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10 Surprises in the High-Performing Estonian Education System

You can also read this piece at InternationalEdNews.com

For many, the most surprising thing about the Estonian education system is that it is, in fact, high performing (using the conventional criteria of international tests like PISA).  Even with some press in the Hechinger Report, Estonia’s educational performance has garnered much less attention than other high performers like Finland and Singapore. Nonetheless, Estonia has performed at a consistently high level on the PISA tests since 2006.  In 2015, Estonia was ranked in the top ten nations in both math and reading on PISA, and in science, it was ranked third in the world behind Singapore and Japan.

Perhaps most impressive, Estonia has among the most equitable outcomes of all the countries participating in PISA. Although the Estonian population is largely homogeneous, there are distinct groups of lower-performing Russian language schools, as well as considerable differences in the size and performance of schools in cities and rural areas. Although Estonia has among the smallest class sizes and teacher-student ratios among OECD countries, those figures hide the fact that there are some very small rural schools, with particularly low ratios (and students of different ages mixed together), but also many city schools with class sizes higher than the OECD average. Despite these differences, students do quite well on average across all regions, with the percentage of students who are low-performing the smallest in both Europe and the world.

In another surprise, Estonian students perform at a consistently high level despite an aging teaching population and difficulty attracting new teachers.  In fact, almost half of Estonian teachers are over the age of 50 and Estonian teachers have some of the lowest salaries among OECD countries. In addition, although most Estonian teachers report overall satisfaction with their job, only 14% think the teaching profession is valued in society. On my recent visit there, one of the teacher education institutions I visited even reported they have had only a handful of applicants for some of their programs in recent years. Certainly teachers are important – and other high-performing countries like Finland and Singapore demonstrate the value of well-prepared and well-supported teachers – but Estonia shows that it’s possible to have a high-performing education system – and sustain it and improve it – even with problems in the teaching force.

What’s more the Estonians describe their system as one in which schools, school leaders, and teachers have a considerable amount of autonomy. Schools have to provide a minimum number of course hours in set subjects, but they also have some latitude in emphasizing a particular focus like the arts, technology, or the natural sciences.  As a result, some students may end up taking more hours of math and science over their school careers, others more in art and language.  Nonetheless, on average, Estonian students still demonstrate consistently high and equitable performance

Given these equitable outcomes, for me one of the biggest discoveries was finding some school choice in Estonia. While students are guaranteed a place in their neighborhood public school, they can apply to attend private schools, selective schools, or another neighborhood school if it has space. In most private schools, tuition is largely subsidized by the state, but schools can also charge additional fees that can make them out of reach for some students. Some of the private schools are religious schools or international schools, but in recent years, a variety of other groups have started own private schools. I spoke with the founders of two different private schools who both described how parents got together to create schools when they were unhappy with their local options. In both cases, founders described the Ministry of Education’s willingness to assist and support the new schools’ efforts. As one put it, there is a “flexible” attitude toward regulations in Estonia, and the officials understand that “if there is a problem, they understand they need to solve the problem, and everybody helps.”  While only about 5% of schools in Estonia are private, there are also public schools that the Estonians themselves describe as “elite” and selective. In order to enter these selective schools in first grade, 6 year olds have to pass a high stakes entrance test for which many of those who afford it go to a tutoring center to get prepared.

With the choice and autonomy of schools, one would expect that significant monitoring and oversight would be needed to make sure that all schools are performing well. But when I asked the head of the education department of one large municipality (essentially the equivalent of a district superintendent in the US), he threw up his hands and said he trusted the school leaders and teachers to do their jobs. To guide that work, he reported talking on a weekly basis with the local school leaders.  One recent meeting focused on revising and then signing a memorandum in which all committed to 8 points of agreement including “the schools shall value developing a scientific mindset in students”; “the schools shall move towards wider use of digital teaching and learning materials”; and “the students shall get credit for what they have learned in a hobby school to decrease their study load in school.”

Correspondingly, high-stakes testing is limited primarily to exit exams at the end of high school. Results of the exit exams are made public and newspapers and others often publish rankings of upper secondary schools, but no specific rewards or consequences are attached. In elementary and lower secondary schools, in contrast, national assessments are strictly “sampling tests”, as in Finland, given only to a portion of students at the end of 3rd, 6th and 9th grades. The results of those tests are not made public, but instead provide the schools, municipalities, and the Ministry a way to gauge performance and guide planning and policymaking.

Even the Estonian system of inspecting schools is considerably less intrusive than those in many other countries. In England, for example, inspectors from Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills), “carry out hundreds of inspections and regulatory visits throughout England and publish the results online.” In contrast, in Estonia there is no separate inspectorate, and no complex, full-scale inspection is conducted.  Instead, the Ministry of Education and Research carries out individual school inspections primarily for licensure applications or in case of complaints. As a former leader in the office of school inspections in Estonia explained it to me, “the system of evaluating schools in Estonia is not very strong, and that is one of the best parts of our system.” When I asked him to describe how he knew if there were schools that were having problems, he responded that “someone would call me.”  In turn, he reported that the best approach to fix the problem was usually to call someone he knew who also knew the head of the school with the problem.  It’s a kind of management by “phoning around” (akin to “management by walking around” made famous by the founders of Hewlett Packard in the US) that reflects the small size of Estonia and the powerful social networks that connect almost everyone.  As one of my hosts explained, Estonians believe that everyone in the country is only two phone calls away.

Although many countries provide some support for early childhood education, I was surprised to find that Estonia assures a right to municipally funded early childhood education for each child beginning at the age of one and a half.  As a consequence, almost 90% of children between the ages of 3 and 7 (when children begin first grade) are enrolled. As one member of the Ministry commented, this is not “glorified babysitting,” these early education centers have a national curriculum that emphasizes seven aspects of development including the arts, music, movement, language, and mathematics. In the preschool I visited, the students participate in two lessons a day in small groups for guided instruction. Children who speak another language at home also start to learn Estonian as a second language at the age of three; and all those who complete the curriculum receive a school readiness card that documents each child’s development. What’s more, early childhood teachers in Estonia are required to have a Bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education, a substantially higher standard than in many other countries, including “high-scorers” like Singapore.

In another surprise, state and municipal support for education extends afterschool as well. Estonia has a whole system of hobby schools and youth work (a legacy from the Soviet system) in which children can participate. In fact, students get funding from their municipality to participate in at least one afterschool activity a week. According to the Standard for Hobby Education, goals include to help young people to develop “into members of society with good coping skills” and to “grant joy in engaging in hobbies.”  Hobby schools provide instruction and activities in sports, technology, culture, nature, music or other arts.  Like preschools in Estonia, hobby schools can be privately run or run by schools or other organizations.  In hobby schools, educators, often university students or others with expertise in a particular subject, work with groups of students on a weekly basis. In one hobby school I visited, physicists and astronomers at a nearby university offered a course in which students participated in the development of a satellite that was eventually launched into space.

While I did see examples of technology use (including programming classes in almost every preschool, elementary, secondary, and hobby school I visited), I was also surprised to hear that the Estonians themselves are unsatisfied with the level of tech integration in schools. According to OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) only 29% of Estonian teachers use ICT for students’ projects or class work.  Even more surprising, although Estonia has established itself as a world-leader in e-services – offering online voting and the opportunity to register a business online in a matter of minutes – Estonia doesn’t have much of an edtech sector.  In fact, when I asked to visit a local edtech company, my Estonian colleagues didn’t know where to look; and when I did connect with one local company (who are developing a platform for teachers to share their work), they told me they weren’t sure whether to tell their investors that they were one of the few edtech companies in Estonia or the only edtech company in Estonia.

Of course, every educational system has problems. In Estonia, in addition to the concerns about the teaching profession, there are serious concerns that instruction remains too traditional and that some students are disengaged or over-stressed. Nonetheless, given Estonia’s educational success, it’s also remarkable to see the number of new initiatives underway designed to continue to move the system forward. These include ongoing efforts to attract new teachers, among them an increase in teachers’ salaries of more than 40% over the last 5 years.  The Ministry is also pursuing initiatives to shift the focus of teaching and learning at all levels of education to support the development of eight competences that encompass cognitive and social skills, creativity and entrepreneurship; to create an in-service system for teachers and school leaders to support that focus; and to use digital technologies more effectively and efficiently in the process. The Ministry is also sponsoring efforts to develop assessments for some of these competences that could increase the likelihood that the schools and teachers incorporate them into their curriculum. In fact, five years ago, Estonia changed their high school exit requirements for all students across the country. Now, instead of taking three compulsory exams (Mother Tongue – Estonian or Russian; Foreign Language, and mathematics) and two other subjects of their choosing, all students are required to complete a research project or a “practical project” in order to graduate.  Research projects involve conventional studies and research methods such as conducting an experiment in physics or surveying a group of students.  Practical projects include organizing a local Olympics or developing a collection of insects for a museum.  Both projects are  designed to encourage interdisciplinary work as well as promote the development of the eight competencies.

