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Lessons From One of the Best Education Schools in the World

Lessons From One of the Best Education Schools in the World

“It’s not just about paper achievement anymore. It’s about the holistic development of the child. But if you are to nurture the holistic development of the child, what is it you need to acquire to be effective? You need to understand your learner, you need to understand the learning and teaching context, you need to have an education philosophy, you need to think about what you can improve on in the classroom, you need to know about what is important for learning and what is not important. You need to know all those things. And it’s not easy.”

Dr. Chua is an Assistant Dean at the National Institute of Education in Singapore, and she spoke with the casual thoroughness of someone who has been thinking deeply about these topics for years.

We had been looking forward to this visit ever since we began to learn about Singapore’s education system. Singapore’s students score near the top of all international assessments in both academic performance and happiness. Consequently, NIE has a reputation as one of the best education schools in the world. We were curious to learn more about NIE’s approach and we felt honored that they had invited us to visit.

A Values Based System

“I would like to establish that ours is a values-based education program. It’s very important that our teachers are anchored on values. So we have a values-based program where student-teachers get to know more about themselves as teachers, what matters to them, what is important to them. They develop their own teaching philosophy.”

Dr. Chua went on to explain that, of course, they also have courses about pedagogy, academic content, behavior management etc… and she described the field experience as the spine of the program. But it was clear that this emphasis on values, the type of teacher they want to be, created the context for everything else that transpires in the program.

There is an understanding at NIE that the job of an education program is much bigger than just telling teachers what to do and how to do it. They know that in order to be effective, teachers must have a clear sense of who they are, why they do this work, and what their own personal vision of success looks like. This is probably one of the biggest differences between teaching and other professional occupations.

NIE Values knowledge skills

Inquiry v. Reflection

“I asked myself, ‘In the end, what is the most important thing that we need to equip our teachers with?’ They need to own their practice in the classroom, but beyond owning their practice, they need to know how to go about refining it for the benefit of the students. The inquiry process is fundamental because, regardless of the changes in the teaching and learning environment, this will help them help the students.”

The inquiry process Dr. Chua describes begins with a question and then employs a variety of factors: conversations with colleagues, observations, anecdotals from students, and quantitative data, to explore that question. All of this information is framed by the original question and filtered through the teacher’s education philosophy. And that last part, which grew out from the values piece above, is of critical importance, “Teachers make decisions all the time for our learners. So it’s very important for them to be clear on their teaching identity, to know their teaching philosophy. Because those are the anchors that will help them make their decisions and will help inform their inquiry.”

In the United States, we talk a lot about reflection and we talk a lot about data. But in the U.S. our reflection is often either too amorphous or too mechanical, and it is nearly always narrowly focused on ‘standards mastery.’ Our reflection is rarely driven by personalized questions, because the question is always the same: “What standards don’t students get?” This type of reflection makes a kind of logical sense, but it also leads to faculties who roll their eyes at the prospect of another data meeting and generally feel disconnected from the priorities around their own development.

By contrast, the inquiry system at NIE is both more intensive and more nuanced. It recognizes that the complexity of teaching means there are a variety of questions that can be asked, and since teachers have more ownership over the process, they are also more motivated to follow through with it.

Paths for Professional Advancement

One of the most interesting structural differences between the education systems in Singapore and the United States is in the opportunities for professional advancement. In the U.S. we don’t really have a system. Individual principals handle promotions in their schools however they want to. Teachers interested in district level jobs must stay on top of openings. Most teachers go through their whole careers without anyone asking them about where they want to be five years down the road. Many teachers leave the profession because they don’t see a path forward.

Singapore used to have a similar situation, but they realized that in order to increase the professionalism of the teaching field, they would need to create more defined tracks for advancement. They created three: 1) Leadership, 2) Teaching, and 3) Specialists

In a teacher’s second or third year, their principal will begin talking seriously with them about what track they are most interested in. Whichever track they choose will lead to them getting additional training in that field. The leadership track can lead to them becoming a principal or superintendent. The teaching track leads to work as an instructional coach or master teacher who supports people at a number of schools. The specialist track is more focused on content and can lead to developing national curriculum for the Ministry of Education.

In the U.S., we often talk about the need to increase the professional status of teaching. But we normally limit that conversation to teacher pay. I think normalizing paths for professional advancement would do at least as much for teacher retention and morale as more pay would.

Dr. Chua NIE Best Education Schools in the world

“Teach Less, Learn More” and the Importance of a Coordinated System

While researching Singapore, I discovered that the national education motto was “Teach Less, Learn More.” I really loved the power and simplicity of those four words, but I had a lot of questions about how that idea had been rolled out to schools. I believe in the spirit of “Teach Less, Learn More,” but I also know that if someone is teaching less, then they are covering less content. I asked Dr. Chua about the potential tension between depth and breadth in a system that is still ultimately tied to standardized tests. Her answer gave me even more respect for Singapore’s education system, “Yes, during any implementation we need to be mindful that there will be a transition. There was talk, ‘yes we want to teach less, and learn more, but our syllabus hasn’t been reduced enough to create the time for students to acquire knowledge on their own.’ But slowly, because this is an evolving thing, the syllabus is constantly being reviewed to see how much can be cut. And today schools have different learning environments, but I think fundamentally they all recognize that it’s not all just about content knowledge.”

So the system identified a priority and all of the parts of the system began to adjust to better align with that priority. And this is something we saw over and over again in Singapore: there is a very high level of coordination between individual schools, NIE, and the Ministry of Education. Each of these three partners work together with a degree of common purpose that is hard to imagine in the United States. The result is that reform nowadays follows the maxim, “Bottom up initiative, Top down support.” This spirit was echoed during actual school visits we did as well. It’s really quite remarkable.

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Our conversation with Dr. Chua ranged over a number of other topics. We shared stories from the other schools we visited and laughed about some of the common challenges we face. And something we said triggered Dr. Chua to share some final thoughts as we were about to go, “There are a lot of things that distract us from what’s important. A lot of times, the urgency of something doesn’t mean that it’s the most important. But we tend to do the urgent rather than the important, because doing the important takes time, and it takes time to see the results. But how are you able to move away from the noises and focus on the important and not the urgent so that, in the years to come, we can see the types of learners we want to see?”

