“If you observe children learning in their first few years of life, you can see that they can and do learn on their own – we leave them alone to crawl, walk, talk, and gain control over their bodies. It happens without much help from parents. You can’t make someone learn something – you really can’t teach someone something – they have to want to learn it. And if they want to learn, they will.” – Daniel Greenberg, Co-founder of the Sudbury Valley school
A couple of weeks ago I visited the first Sudbury school in Denmark together with a group of fellow educational activists and school developers from Sweden.
The Danish Sudbury School is modeled and named after the original school situated in Sudbury Valley in Massachusetts in the United States.
The Sudbury School is one of the only schools in the world that bases its activities on self-directed learning and unschooling principles, giving children the freedom (and responsibility) to explore their interests uninhibited.
At a Sudbury school there are no classes, no grades and no age segregation. Children from the ages of 4-18 are welcomed into the school without specific enrollment requirements (besides the willingness to embrace the school’s principles).
The basic principle of the Sudbury school is that children are equipped with a natural learning ability that does not require adult control or interference, so at Sudbury schools children are encouraged to follow their own interests and passions in whatever way they wish, be that fishing for months on end or playing computer games for hours and hours.
For people who are used to traditional forms of schooling, Sudbury schooling might sound extreme, radical and even dangerous. “How are children going to learn without adults teaching them?” “How are they going to prepare to step into society without formal education?” “How do they learn to read and write?” “Aren’t the kids just sitting around wasting their day doing nothing when they have this kind of total freedom?”
We have become so conditioned (through our own schooling) to take traditional formal schooling for granted that we cannot even fathom that it is possible to learn without adult interference and control. We assume that traditional forms of schooling are optimally designed to teach us everything we need to know and that its structures of control are created for our protection and safety.
In traditional schooling forms children are viewed as being naturally resisting towards learning and even as savage and malignant in nature and this is why so many structures of control and force are used to keep the child contained and confined.
But what if it is in fact the other way around? That all the structures of control and force embedded in traditional school is what is causing children to become defiant, apathetic and resisting towards learning?
At Sudbury schools a great amount of trust is placed on the child’s ability to direct its own learning. Children are seen as competent and equal members of society who has just as much to contribute with as any adult. Children are given the space and time to find out what interests them and the support of adults and the learning environment to pursue those interests.
In his book Free at last, Daniel Greenberg, one of the founders and chief philosophers of the Sudbury Valley School writes that children at Sudbury schools often learn vast amounts of materials in short periods of time. Greenberg shares an example about a group of 9-12 year old children who wanted to learn math and who, because they were dedicated and self-directed in their aim to learn, with the help of a math teacher, learned the entire 6th through 12th grade curriculum of math in 20 weeks.
What is difficult is not to learn the material in itself but how traditional schools tries to pound it into the heads of children who hates every step of it. The only way to do that is through consistently repeat the material over and over for years on end, and even then there is no guarantee that the child will remember what it was taught. A child who wants to learn however, who has initiated the learning process on their own, can learn something within a matter of days or weeks.
We need to reassess the way we look at education, because at the moment we are holding, not only individual children back from developing their full potential, but in fact entire generations of children and as a result: humanity as a whole.
This is directly reflected in the current state of the world which, as should be obvious to all of us know, is in a state of uproar and disintegration.
Sudbury schools are a powerful example of children’s ability to learn without adult interference and how what comes out on the other end of that education is not a lazy, apathetic, illiterate human being, which is ironically most often a product of traditional schooling.
Adults do not want children to be free, because they fear children, but it is not so much that they fear the children but in fact that they fear themselves. This is what traditional schools teach us: to fear our natural expression, to see it as too wild, too unruly to be left unrestrained. Since childhood we’ve come to associate moments of natural expression with being scolded, simply because most traditional schools (and most families as well) aren’t designed to harness or embrace that natural expression within us – and so we never realize how that wildness, given the right environment could allow us to bloom into our utmost unique potential. If we should learn anything from the Sudbury experiment, it is that. If there’s anything we should model our societies after, it is that.
