Day 5: education envy

Education envy: also known as "A comparative look at international education systems around the world". This discussion began with a reflection: what’s positive and negative about our education system? As someone who is constantly reflecting on the education system in South Africa I was stumped. There are often very few positive features in our education system and sometimes there seems to be very little hope. So instead of focusing on the South African education system I had to narrow my experience to my school experience.

The other teachers shared their evaluation and I was reminded of the solidarity with teachers from the United States of America who are as equally conflicted about their education system as I am about mine. Some of the issues that were raised were related to the question of equity and the role education plays in creating opportunities for children who need them. An example from one of the teachers from Baltimore was her school's scholarship focus in providing access to disadvantaged students who wouldn't otherwise be able to attend the expensive school. This was in the same breath that she explained that more access needs to be created as some of these students had problems with transport getting to school which makes the opportunity (of being at a privileged school) come at a huge cost.

Most teachers agreed that part of understanding the pros and cons about our schools and education systems means understanding the culture we create and recreate. The perfect example of this culture are societal expectations on education and parents' expectations on what education should be able to do for their children. As Ken Robinson says in his famous TED talk, "Everyone has a vested interest in fact everyone has an opinion about education...!" This means that schools are balancing many views about what education should be about and what success means after 15 or so years in an educational institution.

It should be no surprise that the first system we explored is Finland. Much has been written about this education system and we were all gushing at their success and being envious about the professional freedom teachers have in Finland. Teachers in Finland have the luxury of teaching their students to learn and not to pass a test as they are not burdened by standardised testing. However, the conversation shifted when we looked at the results from the OECD's Education at a Glance 2014 report. Our group leader selected a very strategic graph looking at the performance of countries in maths results. The envy for Finland faded as attention was given to Asian countries such as China, Hong Kong and  Singapore which are amongst the top 10 performers. Of course this is one indicator but a compelling one as competency (or excellence rather) in Maths has been seen to correlate with future income. However, there's a sinister and far more worrying element to these results: it comes at a great cost to all those involved. Especially the students. 

The Asian (a loose term for the sake of the discussion) education system is known to be very competitive. Success is measured by which university one can apply to and be accepted into. In North Korea there are hogwans where extra learning happens when children ought to be sleeping or reading for leisure or (dare I say) watching tv. In her book The smartest kids in the world: and how they got that way Amanda Ripley describes South Korea as the pressure cooker of all education systems. This is the other extreme of academic excellence. What does it tell us about these countries?

It tells us that education is valued. Sometimes the extent to which the education is valued has unintended consequences such as suicide where young people feel like they cannot cope with the demands. The question of the government can also be questioned: should the government leave schools alone to do their work as in the Finnish example? Or should the government be encouraging academic success even when it's at the detriment of the children it should seek to serve?

There's a variety of pressure cooker systems across the world. In the very first session earlier this week all the teachers made the connection that in privileged schools there's a culture of stress and high achievement because Ivy league universities are the goal for students. Learning is no longer a joyful experience about learning (assuming there was once a golden age where such learning existed) but rather it's a means to an end. A ticket to enter into "the game": a highly competitive world where credentials and networks are everything.

There was a sense amongst teachers that the status quo is not enough and it is not a fair system. As it stands education doesn't challenge the capitalist, consumerist, classist culture bit rather it confirms it and reproduces it. Those who are wealthy often have quality education and more choices than those who are poor with very little choice. Education seems to have been co-opted into the globalisation project in many ways included perpetuating an unequal system whilst also having the potential to be the great equaliser. 

So the question remains: if we (as teachers) are not happy with our experience in our schools and our role in "the system" what do we do to change it? Can we change it? How can we inspire our learners to thrive in a fraught system that privileges and rewards certain behaviour while punishing others? There's no easy answer to this question. Schools are systems and systems have cultures that are often difficult to shift. While having this discussion we were reminded that in spite of the burdensome "system" we have a space of influence with the students we interact with daily. 


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