Tucker’s Lens: Reflections from the International Summit on the Teaching Profession

Photo from the 2011 International Summit on the Teaching Profession

I left the second International Summit on the Teaching Profession not at all sure of what I had learned.  But, after a few days to sort it out, there is quite a lot.  Here it goes —

1.    Swiftly broadening goals

I was struck by the way many of the top-performing countries talked about their goals for their students.  Singapore is a good example.  Lee Sing Kong, the Director of Singapore’s National Institute of Education and a member of the Center on International Education Benchmarking (CIEB) Advisory Board, explained that the small country’s vision statement for its education system was completely overhauled recently.  They reminded themselves that what they do in education is for the learner, their needs, their interests, and not simply to cover the content.  They said they wanted to help their students achieve understanding of essential concepts and ideas, not just dispense information.  They want to prepare their students for the test of life, not just for tests.  They said they want to focus on teaching the whole child, on nurturing them holistically across domains, not on the subjects per se.  They want to teach their students the values, attitudes and mindsets that will serve them well in life, and not only how to score good grades on exams.

Shinichi Yamanaka, Deputy Minister of the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, said that thirty years ago, when the economy shifted from mass production to high-value-added manufacturing and customized production, Japan decided that it had to overhaul its education system away from rote learning and toward the growth and development of the autonomous individual.  He said this was an enormous undertaking and, thirty years later, Japan is still figuring out how to accomplish it.

Zhang Minxuan, a key leader of Shanghai’s drive to the top of the education league tables, said that for more than a millennium, the Chinese people believed that if you could recite 300 famous poems, you could be a poet.  This led to the Chinese commitment to a regime of exams based on memorization and rote learning.  But, he said, they do not believe that anymore.  Their priorities are on thinking, problem-solving, preparing Chinese students to live in a highly integrated global environment and cultivating individual talent.

Mrs. Cherry Tse, the Permanent Secretary for Education for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, said that young people are now being exposed to masses of data on a scale not imagined by their parents and much now depends on being able to help them sort out the real information from “the crap.”  They need, as never before, to be “discerning,” to live and work effectively in a state of constant flux.  She worried that educators live in a sort of cocoon that will make it hard for them to prepare students for such a world.  Part of this worry comes from her belief that it is more important than ever for students in Hong Kong and elsewhere to develop a strong sense of empathy for people in other parts of the world, especially for those who are less fortunate.  The schools, she said, are not changing as fast as society, and that must be fixed.

Note that there is no mention in this litany of the importance of learning to read, to write and to have basic mathematical literacy.  This much is assumed.  Which is to say that the aim of education in the world’s leading mass education systems is no longer simply to provide basic literacy.  As these statements witness, the aim has now gone far beyond that to embrace what were, through the 20th century, the aims for only the elite.

2.    A focus on the distance between rhetoric and reality—or—between the political leaders and the teachers in the classrooms

I can hear you now dismissing the sentiments just expressed as the usual talk of politicians—vague aspirations that have little impact on what actually happens in classrooms.  Which leads to my second observation.  The very same people who made the observations just reported also worried about the distance between rhetoric and reality, which had the effect of making me believe that these people were expressing genuine ambitions for their education systems, ambitions they intended to make good on, to the best of their ability.  Some examples:

A representative of Norway pointed out that “we say we value 21st century skills but we test basic skills.  We are not testing what we say is most important.  I understand that the politicians need data for their purposes, but we need to be careful that their needs do not distort and distract from what is best for our students.”

A representative from New Zealand said, “We want our students to be capable, confident, creative and innovative, but all we measure is the first of these.  Some nations around this table put high stakes only on the first of these and some put high stakes only on language and math.”

Please note this last.  The international meetings I have gone to over the years have been models of politeness.  Statements of this sort are never made.  Because they are never made, the underlying issues are never raised, much less addressed.  But it did not end there.

3.    A focus on implementation

Mrs. Cherry Tse, from Hong Kong, said that it is now crucially important to align the goals of the system designers and managers [the government] with the goals of all the other participants, not least the teachers.  She mused about the difficulty of knowing whether government is doing the right (that is the moral) thing, and said that this is why it is so important to have a very inclusive discussion involving many stakeholders about the purposes of education to create as broad a consensus on that point as possible.

Kai-ming Cheng, one of the conference rapporteurs and a member of the CIEB Advisory Board, who is from Hong Kong, noted that the distance between the goals driving the system managers and the teachers tended to moderate in well-managed systems and be much larger and more problematic in systems that are not so well managed.

Ben Jensen, Director of the school education program at the Grattan Institute in Australia, observed that the expressed goals of many poor-performing national education systems are often very like those of successful systems.  He wondered whether what distinguishes the successful systems from the less successful systems might be the care and planning they put into implementation of their policies.  That is, he wondered whether it is execution, not intention, that separates the successful from the unsuccessful.

I am a veteran of many, many years of meetings at which senior representatives of national education systems have droned on and on, hour after hour about the virtues of their education systems and the wisdom of their plans.  This meeting was very different.  The room was full of people for whom their goals were not just rhetorical expressions of windy aspirations but statements of aims they knew to be very difficult to achieve that they were nevertheless working overtime to turn into reality.  They were quick to acknowledge their frustrations and concerns about their own plans.  They knew and quickly acknowledged the distance between their rhetoric and the reality on the ground.  They recognized that the only way they could bridge that gap was by paying far more attention in the future than they had in the past to the importance of execution, of making real changes happen on a very large scale on the ground in their schools.  And they were determined to pull that off.  They knew it would take a long time.  They came to this meeting to learn everything they could from their colleagues in other countries that would help them achieve their goals back home.

That was exhilarating.  And gave me more hope than I have had in some time.

I leave my readers around the world to ask themselves how their country fits into this account of the conversation at the second International Summit on the Teaching Profession.  How broad is your discussion of goals for students?  Can you assume that they will get the basic skills they need?  Or is that still an issue in your country?  Has your country really made the commitment to provide to all students the skills formerly thought appropriate only for a small elite?  Is your country’s education system still held captive to a high stakes accountability system driven by high stakes tests of the basic skills?  Is there a broad and deep consensus on a real 21st century conception of the goals of education?  Does your country acknowledge the distance between the aims of the designers and managers of the system and its teachers?  How large is that distance?  Does your country put as much energy and commitment into designing and carefully executing sound plans to implement your reform agenda as it does into its development, or does the old rhetoric fade into obscurity as the new rhetoric arrives to take its place?