You are a unique being. There is no one in the world that is exactly like you, who has the exact skill-set or way of going about things as you do. You have a certain unique pace at which you learn the best, and you have specific ways that you learn the best, as Howard Gardner described in his book about the multiple intelligences, through which we learned that not all children learn best through books, that some actually need to put their hands on things to best learn or to move to be able to absorb information in the most optimal way.
As a unique being, you also have a unique potential, through which you can contribute something original to the world. These potentials can manifest in as many ways as there are human beings, from people inventing useful gadgets to those whose passion it is to work with and care for the elderly.
If this seems too far fetched for you or a little too esoteric, simply have a look at how each, seemingly generic grain of sand on a beach filled with billions of sand grains, is entirely unique when you see it up close in a microscope (it is actually very beautiful), or how each part of the human body has its own specialized function that it contributes to the whole organism with. Being unique is nothing special; it is in fact very natural.
When we live our unique potential, we give the best of ourselves to the world, because what we do becomes an expression of the best version of ourselves. The doctor who is truly passionate about being a doctor, does not compromise his position by taking shortcuts that compromises the patient, because he honors his work and himself as a doctor. The baker who is passionate about baking, will keep learning and perfecting how to make the best bread possible, and does it without effort, because it comes natural to him or her.
Despite knowing that no two people learn in the same way, we have created a school system where we expect all children to learn the exact same material in the exact same way, at the exact same time, in the exact same pace. In fact, all across the world, lesson plans are being standardized to an extreme degree, where school developers for example come to the conclusion that all second graders must learn the exact same mathematical material (like multiplication) or be taught about the exact same cultural or historical references (like the stone age) during the course of a term.
As most parents, teachers and students are aware, the amount of material you have to go through on your journey from kindergarten through high school is massive, and most of it is rushed through in the span of weeks or months, with little to no time to familiarize oneself with the subjects, to dive deeper into something that interests you, or to slow the process down if you struggle to keep up with the pace that is predetermined by standardized lesson plans.
Working as a teacher, I have spoken to many students who experience not only frustration over the pace set in school, but who also experience so much anxiety and stress, that panic attacks have become a normal part of school life. The students internalize their struggles when they can’t keep up, believing that there is something wrong with them, that they aren’t smart enough or disciplined enough to do what is expected of them.
I remember when a seventh grade student, a girl with aspirations towards becoming a movie director, who was busy writing a novel in the evenings after school, looked at me with panic in her eyes when she once again had to take another test, and to her, this was all school had become: taking tests and proving yourself to the teachers.
I remember asking her what they were learning about in the history lessons (the subject in which they were being tested that day), and she said something like “The Mesopotamian kingdom”, and I said “wow, that sounds interesting!” to which she replied: “no, not really.” And when I asked her why that was, she said: “I don’t really have time to learn anything about it, because the teacher is rushing us through everything, so it is difficult to keep up.”
This example perfectly illustrates how absurd our school systems have become, that proving that you have learned something is more important than actually learning. This girl was not stupid or lazy. She was ambitious and disciplined with her school work, self-driven even, but she had completely lost all confidence towards learning inside the school system, she didn’t even see it as a place of learning, but as a place of stress and panic and achievement. To her, real learning was something that happened at night when she was alone in front of her computer, learning how to use editing software, how to use camera angles, how to write storyboards and compelling characters, an education that she had created and was mastering completely on her own. Luckily for her, she had parents that supported her in her endeavors, but for many of us, our potential gets squashed and neglected under the burden that is our schooling.
Now – let’s imagine for a moment that education in this world, was set up in a completely different way:
Let’s imagine that education was organized and conducted in such a way where the focus of the educators (or let’s rather call them educational facilitators) was on each individual child’s unique potential. Let’s imagine that there were resources and structures in place that allowed for the adults in a child’s life to walk with the child, in the natural pace of that individual child, to learn and grow and develop and discover their potential.
In a world where education is centered around each individual’s unique potential, the girl I mentioned in the example before, could be supported to go to film school already at the age of thirteen, or she could at least be given a mentor or trainee ship with a film director or screen writer, to try her hand at it and see if it indeed is something she wants to dedicate herself to, not as a permanent life decision, but as that which is her passion at this moment in time, and that may turn out to be where her potential is best expressed.
