Education Change: A Global Challenge

New Century Global Centre, Chengdu, ChinaI was working in China last week and gave a talk to 1000 educators in Chengdu, a city of 14 million that is the capital of Sichuan Province in the South West of the country.  Like most Chinese cities it is still a ‘work in progress’ with construction evident everywhere.  The people are nothing if not ambitious for the future and have just built the largest building in the world, the New Century Global Centre with its own beach.

Looking at this bustling metropolis you might think that the future is self-assured.  But maybe time to think again.  China faces significant challenges from its growth now as the days of cheap labour are increasingly receding and the country faces the so called ‘middle income trap’ which afflicts all emerging economies where the advantages of cheap and abundant labour begin to decline. But as wage rates rise the initial attraction begins to fade.  Additionally a lot of such manufacturing is outsourced work for companies in the west that design and sell the products.  There is little that is native.  Consequently there are few global brands from such countries that can take up the slack when fickle overseas investors decide to find somewhere cheaper to produce their goods.

It is difficult at any one time to see clearly what is happening with an economy, but certainly the Chinese are facing some of these challenges now as you see ‘on shoring’ of jobs back to the USA and Europe fuelled by cheaper labour costs in the home countries and cheaper energy too.  This together with a new ethical voice about non exploitation of cheap overseas unregulated labour (think of the Bangladesh factory collapse with its appalling loss of life recently) is prompting western firms to rethink their overseas operations.

China faces additional uncertainties related to the speed of its growth and the comparative weakness of its banking system.  Dramatic growth rates have been funded by equally dramatic rises in lending.  The credit agency Fitch thought it unsustainable and downgraded its risk assessment of China in April.  The reality is complex and who knows how all this will end.  One thing is certain that countries that have made the jump out of the middle income trap (wages trapped at between $1,000 and $12,000 pa at 2010 rates), have pursued modernisation of their education systems.

Good examples of this are Singapore and South Korea.  The up-skilling of children to embrace technical education alongside an understanding of the associated social skills needed to operate within a modern capitalist economy have yielded significant benefits.  Yet school systems are not agile and mostly show very limited ability to rethink processes and systems.  Project based learning with its richer engagement and outcomes is one part of this route.

Lastly, if you are reading this in an ‘advanced’ country you may sigh a sigh of relief and thank your stars that such places do not face such challenges.  But you would be wrong as my next post will show!

Being Brave

SpaceWriting in 1924 in A Tract on Monetary Reform John Maynard Keynes noted that ‘worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputations to fail conventionally than succeed unconventionally.’   Keynes’ aphorism was rooted in an observation about bankers and how they all seem to fail in remarkably similar ways.  But the comment applies equally to many other walks of life.

Consider schools. Despite the rhetoric of change and the impact of technology new schools tend to look remarkably like the schools they are replacing.  There may be the odd larger space or two, wider corridors but essentially the design reflects the idea that work will be undertaken in a variety of different spaces.  As a consequence children still continue to move after their hour lesson and the teachers for the most part remain static.  Spaces are in very real senses ‘owned’ by adults.  And against this backdrop children are nomads carting their belongings around in a variety of bags as nomads do everywhere.

Once this standard design is fixed everything else slots into place.  The curriculum is broken up into slabs of time at the end of which the children move along.  It is a batch production process in all but name and still reflects its industrial factory heritage.

This approach of the factory school as a preparation for the factory life operated quite well. In its classic form fifty or sixty years ago relationships were indifferent or buttoned up at best.  There was a sense that the life of the individual mattered little as children spoken to by their last name could be routinely punished and beaten for infringement of the rules.

Of course this isn’t the case today and schools are friendlier places – or at least they try to be. Yet few schools experiment very much with space and time.  Consequently the alignment between the school as an institution and the wider world that students will one day experience remains wide and growing.  The reasons for this are probably rooted in Keynes’ comments and also the extraordinary degree to which, state run enterprises, they appear shielded from market mechanisms of cost and efficiency.

Behind the schools lie the architecture of state educational bureaucracies.  These institutions provide the funding and exercise various degrees of control over individual schools.  Although they often profess an interest in efficiency and cost reduction the reality is that they recognise the short term political cycles that they operate within and often simply ride these out. There are many conferences nationally and internationally talking about system redesign and the like but the truth is it never happens.  Bureaucracies have an inherent interest in protecting their own bailiwicks and resisting significant change whilst at the same time professing themselves as being significant modernisers.  But bureaucracies are staffed by human beings and who would risk his or her career on a new-fangled idea that may not work?  Failure is seldom rewarded, but the consequence of this is that change is so limited because everyone plays safe.

What might more modern approaches look like? Larger spaces for children is one component with more use of on-line materials and, indeed, courses. This would mean a very different conception of time arrangements within school and the end of large numbers of children moving endlessly with all their possessions.  Instead teachers might move and the configuration of lessons would look somewhat different with some on-line approaches augmented by tutorials.  In fact, in this model pupil grouping could vary from the lecture hall size, through to the seminar and tutorial.  Intelligent metrics would guide the whole process and the pupil could track their work and how well they were progressing on line.

This model would replicate the world that young people will eventually work in where skills of self-management, and resilience are to the fore as is the nature of a modern open environment.  There is also the possibility within this approach of having students learn elsewhere during the week with work placements possible and on-line learning taking place at home for some of the time.  Efficiencies here would further reduce the size and cost of the school.  A multi track model of having students start in a staggered fashion within the timings of 8-30 to 5-30 would further reduce demand for space and hence reduce cost.

To achieve any of this we need school leaders to be brave and take risks in planning new approaches.  If we simply wait we could be waiting a very long time before we see significant change.  Instead governments need to be bold in advocating modernity if they are truly committed to more efficient and progressive approaches to education.  Too often we see these things as something for the long run, but as Keynes also noted:

“Long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead”