The ultimate goal of our nation’s education system seems to be to create world class learners, able to compete on a world stage. And why wouldn’t we want to send British teenagers into the world with a top education? The PISA rankings have been released this week, and despite all the talk of educational reform, the UK is moving down the table in Mathematics (to 27th place), well below countries like Singapore, China, South Korea and Japan.
‘But hang on…’ you might say, ‘those countries employ military style methods, have a culture of shame or family honour, and focus on grades at all costs. Maybe that’s true, maybe that’s not, but other countries ahead of us like Canada, Denmark, Vietnam, Estonia and Slovenia also kick us into touch as they appear higher in the table. The criticisms of assumed Asian methods can’t apply to all of those too surely?
So the UK government’s approach to previously poor PISA measurements has been to raise expectations and pressure, re-grade GCSEs with numbers and add yet more subjects to the curriculum in primary years, and add more subjects to GCSE from A level content. Essentially, make kids learn more, memorise more, employ rote memory and do it all sooner. And it’s down to the teaching community to deliver the bad news to the nation’s children – you must work harder, not smarter. What a terribly confused and backward message.
You see, our world has changed significantly in the last generation, and the children of today will have internet access and limitless communication opportunities as they go about everyday living and working. So why are the new (and supposedly improved) GCSEs forcing students to remember formulae and regurgitate conversion rates when all this and more will be at their fingertips in real life? The focus of education going forward in Mathematics should be on application of mathematical principles, patterns and methods. Surely the measure of a world class learner should not be about their memory but about their skill in applying what they do know, and willingness to search out and discover what they don’t yet know?
‘But 27th place?’ I hear you say, and you’re right, that’s nothing to be proud of, but there are plenty of ‘expert’ voices concerned that the PISA methodology measures only a small set of skills. There are serious concerns that the very nature of a data-driven global competitive educational league by it’s very nature, pressures countries to over-react with short term fixes simply to climb ranks, rather than employing quality long term strategies for that nation’s complex socio-economic situation.
Finland continues to be elevated as a country that rethinks education. It puts far less pressure on students related to testing and external examination. Each school is empowered to teach in the way that works in that community – and everything including the architecture of the buildings and classrooms is designed by the teachers who are encouraged to use the surroundings creatively in their practise. Finnish schools are full of props, cars and sections of houses to encourage practical trades as well as academic careers. Teachers have to be well qualified and are well paid and there are no tuition fees for university. Oh, and you guessed it – as a consequence they happen to also be near the top of the PISA rankings.
Yes, we want the UK to maintain it’s reputation as a leader in education, but sometimes that’s done by challenging what has become the norm (testing testing testing and memory memory and memory), and leading in a different direction. Come on UK government, stop panicking because we’re number 27 on a measuring scale. Celebrate innovation, discovery and creativity in Maths, Science & English, and do that by educating today’s generation with what they will need, and not according to what we may have needed 50 years ago.