Saturday, August 1, 2009

Learning Matters

30 July 2009

Over the holidays I had the opportunity to attend the International Confederation of Principals Conference in Singapore. It proved to be the most inspiring and thought-provoking conference that I believe I have ever attended with 1500 school principals from around the world in attendance.

The highlight of the first day was the 60 minute opening address by the Prime Minister who outlined the Singaporean education journey and its strategy for the future. His catch cry is “Teach less, learn more.” He was outstanding and exhibited the type of leadership from the top for education which this country lacks.

They have had a clear strategy which has included big pay rises for teachers in return for performance-based pay and class sizes of 40 students. They have now moved to reduce that to 30. They have also ensured a strong base of support to schools from the central agency. Schools are also very well resourced. There was no talk at all of recession which seems to be the focus of any conversation in NZ from the government. Educational spending is rising by 5.5% this year!

There was followed an excellent keynote from Sir Dexter Hutt (a knighthood for services to education!) who addressed the issue of 21st Century Leadership. He re-emphasised that we don't know what the best model is for a school of the 21st Century other than that it should be positioned to cope with change and that the curriculum should provide regular opportunities for students to research, work in teams and present to an audience. He also claimed that the most important qualities to develop in young people to prepare them for the future are self-confidence and self-esteem.

The opening address on the second was by Andy Hargreaves who mapped out his view of the Fourth Way that education and schooling was entering. This requires principals to have an impossible dream for their school, to actively seek public engagement, to involve students as partners in change and to deliver mindful learning and teaching. He outlined the three principles of professionalism which were high quality teachers, powerful professionalism and lively learning communities.

The next speaker was Michael Furdyk who is a co-founder of which is a youth generated website which allows young people to actively contribute to changing the world. He has just turned 27 and his address was inspirational. His goal is to make caring cool. His website and opportunities to contribute and design could easily be the basis for a full school curriculum.

The last day of the conference was opened by Professor Kishore Mahbubani who gave an Asian perspective of the world, both its past and future. He commented on the growth of China and India and his surprise when western commentators expressed surprise at this growth. His view is that Asia has been the dominant power in the world for almost all of the world's history and that it has only been the last 200 years that the west has had dominance. The world is merely returning to its natural state.

He identified 3 paradoxes. The first is that the globalisation of western education has contributed to the decline in western dominance in the world. The second is that this means that non-western elements now need to be included in the curriculum. The third is that at a time when the rest of the world is opening up the west is becoming more closed.

His suggestions were to continue the globalisation of western education as this has contributed to the growth and development of critical thinking and to a reduction in poverty, to introduce non-western elements into the western curriculum so that the west can begin to understand different cultures and that students can understand the inter-connectedness of the world, and that there has to be a two-way street of ideas between the west and east because both world views are valid.

His analogy is that the world used to be like 192 different boats (countries) floating on the sea and that we merely needed rules to prevent them colliding. Now we have 192 different cabins on the same boat with no captain or crew, but most are just worrying about their own cabin. His question to us is to imagine the limitations when the education system only teaches about its own cabin!

He got a standing ovation from the 1500 present.

The second speaker was Professor David Perkins whose topic was educating for the unknown. His big question was what is worth learning. He proposed a checklist of Enlightenment, Empowerment and Responsibility. If material did not empower people to take action and to contribute, if it did not enlighten people or did not enhance a person's sense of responsibility then it was most probably not worth learning.

His little poem was:

Taught a lot but matters not
Not taught but matters a lot.

He talked of a concept of 'flexpertise' which required one to have an understanding of the wide scope of disciplines, to concentrate on ways of knowing (thinking skills), to develop ethical understaandings (empathy, spirituality, equity), to develop personal and societal understandings (leadership, collaboration) and to include horizon themes (current important themes).

We need to reduce what is in the curriculum using his 3 criteria of empowerment, enlightenment and responsibility. His suggestion is to pick the richest topics first, work in some of the others, just touch on some and then drop some!

This conference was all about learning and learning matters.

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