Is the political agenda for education incompatible with the requirements for learning? Is it a bit like Descartes’ Ghost & Machine, but with the roles reversed? -The Dream of Learning is controlled by The Machine of Education instead of the other way around.pataleta.net was created during each session, lovely!
This post was initially intended as a serious reflection on an fantastic week in Buenos Aires and #FIED -Forum International de Innovación Educativa but things happened (i fell asleep at the plane forgot about this post and then life took over). But, perhaps better late than never?!
Ever so present at #FIED, never presented as a Keynote but blamed under any of these names: The System, The Paradigm, The Administration, The Factory, Them, The Traditionalist, The Resisters, The Old School, The Bureaucracy, The Others… The Machine
If you listened to any speaker at #FIED (including myself) there was this agreement: WE know something, WE speak the same lingo BUT it’s The Machine that make progress so hard, education outdated and learning boring and misdirected. The irony is that most of us are very much part of the system, you might even say that we are well above average in terms of possibilities to influence The Machine but we still need it, for some reason.
#FIED was sprinkled with brilliant people and examples of how you can make education relevant, engaging and functional in our era. The Dream we all seem to share is to get back to nature in the sense that learning should be in tune with our human nature, our desires and our biology. The dream seductive, we all thrive on the stories of learning environments where children and educators thrive, explore, acquire knowledge and never stop learning. The dream we share seems to be that zone where we, body and soul commit ourselves to learning in endeavors that expand us as individuals and collectively. There is only one problem: most of these examples come from contexts outside of The Machine, they seem to be exceptions or free havens. Are we dealing with The Machine are we escaping from it?
God old René
We like to think that we control our lives, that our actions actually matters, that we’re not just being pushed by forces outside of us. As a human being I feel better when I assume that I have a free will (at least on a good day) and we should feel that as educators as well, but do we? Judging from how we talk about education in general, at at #FIED, I’m not so sure. It seems like we are in the balance, allt these good ideas and initiatives acting as scaffolding for a crumbling machine but but I wonder we are dealing with the machine itself. Are we just standing on the scaffolding, cleaning the windows of The Machine, offering better views and perspectives but not really affecting the machinery?
When René Descartes coined the idea of ”The Ghost and The Machine” never quite explained how the two connected. His dilemma was to explain how something immaterial (the ghost in us, our souls) could touch and ultimately control the physical world (our bodies and the rest…). His solution was that it all mysteriously happened in the pineal gland and I can’t help thinking: Are we in the same predicament? -We sometimes seem completely incapable of explaining how our political systems should “touch” and promote the best ideas about learning and education. It’s as if The Machine has its own logic governed på hierarchies, political buzz words and measurability whereas education and learning are governed by the principles of The Ghost: meaning, motivation, context, purpose, engagement, fun, lifeworthiness, challenge, future, community, interaction, knowledge, mastery…
-I think we must do better! For one: we should implement systems that actually promote and support learning instead of only measuring output. René got one thing right: It is the Dream that should control The Machine, not the other way around. -More on this in a coming post on a SmartIndex!
Over and out
If you want to witness ambition and determination to shape an educational system into something worthy both of our kids and the future, you should seriously consider a trip to Buenos Aires. We went there and it was an overwhelming experience. There are many things to admire within the project Nueva Esculea Secundaria and PIS (Pedagogical Innovation Schools) and would like to mention 3 of them. -“We”, that’s me and my former Super colleague Frida Gustafsson Wennö, now CEO at Swedish firm “Tänk Om”. Here we go!
1. A burning platform. There is nothing lukewarm about the approach, there is a real sense of urgency. You only need a few minutes with Director general Mercedes Miguel to realize that this is a woman with a mission, ready to put her own comfort aside in order to give more children what they deserve: a great and relevant education. I think the current ranking of any educational system is less interesting than its potential for improvement and rate of change. -Sweden might score higher in the first category (at the moment) but Buenos Aires will certainly be up there among the best in the second. And being on top in the second is the only thing that can make you a contender for the top in the first category, in the long run.
