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lead sponsor: the UK's Department of Children Schools and Families DCSF

charrette 3: the economics of future learning
event date: 15 - 16 july 08
location: Tower Bridge, London

rapporteur: mike baker reflects

bill lucas

The setting was inspirational and apt. The participants were inside Tower Bridge, astride the Thames at the heart of London, with road and river traffic teeming far below. They were ensconced high up in one of the bridge’s two massive towers, insulated from the many distractions of daily life. It was the perfect venue for uninterrupted thought and discussion.

It was inspirational because it offered a new perspective on some of the most familiar sights of London. And new perspectives on familiar problems were exactly what were being sought. In this case, the quest was for new approaches to the traditional delivery models of learning.

And it was apt because Tower Bridge was, at the time of its construction, a perfect example of an innovative, lateral-thinking solution to a long-term problem: how to get London’s increasingly busy traffic over a river port whose shipping could not be disrupted.

Hence in 1884 the design for the world’s largest and most sophisticated bascule bridge (‘bascule’ comes from the French for ‘see-saw’) which took only about a minute to open, permitting ships to pass underneath with minimal disruption to the road traffic above.

The ‘mission impossible’ for the participants of this unusual ‘think-in’ was how to overcome the funding and infrastructure problems facing a developing world nation as it tried to join the most important, competitive and rapidly-evolving activity in the world: the creation of a knowledge economy.

The participants had travelled from across the world: from North America, the Middle East, Asia and Europe. Their working experiences were rooted even wider. They comprised educators and economists, teachers and administrators, bankers and entrepreneurs. Some came from the world of centralised, tax-funded government provision. Others belonged to the voluntary and charity sectors. Yet others were active in the for-profit world of private enterprise.

At the heart of the questions they were asked were several core dilemmas facing policy-makers around the world. First, who should pay for education: governments, employers, or individuals? Second, what sort of education will the citizens of an uncertain future need: basic literacy and numeracy, traditional factual content, practical skills, problem-solving capabilities, an aptitude for team-working aptitude, or IT skills?

Further questions followed from these. What infrastructure is required? Does the 21st century still need the 19th century schoolroom and textbook or should it be focussed on virtual learning environments and fibre-optic delivery systems? And who should run school systems? Is this still the sphere for government supported by charities or is it time that this traditional model gave way to private enterprise and venture capitalism?

Although the challenge was set in a fictional developing world country, the issues it raised were just as relevant for advanced economies. All of these are struggling to find the best way to deliver education reform, keeping pace with technological change and the anticipated future requirements of their economies, whilst tackling the disengagement of youth, increasingly mobile populations, the fading of nation state boundaries, and the rise of the global corporations.

Despite many innovations in learning – technology assisted distance-learning, virtual learning environments, personalised learning – most school classrooms today would still be instantly familiar to the teacher or pupil from the 19th century. How can this be so? After all, most offices, factories and streets would be alien places to time travellers from 100 or 150 years ago. Yet, as Benno Schmidt of Edison Schools in the USA has observed: ‘schools are the last of the cottage industries’.

Yet there have been experiments with new curricula, new school building designs, and new delivery models. Educational voucher schemes, charter schools, home schooling, private management, and public-private partnerships have shown there are alternatives to the centrally managed state or faith-based models of mass education. But which is the most appropriate? Which is the most flexible and adaptable? Which can take us from a 19th century model to a 21st century solution?

To help the participants on their way, the organiser and chair of the two-day event, Professor Stephen Heppell, opened with some gently provocative reflections. He welcomed everyone to the ‘dangerously polymathic and deliberately eclectic’ group. He then took us on excursion around some notable and radical ‘departures’ from the norm of schooling.