At the end of the day, the story of Estonia’s high and equitable educational performance on international tests may not be that much of a mystery.  All students have guaranteed access to elementary and secondary education and to publicly supported early childhood education and afterschool activities.  All those learning opportunities are aligned to national curriculum frameworks that emphasize skills in language, mathematics, and science, but support other aspects of development as well. Schools, school leaders, and teachers in Estonia have considerable autonomy, but they also have a relatively small set of aligned textbooks, curriculum materials, national sampling assessments and high-stakes exit exams that help to keep the system focused and on track. The teaching population is aging and instruction may be traditional, but Estonian teachers report less time spent on administrative tasks and on “keeping order” and more time on teaching and learning than those in many other countries. All of this takes place in a small country, where everyone seems to know everyone else. It’s also a country with a population known for hard work and a methodical approach that some of my colleagues here described as a form of “German exactness.” In education, that methodical approach is being applied to goals that are tightly linked to the kinds of activities and outcomes expected on international assessments. (As a former Education Minister in Estonia put it “the exercises used in international surveys that have been made public in the course of previous surveys have been the examples followed by our test and examination writers.”)

In short, the Estonians have developed a coherent and aligned education system that begins in early childhood and extends beyond the regular school day, and they have done it in a place where, less than 30 years ago, basic goods were rationed and it was a luxury to have a telephone. Those of us in the US can’t expect to improve our education system by doing exactly what the Estonians have done with theirs. Policies that work in a country of 1.3 million can’t be simply transferred to 50 states or to large cities in the US. Nonetheless, there are many different ways to create a coherent, focused, and well-supported education system.  Policymakers in the US need to understand that enabling widely inequitable educational experiences across communities isn’t one of them.

Improving education in and out of school in South Africa (Part 3)

My latest blog posts include a series of reflections on recent visits to a number of educational organizations in South Africa including IkamvaYouth, Wordworks, FunDza, Olico, the Kliptown Youth Program, and The Learning Trust.  The first post discusses both the considerable challenges and real possibilities for growth; the second post describes the efforts of several organizations to respond to the demand for basic learning materials and the challenges in building a capable teacher force; this final post considers some of the unique aspects and possibilities for work in South Africa moving forward.

Opportunities from challenges

While the programs I visited, like those in other developing countries, confront both the enormous needs and the limited resources and capacity of the education system, the challenges may also come with opportunities.  The difficulties of finding and training teachers means these programs have to take advantage of the possibilities that come with working with parents, other volunteers, and peers.  However, as both Madondo at KYP and Patrick Mashanda at IkamvaYouth suggested, working with volunteers and peers means that the students themselves may have more opportunities to take charge of their own learning and develop a sense of agency.  As Madondo recounted, “the issue we’ve picked up is that when you work with teachers they are used to the teaching system of standing in front of the class, and even when it’s time to do a one-on-one mentoring with the students, the teachers often struggle.” Unable to rely on a ready pool of teachers, these programs are developing and demonstrating ways that educational support can be provided when it is simply not possible to ensure that there is a “qualified teacher for every child” – the focus of many policies in the US.

These difficult conditions also make it very hard for programs like these to expand and “scale-up” across communities and into different regions.  “If we provide a lot of training for volunteers,” Mignon Hardie of Fundza explains, “that’s not scalable.  At the same time, if you’re looking at online and training videos for going into rural areas, that’s not practical either.” Nonetheless, along with the pressure to make their programs as cost-effective as possible, the tremendous need also creates a demand for successful programs that can help them to attract funders and investments that can enable them to scale.  For example Fundza, IkamvaYouth, and Olico, have all been invited to expand their programs as part of the Western Cape government’s Year Beyond initiative.  In the process, they are all experimenting with “light” versions of their programs to determine the most efficient approaches in a context of extremely limited resources. The Dell Foundation, for its part, is also testing a version of their scholars program that does not hire their own counselors, but instead refers scholars to counselors and other forms of support available in the local universities.

Many of those I talked to also cannot get reliable data from government schools about student learning outcomes.  With inconsistent grading and spotty implementation of government assessment initiatives in schools, most programs have not yet been able to gauge their impact on the kinds of standardized test outcomes that are used to measure year-to-year performance of programs in the US and other developed education systems.  Although many programs are working to establish their own data systems, in the meantime, they have had to rely on basic data like attendance rates, numbers of students, teachers, and schools served, and high school and university graduation rates. In many cases, that data demonstrates the growing reach and considerable potential of these programs, and these conditions also provide an opportunity for these programs to develop and mature before they have to demonstrate impact on the kinds of performance indicators that even those working in developed systems have struggled to achieve.

While my research focused primarily on those programs that are aimed specifically and supporting students’ academic development, there is widespread recognition of a tremendous need to support children’s physical, social and emotional development as well.  For example, programs like Waves for Change (offering what they refer to as “surf therapy”) are demonstrating effective ways to work with youth who have experienced significant trauma in their lives.  Just like academic programs, these programs are searching for appropriate and meaningful ways to measure their impact.  In the US, too often these programs are still judged on whether or not, and how much, they contribute to academic gains, and efforts to develop a broader set of indicators (though efforts are underway) have never taken off.  Conceivably, the recognition in South Africa that academic development cannot also take place without social, emotional, and human development and the lack of reliable academic indicators creates a context where real innovations in individual assessment and program evaluation are possible.

Thomas Hatch

Improving education in and out of school in South Africa (Part 2)

My latest blog posts include a series of reflections on recent visits to a number of educational organizations in South Africa including IkamvaYouth, Wordworks, FunDza, Olico, the Kliptown Youth Program, and The Learning Trust.  The first post discusses both the considerable challenges and real possibilities for growth; this second post describes the efforts of several organizations to respond to the demand for basic learning materials and the challenges in building a capable teacher force; the final post considers some of the unique aspects and possibilities for work in South Africa moving forward. . These reflections build on earlier posts about visits to Singapore and Malaysia, and are all part of an ongoing study of improvement and innovation inside and outside schools in developed and developing education systems.

Improving education in and out of school in South Africa (Part 2)

A demand for basic materials

While the programs I learned about all take somewhat different approaches, as I talked to the leaders of programs like Wordworks, FunDza, and Olico, I noted a heavy emphasis on developing and sharing materials for literacy and maths. Wordworks, for example, has developed a series of materials and resources, many of which are offered for free.  Those materials can be used by anyone – including parents as well as teachers – to help young children learn to read and write. FunDza also seeks to support literacy development and a love of reading, but for those in high school and beyond.  Their work began in 2010 when Dorothy Dyer, a high school teacher sought to find and create books and other reading material that reflected the lives of her students, who primarily lived in one of Cape Town’s Black townships.  Dyer’s students were so enthusiastic about the initial drafts of a novel that she and a friend started to write for them that she and colleagues including Mignon Hardie started a small publishing company, Cover2Cover. Cover2Cover published works geared for young adults growing up in South Africa. Those works have included a series focused on a group of teenagers at a fictional township high school and another series set in a youth soccer club.  Many of their books also focus on social issues including xenophobia, homophobia, and teenage pregnancy.  In addition to Cover2Cover, which remains a for-profit publisher, they also established the FunDza Literacy Trust. FunDza provides these books and other reading materials in print and through a mobile app to schools, libraries, youth development groups, and other reading groups.  To meet the constant demand for texts that connect directly to the lives of youth South Africans, FunDza has also gone on to create a program to support the development of young writers and is currently piloting an online reading curriculum using their materials as well.

Olico grew out of Andrew Barrett’s initial work establishing a branch of IkamvaYouth outside of Johannesburg. After he left IkamvaYouth, he wanted to explore how to use technology to help ease the intense demand for the tutors that programs like IkamvaYouth and the Kliptown Youth Program rely on. Barrett’s work with Olico began by using the videos of Salman Khan and Khan Academy to help eighth grade students in an afterschool program in one South African township to learn math.  But from their work in that one Township, Barrett and colleagues like Lynn Bowie have now created a whole series of math videos and support materials that students from South Africa (and anyone else with an internet connection) can freely access online; partners like IkamvaYouth and the Kliptown Youth Program are now using those materials to enhance their own tutoring programs.

These three programs are just a sample, however, as the development and distribution of educational materials has taken off.  In 2002, for example, Siyavula, started with a group of students who developed free online texts in high school chemistry, maths, and physics. Syavula’s work has now expanded into a technology company that produces open source textbooks  at both the primary and high school level as well as tools and technologies to support personalized learning.  The government as well has gotten into the act, with provinces like Guateng producing scripted materials that primary school teachers can use to teach reading and maths.

All of these programs have developed in a system where there are still large swaths of schools, concentrated in the poorest townships and rural areas, where students and teachers have virtually no materials or a small set of books and resources they have to share.  Furthermore, the delivery of these materials – increasingly through online sources – can reach many more people and places at substantially lower costs than most training workshops and programs. In contrast, in the United States, textbooks and curriculum materials do not seem to get as much attention as many other reform strategies even though there is some evidence that they can make a difference in student outcomes (see “Big bang for just a few bucks” for example). A few programs that focus on content and materials development have found a niche (and Khan Academy and programs like Jump Math are good examples), but providers may feel that the market is already flooded with materials from major publishers and by those produced by states and districts themselves.

