Education Opinion

A New Formula from Sir Michael Barber

By John Wilson — January 23, 2012 2 min read
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I have to admit that I have been a little cool to Sir Michael Barber. During his tenure as a chief advisor to Prime Minister Tony Blair, my friends at the National Union of Teachers in the United Kingdom were often at odds with his obsessive advocacy for testing and his infatuation with private schools. He seemed to embrace No Child Left Behind more than most in America. All this when he had been a former official with the union in the UK! That did not add up for me.

In my old age, I have decided to read, listen, and converse more with people that often, in the past, sent me into a knee-jerk reaction. I have decided to set aside the ideas with which I disagree and focus on incorporating ideas I can support in my advocacy for public education. I want to practice collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and creativity because these 21st century skills are those I’m advocating to transform education and assure that all children have access to great public schools.

Recently, I was invited to attend, as an observer, a meeting of Pearson employees. Sir Michael Barber, now serving as Pearson’s chief education advisor, was the keynote speaker. I had heard Sir Michael on C-Span, and I had read his research at McKinsey & Company, but this was my first chance to hear him in person. I took copious notes.

Sir Michael’s topic was “Educational Transformation: The Fifty-Year Challenge.” He presented to us an education formula of E (K +T + L). K stands for knowledge. Obviously, we see education as imparting systematically the content that every child needs to be well-educated, but that is not all our schools should do. The “T” stands for thinking. All the knowledge in the world will do no good unless our children know how to think and use that knowledge. The “L” stands for Leading. I was impressed that leadership was a part of his formula because I have often believed that we have limited the experiences that build leaders. The most intriguing part of the formula was the “E.” The “E” stands for ethical. In our world today, we have to infuse ethics into our education system. Knowledge, thinking, and leading can never be productive without being wrapped in ethical behavior.

Sir Michael also reviewed with us the nine characteristics of a great education system. These can be found in the McKinsey & Company report called “Shaping the Future: How Good Education Systems Can Become Great in the Decade Ahead.” Under standards and accountability, there are globally-based standards, good transparent data and accountability, and every child on the agenda in order to challenge inequality. Under human capital, you find the recruitment and training of great people, continuous improvement of pedagogical skills and knowledge, and great leadership at the school level. Under structure and organization, he lists an effective and enabling central department, capacity to manage change and engage communities, and operational responsibility and budgets devolved to schools. Sir Michael advocates that you must do all of these well to build a strong education system.

I am warming up to many of Sir Michael’s ideas on systemic thinking and understanding of the value of teachers. Let’s hope that those who implement them do not pick and choose with a political filter. I will remember most his parting words of “Mandate adequacy, but unleash greatness.”

The opinions expressed in John Wilson Unleashed are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.