These included the City Academy in the English Midlands that has adopted, in its entirety, the school curriculum from Queensland, Australia. What did this tell us about the need for a national curriculum? Should schools be free to 'pick ‘n mix' their curriculum from anywhere in the world? If this seems a strange concept in education, why is it considered normal in other spheres? If there are only a handful of countries that excel in manufacturing cars, with the rest content to import what they cannot make so well or so efficiently, why do we think every country needs its own curriculum? Is a national curriculum like the national airlines of the past – more a national virility symbol than a necessity? Why not have an international, open-source on-line curriculum?

Stephen showed pictures of the four-pupil school in the Caribbean that is co-learning, via web link, with a school in Surrey, England for children with hemiplegia. Mentoring is not new; but mentoring across cultures, continents, ethnic divides, and across mainstream and special needs education is still considered weird. Why? Aren’t children more likely to learn from those who are very different from themselves? Why should they mix only with those who are like them? And if children can learn best from other children are we doing enough to facilitate this? Without going back to the rigidity of the monitor system of 19th century England, does this offer a cheaper delivery method where resources are scarce?

And what about school size? Is there an optimum size, not in terms of economies of scale, but in terms of facilitating learning? Stephen cited the 1000 pupil school in the Caribbean which, after it was divided into four separate schools, not only delivered average results that were two grades better than before but also created a more civilised, less brutal environment.

And if there is a debate about school size, surely there should also be discussion about where a school should be located? Why should classrooms be in buildings dedicated purely for pupils and teaching? We have seen how experiments with literacy and numeracy schemes located in professional soccer clubs can reach out to boys who hate being anywhere near a classroom, so why not other places too? What about a school in a retail shopping mall – as has been tried in Thailand – where children and adults can pop in for a period of learning, or simply to read a book, in between the food shopping and buying their newspaper or magazine.

And if we are really going to be radical, do we really need a school building at all? Stephen described the success of ‘NotSchool’, a virtual school for pupils who had been excluded from their bricks and mortar schools. The power of social networking sites, like You Tube or Facebook, show how avidly young people can learn from one another via the web.

Stephen urged the participants to recognise that all the certainties of the world are softening and melting. The traditional model of schooling emphasised basic literacy (so children could read the Bible) and arithmetic (so they could work as clerks). But are they still relevant aspirations today? Is education about social control? What about producing critical thinkers, adaptable to change, confident in decision-making, and comfortable as citizens of the world?

Once again, a look outside education reveals the rapidity of change in other environments. In broadcasting the programme-makers and the audience used to keep to their respective sides of a very distinct dividing line. Now millions turn to You Tube to share their own, often homemade, videos. Even the conventional broadcasters regularly appeal for, and use, ‘user generated material’ shot on domestic video cameras or mobile phones. Interactivity determines the running orders of news programmes; viewers are simultaneously reporter and editor of their bulletins. Once people saved up to buy a shelf-long set of encyclopaedias. Then those several volumes were condensed into a cheaper single CDROM. Now it is all free on Wikipedia. You can even create your own definitions and entries.

It might seem like the anarchy of the ‘wild west’. Not everyone sees these changes as progress. The gap between the generations grows. We often lack a common culture. We are fragmenting into myriad communities, linked only by fibre-optic cables or wireless systems. Yet there are some discernible trends in education systems around the world. Accountability through testing is booming. Yet how much of this is driven by learning needs, and how much by politics or an economic model of education that mimics the business market? Meanwhile countervailing forces are also leading to greater freedom for learning, encouraging personalised learning styles and environments.

Stephen introduced the group to www.learnometer.net, which suggested that many countries are moving in a similar direction, albeit at very different speeds. So the trend is away from teacher-oriented, subject-based, formal environments towards learner-friendly, topic-based, informal or virtual environments. The world is also moving from national education settings to global frameworks and from a one-to-many model towards a peer-to-peer model. A generation weaned on You Tube, Wikipedia and Google may find it odd that one person in authority should hold all the answers when they are more used to turning to millions of their peers for ideas, information and solutions. Yet a generation that would never read the instruction manual that comes with their mobile or PC is still expected to settle down to textbooks.

