The above video is Alfie Kohn - an American who writes and lectures about education, parenting and human behaviour. I confess, I am new to finding out about him. In the US, he is considered to be a leading figure in progressive education. He is known to be controversial and he challenges thinking in those areas that undermine progressive public education like standardised testing and competition. For that alone - I am a fan.
I stumbled on a video of him talking about learning and the points he made about the standardised teaching of a standardised curriculum, within a standardised and rigid regime, really hit home. It hit home because if the current neo liberal, right wing, anti public education movement get to fulfil their dark and damaging prophesy, then all that is detrimental to the success of students and society, will come to pass here. Scary!
But, that is not what this post is about.
This post is about his musing on global rankings, like PISA and TIMSS. While he discusses it from a US perspective, the correlation to our own current regimes compulsion with being better than everyone else is very relevant. May I suggest that the UK and Aussie politicians are just as obsessed with improving their own rankings and NZ is not alone in its drive to improve rankings by adopting harmful, ill informed practices.
The 5 key messages from this short clip by Alfie Kohn, as I see it, are:
1. The global rankings that 'everyone' goes crazy over - they are only as good as the standardised tests that they are based on, and who is chosen to sit them, on any given day. The variables alone make it somewhat dodgy if you really think about it. I wonder, for example, how much of the ranking is determined by factors such as educational and social policy (take Finland - highly qualified, huge investment in education and its importance, high investment in teacher professional development, government investment in equity and ensuring families are supported to name just a few things in a list a mile long). How much of the ranking depends on who sits the test? Is it consistent across the other countries? How many countries have the kind of diversity that some have, where ESOL and special needs play a part - how many countries mainstream? Where does poverty factor into this?
2. The quality of schools argument is misguided in that it is the differences from school to school, and suburb to suburb that drive the outcomes. If you look at the advantages that students from the leafy, white middle class suburbs have versus those students that come from disadvantaged poverty stricken suburbs where resources are less prevalent, then you very quickly understand that the real issue here is the need to solve the poverty problem. I know teachers are miracle workers who are awesome, but this is a problem outside the hands of teachers. All the neo liberal policies in the world can not fix inequitable disadvantage caused by poverty. To think it can is to be short sighted, naive and borderline ignorant.
3. The issue of ranking is in itself abhorrent due to what it implies. To say that we are unhappy with our current ranking and to suggest that 'we' (insert the US, NZ, Aus, UK) need to be number one as if it is an athletic event and that we must have global competitiveness is like suggesting that the children in other countries shouldn't learn well. That they need to fail so that we can succeed. That is against all that educators hold as sacrosanct. The almighty addiction to win at all costs, and a belief that others must fail so that 'we' (insert the US, NZ, Aus, UK) can succeed is counter intuitive to what it is to educate, and counter productive to what a public education system serves.
4. The more focussed you are on winning the less focussed you are on community. No explanation required - it is pretty self explanatory.
5. Project, problem based, question learning creates choice and teaches democracy and group dynamics. In short, as opposed to standardised teaching and learning methods based on competitive paradigms, it teaches students how to listen, compromise, to hash out a consensus and it helps create democratic citizenry.
The irony that seems to escape the bureaucrats, privatisation zealots and right wing conservative suits is that - wait for it - the further they push their neoliberal agenda, the more likely the rankings will continue to plummet as the equity gaps widen.
It is not rocket science.
So you tell me - global rankings - relevant or redundant?