The fifth Global Education Leaders Program meeting recently convened in Seattle bringing the world’s best school systems face to face with the biggest: Finland and Korea, India and Brazil – alongside nine other systems, national, state and city. On the fault line between best and biggest, two points of stark divergence came through.
First, the case for change: hard to make if you’re topping (PISA), easier if you’re anchored near the bottom. Intriguingly the Finns are asserting a number of reasons why a traditional approach to schooling can’t be sustained. The country’s leading industries, lumber and technology, are weakening. Its place at the head of the education rankings is under threat and academic performance is becoming patchier – signs of that Anglo Saxon gap between top and bottom quartiles starting to spread. Contrast that with Brazil, where no one doubts for a moment that the publicly funded school system must be rapidly transformed, to provide the country with a motor for sustainable growth.
The second divergence is the prevalence of innovative learning. Finland has mapped its most innovative learning projects and found they all lie within the existing formal learning sector: fairly familiar links, for example, between schools and museums. It’s as if a successful formal system closes down the space in which radical innovation might occur. Contrast that with favela-based initiatives in Rio or street computers in Mumbai. Finns and Koreans agree that disruptive innovation is an essential driver of system change.
Two other themes from Seattle are worth underlining. First the recognition that more than half the planet’s students live in cities, which means that school systems have to come to terms with delivering learning where the poor live cheek by jowl with the rich. Have we thought systematically about those dynamics? Second, the urgent need to draw higher education institutions into the transformation debate: employers are looking for people with higher order capabilities systematically nurtured through primary, secondary and tertiary phases of education. Time for universities and colleges to come on board?
I look forward to hearing your thoughts.