Limited teaching a capacity and a reliance on peer and volunteers

Even good materials, however, cannot teach themselves.  Effective use of materials depends on capable people and usually at least some training and targeted support.  In South Africa, the demand for training and support are evident from the low-level of preparation and limited content knowledge of some of South Africa’s teachers.  As Nic Spaull has pointed out, large percentages of teachers lack the content knowledge they need to pass the mathematics tests their students are expected to pass. In fact, in some of the poorest and most rural provinces communities, more than 70% of teachers can’t pass these tests.  To illustrate the depth of the problem, Spaull provides the example that on an international test, only 33% of South African Grade 6 maths teachers could correctly answer one of the items aimed at a sixth grade level. “This is only marginally above what teachers would get,” Spaull notes “if they just guessed the answer, since they would get it right 25 per cent of the time on a four-choice test item.”  Even the materials designed to support teachers show the inadequacies of current teacher preparation.  As stated in the introduction to a government sponsored booklet intended to help Intermediate Phase (middle school) teachers implement a literacy curriculum “as Intermediate Phase teachers, it is unlikely that you know how to teach learners to read, or how to remediate their reading.”

These findings have contributed to calls for substantial improvements in teacher preparation and professional development in South Africa, but those improvements are likely to take a generation at least and at a tremendously high cost.  In the meantime, O’Carroll of Wordworks, laments, “years go by and kids are lost.” As a consequence, Wordworks’ approach relies on both an extensive set of materials to teach reading as well as short workshops to equip volunteers, primarily parents, to use those materials effectively. While Wordworks uses approaches to teaching reading reflected in programs in the US like Reading Recovery, South African schools don’t not have the capacity to provide the intensive daily support required in Reading Recovery programs in other countries.  As O’Carroll explains “the very high level training of the tutors was not an option here. So it was going to have to be a program that could be delivered by parents or community workers rather than  a trained teacher and with minimal training and with minimal ongoing support.  It had to be done in a sustainable way by people who aren’t necessarily going to be paid, and who aren’t going to be getting ongoing coaching support.”

Finding capable volunteers and the “right” amount of training and support, however, is far from simple.  For example, even though Olico began by experimenting with the possibilities for students to use Khan’s self-paced videos on their own, Barrett, Bowie and their colleagues quickly realized that their students needed some support and their tutors also needed some relevant math expertise to provide appropriate guidance. For one thing, some aspects of the Khan videos – made originally by Salman Khan for his relatives in the US – were confusing to students in South Africa and needed to be explained. Even something as simple as the fact that in the US (and in the Khan videos) decimal points are represented by periods while in South Africa a comma is used could confuse the students.  Similarly, as Lynn Bowie explained, “if you write a 1000 in South Africa you write 1 space 000 (1 000), but in the US you write 1 comma 000 (1,000) now for us that would mean 1 point 000 not one thousand.”  Beyond these “translation problems”, however, Bowie pointed out that Olico’s students also struggled with the extent of metacognitive work the videos required in order to monitor and pace their own learning.  While the Khan videos at that time allowed students to go almost anywhere, Olico’s students didn’t have “a sense of when they weren’t learning.” Bowie added, “we’d find kids either spending endless amounts of time on inappropriate questions or alternatively finding the easiest sections and staying on that because it was giving them lots of lovely validation.”  In order to address these challenges, they have ended up creating their own videos that are geared specifically to students in South Africa and they have developed support materials for the students and the tutors that allow a balance between student self-direction and tutor-direction.

The challenges of finding skilled teachers are also among the factors that have encouraged many of these programs to embrace peer tutoring.  Peer tutoring can take many different forms, but it has been used in a number of approaches that have experienced considerable success at significant scale in countries like Mexico and Columbia.  In South Africa, the versions I saw generally involved small groups of students (roughly four or five) who work together on their schoolwork.  At the Kliptown Youth Program (KYP), for example, they group high school students according to whether they are in vocational or academic “stream”, then by school, and then by the subject they are working on.  Then the tutors let the students decide what to focus on, but encourage different students to take the lead.  For Thulani Madondo, Executive Director and one of the founders of KYP, adopting a peer learning approach has had a number of benefits including distinguishing their afterschool activities from “regular” school and enabling the program to meet students needs more effectively and efficiently.  “In the past,” Madondo explained, “we used to do it like ‘kids this is our lesson plan, and as we were doing that, we were chasing a lot of kids away because they had homework already and we were giving them new lessons and lessons that weren’t always aligned to what they were doing in school.”  The peer tutoring arrangements I learned about at IkamvaYouth and KYP were also strikingly similar to those I learned about in Malaysia.  All of these programs are also exploring ways to provide educational support while combatting the high cost, intensive time for training and preparation, and the challenges of staffing that come with approaches that rely on teachers.

But in the end even volunteers are a scarce resource, and finding enough, from Madondo’s perspective “is the big issue many non-profits face.”  As Olivier from IkamvaYouth points out, that means that the programs need to take into account the fact that they are likely to find it easier to get volunteers, if they are located near a university.  Furthermore, the programs have to find ways to defray the costs that volunteers often incur in transportation, mobile phone usage, and printing of materials and activities.  If they can’t offset these costs, Olivier worries, they may lose the help of many of those who have little if any source of income while they are in university but are committed to giving back to their communities.

 


 

Improving education in and out of school in South Africa (Part 1)

My latest blog posts include a series of reflections on my visit to South Africa in February.  This first post discusses both the considerable challenges and real possibilities for growth; the second will describe the efforts of several organizations to respond to the demand for basic learning materials and the challenges in building a capable teacher force; the final post considers some of the unique aspects and possibilities for work in South Africa moving forward. These reflections build on earlier posts about visits to Singapore and Malaysia, and are all part of an ongoing study of improvement and innovation inside and outside schools in developed and developing education systems.

Improving education in and out of school in South Africa (Part 1)

When I left for South Africa at the beginning of February, I was interested in seeing to what extent the educational improvement efforts I found there might be similar or different from those I’ve studied in other countries.  Conceivably, the significant challenges of the education system (described recently as “the worst in the world” in the Economist) might give rise to different strategies and initiatives both inside and outside of school than those I’ve encountered in more developed systems like Finland, Singapore and the US.  To explore this possibility, I visited government schools as well as private schools and talked with the leaders of a number of organizations including IkamvaYouth, Wordworks, FunDza, Olico, the Kliptown Youth Program, and The Learning Trust, all known for creating programs to support students from some of the most disadvantaged townships near Johannesburg and Cape Town.

In these conversations, I heard about concerns with some of the same issues I’ve seen in more developed systems, particularly the need for better preparation and professional development for teachers and leaders. I also heard concerns about the number of improvement efforts (almost 8000 according to a recent report) and the ways in which those programs might conflict with each other, (something I wrote about in the US almost twenty years ago in When improvement programs collide). But over the course of my visit, the extent of disadvantage that many poor students and many black students face in South African schools became more and more apparent.  Further, I heard again and again about the widespread need for books, textbooks curricula, and other basic materials and about the need to rely on volunteers, parents, community members and students themselves because well-trained teachers were not available.  But along with these significant demands, I was struck as well by the tremendous opportunities for growth and the positive outcomes that many of these programs are already achieving.

Overwhelming need coupled with real possibilities for growth

During my visit, it was impossible not to be inspired by the many stories of students from poor townships and rural areas who manage to succeed despite an almost complete lack of access to the materials, people, and opportunities they need to succeed.  As researchers like Brahm Fleisch have reported these students can spend years in school, exposed to only a smattering of content in no sensible sequence.  As a consequence, while most children do attend primary schools in South Africa, 27% of students who have attended school for six years cannot read; while the percentage of students who can’t do basic math has decreased substantially in recent years, 34% of 9th grad students still can’t do basic computations and have not acquired a basic understanding of whole numbers, decimals, operations or basic graphs.

Despite the accomplishments of those who have managed to succeed despite this system, a host of minor issues can throw even the most resilient students off track. As Dean Villet at the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation described it, “People assume that, wow, these children have come through the worst school system in the world, or close to it, and they’ve somehow managed to get into university and therefore, they must be super resilient and super tough, but that’s not the case. Our learning is that the smallest thing that goes wrong really knocks these kids down. They’re very fragile. As much as yes, they have come through this system you can’t underestimate the trauma and the toll that it’s taken.”

The flipside, or as Villet says “the corollary” is that it doesn’t take a lot to eliminate some of those stumbling blocks and get and help many of those students stay on a successful path. Villet offers the example of the Dell Foundation’s Young Leaders Program, which provides scholarships to help 500 students to succeed in college. In the early years, program staff found that some of their students weren’t going to class.  When asked why, Villet reported, “the typical answers were ‘I’m too hungry or I’m too embarrassed’ because of personal hygiene issues, and they didn’t have the money to solve either of those two problems.” In response, the Foundation developed a “swipe card” that provides a relatively small amount of funding (about $200 a year) and enables students to buy items for food and hygiene.  Along with other changes including requiring universities to find on-campus housing for the scholars (and thereby eliminating long commutes and other transportation problems), success rates for the students rocketed from about 30% to over 90%.

“You just need a few things that give the students a sense of security and a sense of belonging in this really challenging and different environment from what they’re used to,” Villet related, “and success rates jump.”

