Education: Mind the gap!
By Lars Persen
Reporting from Norway
Lord David Puttnam, Digital Champion of Ireland, Oscar-winning film producer, long-time Promethean board member and Life-Peer in the British House of Lords, addressed one of Norway’s most important conferences for school leaders and owners as keynote speaker outside Oslo less than two weeks ago.
His highly-appreciated speech can most of all be interpreted as a warning of what we can expect when PISA 2013 is presented on December 3, 2013. In the speech Lord Puttnam referred to a rather well-known phrase from London tube stations, as well as subways and undergrounds around the world: “Mind the gap!”
Lord David Puttnam predicted that PISA 2013 would show an increased difference between countries that in 2009 had successfully placed as top-ranked in the areas reading and mathematics to those that placed in the lower part of the 2009 rankings.
He specifically pointed out the Shanghai model as prominent, both because of their results and how teachers in Shanghai spend 30 percent of their work time on Continuous Professional Development or CPD, which for the most part aligns to technology adaptation needs as suggested by government goals.
Countries in East Asia have for a long time been top ranked in calculus and algebra, but when Shanghai far exceeds most western countries in reading skills it is significant–and Europe as well as North America must take notice. If you consider that Shanghai students also have a similar lead in science performances (OECD 2011), we get an image of a school system that could quite possibly make a difference in innovation and economic development over the next twenty to thirty years. Those countries performing on OECD average or lower will have to adjust to this, or simply lose competitive power in an exceedingly more globalized system.
Lord Puttnam pointed out that the countries where governments and families are likely to sacrifice the most for education also are most likely to succeed in the future. Still looking at Southeast Asia, Lord Puttnam says, “When families in that area of the world are spending more than 30 percent of their income on a child’s education, it is self-sacrifice!” He added that this is equal to what many families in US, UK, and Norway spend on cars or holidays each year.
Replying to a question from a Norwegian government official regarding the big dropout
rates in higher secondary education (especially among boys), Lord Puttnam advised that he strongly believed that the individualized or personalized aspect of learning has to become even more important in order to turn around this negative trend. Even if most students manage school, an increasing number of them feel that they don’t fit in. “Some lose their motivation and are struggling. Let’s find out what they are interested in and make them incredibly good at it,” said Puttnam.
Puttnam thrilled the audience with strong analogies. Showing an epic battle scene from Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” (2011), in which the German soldiers of WW1 for the first time used machine guns against riding British cavalry, Puttnam told: “I believe that technology in schools are the machine guns of our time!” One can add that it seems to take longer to convince all teachers that they cannot win the battle completely relying on the old horse. With Norway still under the magnifying lens, the country (although being a high-end marketplace) has fewer IWBs (interactive whiteboards) in classrooms compared to other Scandinavian countries.
Puttnam pointed out technology turnover is a specific challenge to education—knowing that most of today’s technology will be considered too old within 3 years. “Children will leave school never again working in the way they did in the classroom,” said Putnam. He not only targeted technology used in our schools, but also the methods of teaching, which he believes hasn’t changed much since the 1950’s. This parallels what Sir Ken Robinson has already said about trying to apply the ideas and school system from the era of enlightenment to post-modern 21st century society—and work life.
During Lord Puttnam’s speech, one conference participant tweeted: “Puttnam pays tribute to creativity and curiosity, leaving us who work in education with a collective and enormous challenge!”
Can we manage this challenge?
Looking towards the publication of the 2013 PISA papers, we all have to focus on how we can improve education, locally and on government levels. The warning is clear: Mind the gap!
About the author:
Lars Persen has worked as an educator and school leader for 16 years, both in Norwegian state schools and in IB institutions in Germany. He is now pedagogical leader at Norwegian Promethean partner, Scandec Systemer, and also a Promethean Expert and Fellow.