Ministers Learn About Improvement at Scale

An Education Leaders Briefing concluded the World Education Forum in London this week. Greg Butler from Microsoft (who helped my district go 1:1 in 1996) moderated the session that I participated in with Sir Michael Barber, Chief Education Advisor at Pearson, and Microsoft education lead Anthony Salcito.
Barber framed the great challenges of our time: There will soon be nine billion people on the planet, and for most of them to achieve a meaningful quality of life, it will require that we create effective educational opportunities for all of them. In responding to the challenge of boosting achievement and extending access, I heard eight themes emerge at #ELB2013.
Mission. In his recent paper “Oceans of Innovation,” Barber reiterated his frame for the purpose of education where knowledge, thinking, and leadership are set in a context of ethical behavior in a diverse world in the following equation:
Education = E(K+T+L)
Barber is right; good schools start with good goals. His emphasis on demonstrated skills and leadership dispositions reflects the fact that many “students will be leaving college and creating jobs for themselves.”
Speeding Up. Butler noted that the rate of educational change appears to be increasing. As evidence I noted increased investment from more sources riding the mobile device and app wave, new tools and schools producing promising results, and students, parents and teachers adopting new tools.
Digital learning is not only an opportunity to boost achievement in developed economies but the first chance in history to extend quality learning, especially secondary learning, to young people worldwide. (On the low cost private school front, Barber’s team runs the Affordable Learning Fund and Learn Capital supports Bridge International Academes .)
New Models. While there’s a thin layer of “ICT” across the U.K. and U.S., most of it layered on top of old models. A new generation of schools (including NGLC grantees) are blending online and onsite learning, enabling new student roles, and powering improved working conditions and career opportunities for teachers. Learning online, in formal and informal settings, is creating new school models and learning options for youth and families.
Butler asked about trends in assessment (a hot topic in England where they announced the planned replacement of GCSEs this week). While summative tests will lag new capabilities, most assessments will shift from an event after learning to instant feedback often embedded in experiences.
Learning As a Service. Butler noted that learning is less place bound–a shift from a place to a bundle of digital services. Barber noted the strategic shift Pearson had undertaken “from print to digital, content to services, and the U.S. to the world.”
As Barber’s formula suggests, the ability to deploy higher order skills is key. While a lot of the edtech apps address small problems, the real breakthroughs will be tools and schools that develop, assess, and certify higher order skills.
Butler notes that the new game is talent and countries will either be net exporters or importers.
Leadership Matters. Country ministers play an important role in improving opportunity starting with a plan to provide access devices and broadband. Mario Franco’s leadership in Portugal is a great example of what is possible.
Ministers also play an important role in setting expectations and certifying learning. The new opportunity for step function improvement in value is blended secondary and low cost post-secondary options.
Where to Start. All the speakers talked about visiting and learning from systems and schools that work well. Barber pointed to systems that have made sustained gains: Finland, Ontario, and Singapore.
Salcito said, “start with the questions, then figure out the device.” He reviewed the Microsoft Innovative Schools 6i frame: introspection, investigation, inclusion, innovation, implementation, and insight.
Partnerships. Salcito said, “Partners in Learning is who we are as a company.” It’s an effort to “bring real capabilities to the problem.”
Butler leads an international association of partnership brokers. He trains communities leaders globally in partnership development.
I suggested that real progress will result from multi-sector partnership, putting the right capital to work doing the right jobs. Public leaders should name and frame problems and invite others to invest. Foundations should promote equity and a long term view. Private partners should produce and scale innovation.
Improvement at Scale. Barber has been thinking about and working on improvement at scale for more than twenty years (see Deliverology , 2010). He regularly advises country and system heads on improvement strategies. His first word of advice is to “sustain improvement efforts” and avoid frequent changes to the basic framework–improvement takes sustained leadership.
I suggested a two-part strategy: 1) incorporate technology into improvement efforts, and 2) launch new tech-powered models (a digital portfolio approach).
Barber urged that system heads “think in combinations; don’t think of technology separate from content or professional development” as suggested by Fullan’s Stratosphere. In conclusion Barber urged the ministers to “Stay open to the world.” And that’s why the room full of education ministers and staff were in London this week.
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This blog first appeared on EdWeek.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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