Shelley O’Carroll made a similar point, but about the much younger students she works with through Wordworks. O’Carroll founded Wordworks in a few schools in Cape Town over ten years ago.  Since then, she and her colleagues have developed several different programs that help teachers, parents, caregivers, home visitors and volunteers to support the early language and literacy development of children during early childhood and primary school.  O’Carroll explained that these programs work with students who are often way behind their advantaged peers. When Wordworks began, O’Carroll found that a few of the first graders she worked with “knew a few letters and the rest knew hardly any.” It was also clear that their language was significantly less well developed than would be expected for their age. At the same time, while the challenges from lack of exposure were profound, it was, as O’Carroll put it “pure disadvantage” and “a complete lack of exposure to anything like books or letters and limited language learning opportunities” rather than learning difficulties or second language issues.  In turn, by targeting their programs to compensate for that disadvantage, O’Carroll points to their research and argues, “with a weekly lesson for an hour you can make good gains.”

When Joy Olivier described the origins of IkamvaYouth, she also emphasized the extent of the problems that she and her co-founder, Makhosi Gogwana, uncovered. Olivier explained that she and Gogwana were working together on a research project in 2002-2003 to try to identify where the next generation of scientists in South Africa might come from. That project led them to review the results that Black students had achieved on the science and math portions of South Africa’s twelfth grade matriculation exams.  As Olivier explained, “back then in 2002-2003, the education crisis and the massive inequalities between races just wasn’t as widely known.  For some weird reason, education just didn’t feature, it was all rainbow nation, rah, rah, without the nuts and bolts of what was perpetuating the inequalities.” So when Olivier and Gogwana looked at the results, they were so shocked by what they found that they thought there was something wrong with the data: “the number of Black students in the entire Western Cape Province with scores eligible to go into studying maths or engineering or anything that requires a decent math result,” Olivier lamented, “the number that came out of a whole province, was what should have come out of about five schools.” When Olivier and Gogwana compared their own school experiences, the results were even more striking. “Makhosi and I had gone to extremely opposite types of schools,” Olivier said. “I went to a school where everybody went on to university, and Makhosi didn’t know anyone else in his school who went university. And after he got into university he experienced this weird situation where he got a scholarship to study, but no one had told him what a Bachelor’s of Arts was, and he was trying to navigate the use of the scholarship and to access tertiary education but without any help and totally in the dark. And because he was tenacious and didn’t let it go, he managed to get into what he thought was a Fine Arts Degree program even though his specialty was geography and environmental sciences.” Together Olivier and Gogwana concluded that the missing ingredients for the students at his school were “information, support and the expectation that they will go on to study further.” With that as their inspiration, Gogwana called up the principal of his old school and told the principal that they wanted to come to tutor kids on Saturdays; he and Olivier gathered a bunch of friends, started going to the school every week, and worked with whoever showed up.

While Olivier doesn’t discount the amount of work they put into IkamvaYouth and developing the program, she was also amazed at the results they got even though as she put it, in the early days it was “just Saturdays, just one site, everybody volunteering, with absolutely zero money.” The initial afterschool model they developed focused primarily on helping students with their school work and consisted largely of students working together on homework in small groups of five with a tutor.  However, they quickly established a mentoring program that matched tutors with 12 grade students who were getting ready to take the matriculation exam at the end of 12 grade.  “Our first cohort (who matriculated in 2005) got some amazing results,” Olivier marveled. “100% matriculation pass rate (for 60 students who took the exams), 60% got into university, which we weren’t really expecting. It was radical. We got some kids into top programs at top institutions.”  All at a school that only a few years before had only one student out of the entire student body who went on to University.

Reflections on Larry Cuban’s “continuum” of personalization

Larry Cuban and his work have had a formative influence on me and my own engagement with educational reform. I still remember the first time he welcomed me into his office hours even though I was neither a student of his nor a student at Stanford (though, full disclosure, my wife was).  I came to talk to him because I was having difficulty with an article I was trying to write about some of the problems of a well-known but challenging educational reform effort in which I was involved.  Larry listened patiently, asked a key question here or there, and, then, after politely reminding me that there were others waiting, simply asked something along the lines of “Why don’t you just go and write it?” So I did, and it was published a short time later. I have been citing and drawing on his work and ideas ever since.  These days I particularly appreciate the opportunity to follow Larry’s observations and most recent research on his blog – Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice.   The post below began as a comment to a post of his on personalization, but it grew so long I decided post it here.

Dear Larry – Your blog posts are always enlightening!  Your recent post describing the many versions of “personalization” you’ve seen in your visits to schools seems particularly relevant these days for a number of reasons:

Ironically, it’s probably worth noting that this surge in interest in personalization coincides with the closing of the national organization of the Coalition of Essential Schools – founded by Ted Sizer who put personalization on the map in the 1980’s and 90’s.

Your post prompted me to reflect on some of these developments and what I have been seeing in my own research on improvement efforts and “innovation” in several developing and developed countries.  In particular, I think your draft of what you call a “continuum” of personalization in many of the “lessons” you’ve observed nicely highlights the way that personalization often involves a mix of teacher-centered and student-centered activities. One way to expand the continuum and get at some of the complexities that you and your commentators have acknowledged might be to look at the extent to which several different educational decisions are made by teachers and/or students.  For example, many approaches to personalization talk about customizing the goals, the content, and the pace of educational activities. It seems like those approaches at your “teacher-directed” end of the spectrum adapt instruction to the needs/interests of students, but, for the most part teachers are still making the decisions about:

  • What the students should be learning (and why)
  • The materials they should use and the paths they should follow
  • The speed with which they move along those paths

At the other end, students may be making more of those decisions themselves.  In the middle, teachers and students may be sharing those decisions, teachers may make some decisions and students others, and teachers may make those decisions sometimes while students make them at others (e.g. higher performing students may be allowed/encouraged to make more of those decisions than their peers).

To make things more complicated, each decision about goals, content, and pace can be broken down into a whole series of related choices. Decisions related to content and materials, for instance, include who chooses reading materials, what to focus on in the reading, how to read it, and how material should be presented (as one of your commenters, Dylan Kane, noted). It’s also possible to imagine a whole bunch of other decisions that we might (or might not!) want to take into account.  For example, I’m beginning to experiment with letting my graduate students choose not only when to take on particular assignments but also where (e.g. in the classroom or not; alone or with others).  I also remember passionate discussions at one meeting of educators working on designing a new school (the Celebration School, developed as part of the planned community connected to Disneyworld) about whether or not to enable students to determine the kind of lighting that best suited their “learning style.”  Adding to the complexities, as Laura Chapman pointed out in the comments, these decisions can also be made by those who develop the technologies used to support personalization.  It’s also possible, with the developments in distance and blended learning to imagine a variety of other people, including parents, taking a more direct role in these lesson-level decisions as well. (Extending the scope of personalization beyond “lessons” and courses, and making it a core concept in a reimagined system of education as in approaches like ReSchool Colorado can make it more complicated still.)

However we define the key instructional decisions, I think you’re right that the extent to which teachers or students make those decisions distinguishes many of the current approaches.  I’d be interested to know, though, how often you see personalized approaches that really give students wide latitude and extensive control over their own learning? Chris Ongaro, a graduate student here at Teachers College, is looking at student’s experiences in a variety of “personalized” courses (many of them online), and he tells me that even when students are given choices, those choices are usually extremely limited, rarely allowing students to imagine or pursue their own options.  As he said to me, students may play a role in shaping the means, but the ends are often predetermined.

While I raise these questions, following your descriptive lead, I’m trying not to place a particular value on one end of the continuum or the other.  But as we describe the role of the teacher and the student, I’m also reminded again of what Sizer often said (quoting James Comer, eminent psychologist and founder of the School Development Program):  The three most important things in schools (and school improvement) are “relationships, relationships, relationships.” For Sizer, personalization grew out of the belief that “we can’t teach students well if we do not know them well.”  That relationship both allows those in the role of teacher to recognize and respond to each student’s needs and interests, but it also opens up those in the student’s role to opportunities and challenges they may never have encountered on their own. While I often ask my students these days to explain to me why teachers are needed in schools (truth be told, I also ask them why we need “students”), it may be worth trying to capture something about the nature of the teacher-student relationships in these approaches to personalization as well.  But now your straightforward and clear continuum looks a lot more like one of those polygons and polyhedrons that you and wrubens discussed…

At the end of the day, though, I see many of the same things you do: approaches to personalizing activities, classes, and courses that are often carried out in the regular school day or within typical course structures and with the expectation that “success” will mean meeting conventional graduation standards, going to college and getting a “good” job.  Perhaps it should be no surprise then, that under these circumstances, as you so eloquently put it:

…wherever these classrooms, programs, schools, and districts  fall on the continuum of personalized learning with their playlists, self-assessment software, and tailored lessons all of them work within the traditional age-graded school structure. No public school in Silicon Valley that I visited departed from that century-old school organization.

 

Changing Malaysian education from the outside in?

This post is part of a series of reflections on my experiences studying improvement efforts in the US, Finland, Singapore and Malaysia, and most recently South Africa.

Given relatively low levels of performance on recent international tests, the Malaysian education system is rarely a focus for international comparisons. Nonetheless, on my visit last fall to Kuala Lumpur, I was struck by some of the stark differences between education in Malaysia and in neighboring Singapore, generally regarded as one of the highest performing education systems in they world. While both countries have demonstrated considerable economic development since they split apart in the late 1950’s, only Singapore coupled that economic growth with rapid development of a comprehensive education system.  In fact, although a new law in Malaysia will increase compulsory schooling to eleven years, right now Malaysian children are still only required to attend school through sixth grade.  Furthermore, according to a recent Unicef report, over 200,000 primary-school age children in Malaysia are not attending school.  These include children from several different groups – among them refugees, migrant workers in the palm oil plantations, nomadic groups living in coastal areas of East Malaysia, and homeless and street children.  Many are undocumented, and, therefore are not treated as citizens, or given access to free primary education (for more on refugee education in general see the latest post from internationalednews.com).