It is not so that we have to be adults before we can discover or start developing our potential in life. This is yet another misconception about human nature that is fostered through the very school system that systematically squashes, not only our potential, but also our passion for learning in general.
There are plenty of children who, already when they are young, know exactly what they are passionate about and of course there are also plenty who have no idea what they are or could be passionate about, but that is no different for adults. Some of us knows exactly what we want and others have no clue whatsoever. And one of the reasons why we don’t know what we are passionate about, or what to make our purpose in life, is that we haven’t been allowed to try a lot of things in life. Mostly, we have spent the first twenty years of our lives learning how to sit still on a chair while we passively ingest knowledge that we have no idea what to do with outside the gates of school.
In a world where education is based on each individual discovering their own pace of learning, and learning how to initiate self-directed learning in the best way possible, each person is able to focus on developing their unique passion and purpose in life. Someone may have no use for math until they decide to become an architect because they realize how passionate they are about buildings and to them, math becomes a valuable tool that can support them in developing their passion, it has a practical and real value and perhaps for them, learning math at the age of sixteen or twenty is perfect timing because their brain simply wasn’t mature until that point.
There is a wonderful story about this in one of Sudbury Valley’s videos about life at their school, where a teacher explained (and I am paraphrasing here because I do not remember the exact details of the story) about a group of students who had decided to learn advanced math and who, because they were motivated from a point of self-directed will to learn, learned an entire lesson plan that would have otherwise taken students a year to learn, in three months.
If we could learn at our own pace, in the ways that work best for us on an individual level, I am sure that many people would have completely entire education and training programs by the age of eighteen and we would see potential unfold like never before, because we, already from the get-go support each child to explore the fullness of their capabilities.
Imagine for instance, who you would have been, if the adults around you had supported you to discover your potential, from an early age. Would you still be doing what you are doing now? Most likely not, because most of us end up either in totally random positions or in some predetermined life path of doing what was expected of us, without ever questioning whether this is actually where our skills and efforts comes best to use. Because of this, I have no doubt that our emergency rooms are filled with doctors who would have rather been bakers or guitarists, or that our taxicabs are filled with drivers who could have cured cancer or who would have contributed so much more to the world as lawmakers than they do as cabdrivers, had they only been given the opportunity to explore their full potential from childhood.
The bad news is that we are doing the exact same to our kids that has been done to us, and it is therefore imperative that we, as adults, reconnect with our own passion, purpose and potential so that we may stand as examples for the generations to come, and that we find ways to hack, transform and change our education systems, both in the classrooms and in the very political structures, to become systems of support and facilitation of our children’s unique potential.
The good news is that it is not to late for us as adults. We never lose that ‘fire’ inside our natural learning ability, our unique potential and ourselves. It may be but a whisper by the time we turn twenty-five and we may have forgotten that it ever existed once we hit forty, but it is there, waiting for us to embrace it, to stir the embers of the fire that once was, so that our hearts may once again (or perhaps for the first time) burn with a passion for life, for contributing with creating something meaningful and worthwhile to this planet, and to our own lives.
“I celebrate teaching that enables transgressions – a movement against and beyond boundaries. It is that movement which makes education the practice of freedom.”
– bell hooks
Children are not allowed to partake in the democratic processes of this world, generally because they are considered incapable of addressing complex questions. When we imagine a world ruled by children, it is a world not unlike the one in The lord of the flies, a chaotic world without logical rules, regulations or boundaries, a world where the most demonic aspects of humanity are at the forefront of decision-making.
This view tells us a lot about how we see children, and why children are often discriminated and controlled in ways that only prisoners and mental patients are otherwise subjected to.
Whether we do it implicitly through institutionalized structures or with deliberate intent, we tend to believe that children must be broken down, not unlike feral horses or circus animals, to become civilized members of society.
We cannot blame ourselves; we were brought up the same way; taught that our mistakes and wrongdoings meant that there was something wrong with us, that we were ‘bad’ and ‘malignant’, when all we did was emulating what we saw adults doing.