Urgency is a buzz word in a lot of education circles, and I agree with the reason why. Incremental progress is too often synonymous with low-expectations. But I also think that there’s a lot of truth in what Dr. Chua is saying here. Sometimes focusing on the urgent can have a simplifying effect that keeps us from the bigger, more important, context of what’s possible. The world is no longer about paper achievement. Here’s to having the patience to focus on what’s important.

-Will

What Teach For America Can Learn From Teach For India

What Teach For America Can Learn From Teach For India

When we walked into the Teach For India office, Elizabeth and I almost felt like we were home. We were introduced as Teach For America alums and former staff members, and the TFI staff greeted us like old friends who were eager to catch up. We didn’t know these people, but we felt connected by a common passion and set of values.

Over the next several days, we couldn’t avoid comparing what we were seeing with the organization where we’ve spent much of the past 10 years. We knew that TFI had borrowed a lot from TFA, but we were eager to explore the ways TFI had charted its own course. We wanted to know what TFA might be able to learn from its sister organization on the other side of the globe.

Several things stood out to us, but the one that made the biggest impression was TFI’s institutional commitment to student voice. We first noticed it when Sanaya was explaining how the Maya program (which we wrote about here) came about. TFI staff kept pushing their teachers to go beyond basic academics with their students. They urged them to focus on values as well and to help students develop leadership skills. The teachers agreed that these things were important, but they didn’t know how to translate this advice into action. Teach For India realized that they didn’t have a clear idea of what their advice meant either. So they decided to have a staff member create a program for students to figure out what this could look like. It worked. Maya has been successful and every TFI teacher I asked about it has spoken about how inspiring it is. Now TFI is trying to add a staff position dedicated to student voice in each of their regions. That’s a TFI staff member whose only role is to work with students to provide a model for teachers on what values based leadership programs can look like.

The next time we noticed how serious TFI is about student voice was when they invited us to participate at their Education Innovation Weekend. The three day conference led teams of staff members and teachers through a Design Thinking sequence to develop ideas to improve education in Pune, India. Each team also included one secondary school student, and their perspective was taken very seriously. Often the student voice ended up being the most influential at the table.

The adults in my group were having a heated debate about why most children didn’t enroll in secondary school. Eventually we calmed down and asked the student with us why many of her friends didn’t go to school. She told us matter-of-factly that it was because their parents would rather they find a job and earn some money. Later on, a girl from another group added a layer of nuance by explaining that parents didn’t respect the quality of the education offered at the government schools. The confidence in their assessments grounded us. These two comments became the foundation for the proposal we eventually submitted.

Individuals at Teach For America are passionate about student voice as well. This is something people can get quite emotional about. But at TFA, there is hardly ever the institutional commitment to student voice that we saw at TFI. There are no staff positions dedicated to student voice. Staff members rarely, if ever, work directly with students.

Students are common at Teach For America events. If the event is at their school, they might help with setup or with registering people as they arrive. If it’s a larger conference, there will certainly be some kind of performance by students. This type of involvement can be a valuable experience for students, but it is also scripted. I have never seen students given the opportunity to be active, unscripted participants at a TFA event. I can only imagine that, if they were, their voices would prove just as valuable to the dialogue as they did here in India.

TFA knows student voice is important and they try to prioritize it by providing professional development to teachers about why it’s important. TFI realized that this alone isn’t enough. Perhaps it’s time TFA does too.

  • Will

For the record, I in no way mean this as a ‘criticism’ of TFA. I’m offering these observations with an understanding that TFA is an organization that’s deeply committed to continuous improvement and always eager to hear new ideas.

Students Are Not Rational Beings, They’re Emotional Ones

Students Are Not Rational Beings, They’re Emotional Ones

A young girl speaks up first: “Before Maya I wasn’t confident in how I talk with people and I wasn’t sure what my life would be like in the future. But Maya has given me the chance to say ‘Yes, there are lots of things to do in life.’” The kids around her nod and smile. All of the children in the circle are between 11 and 15 years old, and they all come from very low-income communities in Pune, India. In 2014 they were part of an original musical called ‘Maya’ that they performed for over 10,000 people across India.

Another student speaks up, “What Maya was for me, it was a platform for us kids to figure out, ‘what is our light,’ and what is our potential, and how can we use it in different ways, to help other kids or spread the knowledge that we have… I have grown in Maya. My confidence has increased. Now I can talk to people with more confidence…” Most educators would be glowing with pride if their students spoke like this, but Sanaya, the facilitator, has heard this all before and she doesn’t seem impressed. She cuts into the dialogue, “OK, I’m going to push you a little more. All of your confidence has increased. None of you spoke earlier, all of you speak now. What else?” A murmur of giggles rises in the circle and Sanaya looks up to Elizabeth and I, “At the beginning, they didn’t speak more than a few words of English. They were quite shy. They didn’t have opinions and if they did, they were afraid to voice them.” She looks back to the students, “OK, beyond that?”

Teach for india maya

The students don’t miss a beat. A young boy speaks up, “If we don’t know something, we used to leave it. We used to not ask about it. But after Maya, we learned to ask ‘Why?’ If we’ve been taught something we ask, ‘Why does this happen?’ or ‘What is the reason behind this?’ The reasoning skills that we have, have increased.”

Another girl chimes in, “I’m more aware of the things that I want to do in my life and the things that I did wrong. Maybe I’m a little confused about things, and about what’s happening in my life, or around me. But I’ve started thinking more about what’s going on around me. I’ve started to become more wise. Now I ask, ‘What is the right thing to do?’”

Maya is a program of Teach For India, an organization similar to, but distinctly different from, Teach For America. Maya came about because TFI kept telling their adult fellows that they should focus on values and expose students to experiences in addition to academics. The trouble was that they didn’t have any real examples of what this meant. TFI decided to start a program dedicated to values development and student voice. At about this time, there was a fortuitous introduction to someone connected to Tony Award winning talent from Broadway. The arts seemed like a good place to start and the idea for Maya began to form.

