BETT2014: Raising Educational Standards?

49Bett2014 started today; thousands of people have gone to West London in search of a “silver bullet” to raise standards in teaching and learning.  From past experience I can imagine the bright lights, the maze of stalls, the freebies and the keynote presentations – and the crowds of glassy-eyed teachers processing around the halls with a small budget burning a hole in their pocket and “that presentation to the SLT” playing on their minds…  

Through the razzle-dazzle nobody ever says that when teachers consider whether to buy into edtech, whether in the form of an iPAD or an App, the key question must be what they really mean by “raise standards”, because this is not clear and because the value offered by any technological aid depends on the answer.

A lot of attention has been focused on the UK’s performance in the international PISA tests and suggestions have been made that standards in UK education are falling because our PISA ranking has fallen.  It is important to consider whether these tests are the best measure of educational standards.  

More attention has been focused on OfSTED’s reports into educational standards in certain areas and in certain subjects; because OfSTED has criticised the quality of teaching in some areas and in some subjects suggestions have been made that standards in UK education need improvement.  It is important to consider whether OfSTED’s methods measure the quality of teaching effectively and whether higher educational standards clearly relate to having a greater proportion of lessons graded as “outstanding” by OfSTED.  

Arguably, PISA testing gives a limited, narrow impression of standards in education and one which favors Asian approaches to teaching and learning, despite their shortcomings in terms of developing critical and creative abilities and nurturing the whole child.  

Arguably, OfSTED observations favour lessons which entertain over lessons which really stretch and challenge young people and arguably OfSTED’s approach to making observations creates such stress and pressure that the process of observation or the threat of it distorts what is observed and negatively affects standards.  

When we talk about raising standards in education, what do we really mean?  

Do we mean improving a small number of specific skills, including young peoples’ ability to perform well in tests of those skills, do we mean raising exam results by whatever means (even making the exams easier).  Or, do we mean that raising educational standards means instilling a love of learning in more young people, creating in more of them a desire to “live deep” rather than just to jump through hoops into a call-center job?  

Do we mean making education more “fun” and immediately engaging by introducing more colour, more games and gimmicks, more pre-digested worksheets and spoon-feeding.  Do we really mean that raising standards in education means making teachers work harder longer and getting more visible value out of them? Or do we mean that raising standards in education means enabling more young people to know more, be able to do more and want to put in the effort for themselves?

Education is about bringing out human potential, helping young people to live well.  

Being human resists being reduced to a small set of skills, resists being modularized and tested, resists being measured statistically or economically.  We should be suspicious of simple measures of educational standards because what is being measured is anything but simple!

Education is not “fun” and it can’t be done to you by someone else, however much they might want or need to.  Education requires effort; making young people expect to have it done for them and for everything to be engaging, colourful and sugar-coated just about guarantees that they will disengage from the educational process as soon as they have to start putting in.  

The best measure for standards in education, surely, is the people it produces.  Are they sucking the marrow out of life?  Are they thirsty for knowledge and ambitious to improve themselves, even when that involves hard work and sacrifice?  Do they do more and care more than previous generations?

Sadly, by this measure it seems that UK education is not doing well and does require improvement.  Many young people feel alienated, dissatisfied, disengaged and apathetic.  Neither narrowing the focus of education, teaching to the test, nor sugar-coating things will improve standards in education.  

There is no silver bullet.  No interactive whiteboard or MOOC will inspire young people to engage with the process of growing up in a world which they feel does not understand or care, a world which they feel has rejected them and offers them nothing they want, a world which they do not really want to be in, let alone to improve.    

The ONLY way to improve education is to inspire and love young people more.  Yes, you did read that right.  Inspiration is closely related to love; only people can love people and people who love people are inspiring.  Only people can educate other people.  Books, videos and other gadgets are only incidental to the process.  We can educate and be educated without so much as a pen and paper, but the most expensive technology will get nowhere without LOVE driving us to inspire others to use it, without LOVE driving us to accept inspiration and act on it.

Of course we should invest in technology which serves teachers’ purpose and makes their task a tiny little bit easier, but we should never forget that the real asset to invest in is teachers and the real agent of improvement their love of humanity, of life itself.  

Reflect on that at BETT2014, please.  

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