The thing is: there is nothing that exists within children that didn’t first come from adults – and this is the very fact that we are so much in denial about that we make children scapegoats for our own demonic nature; the spite, the jealousy, the nastiness that we somehow delude ourselves into believing comes directly from them, and not possibly something that they could be learning and picking up from us.
We believe them to be incapable of making common sense decisions, we say that they lack of experience, but we fail to ask ourselves whether the decisions we make, that make up the world, are at all supportive for the purpose of sustaining this planet.
When we take the premise of our prejudice towards children out of the equation, it is becomes redundant to argue that children should not be allowed to partake in the democratic process. To put it bluntly: As adults, we are the ones making a mess of this planet and we have no idea what children could contribute with if they were allowed to – because they have never been allowed an equal voice.
So I conducted a survey among my friends where I asked them to ask their children (or any child) what they would vote for if they could vote. They could vote for anything they wanted to; causes, people you name it.
This is what they said:
8 year old: “Peace and a world without any gangsters.”
11 year old: “Equal money and that everyone has as much as Adele. Not harming any animals and no more weapons!”
5 year old: “Free money so I could buy all the toys I wish for.”
10 years old: “Freedom as a right for everybody to be who they are and do all they want, – without hurting anyone.”
13 year old: “No testing in animals.”
16 year old: “For all parents who don’t educate their children to be forced to.”
8 year old: “To stop bullying. To have cool technology like hover cars and teleportation devices and time machines. That everyone have equal access to these things, the more the merrier. Another thing is better jobs and careers – and that everyone needs to have a fascinating and exciting work life.”
15 year old: “One vote for equality.”
8 year old: “1. I would like everyone to have equal amount of money. 2. That everyone have a home. 3. That everyone would get enough to eat. 4. That all children go to school. 5. And everyone feel well/good.”
10 year old: “To live in a mansion.”
16 year old: “Freedom, no wars, that everyone would be equal no matter what race you come from, what color you have you would be equal to the rest. That we take care of those in need for example refugees.”
11 year old: “Chocolate and world peace!”
7 year old: “Would like to vote for Hillary because I want a girl to be president.”
9-year-old girl: “For women’s rights, for women to not be teased or abused by men”
8 years old: “No more Wars, that everyone has enough money, more much more space for animals to live. Not harming any animals and no more weapons!”
If these kids were allowed to vote, we would have a world with world peace, a world where everyone is supported equally, where men and women are equal, a world without bullying or abuse towards animals, a world where everyone is taken care of – and yes: plenty of chocolate and hover cars and toys and mansions for everyone.
Would it truly be so bad if children could vote? And aren’t we overestimating our own capabilities for making smart political decisions considering the current state of the world?
According to the Gapminder foundation that work to provide a fact-based world view in a world with much ignorance, children currently make up a whopping 27 % of the world’s population, almost a third of the total population of humanity. The world could therefore potentially look very different if children were allowed to vote, and according to an article on the Children’s Rights International’s website, there are plenty of arguments that speak towards that being a smart choice:
1. Children have rational thoughts and make informed choices. They often display very sophisticated decision-making abilities, for example when dealing with a bully at school or an abusive parent. Some claim young people are ignorant of political affairs, but if this is true, it is a truth that extends to many adults. Democracy requires that everyone should have a voice in making the decisions that govern their lives.
2. Children should not be prevented from making decisions simply because they might make the wrong ones. It is important not to confuse the right to do something with doing the right thing. Some argue children would cast their vote frivolously, but many adults do the same or choose not to vote at all.
3. Mistakes are learning experiences and should not be viewed as wholly negative. Children, like adults, grow through a process of trial and error. Decisions made by adults are far from infallible as evidenced by wars, nuclear weapons, global warming and many more bad judgments that have led to pain and suffering. To deny children the right to make mistakes is hypocritical. If the argument is really about competence and not age, then it is not children who should be excluded but the incompetent.