The results are unquestionable. Not only did the students eventually perform an original and elaborate musical (about Maya, a princess who fights to bring light back to her kingdom and, in the process, finds the light inside herself) but their academic test scores ended up over 50% higher than other TFI students across the country. Maya did have a minor academic component where they would break down vocabulary and discuss the musical’s script as a text. But there wasn’t nearly enough time dedicated to this type of discussion to account for a 50% difference in test scores.

Maya teach for india values

The students in Maya talk about the group as a family. They highlight the importance of trust and the fact that their individual voices are valued. It turns out that when young people feel part of a positive peer community like this, it has an immeasurably powerful effect that ripples through every other part of their lives.

Too often we treat children like they are rational systems. We have a goal for them, like academic success, and we push them toward it in a narrow and prescriptive fashion. We want them to be motivated because it makes sense for them to be motivated. But children are not rational beings. They are emotional beings. To find the fire of self-motivation they need emotional experiences. Some students can find this emotion inwardly and nurse their motivation in isolation. But the vast majority of young people need programs like Maya to set the spark that will help them find their ‘light.’

  • Will
Rigorous Relationships: Lessons from One of the Best Schools in Switzerland

Rigorous Relationships: Lessons from One of the Best Schools in Switzerland

Olaf and I were wrapping up our time together when I asked him a final question, “What makes an excellent teacher?”

“There is not ‘the excellent teacher,’” he said. “There is the teacher who can make a connection with the students. The student has the feeling that, ‘he likes me.’ He can be hard, he can be loud, but the student always has to have the feeling that, ‘he likes me.’ This is the relationship piece.” He went on to add that the teacher should know their subject and how to make it exciting. They should know ‘how we talk’ at the school, and they should add insight to school discussions. But it was clear that the relationship between students and teachers was the keystone for everything else.

As soon as Elizabeth and I decided to focus this trip on education, we knew that we had to go to Switzerland. According to the last PISA test (talked about here), Swiss teenagers are both the happiest and highest performing students in Europe. We would have been happy to visit any school, but we were lucky enough to be invited to Ruggenacher, which had recently been nominated as one of the best schools in Switzerland.

Olaf, the school principal, picked us up from the train in his Nissan Leaf. During the short drive to the school, we made small talk about our trip and the unusually warm weather. Once in his office, he gave us some materials and started to explain the approach of the school, “We think the most important thing is to have a good relation from teacher to student. If there’s a good relation, and if teachers are in their topics very well, then we have a good school. That’s the bottom of our thinking.”

students at a school in switzerland

Switzerland is known for its affluence and this is one of its best schools so, we were somewhat surprised to learn about Ruggenacher’s demographics. The majority of the students are working class and over half are from immigrant families. Olaf spoke as much about the supports offered to students who act out or fall behind, as he did about anything else. On the way back to the train station, he told a story about a representative from PISA who came to visit. He asked the man about how he can tell if a school is good or not. “It’s all in how a school treats the bottom 10%. That is everything,” he said.

Now, I’ve heard lots of schools talk about the importance of relationships, but how this priority actually looks in a school can be a tricky question. I asked Olaf what they do to make sure relationships are a lived priority in the school, not just words in a vision. He was quick with examples.

  • Longevity. Instructionally the school is organized into ‘Lelas.’ These are groups of 3-4 teachers who follow students for their 3 years at the school. So, a class of students will have the same three teachers for their entire time at the school. In this way, teachers are able to build strong relationships with each child. The lelas also have a lot of autonomy to plan instruction and come up with support systems for individual students who need it. As Olaf said, “We have no change. It’s very important that we have stability in all of these groups. That’s the point, and why I think we are quite a good school. Because we have good teachers and they work together for a very long time.”
  • Student Coaching. Every four weeks each student has a meeting to discuss with their ‘coach/advisor’ about how they are doing and what their next steps are. If a student needs it, these meetings can be more frequent, sometimes 2-3 times a week. The teachers get special PD on how to facilitate these coaching sessions effectively in both the short and long-term.

desk at school in switzerland

  • Independent time. There are large rooms at Ruggenacher that are filled with 50 student cubicles each. All 50 students are never here at once, so they could share, but Ruggenacher knows that having their ‘own space’ is important to teenagers. Students can personalize their cubicles with photos and their organization chart. Each student spends 7-8 hours a week here and they’re able to manage their own work time. Of course, they’re responsible to complete work, but they have freedom in how they prioritize their tasks. It’s basically a study hall, but taken much more seriously. I think it’s interesting that Olaf mentioned this as part of the relationship strategy. It’s part of a deeper understanding that we saw in Switzerland that, increased responsibility can strengthen a student’s relationship with school. We asked students what they thought of this time and they lit up. It’s clearly one of their favorite parts of the day.
  • Earned Privileges. Students who show they are ‘good’ by being respectful and curious can earn extra privileges like the ability to take home a digital device or get a pass to stay inside during recess. In the US we often take privileges away for misbehavior. I think I like the idea of earning privileges with good behavior better. Students may earn one distinction but not another, and very few students have them all.
  • Respect. The most important aspect of student-teacher relationships at Ruggenacher is something that Olaf mentioned several times: students and teachers can talk with each other. Their communications aren’t defined by a power dynamic, their defined by a mutual respect. This piece is necessary to make everything else work, “Strong teachers can talk with students eye-to-eye. You don’t have so much ‘Teacher and Student.’ They can discuss as normal people should discuss. So the students, you will see, they are difficult in some situations, but mostly you can talk with them. From the first day they come to us they are partners. You can feel it.”

It’s true, we could feel it. The students at Ruggenacher are no different than students at any other school we’ve visited, but unlike students at schools with similar demographics they feel that school is for them. They feel that school is on their side, and they feel this way because of how they are treated when they’re there. Relationships are a priority and the systems of the school actually reflect that priority. Of course, there are other factors in Ruggenacher’s success and we’ll talk about them in future posts, but positive relationships, Olaf insists, are the foundation of everything.

