By Claudia Johnston, Education Sector Lead at Microsoft
Society is by its nature is a structural paradigm and one of the structures underpinning society is this concept of ‘getting an education’. We rightly value education in present day society just as much as we ever did. It is seen as the way out of poverty and it is valued as a prize to be achieved. Ask most people how they obtain a better job or status in society and they’ll tell you that doing well at school is possibly the biggest single factor leading to such an elevation in status. But is it still school that can deliver this? Two authors of books about education certainly doubt this. Guy Claxton asks the question, what’s the point of school? And Clayten Christensen posits the disruptive technology paradigm, so might the more self-directed heutagogical alternative to traditional schooling be a sort of ‘disruptive technology’ to traditional schooling?
The glue which might stick all of this together is formative assessment. One of the biggest influences on teachers in recent generations was Dylan William and Paul Black’s work on formative assessment and the concept of Assessment for Learning, because it reminds us what great teachers can achieve, not by transmitting knowledge (of which they are not even the gatekeepers anymore) or by drilling facts into memory, or even to its most radical extent, pointing or signposting the way to set ‘versions’ of knowledge, but by directing the learner towards a path of self-fulfilment and lifelong continuous achievement.
Society does need teachers and it perhaps needs to realign the concept of education to better fit an evolving understanding of the value of learning as an adjunct to development rather than the be all and end all. The days of passing exams to get through stages in education are probably coming to an end, at least in compulsory schooling. But what, if anything, do we replace them with?
Pasi Sahlberg, in his book, Finnish Lessons, might just point the way. In his retelling of the story behind the success of the Finnish education system in recent years, he makes a number of important points, but most of them can be traced back to societal shift. This, when added to a realignment of the national structures governing education has driven forward an agenda of huge improvement in the education. Trusting teachers to assess rather than transmit knowledge has been a big driving force behind this change. Finland has a laser-like focus on continuous formative assessment forming the basis of almost every interaction between teacher and student. The professional status of the teacher in their society is high. There is much societal capital in being a teacher. It automatically conjures up the image of a highly educated child-centred person in the mind of most Finns. It is something to aspire to being in the same way that being a doctor or lawyer does. The Finnish teacher education programme is built on the twin pillars of high academic achievement (masters level degree followed by excellent teacher training) and career long professional development.
But it’s rather more than just having excellent qualifications and top notch training. The system is free from external ‘brakes’ to slow down learning. Such things as external inspection and most examinations are a thing of the past, replaced by trust and a willingness to keep faith with this excellent foundation of highly qualified teachers and people well educated and trained for their job. The Finns have built in agency to their system as well as capacity, in that it is continually generating improvement due to the structures in place and the recognition of its importance to the success of their country in the world.
So assessment is why we need teachers more than ever. Not examinations, or even summative assessment, but assessment for learning. We need assessment to define the route map which can be followed so that kids can direct their learning toward their goals in life. We need teachers to question them on what it is they have learned, and how well they understand it directing them back and forth through their knowledge grazing journey. Teachers are needed to help them self-assess their progress, and to help them reorient where necessary, not to tell them what to learn but to show them where to go on their journey through knowledge acquisition, and more importantly, skills acquisition. Good use of technology like the new Microsoft Classroom, and games-based learning, perhaps with Minecraft or Xbox One can help children learn through play which is relevant to their lives outside of school.
It is generally recognised that there does need to be a curriculum of sorts. Children do need to be literate and numerate and more than this, to be able to understand that learning does need to have a direction, or set of goals if it is to lead to college, training, jobs or university based careers and professions. So there is still a place for school but not perhaps as we know it, for the Finnish lesson has been the disruptive paradigm pushing a change agenda.
Formative assessment might just be the disruptive paradigm to traditional instructional models of schooling, and so this traditional model of schooling might eventually be replaced by something more akin to real education. Badges are the disruptive paradigm to examination and summative assessment.
Good formative assessment signposts the way towards valuable achievement and attainment. Good teachers recognise that this is their skill-set and their evolving role. They can direct knowledge grazing toward fresh pastures without reining it in and keeping it in exhausted fields. This type of teaching encourages skills acquisition rather than knowledge transfer which is a redundant concept in this Information Age. Those pictures of the ancient world philosophers such as Aristotle standing holding forth to a group of enraptured students are not what school is about. Perhaps having Aristotle sitting amongst the students subtly influencing the direction of their discussions is more apt if we are to transpose the image onto a more modern day vista.
Leading from the middle perhaps?