The growth of a host of for-profit and not-for-profit private schools in Malaysia reflects the continuing dissatisfaction with the public education system.  Beyond concerns about the quality of schools, restrictions on access and scholarships to some of the highest-performing public schools and universities for those who are not native Malaysian has also encouraged many students to seek out these alternatives.  The alternatives to government-run public schools include private schools often connected to international schools operating in the US and elsewhere, and some newer schools established by Malaysian private universities like Taylors’ University and Sunway University.   There are also new schools associated with alternative school networks in the US like Acton Academy as well as a growing homeschooling movement.  The growth of these schooling options outside the government-funded public system reflects the lifting of restrictions that had previously limited access to international schools largely to the children of expatriate; but in 2006 the Malaysian government allowed international schools to   form student populations with up to 40% of native Malaysian students, and then in 2012, the quotas were eliminated entirely, enabling Malaysian students to enroll in a school of their choice (as long as they could pay for it; as long as they received language instruction in the national language, Bahasa Malaysia; and as long as Muslim students took Islamic studies).

The level of concern with the Malaysian education system is also evident in the development of a variety of efforts to provide workshops, camps, and other learning opportunities outside the regular school day.  A number of these new efforts take advantage of the emergence of digital media to provide support for students learning in school and out. In particular, organizations and collaboratives like Edunation, EnglishJer, and Tandemic have sprouted to address what their members identify as gaps or problems with the Malaysian education system. All three of the leaders of these organizations, Edmond Yap, Abdul Qayyum, and Kal Joffres, see tremendous potential to address social and educational problems and to create new learning opportunities in Malaysia.  My conversations with them were particularly intriguing to me because I learned both how they responded to local issues and opportunities in education Malaysia and how they struggle with some of the same challenges of developing more innovative and effective learning opportunities that those in more developed systems like the US and Singapore face.

Edunation: Free online tutoring for all

“I smile a lot, but I’m actually quite angry with what’s happening all around me,” Edmond Yap, told me as he described the levels of corruption he encountered in his previous work in Malaysia in engineering and construction.  But he locates the source of his effort to create Edunation – which has produced over 4000 hours of translations of Khan Academy videos as well as their own videos of topics central to the Malaysian curriculum – to his work with John, a 15-year old orphan he was tutoring.  When Yap met him, John was one month away from taking the national math exam at the end of ninth grade (the PMR exam, which has now been replaced).  Yap realized that even after years of schooling, John was still unclear about some of the simplest problems.  When asked to add ½ to ½, John responded, after a pause, ¼.  Yap knew, even with his help and with John’s willingness and motivation to come to school every day and go to tutoring, there was no way that John could pass the exam.  The system had failed him.  Yap realized, as he put it, “I can’t even help one kid let alone address the larger problems we have in our country.”  Deeply frustrated, Yap quit tutoring, and after some soul searching, quit his job as an engineer as well.

Seeing the Khan Academy videos for the first time in 2011, however, gave him hope again.  “This is it,” Yap said “this is the way we can make free help available to every Malaysian child.”  The Khan Academy offers access to hours and hours of video that students can use as a resource to get help on many school subjects, but none of those videos were available in Malaysian. With Khan Academy’s permission, Yap joked that he became Khan Academy’s “unofficial translator” for Malaysia as he and then a number of volunteers began translating hundreds of videos from English into Malaysian.  Initially, their goal was to provide what was essentially free tutoring (or “tuition” as it is labeled in Malaysia and many other Asian countries like Singapore) and they looked for videos from Khan Academy or elsewhere on the web that would enable students to get assistance with any of the key topics in the Malaysian national curriculum. When they started mapping the topics of the Khan Academy videos onto the Malaysian curriculum, however, resources for many key topics were missing.  In order to address the gaps, Yap and his colleagues started producing their own videos, and “Edunation was born.”

By the end of 2016, Edunation had produced over 4700 videos, including videos at the primary level in Chinese and Tamil.  But as their stockpile of videos grew so did d their ambitions.  Yap and his colleagues realized that the online content could help many children, but it still might not reach those who lack access to the internet or who might lack the support or motivation to take advantage of the online resources.  With particular concern for those students who have spent years in schools failing and may have lost all motivation to learn, Edunation expanded its goals to focus on providing free tutoring offline as well.  “How do you provide not just free tuition online to all Malaysian children, but offline tutoring as well?” Yap wondered. Their conclusion:  peer pressure.  “You create a culture and community where students help one another.  When you do that, it’s free tutoring by every Malaysian child, for every Malaysian child,” Yap explained.

Developing such a community for peer tutoring and academic support, however, has not been easy.  At first, Yap thought they would be able to create teacher learning communities – bringing teachers with different experiences together to provide tutoring after school.  After a year, however, he abandoned that plan because of the difficulty of recruiting teachers. Unable to rely on teachers, he developed a pilot program to work directly with students in two schools to establish a community in which they support one another.  As Yap describes it, the vision was like a mix between a typical tutoring center, toastmasters (a popular international public speaking and leadership program) and the Lions Club (an international service organization). Small groups of students met once a week to help one another access videos and other free resources that they could use to prepare for upcoming exams and complete other academic work.  Every two weeks, students also participated in self-directed leadership activities designed to develop skills like empathy and openness. Edunation staff and volunteers helped to get the programs running, assisted students in developing tutoring plans, and provided materials and resources.

Ultimately, however, Yap’s goal is to find ways to influence and improve the education offered during the regular school day as well. In Malaysia, that means facing the significant challenge of trying to work with the government and in government public schools and dealing with all of the red tape and constraints that come with it; or it means developing a private school, which has more flexibility, but which is then disconnected from, and less likely to influence, the public system.   There are basically walls around us,” Yap explained, “and we are trying to find a path through.” The path he has selected at this point is to work with a long-time mentor, Dr. Tee Meng Yew, from the University of Malaya, on a project separate from his work on Edunation to design a low-cost private school. They envision a school that “works for the students,” providing more opportunities for them to choose their educational path (whether that involves taking the national exams, preparing for the International Baccalaureate, or preparing for a specific career). From Yap’s point of view, they are “trying to set an example of what a school could be in a local context” and to make their design and resources freely available (like the Edunation videos) so that they might have an impact on the wider system as well.

@EnglishJer: Social media as a platform for learning

Like Yap, Abdul Qayyum never planned to work in education.  His college degree was in Law, but throughout his university studies, he also served as a digital media consultant for a number of companies and clients.  In that work, he uncovered what seemed to be a promising opportunity. “Social media is littered with the young, the opinionated, people with power,” Qayyum explained, “but there’s not much attention to education.” From his perspective, those who were using social media for education were mostly using it to publicize and promote what they were doing offline, outside of social media, rather than using social media as an educational tool.  In contrast, Qayyum has decided to take educational activities that might take place offline and try to bring them online.  In the process, he sees his role as using social media to create engaging opportunities for young Malaysians to develop their language and communication skills, to use English, and to find ways to express themselves in English. To accomplish these goals, he created a twitter account @EnglishJer, and leveraged his knowledge of social media to start twitter conversations about issues like the weak English skills of Malaysian youth, the problems with the Malaysian exam system, and general issues in the teaching and learning of English.

At first, he just saw @EnglishJer as an experiment, a way for Malaysians to connect and come together on a familiar platform to talk about the challenges and possibilities for learning English.  As Qayyam described it, “’jer’ is a colloquial form of the Malay ‘sahaja’ which means ‘just’, as in ‘it’s just English (you don’t have to worry).’”  But even Qayyum was surprised at how quickly the twitter conversations took off after the launch in January of 2015. Within three months, @EnglishJer had almost 6000 followers.  A few months after that, Malaysian educators started to take notice, and he began to get requests to come to talk to students and to provide workshops on topics like public speaking and creative writing.  At the same time, Qayyum also started getting inquiries from followers who wanted to help share the work with others. “It started as a twitter account, but I didn’t know where it was going to go from there,” Qayyum said, “So when people started asking me, ‘are you an NGO or a private company?’ I said ‘I don’t know’, but if you want to join us just tag along.”

After about 15 months, he got an offer from a local foundation to create a  “camp” to bring fifty Malaysian students together to develop leadership and communication skills. When over 200 people applied, he knew they were on to something.  Soon Qayyum and a growing group of volunteers found themselves developing more camps and holding events like poetry slams and live “quizzes.” They got requests to create curriculum modules and, at the request of a local media company, they created a series of videos.  Building on the success so far, they will be launching a nationwide tour to take the workshops, camps and other events to every state in Malaysia over the next year.

In each case, the work has been driven more by the growing demands from followers than by a particular vision. For example, the quizzes came about through an invitation to participate in a literary festival.  The organizers asked them to do a workshop, but Qayyum told them “Everyone else is doing that, so why don’t we do something different and try out a quiz show?”  That show became a model for a series of interactive events that Qayyum sees as a kind of combination of improv shows like “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and game shows like “Jeopardy”.   The shows include teams vying to answer questions like “Can you guess which words have Greek origins?” and then participating in challenge rounds such as a water gun spelling bee. “We’re innovative in terms of method, rather than content.” Qayyum explains. “There’s still a stigma about speaking English here, so we first convince people that it’s okay to learn English, and then encourage them to use it.”

In order to make the work possible, Qayyum and his colleagues are all volunteers.  As he said, “no one works on this full-time,” and they rely to a large extent on small donations and in-kind contributions (for prizes, spaces, etc.) as well as occasional support from a private foundation. They also work with a number of partners, like Project Ihsan, which provides free tuition for students, and they draw on both the enthusiasm of their followers and the power of EnglishJer’s social media presence, which helps to attract support from celebrities and local educators and merchants alike.

While Qayyum admitted he felt like they are often “winging it,” he and his colleagues are also constantly engaged in surveying and researching the needs and interests of the youth they hope to reach. “What’s actually your problem with communicating in English? What annoys you about learning English?  Why are you still having problems with English after so many years studying it in schools?” In fact, in addition to providing workshops and helping to train locals to offer their own camps and workshops, the tour is designed to enable them to talk to followers from all regions of the country and get their input.  With all this input, Qayyum and his followers then try to identify those issues that are not addressed in Malaysian schools and that they feel their followers will respond to.  But they see another need for that information as well: Following the nationwide tour, they plan to use that knowledge in talks with policymakers and education stakeholders to improve the system.  “If we do this properly, maybe people will take notice,” Qayyum said.

Tandemic: Social Innovation as an Opportunity for Learning

Kal Joffres started Tandemic to provide consulting to help companies develop their social media strategy, but almost immediately he saw opportunities to use social media to advance social causes.  In particular, he saw the success of start-up weekend in the US and adapted it for Malaysia.  Instead of helping participants to start their own companies, however, Tandemic created a series of “make-a-thon’s” where the goal was to bring teams together to identify social challenges and design and proto-type possible solutions.  The make-a-thon’s were “less focused on the pitch at the end and on the business model,” Joffres explained. “And more on the solution, and designed to have a broader appeal.”

The make-a-thon’s took off almost immediately, and Tandemic developed a series of what they now call “Makeweekends” that they have taken to a variety of different locations, particularly local universities. Right from the beginning, Joffres felt that the participants found the freedom and encouragement to design “anything” particularly powerful. “Participants would come to our Makeweekends, and they would ask ‘you mean we can build anything we want?’ It was almost like it was a freedom that they had never had.”  As he put it, “For 13 years people have gone through a system where they have created only one kind of product – the essay/paper/report – and they finally create something tangible, and I think that light bulb goes off.”

With growing interest from participants as well as from the government and other funders, Joffres and his colleagues at Tandemic developed a wide range of Makeweekends and “hack-a-thon’s” over the next four years, primarily for 16-24 year olds in Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia.  For this work, the focus was on social causes of all kinds, but the experience also gave Joffres and his colleagues ample opportunity to develop their own educational approach to design thinking.  In particular, they sought to deepen and extend the Makeweekends to encourage participants to go beyond the design stage and to try to put their ideas into practice.

Not everything Tandemic tried worked at first, however.  One change to the make-weekend design was to focus on what Joffres and his colleagues called “ideation” workshops.  In this approach, participants came to the design workshop for two weekends in a row – spending the first weekend developing their idea and the second focusing on design.  That approach foundered as they found it was hard for participants to block off the time and make a commitment to both weekends.  They even tried adding a Friday night session to give participants more time to develop their ideas, but, ultimately, they settled on a two-day (Saturday-Sunday) structure, because as Joffres explained “Each time the participants have to leave the venue and come back, there’s attrition.”

Tandemic has also worked on strengthening the impact of the makeweekends by building in more support for the participants to test out their ideas. As Joffres explained “We want participants to go out and find out ‘is this thing that we’ve created something that people really want? Or is it just something we’ve fallen in love with?’”  To that end, Tandemic has developed an approach in which they ask participants to establish “home” and “away” teams.  While the “home” team comes to the workshop, the “away” team stays in their local neighborhood to help gather information and pilot ideas as the “home” team continues to refine their ideas. For example, one “home team” wanted to help address problems of infant malnutrition back in their village in Nepal. They had already found that although food was available, many babies were being fed the wrong foods at the wrong time.

To address the problem, the home team developed a bracelet with color-coded beads that the new mothers could wear.  The bracelet served as a memory aid by linking the colored beads to different developmental periods and to the appropriate foods. The success of the bracelet, however, depended on developing effective training. Over a four-hour period, the home team stayed in touch with the away team back in Nepal as they interviewed a few young mothers and looked for potential trainers.  In the process, the teams learned that the best time for the training would be while the mothers were at appointments at the local health clinic.  However, they also learned that the group of medical professionals they expected to provide the training were only available on Saturdays, but on Saturday the health clinic was closed. In the end, the away team was able to identify a group of nursing students who were required to do volunteer work and could do the training during the week. From Joffres’ perspective, the home and away teams provide a structure to help people examine their core assumptions – “walk people back” from their initial ideas and then “walk them forward again.”  As Joffres explained, “You can’t just have ‘experts’ come in and tell people their ideas are problematic. They have to find it out for themselves.”

Joffres describes Tandemic’s work on the Unicef Youth Innovation Challenge as the culmination of all their work on using design thinking to address social problems.  The Challenge, held at the end of 2016, invited young people from all over Southeast Asia to submit applications to address a pressing social issue in their community. From 660 applications, 77 were chosen to participate in a 6 week mentorship program focused on design thinking; 43 came to a three-day “boot camp” in Kuala Lumpur; and three finalists were chosen to get continued mentorship to help them to take their ideas to the next stage, and, ideally, get funding.

Looking ahead, Joffres is seeking ways to have a more direct impact on the Malaysian education system as well.  The creation of a donor’s choose-type website for Malaysia took one step in that direction.  That initiative raised over 300,000 Malaysian Ringit in crowd-sourced donations for projects that teachers proposed.  But Joffres worried about the challenges of tracking the impact of those donations and is now changing focus to take Tandemic’s design thinking experience directly into schools by creating what he’s calling “innovation labs.” That work would involve teachers in identifying key problems that they face; Tandemic is looking for funders to support a small group of teachers who want to collaborate to try to solve those problems; and then Tandemic will provide the mentorship and structure to help those teachers to collect data, develop prototypes, and test them out. Joffres envisions this innovation lab as producing tools and resources that are relevant for many teachers and capable of spreading throughout the system with appropriate funding and support.

The challenges of influencing education systems from the “outside in”

All three of these endeavors draw on ideas and resources that cross boundaries, like digital videos, social media, and design thinking, to create new kinds of educational activities that fit the Malaysian context.   While unique to Malaysia, these initiatives also share some of the goals and concerns of “bottom-up” efforts to build on the ideas and experiences of educators (such as the iZone in the US and eduLab in Singapore); of peer-learning education models that have taken off in countries like Mexico and Columbia; and of the work on improvement science in education and health.

Furthermore, despite the differences among the three initiatives, all three have spent the bulk of their time developing their initiatives outside the public education system in Malaysia, but all three are becoming more and more concerned with exploring ways to influence the government-run school system as well. While they have to contend with a highly centralized and regulated system with relatively limited capacity, they also face some of the same basic challenges that confront those who want to create new kinds of learning experiences in the US and Singapore. Most importantly, like those who create charter schools and afterschool programs in the US outside the regular public schools, they gain some freedom from government regulations to develop their ideas, but then they also have to figure out how their work on the “outside” can find a way into the regular system to influence the day-to-day education of most Malaysian students.

At the same time, even efforts to provide educational alternatives “outside” government schools still cannot escape the system entirely. All of these organizations still have to deal with the facts that attending university and participating in many careers in Malaysia means passing national exams and meeting national curriculum requirements (even those with law degrees from other countries have to take a course and get credit in Bahasa Malaysia in order to practice law in Malaysia for example).  That means trying to “innovate” and develop alternative educational opportunities while still conforming to many of the existing constraints on conventional schools.

— Thomas Hatch

Building Hope In South African Education

I’ve only spent a week in Johannesburg, but it is hard not to be overwhelmed and inspired. Overwhelmed by the realities that many Black students in the Townships and the poorest communities still experience – strikes, violence and other disruptions that mean they may not get to school at all.  But even when many of these students are “in school” as one of my colleagues here told me, “they are getting no education.” In fact, The Economist recently declared that South Africa has “one of the world’s worst education systems”, while the BBC pointed out that roughly one out of four South African students failed their end of school exam last year.   All at the same time that many students continue to excel in long-established and high-performing private and ex-model c schools (formerly white schools).

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Inspired, however, by the efforts of so many working in and with schools and school systems here to create and expand real opportunities for learning.  Those include the “new private” or “low-fee” private schools that are designed explicitly to keep costs low.  Some of those, like LEAP Science and Math Schools have been around for several years and have already expanded.  Others are new, like Streetlight Schools, developed specifically for Jeppestown, an area where many students make former industrial buildings home.

Inspired as well by those in after school programs, summer programs, museums, and youth development programs that seek to create meaningful learning opportunities outside of schools.  Some programs, like IkamvaYouth, the Kliptown Youth Program, and Olico provide places for students to get help with homework or additional instruction, get support from peers, mentors, and teachers, and get the access to electricity, books, computers, and the internet that many can’t get at home.  Ultimately, ideally – after years of walking from school to these after school programs and then from the programs back home, keeping up their daily and weekly attendance – the hope is that all their work will pay off with access to university placements, scholarships, or jobs.

While the Kliptown Youth Program is unique to Kliptown in Soweto and Streetlight Schools is built directly into the Jeppestown neighborhood, other programs and school networks like IkamvaYouth and LEAP have expanded across provinces, and some like City Year South Africa build on programs in the US and elsewhere. But regardless of the unique aspects of the work in South Africa, I was struck by the shared challenges and the similarities in the development of these South African organizations and those I’ve been studying in New York City, Singapore and Malaysia.  All of these groups have to wrestle with the fundamentals of organizational and instructional development: they have to pull together or create the basic materials – registration forms, curricula and assessments, training manuals, and workshops; they have to find ways to attract students, recruit teachers, tutors, and other staff and volunteers; and they have to establish the relationships that create and sustain a safe and trusting environment inside their organizations while they spend time building broader networks of support among parents, community leaders, funders, and, sometimes, politicians. They have to do all of this, even when the electricity or the internet goes out; when their own equipment is stolen away (as at the branch of IkamvaYouth I visited); and when the whole political system is embroiled in controversy and conflict.  In South Africa, they have to do all of this as well amid a shift from a focus on the possibilities of post-apartheid democracy to a focus on the realities of sky high unemployment and limited, and costly, opportunities for higher education.  Coming to South Africa makes strikingly clear that the greatest crisis is a loss of hope. But experiencing the work being done by so many in Kliptown, Jeppestown and in so many other places across South Africa shows that hope is not just a dream about the future, it is built, day by day, step by step, like a ladder that allows us to reach higher than we ever have before.

 

Thomas Hatch

 

A new model for integrating technology in schools? The work of eduLab in Singapore

While we in the US often put our stock in the efforts of pioneers and entrepreneurial organizations to disrupt the conventional education system, my visit to Singapore last year made clear that Singapore takes a much more systematic approach to fostering new educational practices. Singapore’s current approach focuses on expanding learning opportunities to foster students’ 21st Century competencies and includes considerable “top-down” support – most recently from the Fourth Master Plan for Technology – that seeks to seed and scale promising developments across the system.

At the same time, reflecting its “centralized-decentralized approach”, Singapore has also invested heavily in supporting “bottom-up” initiatives in which teachers and schools develop their own new ideas and practices.   Since 2011, eduLab has served as a key vehicle for the support of bottom-up initiatives by funding a wide variety of projects proposed by teachers throughout Singapore.  Educators who receive funding work with eduLab staff, test out their ideas and develop prototypes, with all successful eduLab projects published on their website and in publications.  In addition, drawing on its current location at the Academy of Singapore Teachers (AST), Ministry of Education and eduLab staff and Master teachers from the Academy support the diffusion of eduLab supported tools and resources by facilitating workshops and supporting subject and theme-based communities of practice.

While the extent of Singapore’s central investment in development of productive uses of educational technology is unusual, eduLab shares a number of functions with organizations in other systems (like iZone in New York City for example), which also focus on finding, seeding, and spreading innovative practices that take advantage of educational technology.  Some of the parallels may reflect responses to the rapidly evolving character of educational technology in general.  In the late 1990’s and 2000’s, schools and systems in developed education systems like those in Singapore and the US were focused on building the infrastructure for educational technology in schools – establishing wired and then wireless connectivity, getting equipment, and building “platforms” to host online activities.  In that context, schools often faced multiple and competing bids from companies who could provide a “one-stop” solution with the expectation that the school, teachers, and students would adapt their activities to the chosen platform, computer system (primarily windows or mac), or technology (e.g. interactive whiteboards).  In that process, millions of dollars were spent on those computers, computer labs, other hardware and online platforms, but often without clear benefits (see for example the experiences of the New York City Department of Education in launching and then abandoning a 95 million dollar data system created originally by IBM).

Now the landscape has changed.  In 2016, students and teachers use a variety of different devices – laptops, desktops, ipads, kindles, mobile phones etc. – and access a wide range of applications developed by individuals as well as not-for-profit and commercial companies.  In some ways, these developments have flipped the technology “bidding war”—instead of schools having to decide which set of machines to buy or which platform to adopt, some teachers may be using google classroom, some may be using Moodle or Blackboard, and some may be cobbling together their own mix of tools and apps.

This shift from platform and equipment-based ICT to more application-based technology integration puts schools and educators in Singapore and the US in a different relationship with technology companies.  Where they were once consumers, listening to pitches from tech companies and having to decide which platform to pick, now schools can identify specific problems that address their students’ needs and ask tech companies to produce apps and applications in response (for one US edtech industry perspective on how to sell products to schools see “Choosing a ‘top-down’ vs. ‘bottom-up’ approach in edtech sales”). In this scenario, edtech companies have to figure out how to meet local demands and scale, rather than focus first on general issues they believe will scale most quickly, leaving it up to educators and schools to figure out how to adapt.

Today, organizations like eduLab can serve as a key link between educators and the resources and expertise in the educational technology community by helping teachers find the right partners, sorting out the qualifications of bidders, evaluating bids, facilitating the development process (with user tests and iterations of the proposed “solution”), negotiating contracts, and dealing with fundamental rights and responsibilities including issues of intellectual property. These relationships both give eduLab teachers access to the latest technologies and allow those companies access and opportunities to develop and adapt (and in some cases commercialize) products that meet the needs of teachers and schools.  In one illustration of that process, a chemistry teacher in Singapore noted a problem that many of his upper secondary school students faced:  remembering the specific nomenclature used in their beginning chemistry course. In response, the teacher developed a card game in which he found that students learned the vocabulary most effectively when they were involved in discovering the rules that governed the use of the terms. Building on that discovery, the teacher and several colleagues were given funding to pursue an eduLab project that started in 2014. Working with staff from the Ministry of Education and eduLab as part of the team, a comparative study was carried out that demonstrated the benefits of the game. Designs for an app were then developed that enhanced the game with visualizations and that allowed teachers to get data on students’ performance to inform their instruction. Finally, eduLab worked with local start-up developers to build the app, which is now commercially available (both on iTunes and through Google Play).

Reflecting the complexity of these relationships, eduLab has developed several different ways of working with vendors.  For resources and applications that educators have already developed, eduLab may simply put the project out for bid.  For example, teachers at one school in Singapore developed a tool for automatic marking of students’ papers that an industry partner commercialized and helped to make widely available. At the other end of the spectrum, in cases where solutions have not yet been developed, risks are high, and success uncertain, eduLab might help search for industry partners who will take on the development costs themselves.  In one instance, a school wanted to explore the possibilities for adaptive learning in science and sought a tool that would help tailor content and activities based on students’ performances. An industry partner took up the request and created a tool that both gives students’ feedback and helps teachers to assess each student’s development.

Of course, industry partners are most likely to respond to and invest in projects that they believe have potential commercial benefits.  As a consequence, intermediaries like eduLab also have to engage with research organizations and non-profits who might be willing to invest in issues that are crucial to students and educators but may not have as much commercial potential.

In playing this kind of intermediary role, eduLab benefits from its close ties to Singapore’s Infocomm Development Authority (now called the Infocomm Media Development Authority or IMDA) and the National Research Fund, managed by the National Institute of Education (NIE) and the Ministry of Education (MOE).  Those ties are formalized as members of the Ministry, NIE, and IMDA all serve on the committee overseeing eduLab.  These formal connections also facilitate a wide range of personal relationships among educators, policymakers, and researchers who participate in various aspects of eduLab’s work.

Of course, neither having educators engaged in developing eduLab projects from the beginning nor making them widely available guarantees that they will be used or used well.  To that end, eduLab is turning more attention to issues like assessment and evaluation.  Those issues include how to develop assessments that focus on competencies that are not addressed in current tests; how to evaluate projects that are designed for small groups of teachers (like those teaching introductory chemistry in high school); and how to deal with reliability and validity in uncontrollable classroom contexts and other challenges of “rapid cycle evaluation and improvement.” (In the decentralized US system, however, with few “intermediaries” like eduLab or iZone, many districts are left to their own devices and have to rely instead on the development of edtech evaluation tools like Mathematica’s EdTech Rapid Cycle Evaluation Coach or leverage other private sources such as the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s work on improvement science.)

While there is no simple measure of what impact eduLab projects might have on Singaporean students’ educational experiences overall, eduLab’s current work presents a very different image of how technologies may influence teaching and learning.  Rather than affecting all aspects of a teachers’ practice and transforming conventional instruction, in many cases, eduLab projects develop tools and resources adapted to specific instructional “niches” – such as the teaching of vocabulary in a beginning Chemistry class.   In these instances, the novelty of the tools and products and the extent to which they support conventional teaching or more student-centered learning may be less important than the fact that organizations like eduLab provide a new means of bringing together the professional expertise and local knowledge that educators have with the technical expertise of those in the edtech community.

— Thomas Hatch

 

A roundup of education issues in 2016 and predictions for 2017

As the New Year turns, I’ve encountered a variety of roundups of key education issues and trends in 2016 and predictions from 2017, including The Stories That Shaped Edtech in 2016 Edsurge; Philanthropy Awards, 2016 and Philanthropy in the Age of Trump:  Six Predictions from Inside Philanthropy; CityLab salutes the best ideas of 2016 CityLab; Education issues to watch in 2017 – and predictions of what to expect EdSource; 5 Education Stories To Watch In 2017, NPR.  Predictably, these and other forecasters are focused on the possible Trump effect in education, though, if we learned anything in 2016 it was how unpredictable things (particularly politics in the US) can be.  While I don’t know what will happen in 2017, there are a number of questions, I’ll continue to ask:

What will students have a choice of…? There is no doubt that school choice will be in the news (as it already has been).  Already forgotten, however, is the fact that even if policies put choice into practice, many students will still have few schools from which to choose.  Further, those choices are likely to be limited, and those choices may not include particularly effective schools or match those students’ interests and needs.

Will the new new schools be any different than the old new schools?  Maybe efforts like the XQ Project will help to create choices that better match students’ interests and needs?  Rick Hess and others like Inside Philanthropy are wondering about questions like these as well. I look at it from the perspective of someone who worked in and studied the new school models developed as part of the New American Schools initiative in the 1990’s.  And while I expect efforts to create new schools will continue (and I hope they succeed), I don’t yet see how creating some new schools, charter or non-charter, will suddenly, finally, catalyze significant changes and improvements in schools across the country.

Will personalization actually change instruction? Michael Horn breaks down the hype on one of 2016’s most used bits of education jargon and suggests we focus on personalizing rather than on personalization.  That seems like a wise move, but it remains to be seen whether personalizing instruction really gets beyond matching students and topics or adjusting levels of difficulty.  In 2017, will we see more widespread examples in which instruction includes regular adaptation of pedagogical strategies, and different kinds of scaffolding, tools, and support for different learners?  Will personalizing education ever mean that students can choose to pursue the personally meaningful goals that go beyond those traditionally valued in schools, in colleges, and, ultimately, even in the current supply and demand economy? Should it?

How will the economy affect education? While many claim education drives the economy, over and over again the economy shapes and limits what education can achieve.  More and more that means, even as many educators commit themselves to reducing inequality, our society is becoming less equitable (as “The top charts from 2016” from EPI often demonstrate). Even as many predict that the economy could continue to grow in 2017, what new and pioneering efforts can ensure that those benefits actually address rather than exacerbate inequities?  While I don’t know the answer to that question, both universal basic income (What Would Happen If We Just Gave People Money? FiveThirtyEight; Radical Idea? The New Funding Around a Basic Income Inside Philanthropy) and the block-chain “revolution” (How blockchains could change the world McKinsey & Co) could affect the economy, education and equity in 2017 and beyond may be worth watching.

                                      — Thomas Hatch

Concerns and realities of tutoring and tuition centers in Singapore

The recent releases of the PISA and TIMSS results have highlighted again the high test scores of Singaporean students. With that notoriety come questions about how Singapore manages such a feat, as well as concerns, from both inside and outside Singapore, about the problems with too much attention and focus on test performance.  Notably, these concerns are expressed by government officials, educators, researchers, and parents and focus on some of the same issues that worry those in the United States and other countries.  As an article this past week in the Straits Times pointed out, concerns focus particularly on the amount of time many students spend in tutoring arrangements after school, during weekends and over school breaks and the stress and academic pressure that can result.

What does tutoring involve in Singapore?

To date, the research on tutoring in Singapore and its effects on both academic performance and students’ well-being remains scant (though there is some surprising evidence that tutoring may be correlated with worse test performance).  However, on my recent visit there, I had a chance to talk with several people who have studied tutoring arrangements as well as participated in them as teachers and students.  In many ways, those conversations reinforced things I knew in the abstract, but had not seen played out in practice:

  • Private companies, community organizations, and individuals offer a vast array of tutoring options

Tutoring arrangements include formal programs offered by a wide range of companies and community organizations as well as arrangements that parents and students make on their own to work with individual tutors. But the number and variety of commercial tutoring programs alone is staggering. The Parkway Center, a 13-story mall and office complex in Singapore, for example, offers a slew of learning programs for students.  On just one floor, families can find:

  • Excelearn Education – Offering “programmes for Mathematics and Science for various levels”
  • Chapter One Chinese — To help children appreciate and master Chinese
  • Wordsmiths Learning Centre – Specializing in English Language and the Humanities to “prepare students to sit for their examinations with confidence”
  • Intellect Learning Hub — Providing classes in English, Chinese, maths, and science at both the primary and secondary level
  • Phi Learning – Focusing on preparation for the PSLE and O-Levels in English and Chinese

To help families navigate this vast array, media publications and websites like theAsianparent, Epigami, kinderful, and tuitionary list or review some of the many commercial options.  Many of the reviews identify Learning Lab as one of the leading (and most expensive) private tuition centers.  With several campuses, Learning Lab looks more like an elite private school than an afterschool program.

While commercial programs cater to different groups and reflect different costs, many are out of reach of families with low and moderate incomes.  As one means of making tutoring more affordable for all, the community organizations that support the three main ethnic groups in Singapore also offer their own, subsidized tuition programs spread out over a large number of locations.  These organizations include the Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC), SINDA serving Singapore’s Indian community, and MENDAKI (Council for the Development of Singapore Malay/Muslim Community).

  • Tutoring is really big business

It’s no surprise that tutoring is big business in Singapore as it is in other parts of the world.  In a previous post, I noted that in Singapore tutoring has grown into a 1.1 billion dollar industry (almost double the $650 million spent on tutoring in 2004) with 600 different tuition centers registered with the Ministry of Education (up from 500 in 2011).  That number, however, may not adequately reflect the investments parents and students make in smaller and individual tutoring arrangements. Only centers with 10 or more students need to register and private tutors only need to register when their income exceeds the 1 million dollar mark (– yes, there are about 10 of these “supertutors” in Singapore).

I was also struck by the competition for students and the aggressive marketing that often focuses on test performance.  Private companies in particular advertise the successes of their students not only on the high stakes exams but also in winning scholarships and gaining admission to private universities.  Learning Lab for example points out on their website: “Since our founding in 2001, we have established a reputation among parents, students and educators for consistently producing Singapore’s top students at the PSLE. Our alumni have been admitted into NUS, NTU, SMU, Stanford, Harvard, Princeton and Yale in the US, and Oxford. Several have garnered prestigious private and public sector scholarships, including half a dozen being awarded the Singapore Public Service Commission’s President’s Scholarship.”

  • Tuition centers also provide a wide range of enrichment activities

Tuition centers in Singapore provide programs designed to help students in school in general (and to improve their grades for example), to help students prepare for high stakes exams such as those at the end of sixth grade and at the end of secondary school; and to help meet the needs of specific groups of students such as those studying in International Baccalaureate Schools.  At the same time, many students in Singapore participate in a wide range of other activities outside of school, and there are also many “enrichment centers” offering classes in music, art, dance, sports, science and other activities that go far beyond test prep. For example, in addition to its many tuition centers, the Parkway Center also houses Joy Music StudioMusicaland Studios, Flute and Music Academy, HI Art Education, Dance Bollywood International, Dance Trilogy,  and Lions Taekwondo Academy.

What’s it like to participate in tutoring programs?

It is hard enough to get an overall sense of what tutoring and tuition arrangements look like in Singapore, but it is even more difficult to get a sense of what the experience is like for students and teachers.  Those I talked to about their own participation in tutoring or about their studies of tuition centers point to examples of programs that match the stereotype of “drill and kill” factories and “hothouse” environments, but point to others that provide a warmer environment where students can work in smaller groups and develop closer relationships with their teachers than they can during the regular school day. While some students participate in tutoring because their parents require it or out of fear they may fall behind peers who are getting extra help, others go by choice, often in a desire to be with their friends.  Some teachers may prefer to work in tuition centers or as private tutors.  In fact, a number of tuition centers have been started by former teachers.  Incentives for providing tutoring include the possibility of high pay, but some teachers also appreciate the chances to work individually or in small groups with students in ways that are difficult to do during regular school hours. Unfortunately, the centers designed to serve those with lower incomes may not have the resources to hire experienced teachers or sustain the smallest student-teacher ratios, creating significant problems that the system has to figure out how to address.

Will anything change?

Given the high demand for tutoring and academic support among parents and the continued high stakes exams and academic pressure, even with all the concerns, it is hard to imagine drastic changes in the tutoring landscape in Singapore in the near term even if education policymakers tried to discourage it. (For that matter, it’s also hard to imagine significant changes in the heavy investments of time and money made in tutoring in other countries like Hong Kong – where reports describe “big business tutoring centers” and explain how “’celebrity tutors’ turn millionaires”.)

Nonetheless, those in the tutoring industry in Singapore will have to respond as the Ministry of Education continues to press for a shift in focus toward 21st Century skills and makes adjustments to goals and testing (including introducing more computer-based testing). OECD is also making some changes in the content and format of the PISA tests that may trickle down eventually. The explosion of online and blended learning opportunities will also likely have some effect on tutoring and tuition centers, though it is hard to see how that would address concerns about undue emphases on testing or academic stress. As a consequence, the government in Singapore faces the challenge of trying to loosen the grip of testing and tutoring, at the same time that drastically changing the tests eliminates one of the key mechanisms that supports the alignment of an education system recognized as “high-performing.”

— Thomas Hatch