In previous posts on this blog, I have written about the challenge of the black box. Economists often define education as a series of inputs that go into a black box as well as the outputs that then emerge on the other side; however, they rarely detail what happens inside the box itself. Particularly with education, this can be problematic. After all, there are students inside of that black box and their futures depend on those inputs and outputs.
As I worked on a paper for class last weekend, I realized that I had a rare opportunity to examine a slightly transparent box. For a course in Strategic Systems Change, I wrote a policy brief based on the recently released Worldwide Educating for the Future Index. This report, written by the Economist Intelligence Unit and commissioned by The Yidan Prize Foundation, examined the inputs into the 35 national education systems. The authors argue that most international comparisons look only at outputs such as PISA scores and the TIMSS assessment. Not only does an exam-based model perpetuate a focus on isolated summative assessments, but it also does not provide an indication of what attributes might lead to future success.
Today’s education systems must prepare students for an increasingly complex, technological, and global society. Whether we call this new era the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the knowledge economy, or the innovation age, there seems to be a global consensus that students will require interdisciplinary, creative, analytical, entrepreneurial, leadership, and civic skills in addition to traditional literacies. By examining the inputs of policy, teaching, and sociopolitical context, the Worldwide Educating for the Future Index defined 16 indicators that align to the development of students future skills.
However, unlike reports intended to simply provide a ranking, the authors of the index viewed their work as both a call to action for government leaders as well as a blueprint for implementing systemic change. First, within the policy category, the index determined that few governments prioritize the requisite skills, curriculum, and assessments to prepare students for the future. New Zealand, Canada, Finland, Singapore, and the United Kingdom represent five of the strongest systems in this category (the U.S. ranked 16th). Beyond simply having language in their educational policies that addresses concepts such as 21st Century Learning, these countries also detail curricular objectives and describe new forms of assessments to determine the degree of implementation.
However, because these education policy objectives emphasize strategies such as Project or Problem Based Learning, iteration and design, Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM), as well as competency-based assessment, increased human capital within the teaching sector represented 50% of the overall index. Teacher salary, government spending on secondary education, training, and credentialing served as indicators of the quality of teaching within each country. And yet, while money did emerge as a factor, no correlation exists between teacher salary and the success of a country’s education system. Across the entire index, New Zealand and Canada rank first and second overall but 19th and 17th respectively in teacher salary. In contrast, the U.S. ranks seventh in salary but 13th within the category of teaching and 12th overall. Instead, the status of teachers as professionals emerged as a more important indicator of success. Countries like Finland and Singapore who possess more stringent credentialing programs and a national culture of respect for the profession of education also implemented more demanding curriculum and seem poised for future success.
Finally, within the category of sociopolitical context, the Index found that countries who focused on equity and an open society also possessed education systems designed to prepare students for the future. An open society values all students as contributors and recognizes that social cohesion depends on all students possessing these future skills.
Let’s work backwards. If citizens who possess the intellectual, technological, and civic skills to participate in a global society represent the output of education systems designed to prepare students for the future; and policy, teaching, and society serve as the inputs; then look what must be happening inside the box: PBL, STEM, technology, real-world problem solving, and the opportunity for students to learn how to learn.
Within the model presented by the Worldwide Educating for the Future Index, the black box that exists between the inputs and outputs may actually be transparent. The authors intended for the report to serve as a design guide for nations to replace their existing education systems with one that will prepare students with future skills. Unlike previous international reports, the Index neither encourages more preparation for exams nor recommends a one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, it issues a call to action at a systems level and advocates for the implementation of strategies that allow students to develop as lifelong learners.
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