Positive Living Newsletter

Rethinking what Matters in Education

Gilda Scarfe, PhD
Queens University

A few years ago I attended a formal dinner where the majority of guests were young post-graduates who had just begun their formal training to become school teachers.  I was seated at a table made up of experienced education professionals, most of whom were headteachers.  During the dinner I spoke to my neighbour, who was the head of a large secondary school.  I asked him, ‘Tell me about your school?’  His reply was immediate and clearly required no thinking on his part.

‘78%’ he said, ‘Up from 56% two years ago.’  Without giving me the opportunity to speak, he then spoke for several minutes about the variety of strategies he had employed to take the school from one where 56% of 16 year-olds gained 5 General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exam passes, to one where the figure was now 78%.   I learned nothing else about the school.

This simple story would be amusing if it were not so commonplace.  Anyone with even a superficial knowledge of the UK education system knows that this is now how the nation’s schools are judged, with league tables of schools ranked by examination results published to parents looking for the best school for their children.  Of course, you will all be aware that I’m not speaking about schools in just one country.  This malady is one affecting schools across the developed world.

At the same time I’m aware of the values held by my dinner companion; how can we support schools in ensuring that students do achieve high academic standards, as measured in public examinations, whilst nurturing in them the more valuable characteristics of successful, grounded adults with moral purpose?

Literature from around the world now commonly suggests that there is a crisis in education which is not just a local or national one: it is an international crisis.

The first statement here says, ‘Pretending to make schools better’.  This is the subtitle of a book published just over a year ago, written by Daniel Koretz called The Testing Charade; pretending to make schools better.  Koretz writes about a world-wide phenomenon– it’s one we all know.

Schools throughout the world have learned to ‘game the system’.  Children are routinely being taught-to-the-test through common practices in teaching based around question spotting and learning stock responses which may gain marks but which actually feign competence and mask a lack of understanding.  And we have to ask ourselves the question as to whether the relentless culture of teaching children to the test is actually providing the young men and women that we want to graduate from our schools, to make up the society, economy and leaders of tomorrow.

This system relies on the underlying assumption that if children take examinations which are standardized against national benchmarks then students, teachers, and schools will all experience rising standards of academic achievement because the benchmarking system enables simple comparisons between schools and students.

As the ‘Education Orthodoxy’ has become one where schools and their teachers are judged by examination results, it is hardly surprising that the same orthodoxy routinely promotes a model of teaching focused on achieving the best possible test results.  And so itis no surprise that ‘teaching-to-the-test’ has become the dominant feature of the classroom and of teacher training and appraisal in schools.  In turn, this has led to a narrowing of the curriculum and a ‘dumbing-down’ of educational standards.

But another feature of contemporary schools is the growing problem of high levels of anxiety and poor mental health affecting young people.  This can be partly blamed on the impact and emotional intrusion of social media but we cannot ignore the roles of the school, the curriculum, and the testing culture in contributing to growing levels of anxiety and depression in youngsters.

So what is the alternative? The alternative to standards-based education is a ‘soft skills’ or ‘21st century’ curriculum.  But we should be wary of this development, as some of the champions of the soft skills curriculum express their educational values in very ideological and progressive language which often confuses the relationship between pedagogy and purpose.

We must ensure the curriculum is broad and flexible enough to foster interaction, co-operation, and positive relationships; to allow children to explore and develop their curiosity, character, to be empathetic, courageous, resilient, and adaptable. We must agree that the purpose of education is not defined by examination results but, broadly, by the kind of men and women we want to move into adult society.  If schools are to nurture in their students the personal, emotional, moral, and intellectual independence of successful adults, then they must develop learning programs that promote socioemotional  skills, competencies, and behaviours. Such skills will help young people in their development and are a crucial part of the solution to a great many of the macro-challenges facing societies and economies around the world.

These skills, competencies, and behaviours–e.g., autonomy, conscientiousness, empathy, self-management, kindness, social awareness, openness, creativity and responsible decision -making–are not just additional aspects to the educational process, they must become its core fabric.

Many organizations from around the world have identified education as being essential for addressing the diverse array of challenges societies, governments, and systems face. These include equipping the workforce of tomorrow to do the jobs that will not be automated, addressing the mental health epidemic affecting young people around the world, building kinder more inclusive and empathetic societies, helping young people develop their own sense of identity and find their place in a complex changing world, and improving education outcomes for all students, especially the most disadvantaged. We need to encourage students to approach life with determined effort, realistic self-understanding, and the ability to navigate the ups-and-downs that come with the journey of life. Educators and policy-makers now have a unique opportunity to be courageous and rethink education in order to re-shape it into a system that is more flexible, more resilient, and fit for purpose. I hope they will now embark on this journey to change education for the better and help children flourish.