I've been thinking... which is quite possibly the first mistake. We are living in very interesting times here in the land of the long white cloud. Our highly regarded education system is being pushed and challenged. Which in itself is not a bad thing, as this is when we grow, learn and develop. However when we look to systems beyond NZ we tend to focus on the major countries as determined by size, i.e. Australia, USA, UK etc. Over the last few months I have come across a few blog posts which suggest the odd European country might have some innovative 21st century ideas for education.
SoPresidentPrime-Minister Jose Socrates took a courageous step. He decided to invest heavily in a “technological shock” to jolt his country into the 21st century. This meant, among other things, that he’d make sure everyone in the workforce could handle a computer and use the Internet effectively.
This could transform Portuguese society by giving people immediate access to world. It would open up huge opportunities that could make Portugal a richer and more competitive place. But it wouldn’t happen unless people had a computer in their hands.
In 2005, only 31% of the Portuguese households had access to the Internet. To improve this penetration, the logical place to start was in school, where there was only one computer for five kids. The aim was to have one computer for every two students by 2010.
So Portugal launched the biggest program in the world to equip every child in the country with a laptop and access to the web and the world of collaborative learning. To pay for it, Portugal tapped into both government funds and money from mobile operators who were granted 3G licenses. That subsidized the sale of one million ultra-cheap laptops to teachers, school children, and adult learners.
Here’s how it works: If you’re a teacher or a student, you can buy a laptop for 150 euros (U.S. $207). You also get a discounted rate for broadband Internet access, wired or wireless. Low income students get an even bigger discount, and connected laptops are free or virtually free for the poorest kids. For the youngest students in Grades 1 to 4, the laptop/Internet access deal is even cheaper — 50 euros for those who can pay; free for those who can’t.
That’s only the start: Portugal has invested 400 million euros to makes sure each classroom has access to the Internet. Just about every classroom in the public system now has an interactive smart board, instead of the old fashioned blackboard.
This means that nearly nine out of 10 students in Grades 1 to 4 have a laptop on their desk. The impact on the classroom is tremendous, as I saw this spring when I toured a classroom of seven-year-olds in a public school in Lisbon. It was the most exciting, noisy, collaborative classroom I have seen in the world..
The assumption that is made by policy-makers is that if we can increase competition between schools for resources, students and teachers, schools will be better off,” Sahlberg explains. “There is a belief that this type of competitive thinking is beneficial to education systems, but in education it’s not so simple.” In the market-driven school, Sahlberg explains, “Parents are seen as consumers, just as clients are seen as in a business. They are given the information so that they can decide which school to send their children to.”
Sahlberg says that the reliance of standardized testing to judge the success of student performance started in England in the 1980s and quickly spread to North America, Australia and other developed nations. Sahlberg’s home country of Finland, on the other hand, was not swept up in trying out the new approach. “Scandinavian countries were not convinced that through competition education would be improved. Instead an idea of equality is pervasive—that every child needs to be provided with equal opportunity through good education,” he explains.
This perspective means schools in his country look different than those in countries that embraced standardized testing. “For example, schools in England have only two or three core subjects in the curriculum, whereas in Finnish schools there is more of a broad focus that includes the social arts, based on the belief that the success of individuals is not solely achieved through the instruction of only math and sciences. The whole education system in Finland, from kindergarten to Grade 12, has no high-stakes external testing system,” he explains.
Sorry about the long quotes, something I try and avoid, however worth looking at I think. This is but a couple of examples of valid experiences from around the world. I fear at times we can be blinkered in the way we compare ourselves and look for ideas and innovation always in the same places. We need to remove the blinkers and look further afield. Great ideas are everywhere when it comes to both looking for ways to innovate in our own education system or school and also when we need to learn from others mistakes and mis-steps in an effort not repeat them.
Just a thought.