  • Will
Charity v. Solidarity: Creating a Community School in Rural Malawi

Charity v. Solidarity: Creating a Community School in Rural Malawi

One of the first things ‘Love Support Unite’ did when they began working with the school in Mkunku village, Malawi was to create a women’s group. They had noticed that women didn’t speak up in the larger community meetings so, they wanted to create a space where women could share their thoughts and experiences. Here women could support one another and speak freely about taboo topics such as sexual abuse and their role in the community.

After the women’s group was established, the organizers at Love Support Unite noticed that women began to speak up more in the larger community meetings. At one meeting, there was talk about new construction related to the school. The male leaders declared that the women would carry the water necessary to make the bricks. In the past, this sort of direction went unchallenged. But on this day, the women spoke up. They said that only some women would carry the water and stipulated that they would not do so during the hottest hours in the middle of the day. The men would need to adjust their schedules around what the women were willing to do.

I love this story. It’s a story of women standing up for themselves in a community where their voices have not been historically valued. But it’s also a story of how outsiders can believe deeply in the importance of local self-determination without sacrificing their own commitment to cross-cultural rights like women’s empowerment.

We met with Lara, the co-founder of LSU, at a small table in the eating area of our hostel. She wore a purple t-shirt and spoke with passion about LSU’s approach to their work, “The village will say, ‘We need desks for the school, can you give us desks?’ And we have to remind them that we don’t give away resources. That’s not the type of work that we do.” This frustration with the historical approach to aid in Africa was echoed by another non-profit director we met. She said, “It’s difficult to teach people to grow their own food when, the next week, UNICEF or Feed the Children might show up and say, ‘Don’t worry about growing your own food. Here’s a check, go buy some.’”

School in Malawi

The type of work LSU does has less to do with resources and more to do with sharing technical knowledge and facilitating conversations. They bring in volunteers from England, but the community always does the vast majority of the work to keep the projects growing. Their greatest contribution seems to be expanding the community’s idea of what’s possible.

Of course, all of this work is centered around the new village school. Mkunku is operating in a context where they can’t expect anything from the government. This reality has forced the community to come together to problem solve a variety of challenges. The result is a school that’s remarkable in many ways. 1) The community built it, literally from dirt and water. 2) They are beginning to grow food to feed the students and the teachers. 3) They want to grow excess food to sell to be able to pay the teachers. 4) They are starting small businesses such as, a solar powered phone charging station and barber shop to further finance teachers and the school as a whole. 5) There are no desks, and that’s ok for now. Active engagement has a far more powerful effect on a school than material resources.

I find Mkunku a remarkable story. It’s a story that’s left me pondering the power of a community to find solutions when the possibility of resources from the government is written off completely. It has me thinking more deeply about what it means for a school to be part of a community, or more specifically, how a community can be part of its school.

  • Will

Photo Credit: Emma Scarborough

Educator Voices: What’s the Purpose of Education?

Educator Voices: What’s the Purpose of Education?

Whenever we visit a school we try to make our questions responsive to that school’s unique context. But there are a few questions that we like to ask everywhere we go. This is the first in a series where we compile the voices of the people we’ve met around those questions.

First up: What is the Purpose of Education?

Miluska, Instructional Coach with Ensena Peru:

“To help form people who are sensitive to the needs of others and the feelings of other people. Also, there’s a lot of social responsibility. There are always challenges to accomplish this; the labors of a teacher, not enough time, documents… But we need to better prioritize. We need to ask what our children need.”

Elementary Teacher at SPARK Schools in Johannesburg, South Africa:

“We’re not teaching content. We’re using the content to develop skills where they can use those skills in different areas. So, yes, the content is important, but that’s not our main focus. It’s equipping students with skills and personality traits so that they can deal with conflict so that they can independently go into university and be successful. So, it’s teaching them those additional critical thinking skills, problem solving skills and using the content to drive their development with that.”

Shaun Simpson, Headmaster of Rondebosch Boys High School in Cape Town, South Africa:

“You often read things that say, ‘The days of the teacher as the holder of information who gives it to the kids who are the receivers, those days are over now. It’s the time of the kids engaging and the teacher being a facilitator.’ That’s the sort of talk, and I agree with that. I don’t necessarily disagree with that… But intelligent conversation requires having a little bit of knowledge about a number of things. I don’t want to be standing as a stunned interloper in a conversation thinking, ‘I’ll quickly google that thing.’ Education should give you a very broad grounding to interact, to be able to draw from different places. When you listen to intelligent people speaking, they don’t just speak about their specific area knowledge. They draw from everything to make their points. And I think we’re doing kids a real disservice if we say that, ‘We don’t need to give the knowledge. We don’t need to give them information anymore.’ We’d live in a void.”

Senora Mamani, Principal of a school in Arequipa, Peru:

“Education is the only way for children to progress, to move forward and achieve big things in their life.”

Javier, English Teacher at Domingo Santa Maria in Arica, Chile:

“School, besides giving content and showing the way, needs to be inspiring. Yes, we should be inspirational, not just informative. And we should always help develop and cultivate values, human values. We should help students see the joy of finishing work. Now, they just do it because it’s graded or to avoid punishment. We need to get students to embrace learning for its own sake. Schools should be taught how to do that.”

Mr. Bamda, Head Teacher at a rural school outside Nkhata Bay, Malawi:

“As a developing country we have problems in our villages. We need leaders who can actually lead people into doing the right things. A good leader thinks of his or her own people. What are the problems they’re facing? How can those problems be sorted out? We are looking at that. If you can entrench someone who can look at the needs of the community, the needs of the village the needs of the family, then you’ll be achieving something substantial for development.”

Shannon Watt, Head of Elementary at Southern Cross in Santiago, Chile

“To help students acquire knowledge and common social skills that will enable them to be good citizens and help this country grow… As a whole, education should be the way a country helps itself be what it is.”

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These are lofty, and surprisingly consistent, ideas about education. For me, they underscore the fact that there are two seismic shifts taking place in the relationship between education and the greater world. The first shift is social. Paul Griffin pointed out at the very beginning of this trip that, schools today have a greater obligation to create community and teach character than they ever have before. People point to a variety of reasons for this: parents are working more and there are more single parent homes, neighborhoods are more isolated and community organizations are on the decline, students socialized in virtual communities are slower to learn the physical and verbal cues that are such an important part of polite interaction, and there’s a growing recognition that ‘soft skills’ are just as important for success as knowledge. In this environment, the school has become a clear center of community and an obvious place for social-emotional development to be considered in a patient and deliberate way.

The second shift is economic. CEOs have been saying for years now that, skills like critical thinking and the ability to work in teams to solve problems, will only become more central to their work in the decades to come. Managers now focus less on how to do something and more on just what needs to be done. Even entry level positions require people to be able to think creatively. People on a factory floor used to be engaged in repetitive movements, but now they must diagnose and solve problems on their own.

And so, education is changing in fundamental ways. Or rather, we know education should be changing in fundamental ways. Unfortunately, the education community tends to be more thoughtful with goals than execution. As Dee Moodley pointed out, “Listen, people always say, ‘We teach critical thinking.’ But what do you mean? How do you teach critical thinking? If you really drill down when individuals say that. No one can give you an answer… And changing seats doesn’t mean that it’s a collaborative space where the teacher is a facilitator. It could just mean that you’ve seated the kids in eights instead of twos.”

  • Will

Photo credit: Emma Scarborough

Excellence and Inequality: Reflections from an International School in Blantyre, Malawi

Excellence and Inequality: Reflections from an International School in Blantyre, Malawi

Elizabeth and I have a lot of experiences walking into classrooms. We’ve done it hundreds upon hundreds of times. The basics of the scene are generally the same. The teacher usually talks while students listen and take notes. Sometimes students work in groups or independently while the teacher circulates. Either way, it’s normally possible for us to find a few students to talk with. We ask students what they’re learning and if they can explain it to us. This is one of the most informative parts of any classroom visit. But at St. Andrews International School in Blantyre, Malawi our attempts at conversation were continuously foiled. The students were simply too busy working together to have time to talk with us.

We walked into a science classroom where students stood in groups of four around lit Bunsen burners. Each member of each group was focused and occupied. They were using sulfuric acid to make some kind of salt. Occasionally students would turn to each other to discuss observations or next steps and record their findings. The teacher circulated, but the only thing we heard him say was to emphasize elements of the safety protocols.

Next we were taken to an 8th grade classroom where students were preparing food. They chopped vegetables, walked around with pots of boiling water, and spoke quickly to one another. The teacher told us about the emphasis on healthy eating and about how after the pizza lesson last week many students went home and cooked for their families.

We visited a geography class where students were analyzing different methods countries use to control population growth around the world. In a French classroom, every student was engaged and the teacher consistently asked questions to put thinking on the class. When students made jokes, she laughed along with them and redirected the conversation.

We were invited to join a meeting of the heads of the math department and asked the department head about his priorities. “First you must love math. Love is contagious,” he said. “First comes love and then comes progress. If students don’t look forward to your class then you are failing. And ‘chalk and talk’ is not going to work.”

international school students cooking education

The visit ended in the drama classroom where students were finishing their monologue unit. Over a dozen students were spread around the room dressed in casual clothing (they change for drama class). Each of them was in the midst of an animated performance of their own monologue. As time passed, some would naturally pair up to offer one another feedback. At the end of class, students gathered to take turns videotaping their monologues so that, they could be sent to England for evaluation.

Like I said, Elizabeth and I have visited a lot of classrooms in a lot of schools. Sometimes we find a school where one or two classrooms have this level of student engagement, but we’ve never seen a school where the quality of engagement was so consistently high across every classroom. We were impressed, but we were also alarmed at how different St. Andrews was than the other schools in Malawi we’d seen or heard about.

St. Andrews is an International school, which means it teaches the British curriculum to the children of ex-patriots from around the world, as well as the local families who can afford it. Since the ex-pat community in Blantyre is relatively small, there are a large number of local students, but they come from the super-elite of Malawi society. Most people in Malawi make less than two dollars a day. St. Andrews costs tens of thousands of dollars a year.

Our experience with other schools in Malawi was very different. Most students are in overcrowded classrooms where they engage in antiquated curriculums that focus entirely on identification and repetition. They end up learning more about following directions than they do about the world. The result is an education according to one’s class. The wealthy learn to think, and the poor learn to listen.

The consequences of this reality are disheartening. Education should be the great equalizing force in a society, the foundation for development and social mobility. But the failure of this promise isn’t unique to Malawi. The way education perpetuates inequality in the United States may not be quite as pronounced as in Malawi, but that’s not saying much.

We can and should learn a lot from the quality of the learning at St. Andrews. But we can also use Malawi’s system as a whole as a window to judge our own. Do we think all students deserve access to the same educational opportunities? How many American families can afford to pay for college? What kind of country to we want to be?

  • Will

For more about the different types of education offered to students of different income levels in the US and Latin America, check out our previous post about poverty and education.

A Pride Premature: Lessons from a School in Malawi

A Pride Premature: Lessons from a School in Malawi

Phillip is a young man with a broad smile. He’s not a teacher, but the school where we’re sitting wouldn’t exist without him. He enjoys talking about how it all started; how he and the village chief met a British expat, named Kevin, and approached him about financing a school, “And then we needed bricks, and we could either buy bricks or we could make bricks. And since buying was too expensive, we decided to make the bricks.” He talks about how they built the ovens for the bricks, and how he contracted with bricklayers to make the buildings. And then there were issues with the government, who said they couldn’t open a school with only one building. So, they had to secure funding for a second building and make the bricks and create that building as well. Desks were built and latrines had to be dug. Phillip speaks with a smile on his face and a tone of kind-hearted ambition. When he finishes, I ask him something I ask of nearly everyone, “What are you most proud of?” He straightens his posture and smiles even more broadly, “I’m very proud because, before there was no school, and now we have a school. Now we have education.”

