than background – or even innate ability – is the key to success and that anyone who wants it can achieve it.

So why are they seeking advice from Hampshire educationalists? Well the answer is that we have our own proud tradition. At its best our education system develops individuals who can think for themselves. They are encouraged to question and debate ideas and the result, when done well, is that we produce students who can innovate and problem solve as well as having strong subject knowledge and expertise. Note our very successful creative industries and our record for innovation in all fields as opposed to just routine production.

Yet, both we and Shanghai have our problems. In Asia the challenge is to find an educational style that builds on their success but at the same time encourages the problem solving and innovative thinking which prepares people for leadership in a complex world. In the UK our education tradition seems to create a mixture of excellence and mediocrity as it is much more teacher and school dependent. It’s harder to manage students who think for themselves and question the teacher.

Maybe what we should be taking from Asia (and Poland and Estonia) is their belief in the power of hard work and their belief in students’ ability to succeed. And helping students to understand that they need to take some ownership for their own progress, enjoy the fact that difficulty in any kind of learning is pleasurable, and pursue the route to mastery.

We are restless people wanting to improve how we do things, in all walks of life. We can learn much from other countries and adopt some of their ideas. But wholesale transfer never works – education is context related and reflects a country’s society and ambitions. And in the UK, we should remember to champion our ‘soft power’.

References: The Restless School (John Catt) by Roy Blatchford. High Performance Learning: How to create World Class schools (Routledge, January 2016) by Deborah Eyre.

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