4. Setting age limits on the right to vote is relativistic and arbitrary. Limits vary from country-to-country when it comes to criminal responsibility, sexual maturity and political rights. The negative definition of children as “non-adults” is simplistic. The ages from to 18 encompass an enormous range of skills, competencies, needs and rights. A 16-year-old is likely to have more in common with a 19-year-old than a three-year-old but, according to conventional accounts, the 16 and three-year-old are equally “children”. There is no better example than that of a 17-year-old who dies in a war before even having the right to vote.
5. The exclusion of children from decision-making is unfair because they can do nothing to change the conditions that exclude them. If incompetence was the issue, the stupid could grow wise, but children can not prematurely grow old. This argument confuses particular children with children as a group.
6. The argument for the exclusion of children from decision-making is little more than ill thought through prejudice dressed up as “common sense’”.
Schools such as Sudbury Valley, the Freinet schools and other democratic schools have already with success implemented voting as an integral part of their educational environment where children are equipped with voting rights equal to adults and get to vote on things like what the school budget gets spend on and whether to hire a new teacher. From an early age children who attend these schools, not only learn that their voice and perspectives matter, but they also become familiar with democratic processes involving policy development and they are more likely to grow up being interested in, and caring about being active participants in the general democratic processes within society.
As adults we tend to overestimate our own capabilities of effectively directing the world, but at the same time we also underestimate children’s abilities to contribute and it can even be argued that their perspectives are in fact greatly missed in the political debates and debacles.
Allowing children to partake in the democratic processes of the world could be a progressive step towards world change – and it is not like the world can get much worse than what it already is. As a smart child said once: “If you can’t fix it, then at least stop breaking it.”
I for one, would like to see a world where children had an equal vote to decide what to do with the world and its resources, how to care for animals and poor people and refugees, because I am sure that they would contribute with valuable and common sense perspectives, not to mention creative and compassionate solutions to solve the problems of the world.
We could certainly benefit from seeing the world more like children sees it and I am sure that if we let them, they would gladly help us change the world – and the world would be better off for it.
A really interesting question that I will bring up in my next post is the question of why children so often bring these common sense perspectives to the table and why we as adults do not. What is it that happens in the process of growing up that causes us to loose that ability to look at the world with common sense and actually see the big picture in simplicity?
A discourse of paranoia is slowly but surely creeping into the core of our education systems and if you are a parent who has a child in school, you will know that education today is not what it was, even 10 or 20 years ago.
One of the main culprits of the discourse of paranoia, is the increase of comparative testing of children’s’ cognitive development, especially when it comes to reading, writing and math.
This increase in standardized testing is spearheaded by a private global interest organization called the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) who runs a program called PISA (Program For International Student Assessment).
The OECD has with its PISA program become one of the most influential organizations when it comes to setting the agenda for the future of education, and they are rapidly working towards standardizing the world’s school systems into one streamlined model with a singular aim of optimizing profits.
So why is a private economic interest organization having such a significant influence on school systems all over the world?
In mere 20 years the OECD has become one of the world’s leading forces with regards to affecting education policies and currently, more than 70 countries solicits OECD to test its students through international comparative tests and accordingly give ‘expert advice’ based on the results of these test on how each country can optimize its education system.
It is for example based on results from the PISA tests that Finland’s education system was glorified and appraised and it is because of their high rankings in PISA that South Korea and Singapore currently are seen as having some of the best education systems in the world.
In previous articles I have discussed standardized testing from a critical perspective when it comes to the effect it has on children on a psychological level as well as on teachers, but also in regards to it being symptomatic of a development towards global competition and market capitalism.
In this post I will therefore rather present a critical perspective on the subtle way in which an economic organization has penetrated the very fabric of our education systems in ubiquitous ways that seems to go unnoticed by most – and this includes parents and teachers but also local governments.
There are two ways in which OECD with PISA is slowly but surely monopolizing educational policy:
The first is the seemingly innocuous ways in which our education systems are changing through the ways standardized testing are affecting schools and curricular all over the world on a rather ubiquitous level.
The other is how OECD with PISA is acting as a global overseer of quality in education with which it penetrates the education system to further a specific economic and ideological agenda. Countries are literally basing educational reforms on directions from OECD, in some countries with what some would call devastating effects. More on this later.