So what ideas and questions emerged from the group? After sharing their own experiences and pathways though education, they divided into pairs to tackle the challenge of how to best to advise a developing world country how to advance educational reform. Here are their thoughts:

Stephen Healey, activeMINDS and Into University Partnerships Ltd
Catarina Taylor, GEMS Education

Stephen is a former Director of Education for the British Council in China and Thailand. He is now a founder and MD of an education consultancy based in Bangkok.

Catarina is the Chief Operating Officer for GEMS, the Dubai-based operator of private schools. She is half American and half Portuguese and after a political science degree from Yale and a Masters from the School of Foreign Service in Georgia she spent most of her career in business before joining GEMS.

Stephen and Catarina took the view that the private sector is the true source of innovation. They argued that the government of the fictional developing nation should therefore create a healthy private sector in the provision of education.

They argued that while governments tend to be driven by short-term goals, the private sector could take risks and take longer-term horizons. So the key tasks for government should be:
Do not focus too much on inputs just because these are easier to measure (for example, teacher-pupil ratios) but on educational outputs, namely on what you want to achieve.
Make sure you understand the particular cultural factors of your locale and the modifications these might imply in any models.
Deregulate the system to foster private sector involvement but use the public sector to monitor quality.

They believed the private sector was more likely to make innovative use of technological change, such as non-traditional learning spaces and virtual learning environments.

Although strong believers in the private sector, they urged government to be cautious about relying on market-based accountability measures such as high stakes, external tests which, they argued, tended to stifle innovation.

However they had advice for private sector providers too: while they might gain by bringing global perspectives and international curricula to the developing country, they also needed to be flexible and adapt to local cultural expectations.

Janice Dolan, Save The Children
Doug Brown, BECTA

Janice taught science in schools in Liverpool before working abroad in several developing countries in Africa. She now works on educational issues for the international charity, Save The Children.

Doug was formerly head of the Technology Futures Unit at the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF). He joined Becta, the government agency leading the drive to harness innovative technology in learning, as an Expert Consultant in April 2008.

This pairing brought together someone with experience of education in countries with very little infrastructure or technical equipment with an expert in the application of the latest technology to learning.

Janice’s experiences in Africa led her to focus on what can be done with limited investment and minimal infrastructures. She said the priorities for governments were:
To develop the political will to really focus on education reform
To be realistic about the level of investment required, not just to provide the educational content but, just as important, to be able to deliver it.
To ensure that communities know about the resources that are being provided in order to ensure they use them.

Their different backgrounds, however, did not mean they were far apart on the use of technology. Janice urged realism in countries where schools often lack even a single computer. But Doug stressed that technology was only a resource. It was not a substitute for learning. He would advise the government concerned that the issue was not resources but about how to provide professional support for teachers.

Both warned of the pitfalls of relying on the charitable giving of second hand computers – these were of little value if no one knew how to maintain and support them. The government must fund the training of technicians in schools to maintain the technology.

Doug’s advice was that getting second-hand technology to developing world countries does not work. Indeed it may cost more in the long run. It was much better, he said, to get big companies to invest in a country with the incentive of a realistic long-term payback.

They discussed the ethical issues surrounding the involvement of the private sector: was it reasonable, for example, for a company that provided desks for schools to put their company logos on them? Their view was that sometimes the value of the input would outweigh the ethical issues and companies that invested for the long-term, with a close relationship with government, would be welcome. They felt that the new dynamic for ‘corporate social responsibility’ amongst big companies offered real opportunities for the private sector to be involved in ‘pro bono’ educational work in the developing world.

James Penny: Education Consultant

Lyndsay Bird, International Institute for Education Planning

James was a teacher who used computers to help pupils make music. He then moved to IBM. More recently he worked for the Girls Public Day School Trust, where he created their virtual learning network.

Lyndsay is a former primary school teacher who spent many years setting up education structures in fragile states for Save The Children. She has just moved to the IIEP, which is part of UNESCO.

