It is now uncontroversial to say that schooling does not work for a large number of learners. The evidence as it relates to many disadvantaged groups – including ethnic minorities and those in low socio-economic groupings – is well known and largely undisputed. But schooling does not only need to be transformed to work for these groups. Many argue that schooling is increasingly failing the majority. In many western countries, boys for example, are 'falling behind'. Then too, boys and girls alike often fail to achieve the most basic of skills such as numeracy and literacy and, despite many attempts to improve in these areas this appears to be getting worse rather than better. While these areas have been the primary focus for advocates of reform, they are not where schooling fails the most.
As a society we invest in schooling not only to help those who participate directly, but because we all benefit. For this reason most countries have aspirational goals for schooling which identify social, emotional and citizenship outcomes for learners.. Unfortunately these social goals are seldom measured and nor do they form the basis by which international comparisons are made between educational performance at the national level although the body to which all governments look for these comparisons – the Program for International School Comparisons (PISA) which is a part of the OECD is moving towards doing so.
This shift is important as the influence of PISA on national policy priorities has arguably been the same as that of national standardised testing on teacher priorities – to skew the focus onto the narrow set of measures included in the tests. This has meant less focus on what many employers and others have been arguing are key for national competitiveness. So the move to measure these outcomes will constitute a shock for many Governments – but one which is long overdue and much needed. That said, the type of data that PISA collect is not without its problems – often involving quite crude proxy measures which, while useful for assembling international league tables, is less effective in providing a quality evidence base which helps us understand why the patterns it identifies exist and insight into how they may be changed. But that is a subject for another article.
The skills students need to attain to do well in their lives and to contribute to their society include those that are critical to individual and social advantage in a world in which information is no longer restricted and where uncertainty is greatly expanded. This describes today’s world and the future. Unfortunately a learner who can perform well in such a context – one who can be creative, can problem solve, deal with high uncertainty or ambiguity, can create new knowledge where none currently exists or is contradictory and fragmented, will probably do poorly in today’s schools. Correspondingly, doing well at school in no way guarantees that you will leave with these critical skills.
This should be enough to compel a rethink and a concern to transform schooling but it still not all of the problem.
School was designed on the basis of assumptions about learning and knowledge which have long been invalidated by advances in biological and social science. Schools embody and perpetuate (if not actually espouse) naïve assumptions about the nature of knowledge (as fixed and transmissible), learning (as involving the passive acquisition of knowledge quanta provided by experts) and skill development (as resulting from acquiring propositional knowledge). School systems are as theoretically as they are often practically bereft. They don't deliver what we want from them because, as a system conceived and constituted as they are, they simply can't.
So why is it so hard to transform schooling? There are many reasons. Many of the key goals are stated but not measured. Much of what is measured, and the way it is measured, distorts the stated intent. The assumptions, upon which it is based, though invalidated within the scientific community, persist and are still widely held by learners, educators, and community and policy makers. There are also many with a vested interest in the current system (education is and supports industries from facilities providers, software developers, publishers, and Tertiary education systems). Finally it is an operational system which operates towards the limits of its capacity – it is difficult to change it while keeping it going to deliver what is expected 5 days of the week xx weeks of the year. Attempting to transform it has been likened to trying to re-engineer an aircraft while it is in flight.