The Hannon Report: North America

May 17, 2010 at 6:19 pm Leave a comment

by Valerie Hannon

I have just returned from a month-long stint in North America, speaking at conferences and working with education jurisdictions in Canada and the US from coast to coast. I have a biased sample, because all of those with whom I’ve engaged are thinking about or launched upon initiatives not just to improve their education systems but radically to transform them.

Nevertheless, I am going to venture some generalisations. I have found a palpable hunger for deep change. Leaders based both in schools and in administrations are becoming acutely conscious that the reform strategies shaped at the beginning of this century, though worthy and perhaps essential, simply won’t hack it. The signs are there in abundance. Plateauing test results. A sense that the tests anyhow are partial indicators and may in any case be skewing the system.  A growing awareness that schools are not equipping learners with the skills they need for the challenges of the 21st century, because they have been over-fixated on the retention of content. Anxiety that the steep increases in revenue on which these reforms depended are about to decline – sharply in some cases. Continuing student disengagement – not just by those who vote with their feet, but also those who vote with their heads – the ‘disengaged achievers’. Teacher burnout and/or alienation.

In Canada, where the Federal Government has little role in education, the Provinces are taking a hard look at their options for next steps. In Ontario, where real progress has been made on the standards front, educators are looking for routes for transformational innovation which does not imperil the progress which they feel has been hard-won. At a conference in Toronto in this last week, the Toronto District School Board convened educators from across Canada to learn about their joint initiative to create new learning experiences for young people in partnership with the Education Sector Councils – employer-based organisations covering all the key vocational areas, from construction to the creative industries. This program has had some important features:

  • It’s a genuine partnership between the 2 sectors – it enables schools to engage with employers and create work-based, sustained learning opportunies for young people (from about 15+). This frees up schools from having to track down their own business partners and goes way beyond the (frequently superficial) ‘work experience’ programs common in English schools
  • It seeks to blend in the work-based learning with the conventional curriculum
  • It accredits these experiences, through Specialist High Skills Major (SHSM) which colleges and universities are increasingly taking into account. A defined set of ‘Essential Skills’ is a close approximation to the emerging consensus on what should constitute 21st century skillsets
  • It attracts the interest and commitment of parents and local communities.

In my view,. The program manifests many of the features I believe will define the new learning paradigm;

  • It enables authentic, ‘real world’ learning in meaningful contexts
  • It harnesses young people’s own passions, interests and emerging sense of identity
  • It balances  21st century skill acquisition with content knowledge
  • It takes learning beyond the school walls, fostering both community/business engagement in the learning business in real ways, but also learner independence.

Of course the programme is not perfect – if anything, participants at the conference were super self-critical – but the energy and commitment of the educators, employers and sector councils participating was stunning. Most of all of course the testimonies of the young participants in the program were compelling and moving. Their endorsement of the approach; and their critique of their ‘conventional’ offer were powerful.

And of course, there is anxiety about the future. Could it be moved from the margins to the mainstream? How could its pedagogical approach be more broadly transferred? I was struck by how powerfully such a scheme would support the schools we in the IU are working with in England in the Learning Futures initiative.  A key element of their work is to ‘expand locations and partners for learning’. A version of The Education/ Sector Skills Partnership Project of Toronto would be just the medium to achieve this.

In British Columbia, they are re-thinking their approach to curriculum and assessment, predicated on a much more learner-driven approach, structured around a skills + content knowledge approach. However, in support of this, the jurisdiction is taking a hard look at how far their systems of governance and accountability might serve this agenda rather than obstructing it. The jurisdiction may, depressingly, encounter severe opposition from the powerful teachers’ union. But one source of support it can rely on – if it can be empowered – is young learners themselves. The BC Student Voice of April 2010 reports grade 10-12 as believing that:

“The role of the teacher would change dramatically, as would the viability of schools as learning structures. Education would be student-driven and individually catered to each person.”

In the US, the innovation space is currently dominated by the Race to the Top and Innovation in Education (i3) funding opportunities made available though Obama’s fiscal stimulus. So far so good… However, the dominant channels for these funds will be what can only be described as yesterday’s methods: applying school improvement techniques, ‘turnaround strategies’ for failing schools, and the familiar roll-call of approaches we have seen in the UK for the last decade. That’s not to say they are all irrelevant. On the contrary, in many contexts they are absolutely vital – but they are not going to be enough. One strand of the i3 funding offers the opportunity to explore ‘promising practices’ for which there is as yet no compelling evidence – i.e. genuine innovation. And at least one major US Foundation will make this space the cornerstone of its funding activity in the coming period. It is going to be urgently needed. At a public meeting in Chicago last week, I participated in a debate on the system entitled Too Broken to Reform which sums up many despairing observers’ views. New York City (supported by the Innovation Unit) is becoming determinedly proactive, is establishing an Innovation Zone to move more radically and rapidly beyond its continuing improvement efforts.

Depressingly, a major inhibitor of these progressive and deeply moral initiatives is the opposition of the teacher unions. Fearful and conservative, they are cited as being amongst the biggest problems innovators must contend with; and such a contrast with the enthusiasm and commitment found time and time again amongst individual teachers, particularly the young.

In the end perhaps, it will be through giving voice to, enfranchising and empowering the demand side – young people themselves – that ‘education’ morphs from what Shoshana Zuboff has called “(systems) clogged with overheads, outdated assumptions, and value destroying overheads”.

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