At first, I was enchanted by the story of the school. But as I visited classrooms and talked with students, that enchantment began to sour. I saw very little evidence that ‘education’ was taking place.

making bricks in malawi

Bricks must be stacked and burnt before they can be used in construction

I visited four classrooms. All of the rooms had students but only one had a teacher, and she was a visiting teacher from Belgium. The rest of the teachers were in the administration building, chatting and watching a Nigerian soap opera while students were left to socialize. In one classroom, I asked students to tell me something they had learned in class this week. After a bit of silence they began to stand, one at a time, “I am studying English.” “I am studying physics.” “I am studying math.” I thanked them and asked if they could tell me something more specific. After a brief silence, Mr. Bamda, the head-teacher escorting me, explained that their English wasn’t strong enough to answer that question. This struck me as problematic, since all of their national exams will be in English.

This school, about a 40min uphill walk along a dirt road from Nkhata Bay on Lake Malawi, has a lot of advantages. There are several shelves of donated books and a room with computers (though no electricity). The school charges fees that limit class size. (It’s common at public schools for classes to expand to fifty or even ninety students per teacher, but here the largest class I saw was around twenty students.) The faculty all have college degrees and the students are so committed that, many of them travel for hours each morning to reach the school.

school resources education in malawi

The computer and resource room

Later on, I met with the teacher from Belgium who had been enthusiastically leading her class through a text. I asked what surprised her the most about education in Malawi, and she said it was the attitude of the teachers, “They will just write on the board and leave the room. They’ll give students an activity and then go watch a DVD. There is not the idea that, they have a role to play when students are working.” She was also frustrated with the prescribed English curriculum, which focuses almost entirely on grammar, identifying parts of speech in sentences disconnected from any larger context. “And they never practice speaking [English] because there is no speaking on the exam. But I don’t know how you can learn a language if you never speak it.”

I asked about student participation and she said that they’re not used to it, “You ask them what they think and they don’t know what to do, because no one ever asks them that. It’s all just listening or repeating what the teacher says.” Still she hasn’t given up, and a couple months in she has one class where students are getting more comfortable with the idea of sharing their ideas.

head-teacher school in malawi

Mr. Bamda

When I spoke with Mr. Bamda, he talked inspiringly about the need for education and the school’s goal of producing quality students who can contribute to the development of Malawi. He talked of the need for leaders in Malawi’s villages and the importance of listening to other people’s opinions. He spoke about how people need to understand that education is not just for white collar jobs but that, it can help everyone. A farmer with an education will be a better farmer than one without an education.

But it was also clear that, he hadn’t given much thought to what must be true in the day-to-day life of the school for these goals to become reality. He explained calmly that they do not choose what to teach but follow the government curriculum. When I asked what makes a good teacher, he talked mostly about a teacher’s dress. When I asked what he meant by a ‘quality’ student he described someone who has good behavior. When describing his challenges and priorities, he focused entirely on infrastructure projects like building a new administration building, houses for the teachers, a new class block, and a girls dorm*. Ideas like helping teachers to improve or creating opportunities for students, didn’t come up. At one point, he even said that he didn’t need to worry about the teachers.

When I think back to this school, my first feeling is still one of admiration. I didn’t expect to find a ‘model of excellence’ in a rural village of one of the world’s most undeveloped countries. In many ways the visit surpassed my expectations. It’s hard to imagine many communities in the US organizing to build a school from mud, water, and cement. But there is an unavoidable sadness around my reflections as well. I think about parents around the community struggling to save for school fees, and the students who walk for hours each day as an investment in their education, and I wonder what, if anything, the sacrifices will bring.

The school exists, and people seem to be content with that fact. The resources inside are confused for the learning they’re meant to facilitate. Students show up, and there is an assumption that they must then be receiving an education. But, of course, it doesn’t work that way. It actually takes a lot of focused effort to turn a school building into a place where education happens.

Will

*The school does seem to be fairly progressive in its commitment to girls’ education. Phillip explained that the motivation for this came from the international community. He also explained that while it’s OK for boys to commute, girls should live at the school because, if they live at home, they end up being tasked with all of the labors around the house and can’t get away to attend school.

SPARK Schools: Where Vision Drives Reality

SPARK Schools: Where Vision Drives Reality

Every school has a vision statement nowadays but most don’t take them very seriously. I remember talking with a student in Baton Rouge several years ago about his school. “Everybody is always talking about helping us ‘Be Great,’” he said, referencing the school’s vision. “But they’re not even giving us the tools to be alright.”*

I recently spoke with the head teacher at a school made of mud bricks in rural Malawi. He was quick to hand me the school’s vision statement, which talked about preparing students to contribute to the future development of Malawi. But when I asked what he wanted to prioritize to make that vision a reality, he raised his arms and laughed.

James Baldwin, the great black American writer and intellectual, has a line about how artists and revolutionaries are both “possessed by a vision and that, they do not so much follow this vision as find themselves driven by it.” Most educators talk about vision as something that provides direction. But it was this more radical idea, of a vision that possesses and drives that came to mind when Elizabeth and I met Dee Moodley, Blended Learning Lead and instructional coach at SPARK schools in South Africa.

Dee is a remarkable woman. She is quick to laugh and reflexively curious. She’s concise and passionate in her views but also eager for feedback. When you talk with her, the conversation seems to almost overflow with ideas and reflections gathered through her almost two decades of experience.

Dee Moodley

Dee Moodley

When Dee talks about SPARK’s vision, the ideas are inextricably linked with the priorities to make that vision a reality. SPARK wants their children to be able to compete on an international level, so they use the most rigorous international curriculums. Most schools in South Africa let out around 1:00. SPARK goes until 4:30. The vision is also a central part of the teacher recruitment process, “We’re employing individuals for what they believe in… We need teachers to believe that children can succeed. One-hundred percent. And that’s not a dream for me, it’s a reality.” But making it a reality for other teachers can be tricky. Many teachers who come to SPARK have been in schools where the students struggle to meet the much more basic local standards. So, getting them to expect students to master the most rigorous curriculums in the world can be challenging. (For more on the holistic support systems SPARK creates for its teachers, check out our previous post)

One teacher with almost 10 years of experience talked to us about how starting at SPARK was disempowering. Initially he felt that the expectations were too high and the rigor too fast-paced, “and your planning is different because the outcomes you’re going to reach are completely different than what you’re used to.” But he was originally attracted to SPARK by the vision and values so, he chose to see the challenge as an opportunity for growth. Now, this sense of continuous growth is what he enjoys most about SPARK.

