What will it take for 2020 to be a significant moment of change for education?

2 July 2020

Amelia Peterson looks to Big Change’s global network, an extraordinary group of pioneers and experts from education and beyond, for insights on how this could be a time to catalyse long term change in education, in the UK and around the world.

Last week, 2000 people joined a virtual education summit to ask: “Is it time for a revolution in learning?”. Hosted by slow newsroom Tortoise Media, the summit audience wasn’t only teachers, education leaders or policymakers, but included many young people asking fundamental questions about the set up of our education system. 

Questioning the logic of education

COVID-19 has thrown into question the underlying logic of what we do in schools and why. 

Education is dominated by a production logic: we will know how well things have gone by the outputs that we see. In England, the suspension of GCSEs and A Levels left a gaping hole in that logic and many parents, teachers and students wondering how they could know the effectiveness of education without these tests.

Once we start to poke it, the production logic is full of holes. Finnish educator and author Pasi Sahlberg observes that even during normal school years studies show no correlation between “seat time” and test scores. Neuroscientist Todd Rose says, “the idea of a single metric [to measure educational success] is completely at odds with modern science” and George the Poet argues that no single set of knowledge can universally prepare young people for the very different struggles they will face in the outside world. 

Education is not a production function

What these leaders from very different fields are saying is that education is not a production function. Inputs do not equal outputs. The fact that we try to run education systems as if they do is not only unwarranted but unjust.

And it is not only in education that the old logics have been stretched to breaking point. Ex UK Ambassador Tom Fletcher reflects on the way that technology and inequality are shaking our faith in institutions. When this happens, when we are confronted with more and more pieces of information which contradict what we previously believed, it is a time to find new “mental models” that piece together what we know in new ways. As Sandy Speicher, the CEO of design firm IDEO explains; “We have to imagine how this model yields a product, service, experience, or system that reframes the world in a new and better reality”. 

Building new mental models for education: Learning as an infinite game, starting with kindness and care

When we can see, feel and experience that a logic is untenable, we can start to adopt an alternative. We can build new mental models for education that prioritise something other than outputs. 

A first step towards a new mental model would be to see that learning, like life itself, is an infinite game. There is no final endpoint or output, a moment when we step back and take stock of winners and losers. And if there is no such thing as winning education, as Simon Sinek argues, then the first goal must be just to keep us all playing. 

How are we doing on this? Not well. Reports repeatedly highlight (most recently the Forgotten Third commission) that our education system leads to a dead-end for far too many young people. Andreas Schleicher, the Director of Education at the OECD and the man responsible for PISA, writes that the biggest risk from lockdown is not learning loss but dropouts, as young people become totally disconnected from learning and formal education. 

What if the new normal started with kindness and care? A question asked by Vishal Talreja and Suchetha Bhat, co-founders of Dream a Dream in Delhi (and now the launchpad of a movement). It may seem far too simple but there is nothing simple about affording kindness to each child. For Talreja and Bhat the appropriate response to this pandemic is to focus first on repairing the trauma many children have experienced through lockdown and loss of livelihoods. Extending this logic, Jim Knight of TES Global suggests that schools should be allowed to focus their work on the hardest hit children, making more use of technology to support others. 

To apply this alternative logic of care we need education that works for the most marginalised. Kaya Henderson of Teach for All highlights how teachers around the world have stepped in to solve a wide range of crises in their communities and CEO Wendy Kopp notes how quickly these local solutions spread across borders. Escuela Nueva Learning Circles, led by the brilliant Vicky Colbert, designed to provide high quality education to children in the most vulnerable social situations through a community-based approach, has rapidly adapted and scaled to support families directly during the pandemic. As Richard Culatta, CEO of ISTE and now Learning Keeps Going, put it to TED Radio hour, “teachers are the most creative people on the planet.” After this year, we should never doubt the ability of education systems to adapt.

Taking direction from young people

Gregg Behr is director of Remake Learning, an NGO in Pittsburgh, USA which provides a platform for a whole range of learning opportunities that connect schools, local industries and the community. Like Dream a Dream, Remake Learning have been using lockdown to learn more about what young people in their community really need, holding a series of action and future-oriented conversations under the banner of #RemakeTomorrow

Many young people are reflecting in this moment whilst looking to a future shaped by the uncertainty of climate change and a career which will demand continual reskilling and reinvention. Jaiden Corfield, a youth activist working with Reclaim in the UK, describes how the experience of this year is giving him and his peers a different perspective on learning: “With no exams, we’re focusing on independent, individual goals. Now you need to think about what you want to gain from education like never before”.

As Saeed Atcha, 23-year-old CEO of the charity Youth Leads puts it, this crisis could show everyone, “not just that everything is not about exams, but also why it’s not all about exams”.

What these examples, and all those being showcased by HundrEd during this time, are showing is that there is more than enough capability amongst educators and young people themselves to do extraordinary things when efforts are directed away from education as a finite, zero-sum game. 

Seizing our collective capability to learn and act

We are all currently going through the most incredible learning moment: we will remember this year for the rest of our lives. So this is a huge opportunity to learn collective lessons. 

For Otto Scharmer of MIT, Coronavirus is a lesson in system dynamics: it reveals how our actions are interrelated and that co-ordinated action can achieve massive impacts in a short space of time. This is a new kind of “fluid coordination”, where the coordinating function of institutions gets replaced with something more adaptive. Scharmer describes this more fluid coordination as reliant on two “enabling conditions”:

  • Accurate information about what is happening in the moment; and,
  • A holding space that helps people to act for the well-being of the whole…

It is not unusual to seek major change in times of crisis. Summarising what we can learn from past emergencies, Rebecca Winthrop of the Brookings Institution highlights that in 1999, UNICEF called for an approach to education in emergencies that would be not a “stop-gap” but a foundation for a “transformed system”. 

Having the courage to ask the big questions of education

But while there is no shortage of calls for change, it will take more than motivation to recreate our institutions in a more fluid and adaptive form, as Scharmer describes. 

Creating new information flows and new “holding spaces” will take time, investment and the ideas of not just a few schools, experts or inspired educators, but a whole range of people and groups who have a stake in education and are willing to ask the big questions.  

This is why Big Change is working globally with its network to reflect on and capture learning  around these big questions, but also to support the creation of a new kind of  “co-mission” on learning in England: a process through which teachers, parents, employers and young people collectively can create the ideas and infrastructure around a new logic of education. 

We’ve all seen the limitations of the old logic of education. We need to now have the courage to reach for a new one.