James and Lyndsay stressed the practical importance of starting by assessing the infrastructure that already exists in the developing country. If there are no computer networks or broadband structures, there are other technologies that can be employed: radio stations or mobile phone networks. These could be harnessed for their learning potential and, when other technologies become possible, the content could be moved across. But it was essential to be realistic about what could be achieved.

The first step would involve overcoming the cultural, political and behavioural challenges and it would be essential to make the context your starting point. It would not work to seek to impose, wholesale, a model that may have worked well in other places.

The other key strategy would be to involve the communities from the start, although this may be a challenge as the local culture might deny some communities a voice. The community voice should be a policy driver.

Like others, they feared that governments often fails to take the long-term view, as politicians are often not interested in policies that will only show results after they have gone. Like others, they saw the potential of the private sector for providing both a long-term vision and innovation.

Harry Patrinos, the World Bank

Sandra McNally, London School of Economics

Harry is an economist with the Human Development Network of the World Bank. He has written books on child labour and poverty in Latin America.

Sandra McNally is an economist and researcher specialising in evaluations of education projects. Her next project will evaluate careers guidance in schools.

As economists, Sandra and Harry were insistent on the importance of evidence-based policies.

They argued that the government of the developing country must be shown the evidence of the social and economic benefits of education. Since there will always be great competition for resources from other public policy areas, it is vital to undertake systematic evaluation of education projects to demonstrate the return on the investment.

This evidence should drive the argument that education should be a public service funding priority, particularly at primary school levels. Only at the later stages – secondary and tertiary education – is there more scope for private sector providers, although even then there would have to be a reliance on public sector funding.

The government should use evidence of the private returns to the individual from education as a means of encouraging participation but would also have to offer incentives in the form of scholarships.


An attempt to summarise

By its nature, this was a fizzing and freewheeling discussion. A short summary is probably impossible and, anyway, cannot do justice to the ideas that were expressed more eloquently by the participants themselves.

Some common strands emerged:

Technology, or the lack of it, should not be allowed to become a barrier. Computers and virtual learning environments are only a tool; they are not a substitute for learning.

Charitable donations of second-hand computers does not work. Far better to get big companies to invest, offering them the prospects of a long-term financial return.

There are alternative technologies available if computers and broadband are not in place. Radio stations and mobile phones can provide alternative ways of delivering learning. However, any structure that is put in place should be fluid enough to be scaled up when technologies become available. When this does occur, it is vital to train local staff to maintain and service the technologies.

There must be clarity about the aims of learning: governments must decide what they want the outputs to be? This may not simply be the old models of numeracy and literacy competencies but, in a fast-changing world, might include the aim of creating lifelong learners, developing ITC skills, and producing problem solvers and confident decision-makers?

Communities must be involved in their own learning and their voice should help to drive the direction of reform. There may be ethical dilemmas if local cultural norms mean some communities are denied a voice.

Local cultural and behavioural conditions must be noted and, unless there are ethical reasons for not doing so, should be adapted to.

Learning need not be confined within the physical boundaries of the traditional schoolroom. It should reach out to the community and should encourage peer—to-peer learning.

Governments should resist the temptation to set short-term targets. They should seek to involve the private sector, which will usually be better at innovation and at taking a long-term view.

Short-term accountability measures such as externally set tests should be used with caution. Existing testing regimes, such as university or high school entrance tests, could be a barrier to curriculum reform.

Goals should not be set by input measures but by outputs. Governments should decide first what they want to achieve, not how many schools or teachers they want.

All policy should be evaluated and driven by evidence.

Perhaps the spirit of the two-day conversation could be characterised by the words of the poet William Butler Yeats: ‘Education is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire’.

Mike Baker 2008

back to charrette 3 outputs

horizonTAL - horizon scanning for learning from heppell.net

last updated: Wednesday, March 5, 2008 4:25 PM