Sunday, March 25, 2012

Systemic approaches to education and the legacy of John Dewey

Schooling and university education are being debated across the world - it is a hot topic in Australia, the UK the USA etc..  It never ceases to amaze me how so many commentators, politicians and civil servants (i) generalise from their  own limited experience; (ii) trust the big consulting firms to deliver effective innovations (rather than repeat business); (iii) fail to learn from history and (iv) have no, or limited, appreciation of how learning operates.  Given my own experiences of three major Higher Education (HE) learning systems (traditional, didactic; student centred, experiential learning; student-centred supported open learning) it was thus pleasing to read a two-part series 'Schools we can Envy' and 'How, and How Not, to Improve the Schools' by Diane Ravitch in the New York Review of Books.

In particular I like Pasi Sahlberg's acronym 'GERM' as it is so fitting a description and metaphor for what is happening in the UK and Australia.  This extract explains the main points:

"Like George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program is part of what Pasi Sahlberg calls “the Global Education Reform Movement,” or GERM. GERM demands teaching to the test. GERM assumes that students must be constantly tested, and that the results of these tests are the most important measures and outcomes of education. The scores can be used not only to grade the quality of every school, but to punish or reward students, teachers, principals, and schools. Those at the top of the education system, the elected officials and leaders who make the rules, create the budgets, and allocate resources, are never accountable for the consequences of their decisions. GERM assumes that people who work in schools need carrots and sticks to persuade (or compel) them to do their best.

In Finland, the subject of the first part of this article,1 teachers work collaboratively with other members of the school staff; they are not “held accountable” by standardized test scores because there are none. Teachers devise their own tests, to inform them about their students’ progress and needs. They do their best because it is their professional responsibility. Like other professionals, as Pasi Sahlberg shows in his book Finnish Lessons, Finnish teachers are driven by a sense of intrinsic motivation, not by the hope of a bonus or the fear of being fired. Intrinsic motivation is also what they seek to instill in their students. In the absence of standardized testing by which to compare their students and their schools, teachers must develop, appeal to, and rely on their students’ interest in learning."

The irony is that theoretically what Finland does takes much of its inspiration from the work of American John Dewey, who was also a great influence on Systems scholars like Russ Ackoff and West Churchman.  The GERM countries would do well to revisit John Dewey in their policy formulations.  Unfortunately this would require a major policy about-face as the key starting point.  A contemporary Deweian approach  needs re-recognition that education is a public good - an investment in a society - rather than a private good equipping the individual to compete in a mythical market. I do not see GERM politicians championing such a strategy.  Not even the UK Fib Dems had the courage of their convictions when it came to the crunch.


Jim said...

I think the contrast between those countries following the GERM model and in this case Finland could be likened to the split between McGregor's theory X and theory Y in management.

In fact, given the prevalence and influence of American thought on management it may indeed be the source of the theory X approach currently favoured in the UK.

The irony being that the limitations of following a theory X approach in business were recognised a long time ago. I wonder why policy makers in the public/education sector cling to them so doggedly?

Anonymous said...

Superb post, Ray. Is there any way of re-blogging it? Do you mind if I copy and paste into one of my own blogs? I've written quite a lot recently about Pasi Sahlberg and Finnish education, but didn't know about 'GERM'. Your points (i) to (iv) also hit the nail right on the head.

Ray said...

By all means use the post to any advantage you see fit. Thank both for the replies. Jim does business, in the main, really appreciate the limitations of theory X? If so why do many attempts to privatise public sector functions seem to either fail, or delier a very poor service? Or do I have the wrong perspective on this?