2. The courage to innovate. There is something unusual about the approach chosen by the government in Buenos Aires. In our meetings with Mayor Mauricio Macri, Education Minister Esteban Bullrich and General director Mercedes Miguel , it is evident that they realize that the question of creating schools for ideas in a global perspective, in world where educational systems to often are considered as national monopolies the winners will be those who have wisdom enough to think global.
Part of the strategy is to give some schools more freedom and mission to become Lighthouses and centers of innovation and development. The government has invited several foreign schools as parters to these Lighthouses, that’s where we came into the equation. The school we are working with, Escuela No 16, is located in one of the more disadvantaged districts of Buenos Aires and we recognize the challenges found in similar communities in our own country, albeit on a different scale and under even tougher conditions. The challenge given to us as teachers and educators isn’t to copy something, it’s create something that is 100% suited for the context around this school. Innovation and success requires of us as professionals to share ideas and to create something new and I’m grateful that we were given this opportunity and deeply impressed by the ethics and skills shown by our colleagues at No.16. David Perkins once said that educators around the world are part of a camaraderie, a fellowship, and we certainly felt that during our stay i Argentina.
3. Putting the kids on the table. Real change is never uncontroversial. My impression is that education in Argentina is heavily politicized. Matters of learning and pedagogy quickly get entangled in a more complex political context. I’m not saying that learning and education should be value neutral but I do think that we at times need to rise above our personal convictions and needs and avoid making schools a ideological battlefield. -And that goes for my own country as well.
During a lunch break at Escuela No. 16 one of the teachers told a story that made everyone around the table cry: The week before we arrived one her students had been murdered. Murdered by someone who shot the nine year old boy in the head with a pistol. The teacher told us of her despair, how hard it was to getting back to school knowing it would be impossible to give enough room for grief and to comfort the rest of the kids, how she kept running from lesson trying to keep herself from breaking. The story tells me at least two things, a school can’t heal the wounds of a whole community but a great schools must be built from the child´s point of view. If we “put the kids on the table” when making decision about education we will make better decisions. Just a few examples:
- Kids want a safe and inspiring learning environment: Supported by science
- Kids want teachers who build healthy relationships: Supported by science
- Kids love teachers who can make them feel proud and make them excel: Supported by science
- Kids love challenges hate it when its boring. THAT should be in every curriculum because it is: Supported by science
– Give it a few moments more and you will come up with more. THAT should be the common ground for politics and policies but we tend to get lost in other issues. Agree?
What’s next? We have just finalized the first step in the project: one week of intense exchange and learning in Buenos Aires out of this will come a strategy for the coming years. -We will keep you posted!
I think we will see explosive school improvement in Buenos Aries in the coming years. In one week we met people with enough passion, ambition and professionalism to rock an entire nation and when that happens it will send a message to the rest of the world: Evolution and innovation depends on us working together, sharing our best ideas and putting them into practice in new versions suited for our kids in our communities. When I think of this, it makes me the happiest man alive!
AND to the true troopers, The Three Musketeers: Ana Laurua Barudi, Magda Cardoner and Pablo Princz…To quote to old song: Nothing compares to you!
Over and out
Great education is action-packed, for-real and reverberates around issues that matter to us. Why is it then that education and tuition sometimes gets a coward and afraid of life’s really important, real, funny and scary questions? IF education is purely about fulfilling criteria, following rules, reach pre-set aims and maximize test scores … What happens? -We follow a chicken curriculum and worse still, we get chicken learning.
During christmas last year I had the privilege of getting to know To Kim Lien, director of the Center for Education and Development in Hanoi. My family was been invited to dinner the night before Christmas at home with Lien’s family. A Loverly invite and we demanded that we in return could bring some Swedish specialties to the table (not a very wise move as it turned out). It became a memorable evening, for many reasons. *
Besides cooking Lien and I share a passion for education and learning and, to distract our hosts from my cooking, I started to talk about schools and teaching (safer territory). The conditions to run schools in our countries are in many ways very different, both in terms of the physical and material conditions, but perhaps even more so speaking ideologically and intellectually. In Vietnam, it’s even more obvious than in Sweden that education is an ideological tool: what is taught in schools is controlled by the state and freedom for the country’s teachers seems pretty limited to me. Lien told a story about this that etched into my memory. “It’s incredible, ALL Vietnamese children have to learn how to breed a chicken … I mean ALL, and the strange thing is that my children, and most children, NEVER will breed a chicken, that’s a 100% certainty! When we need a chicken we get one from the marker or the supermarket … Would it not be better for my children to learn how to handle chicken that you buy, learn respect for nature, understanding how modern animal food industry works …? “-Excerpts from my memory.