Several other teachers had similar stories. Taking the vision seriously made their work much more difficult, but it also made the work more rewarding. In every group we spoke with, people would bring up SPARK’s vision as something that motivated them and bound them together. There was a clear pride in their conviction that, the school would do whatever it takes to make sure every student could succeed.

But perhaps the most remarkable comments came from Patience Ndlovu, a staff member who was first introduced to SPARK as a parent. She spoke about how she was initially skeptical of ‘these new schools,’ but when she first visited SPARK she was struck by the warmth that welcomed her. She was further impressed by the positive feedback from her child, “I could see that this is coming from an educator who is positive. The minds that created SPARK are coming right through to my little child. I was imagining this just seeping through the whole community and I just love that. I was thinking that this is where education should be going. That’s why I love being part of this, I don’t know, this goo juice seeping through to the next generation.” You know a school is truly vision aligned when a parent sees a direct link between the founders of the school and the attitude of her child.

At SPARK, the commitment to students (and to the personal growth necessary to help students) really is like a ‘goo juice’ that seeps into every decision at the school. Talking with the faculty, there is a sense that they are part of something exciting. Something that may have the potential to ripple across South Africa to redefine what people should expect from education. But for this greater vision to become a reality it will take a lot more than SPARK showing the way. It will take many more people who are willing to be possessed and driven by a new idea of what’s possible in education.

  • Will

This is our second post about our day at SPARK schools. Our first piece can be found here.

*This student, Dominique Ricks, has since gone on to graduate from college and become a teacher. He was recently voted ‘Teacher of the Year’ at his school outside of Baton Rouge.

Top 5 Most Startling Facts About The U.S. and International Education

Top 5 Most Startling Facts About The U.S. and International Education

When people in the US talk about how to improve education, there is an underlying assumption that the way our education system works, overall, is ‘normal.’ When the struggles of schools in low-income communities are addressed, poverty is generally identified as the culprit. But after a year of research, and another year of traveling to excellent schools around the world, I can confidently say that there is nothing ‘normal’ about the education system in the US and that our reaction to students in poverty does as much to impact their potential than the poverty itself.

The five realities below are all rooted in data and they show that fundamental shifts are needed if our education system is to start preparing our children and supporting our teachers in the ways they deserve.

Reality #1 – U.S. Students Don’t Like School and Aren’t Very Good At It

Where+are+the+happiest+school+kids

This chart was created with the OECD’s PISA test data by Jake Levy, a data analyst at Buzzfeed. The scores are an average of math, science and reading. The x-axis is how students respond to the question, ’Are you happy in school?’ Economists have found a direct link between PISA scores and GDP growth and PISA scores have also proven a more accurate predictor of whether or not students will go to college than report cards. (Source: Amanda Ripley’s reporting in The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way)

As you can see, the United States falls into the ‘sad and stupid’ quadrant. Not only does our system fail to educate our children, but in the process, it turns them away from the idea that learning can be fun. Great. Why aren’t people unnerved about this? Are we, as a nation, resigned to ironic acceptance of our educational inferiority?

Maybe more interesting than what this chart tells us directly, are the questions it can spur. Like, ‘What’s the difference between Korea and Singapore?” They both score in the top 5 for performance but Korea has the least happy students in the world while Singapore’s students are some of the happiest. It turns out that while, South Korea is known for its high-intensity school system with near industrial size tutoring industry, Singapore’s education slogan is ‘Teach Less, Learn More’ and their education school emphasizes the central role of values and critical thinking.

Reality #2 – U.S. Teachers Spend More Hours a Year in ‘Performance Mode’ Than Teachers in Any Other Country

OK, so that’s not completely true. For elementary school teachers, we’re #1. For secondary school teachers we’re #2, behind Chile. But still…

We know what teachers need to be more effective. They need: time to plan interesting and rigorous lessons, time to give meaningful feedback to students (multiple choice tests are most tempting when you don’t have time to grade), time for collaborating with other teachers, quality professional development, direct coaching from mentor teachers, etc… In higher performing countries like Switzerland and Singapore, all of these practices are central priorities. When I say they are priorities, I mean that they actually have time dedicated to them and they are seen as a fundamental part of a teachers job, not ‘something extra’ like it often seems in the US.

A High School teacher in the U.S. averages 1,051 hours in front of students per year. Compare that with the average of 656 hours for OECD countries. That’s almost 400 extra hours per year for all that good stuff I was just talking about! And that already takes into account the fact that we’re in school two weeks less per year than the OECD average!

Let’s not ignore the fact that even our top performers aren’t that great.

There literally aren’t enough hours in the day for U.S. teachers to do all of the things that correlate with better instruction. Teachers in the U.S. often complain about mandated collaboration but not because they don’t want it. It’s because they’d rather be planning or grading, and they don’t have time for all three. It’s also common for U.S. teachers to give up the limited planning time they do have, to do individual tutoring, which is noble, but it shouldn’t be necessary. That reality plays into a ‘teacher as altruist’ expectation that we would never hold to other professions. I hope that most doctors get into the profession to help people, but as a society, we don’t expect them to stay after hours to consult the uninsured.

There’s a very dangerous sense in this country that teachers aren’t ‘really working’ unless they’re standing in front of a group of students. How would you feel if I told you, you had to give 30 separate presentations next week, and not only did you have to deliver them, but you had to execute them so well that each of the 100+ people in the audience would be able to recall over 80% of the details at the end of the week and, by the way, they’re teenagers. How much time would you like to prepare for something like that? How much individualized management would you need to do to make sure people were track? How much stress would you feel?

Reality #3 – Our Most Privileged Students Aren’t that Great

Education reformers in the United States tend to focus almost exclusively on the ‘Achievement Gap’ – the fact that poor and minority students in the U.S. perform tragically worse than their more privileged peers. A built in assumption to this focus, is the idea that our most privileged students are being educated just fine. The problem in the US isn’t with the fundamentals of our education system, it’s with the consequences of poverty.

