A Tale of Two Countries
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
The opening lines of Charles Dickens “A Tale of Two Cities” are as relevant when comparing and contrasting education systems throughout the world as they were to describe the comings and goings of the French Revolution. Nothing is straightforward. What the State prescribes as the way forward may be in direct contrast to the wishes of the people. Different people have different stories. Individuals’ interpretation of the same event are wholly dependent on their personal experiences.
In many of our posts we have commented on both the positive and negative aspects of education systems in other countries. Like many commentators, we see enormous value in the education philosophy and practice in places like Finland, and we have considered how we can transfer these successes to our own country. We’ve looked at the National Education Framework for small countries like Bhutan and have also discovered, through our physical travels and extensive internet research, the ‘fundamental educational aims’ of Japan. We’ve considered the value of the “New Learning Revolution” written by Gordon Dryden and Jeannette Vos – a philosophy that has been implemented in countries as diverse as China’s Shanghai Province and New Zealand.
We’ve also looked at the development of the “Teach Less, Learn More” programme in Singapore and have explained why we are so excited by what we have read on Singapore’s Ministry of Education website.
Here’s a quote from that website that resonates so much with 3Di Associates’ thinking:
“The Ministry of Education aims to help our students to discover their own talents, to make the best of these talents and realise their full potential, and to develop a passion for learning that lasts through life.”
Whatever side of the political, educational, economic or international divide you come from, we can all agree that we want the “best” for our children and young people. However, “best” is a value that is open to interpretation and what one person or nation thinks is the “best” can contrast dramatically with the views of another.
To demonstrate this, we offer a couple of examples.
1. What a government department prescribes as best practice may not comply with the values of the teaching profession or the desires and needs of the recipients of the education system.
In England now we have a situation where there’s been thoughtful and widespread criticism of the proposed new National Curriculum. Mr Gove fundamentally believes that his knowledge-based curriculum is the “best” for our young people whilst many within the profession see it is as retrograde step that disregards all that we’ve learned about pedagogy over half a century.
2. Governments can develop a policy which they believe is being implemented when in reality the practice is far removed from the philosophical aims.
In 2004, the then British government implemented its “Every Child Matters” strategy for holistic childcare, wellbeing and education. In theory, it was akin to the holistic lifelong learning that so many of us have wanted to see in our schools – joined up thinking that supported the wellbeing and all-round achievements of young people. In reality, the focus was so weighted on educational attainment (ie achieving arbitrary test and exam targets in schools) – since this was the only real quantitative measure that held schools accountable – that the remaining four objectives of ‘being healthy’, ‘staying safe’, ‘positive contribution’ and ‘economic wellbeing’ weren’t fully implemented or even tackled.
3. Within the teaching profession there are hugely contrasting views on what is “best practice”, and there are some that don’t practice what they believe is the best.
Schools vary enormously in their provision, with some focusing on knowledge-based, factory fodder teaching with the sole aim of attaining the highest grades possible. Others embrace the higher aim (in our opinion) of developing a love of learning that will last throughout a lifetime, ensuring that there’s a balance and depth of learning experiences that enable and empower children to learn – and live.
There are occasions when professionals have an absolute belief in what is right for the child but government policy draws them into a style of pedagogy that fundamentally contrasts with their educational ideology – such is the pressure of league tables. So here, we have a situation where the need to keep heads above water, or away from the chopping block, means that views on “best practice” are subsumed by an instinct for survival.
These three examples will probably resonate with many a practitioner in England but we are also aware that they will resonate with professionals, parents and students in other countries too. Whilst we comment on the innovative and thoughtful proposals from other countries, we are aware that what is “preached” may not be fully practiced. We also know that the views of the “client” may not comply with the philosophy of the governors and we know that views on education are so diverse and individualised that to get complete compliance to a set of virtues for teaching is near impossible within one school let alone an entire nation.
To this effect, whilst we’d advocate adherence to the philosophy of education espoused in other countries like Singapore, we appreciate that the written word might not be what is practised in every school within the country.
In Singapore, the government is committed to the “Teach Less, Learn More” (TLLM) policy. Yet many parents within the country are still firmly entrenched in the “attainment at all costs” philosophy. As in Britain, there’s a gross misunderstanding about progressive learning – and there seems to be in Singapore too. It’s not a question of either gaining highly graded qualifications or enjoying learning. You can have both!
Some parents in Singapore mock the “edutainment” philosophy saying that it might be better to instil a notion of sitting in rows and performing rote learning activities as “fun”. Take a look at this extract – the link to the full post below.
“The capacity to interpret apparently ‘boring’ content presented in class as ‘fun’ is something that needs to be cultivated, for it does not come naturally. But more importantly, it is a capacity that could be destroyed through over-exposure to too much fun!”
For us, this demonstrates what the Singapore government is up against. Attitudes and values don’t change overnight. Decades can pass without a fundamental shift in ideology. Reviewing the impact of Thatcherism on British society at the time of her death demonstrated this very clearly. She left power over 20 years ago but the ideology of her “ism” lives on.
Teachers in Singapore may have spent decades teaching (and learning) in a certain way. Change is difficult for people but not impossible. It takes time. If the TLLM policy hasn’t been fully implemented, then that doesn’t come as a shock to us. This is a major and fundamental change that will take time and practice to get right. However, we and others who believe in this philosophy of education should do everything we can to support this system, and promote a similar shift of emphasis in our own country.
As Michael Barber wrote in the Guardian in August 2012,
“Leaders in Pacific Asia are realising that what worked in the last 50 years is not what will be required in the next 50. They have come to the conclusion that their economies need to become more innovative and their schools more creative. It is one thing for an education system to produce well-educated deferential citizens; another to produce a generation of innovators.”
From someone who has been so rigidly focused on “attainment, attainment, attainment” as an educational mantra, this is a significant statement.
He continues, “People understand too that while exams are important, the obsession with them among parents can be dangerous.”
There are many tales from the two countries and the two educational systems of England and Singapore. There are going to be contrasting views and experiences of both. Perhaps we ought to journey together with the absolute focus on developing an educational philosophy and practice that resolutely retains the principle of support for human wellbeing and the development of the whole child of the 21st century – wherever they may be.
We are interested in readers’ views on the following video. Please let us know what you think of it: