Sean Slade

Do We Need to Burn Our Violins and Close Our Swimming Pools?

"To compete with China in education we will need to burn our violins and close our swimming pools."

Author Yong Zhao said this last week in Melbourne, Australia, at the 2012 Joint Australian Primary Principals Association and New Zealand Federation of Principals Trans-Tasman Conference. Zhao presented a keynote at the conference, as did ASCD Board of Directors member Pasi Sahlberg and author Andy Hargreaves. Interestingly, the themes each speaker touched on have relevance to not only Australian audiences, but also those around the world who are going through similar discussions.

Call them the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) discussions.

"The latest infection sweeping schools, according to Finnish education reformer Pasi Sahlberg [and from which Finland has remained uninfected], is the GERM virus, the Global Education Reform Movement.

The symptoms—universal testing, like the national literacy and numeracy tests; increasing school choice; and competition—are affecting schools throughout much of the English-speaking world, from England and the U.S. to Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa."

The Australian, February 24, 2012

Zhao, Sahlberg, and Hargreaves each talked about the need to tread warily with regard to school reform efforts and to not discard what works or what makes a country's education system stand out from others, namely the ability to foster creativity, critical-thinking, and problem-solving skills. The danger in focusing on the results of one test or holding those results up to be the be-all and end-all goal of education (see No Child Left Behind or the Programme for International Student Assessment [PISA]) is that other areas of schooling get ignored, dismissed, or subsequently cut as unimportant.

So, do we want our children to be taught in schools that's main aim is to be, as Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard recently said, "back in the top five schooling systems in the world" in reading, science, and mathematics? Or, do we want our children in schools that integrate the arts and offer a well-rounded curriculum with a focus on the development of the whole child? Are we prepared to "burn our violins and close our swimming pools" to achieve PISA status, or is there another way?

Sahlberg obviously believes that there is another way. He believes you can have both—academic achievement as well as a well-rounded education—and he has Finnish data to support his point of view. (Source)

The solution, according to Sahlberg, is to focus on equity, not competition, and to ensure that all schools are excellent, well-resourced, and focus on the whole child. If all schools are excellent, there is no need to have publicly available ranking systems. The debate over school choice then becomes obsolete, as Andy Hargreaves said in Melbourne, because "the local school should be as good as any other school."

So, rankings, violins, or (as in Finland) both. It's our choice.

Through the end of October, ASCD is hosting a Whole Child Down Under Webinar Series for Australian audiences that focuses on the questions about how schools and districts can best implement a whole child approach to education. The first episode on the role of the principal aired earlier this week and will be archived for general viewing soon.

The next episode airs on Tuesday, October 10, at 12:00 p.m. in Sydney and 9:00 a.m. in Perth. It will focus on how schools and districts can implement not only a whole child approach but also a systemic approach to school improvement that provides for longer-term success and sustainability. We'll share the new and free ASCD School Improvement Tool, which, using the Whole Child Tenets and their indicators, allows schools and districts to conduct a needs assessment and receive next steps for improvement. Register now!


Comments (2)

Peter DeWitt

October 3, 2012

Great post Sean.
There are so many children who are collateral damage in the high stakes testing era. So many children that have strengths that are going unnoticed or ignored because they don’t do well on one test at one time and policy makers seem to ignore great research by people like Zhao and Hargreaves.
The Whole Child approach is so important for all students, and quite frankly one of the major reasons why many of us got into education.

Child Development

October 6, 2012

This is a fantastic post! I’m going to link back to you! Child Development

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