But, what if we just look at the most privileged groups in each country, including those who attend private school? How do our most privileged do against the most privileged of other countries? It turns out, not so well. When we look at just top quartiles in the PISA’s socio-economic breakdown we come in 25th out of 39 countries in math. And remember, our most privileged are even better off than most of their counterparts in other countries.

We should certainly be working to close the gap in performance between demographic groups, but let’s not ignore the fact that even our top performers aren’t that great. If we’re truly going to maintain our competitiveness in an increasingly global economy we’ll have to rethink how our best schools operate too.

  Top Socio-Economic Quartile Only Bottom Socio-Economic Quartile Only
Ranking in Math Scores Country Socio-Economic Index Score* (How advantaged are the most privileged) Country Socio-Economic Index Score (How disadvantaged are the least privileged)
1 Hong Kong-China 0.50 Hong Kong-China -2.00
2 Korea 0.92 Macao-China -1.91
3 Switzerland 1.29 Korea -0.97
4 Japan 0.85 Japan -0.99
5 Belgium 1.27 Liechtenstein -0.89
6 Poland 1.08 Switzerland -1.00
7 Germany 1.42 Finland -0.68
8 Netherlands 1.15 Canada -0.75
9 Liechtenstein 1.42 Netherlands -0.82
10 France 0.95 Poland -1.22
11 New Zealand 1.04 Germany -0.99
12 Macao-China 0.28 Iceland -0.34
13 Canada 1.44 Australia -0.84
14 Finland 1.28 Ireland -0.97
15 Czech Republic 0.93 Denmark -0.70
16 Austria 1.19 Belgium -1.05
17 Australia 1.18 Norway -0.56
18 Portugal 1.21 Austria -0.97
19 Luxembourg 1.41 Latvia -1.39
20 Ireland 1.20 Czech Republic -0.98
21 Slovak Republic 1.06 Italy -1.29
22 Denmark 1.44 Russian Federation -1.10
23 Hungary 1.01 New Zealand -1.05
24 Spain 1.16 Sweden -0.82
25 United States 1.35 Spain -1.50
26 Latvia 0.90 France -1.10
27 Iceland 1.71 United States -1.14
28 Italy 1.24 Portugal -1.85
29 Norway 1.35 Luxembourg -1.42
30 Russian Federation 0.82 Hungary -1.46
31 Sweden 1.25 Slovak Republic -1.25
32 Greece 1.22 Greece -1.34
33 Turkey 0.07 Turkey -2.74
34 Uruguay 0.69 Thailand -2.72
35 Thailand 0.27 Mexico -2.66
36 Mexico 0.61 Uruguay -2.23
37 Brazil 0.39 Tunisia -2.86
38 Tunisia 0.42 Brazil -2.64
39 Indonesia -0.28 Indonesia -3.09

* Since income and poverty measurements don’t compare well across countries, the OECD and PISA use what they call an “Index of Economic, Social, and Cultural Status” It takes into consideration things like the highest level of parents education, the types of jobs parents have, if there’s a quiet place to do school work at home, if the family owns art, and other questions that allow for a more normalized comparison of privilege across countries.

Reality #4 – A Country’s Education System Matters More Than Wealth or Demographics

Let’s look at Finland and Norway. They’re both Scandinavian countries with fairly homogenous populations and low child poverty rates. But Finland’s students consistently score as some of the most capable in the world and Norway’s students perform even worse than the United States. What’s up with that?

Let’s look at Poland and the United States. Both countries have similar levels of childhood poverty, and on the whole, U.S. students participating in the PISA have considerably more affluent home environments than their Polish peers. But Polish students achieve at much higher levels than U.S. students. Even more interesting is the fact that that, 20 years ago the U.S. outperformed Poland on international tests.

The least advantaged students in Hong Kong are worse off than the same group in the U.S. but they score just as well in math as America’s most privileged students.

Teaching needs to be a desirable profession for the system to improve.

Finland, Singapore, Poland, and China have all dramatically improved their education systems in the past decades while the U.S. has remained remarkably consistent in its subpar performance. Each country is unique, but all of their reform strategies had two things in common. 1) They increased the rigor of their standards. 2) They prioritized teacher preparation and professional development.

In the U.S., we’ve also tried to improve our education system in recent decades, but we’ve taken a different approach. We’ve tried to incentivize and manage improvement through a rigorous system of testing and accountability. A focus on incentives and accountability was a respectable idea in 2001, but it turns out that hasn’t worked very well.

Reality #5 – U.S. Teacher Morale is Going in the Wrong Direction

The 2012 “MetLife Survey of the American Teacher” showed that teacher morale in the U.S. is at a 25 year low. In 2008, 62% of teachers reported feeling very satisfied with their job. In 2012 that number was down to 39%. Over half of teachers reported feeling great stress several days a week. I believe that this dynamic is today’s single greatest threat to our nation’s long-term economic security. The causes of this dissatisfaction are complex but ultimately less relevant than its consequences. The simple fact is that, it’s hard for students to learn from people who are constantly stressed out by their jobs.

Teaching needs to be a desirable profession for the system to improve. But across the country applications to teachers colleges are on the decline and fewer and fewer people are applying to alternative certification programs like Teach For America as well. Why would intelligent/capable people want to pursue a profession where over half the people feel ‘great stress’ several days a week? It doesn’t even pay very well.

__________

Maybe this sort of lackluster education system was OK in the second half of the 20th century. Getting out of WWII with our infrastructure intact certainly gave us a good head start. For a few decades there, we were graduating a higher percentage of our people from college than any other country. But that percentage has flat lined at around 25% since the 1970s and the rest of the world is passing us by.

The solutions we come up with need to be uniquely American, but we’d be foolish not to learn from the rest of the world.  We need to act and act big. Education isn’t going to fix itself.

– Will

For the research for this post, I’m indebted to Amanda Ripley’s “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way” and Dana Goldstein’s “Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession” as well as to several articles by Linda Darling-Hammond, and to whoever compiled the myriad of spreadsheets found on the OECD’s website. Some of the analysis is my own. It’s a skill set I developed during my two years as a policy analyst for the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.

A special thanks to Caitlin Jordan for creating the featured political cartoon at the top of this post with very little notice.