Monday, 13 April 2015

Reflections from the World Educational Leaders Summit - Yong Zhao


One of the more animated and entertaining speakers at the Summit was Yong Zhao. His address ranged from Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer to Kim Kardashian and most topics in-between. His presentation picked up on a number of themes from his 2012 book World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepeneurial Students, which I am now reading.

His driving question was 'What are the education outcomes that matter?' From the starting premise that schools find their reason for existence in cultivating qualities and skills that will help students to succeed in life, he argued that the fixation in many educational jurisdictions on standardised test scores and grades is illogical, unhelpful and fundamentally flawed. Instead, we should try to count what really counts.

Are we more interested in the homogenisation or the diversification of young people?
Are we more interested in the cognitive or the non-cognitive?
Are we more interested in the short-term or the long-term?
Are we more interested in the measurable or the unmeasurable?

I am cautious not to accept binary opposites that get presented with great rhetorical flourish, but Zhao made a strong case that, with reference to these tensions, the pursuit of one has an opportunity cost for the other. While we would like to do both/and rather than either/or, it is not always possible. Resources are limited. Time spent drilling and practising multiple choice tests is time that cannot also be spent engaging in richer and deeper learning activities.

One of Zhao's more memorable suggestions was that some educational initiatives should carry a warning about the possible side-effects; for example, "This activity may improve your child's reading ability, but it may also make them hate reading forever."

The commonality of this theme at the conference was all the more striking, given its Singaporean context; Singapore scores extraordinarily highly in the OECD PISA tests, a test-taking culture is deeply entrenched in Singapore's national embrace of meritocracy, and the growth of the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) in educational jurisdictions. The fact that each of the keynote speakers at this conference highlighted the dangers of a narrow focus on test scores as inimical to the proper focus of education was very significant. 

In our context of our school, the danger of the narrow focus has less to do with PISA scores; it is more likely to be NAPLAN or Band 6 HSC results. In the entirely legitimate interest that the community has in the progress, success or effectiveness of a school, we need information. The great appeal of the simple numbers and league tables is that they are an easily accessed and objective source of data. The great danger of the simple numbers and league tables is that their focus is too narrow; the formation of the character and capacity of young adults cannot be summarised in a few digits.

The Inaburra Learner Profile is our articulation of the educational outcomes that matter; this is what we are seeking to achieve. To slightly modify Zhao's question, my question is 'How do we know if we are successful in achieving it?" 

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