While Lien talked, I got a word in my head: “Chicken curriculum.” Could it be that we have coward curricula (because we for ideological ideologically reasons want the kids to believe certain things) or we make the curricula cowardly, or “Life Whimpy” as David Perkins calls it, by not having imagination and empathy enough to make teaching vivid and relevant to the children?
What’s it like? Do we have a Chicken Curriculum? I thought I’s better check, closed my eyes and pointed into the Lgr -11(out national curriculum for compulsory school) and my finger landed right on these immortal lines, the core content in years 4-6 in History. Text in picture says: ”How historical persons and events, such as Queen Christina, Karl XII and witch trials, have been recorded in different ways by different interpretations at different times”
IF this will be a tuition that is relevant and engaging to the pupil depends the skill of the teacher, if he or she manages to build a bridge from the child’s world to the curriculum text that creates engagement, relevance and context. One thing is certain, if teaching is about Queen Christina, Karl XII and witch trials head on you will get very few the studentswith any deeper knowledge of these important characters and events. -It will be chicken quite simply, and just as irrelevant as poultry farming might be to many Vietnamese children.
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* Tip to all Swedes (and non-Vietnamese): If you are invited to a cook-along with Vietnamese, say no, politely. Lie and blame the shortage of your nation’s groceries or jet lag. Vietnamese cooking is an art form 1000 years ahead of the Swedish’ and sharing a kitchen with a skilled Vietnamese chef is a bit like jumping into a ballet at the Opera…. We, the Vikings are lacking, to put it politely, finesse… The fact that your Vietnamese hosts afterwards might praise your dishes is just another confirmation of the fact that some cultures have evolved a bit … further.
My father worked for SIDA, The Swedish International Development Agency, for the larger part of his professional life. I thought that it was a cool and noble job, he got to travel and we lived abroad with our family and it made sense to me as a kid that we as Swedes did what we could to assist people who were worse off than us. From time to time there was quite a lot of debate in Sweden connected to the idea of development and aid to developing countries and harsh criticism of specific projects. Ask almost any Swede of my age or older about Bai Bang and they will tell you about a disastrous project in Vietnam where Swedish tax money was spent on a paper mill that rather than producing paper ate cash. I remember the news scorning the project: it was about corruption and technical failures, on the idiotic idea of using bamboo for pulp (we all know that you should use pine or spruce) and shovels that were to large and heavy for the small Vietnamese (they had to be operated by two people). -The last image became the public hallmark of the project: Failure built in the inability of transferring knowhow combined with irresponsible spending of our tax money.
Photo: Anders Gunnartz
Some days ago bumped into an exhibition of the project at Bai Bang, it has turned out to be a great success. The mill is highly productive and has grown to be a corner stone in the economy of the whole country. This came as a pleasant surprise to me and made me think about the nature of change. How many projects are like Bai Bang in their infancy and how many of them survive to become the adult success of Bai Bang?
The stakes are high when a project is ambitious or promising to be a real game changer. And projects of that kind will most certainly run into problems.
Do we imagine that change is straight line? It’s all to easy to condemn a project as a failure and stop it, in fact, it’s kind of self fulfilling. “This project is crap and therefore we shut it down och remodel it into…”. I more seldom se the approach “This is an ambitious project and it’s in its nature to run into unforeseen challenges. Now, we are going to make it work.”. If change is connected to an stance like that, “failure” will be seen as something else. I don’t believe that real change is straight line, and I think we should be more worried about “I told you so-ers”, people who are pointing fingers at ambitious projects when they run into their inevitable problems. I told you so-ers can only repeat and they would never have built Bai bang. Change is not for chickens and real succes might be neighbor to failure.