How to kickstart an education transformation

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Transforming anything needs bold people to kickstart it. And if you’re in any doubt that education needs some bold transformation, then you don’t have to search too far for the evidence. For example, the 101 million children not in school in Sub-Saharan Africa, or the 93 million women there classed as illiterate. Or how about the 14% of US adults who cannot read. In its latest report the OECD stated that “no country, no region in the world can claim in 2015 that all of its youth have attained at least a minimum proficiency in foundation skills.

We can all play our part in kickstarting a transformation in education, because we all own the culture of education. Teachers, parents, students, governments, businesses… we all define the culture that sets the standards. The ‘right’ culture is one of the key explanations for the dominance of South-East Asian nations at the top of most education league tables; that believes that every learner can succeed rather than deciding at the outset that some are smart and others not; that as well as ambitious expectations has clear goalposts, high levels of community involvement, and a strong sense of accountability among all stakeholders. It’s what Hwy-Chang Moon, a dean of Seoul National University, calls “a mentality of the first-tier.”

Our education kickstarters are the people social scientists would refer to as the ‘innovators’, those on the left of the bell curve of adoption.

They are the minority that, if all goes well, morph into the majority. And to their far right, the laggards, the chorus of cynics sayingWhat’s all this nonsense of new ideas and technology!.  They will try to derail you, mud wrestle you into distractions by asking how you’re going to get ‘buy-in’ and ‘take people with you’. But you don’t win hearts and minds and then make the change; you make the change, and the hearts and minds will follow.

In an increasingly globalised world, a bold vision doesn’t just have to stand up to where you’re coming from, but where everyone else in the world is at. I was reminded of this on one of my visits to Punjab, Pakistan, where I have been working with the Chief Minister for a number of years (unrelated to my role at Pearson.) A government official was very proud to tell me how only 5% of kids cheated in exams, which was a huge improvement. I reminded him that in England the figure is 0.014%, 400 times better.

Obama called it “the audacity of hope”, but hope alone is not enough. Transformation is much more forensic than that. It needs a plan that spells out that this is where we are now, and this is where we can get to, and this is who’s going to need to do what, when, and how. And this is how we’ll know if it’s working.

Data will let you do that last one. And the closer to real-time that data is, the better. The world moves far too fast for data to have a shelf life. In Punjab we went from having no insight into what was happening in schools, to now collecting data against 16 indicators from 55,000 schools every month. Additionally we collect data from 25,000 schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Province of Pakistan on the border with Afghanistan, prone to terrible winters, earthquakes, and terrorism. If you can do it there, you can do it anywhere.

The data will indicate where the plan is veering off, so you can decide how to get it back on track. Dig deeper, disaggregate it, find the hotspots where it’s working, where it isn’t, do more of the former and stop doing the latter.

When you marry all this together - the bold vision, the clear plan, the execution of that plan, and the real-time data that tells you how to adjust - that’s when you do real transformation. It’s how you move from small steps of incremental change to giant leaps of extraordinary outcomes.

What might an education transformation look like when it’s done? (Of course, it’s never ‘done’!) A school where technology is ubiquitous, classrooms have become wide open spaces, data is helping identify struggling students, progress is measured by grit and resilience as much as English and maths, and Artificial Intelligence diagnoses when a learner is bored, or frustrated, or confused before performing, with the help of an outstanding teacher, a well-designed intervention.

None of this is to say that education transformation isn’t already happening. Some countries are on the path - Poland and Singapore to name just two; and individuals too, such as, CP Viswanath, founder of Karadi Path. From small beginnings in the slums of India the company now has 800 English language schools across the country. Led by where the evidence has taken them, their students outperform ‘traditional’ classrooms by between 20-60%.

Last week I was in Davos at the World Economic Forum, where the major challenges facing the world - extreme poverty, civil rights, clean energy, gender equality, affordable healthcare were examined. We don’t have a hope of transforming any of these if we don’t first transform education.

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Michael Barber is our chief education advisor. Connect with him on Twitter - @MichaelBarber9