Let’s start by taking a closer look at the first:
The fact of the matter is that standardized testing is not simply a ‘tool’ as the OECD presents it, which is used to optimize the quality of our education systems. It is in itself changing the way education is carried out, addressed and seen.
It is not a passive tool for measuring the quality of education at a school because it requires students active participation and at many schools the result of PISA and other tests are included as part of the students final grading. Teachers have to change their curricular to ‘teach to the test’ and local budgets are set based on competitive results between schools in the same area.
This is not simply adding an innocuous tool which only effect it is to optimize the equality of education – it is pervasive in nature and it is changing our education systems more rapidly than we realize.
This is seen no more than in how students experience having to take one standardized test after another. One of my 7th grade students for example experiences perpetual stress over having to do tests close to every week. She is a young bring woman with an immense drive and creative ambition. She wants to become a movie director and often sits at home writing long scripts. She is even working on a novel. One time she mentioned to me that they had been learning about the ancient Mesopotamia in a history class. To me that sounded like a fascinating subject and I asked her with excitement what she had learned. “I’m not really sure,” she said. “The teacher is moving so fast through the curriculum pushing us towards the test so it is difficult to keep up.”
This is coming from a bright and intelligent young woman who still has an immense curiosity and interest for learning. How much learning potential is not wasted when students are rushed through a curriculum only to get to a test at the end?
Another tragic example of the effects that standardized testing has on students can be seen on the American art teacher Mrs. Chang’s blog. She gave her 10 – 12th grade students the task to illustrate how they felt about taking tests. You can see the outcome of that project for yourself here.
In 1998, Noel Wilson, a scholar from the Flinders University of South Australia wrote a paper in the journal EDUCATION POLICY ANALYSIS titled Educational Standards and the Problem of Error on the devastating effects that standardized testing has on students that is as relevant today as it was 20 years ago. A summarized and updated version was added by someone called Duane Swacker in the comment section of this article which I also recommend reading in relation to a critical perspective on PISA.
In it, Wilson criticizes the entire notion of standardized testing in schools and asks:
“So what does a test measure in our world? It measures what the person with the power to pay for the test says it measures. And the person who sets the test will name the test what the person who pays for the test wants the test to be named.
So the mark [grade/test score] becomes part of the story about yourself and with sufficient repetitions becomes true: true because those who know, those in authority, say it is true; true because the society in which you live legitimates this authority; true because your cultural habitus makes it difficult for you to perceive, conceive and integrate those aspects of your experience that contradict the story; true because in acting out your story, which now includes the mark and its meaning, the social truth that created it is confirmed; true because if your mark is high you are consistently rewarded, so that your voice becomes a voice of authority in the power-knowledge discourses that reproduce the structure that helped to produce you; true because if your mark is low your voice becomes muted and confirms your lower position in the social hierarchy; true finally because that success or failure confirms that mark that implicitly predicted the now self-evident consequences. And so the circle is complete.”
Paraphrasing Wilson on the epistemological error of the notion of testing, Swacker writes:
“A quality cannot be quantified. Quantity is a sub-category of quality. It is illogical to judge/assess a whole category by only a part (sub-category) of the whole. The assessment is, by definition, lacking in the sense that “assessments are always of multidimensional qualities. To quantify them as one dimensional quantities (numbers or grades) is to perpetuate a fundamental logical error” (per Wilson). The teaching and learning process falls in the logical realm of aesthetics/qualities of human interactions. In attempting to quantify educational standards and standardized testing we are lacking much information about said interactions.
A major epistemological mistake is that we attach, with great importance, the “score” of the student, not only onto the student but also, by extension, the teacher, school and district. Any description of a testing event is only a description of an interaction, that of the student and the testing device at a given time and place.
The whole process harms many students as the social rewards for some are not available to others who “don’t make the grade (sic)” Should American public education have the function of sorting and separating students so that some may receive greater benefits than others, especially considering that the sorting and separating devices, educational standards and standardized testing, are so flawed not only in concept but in execution?”
It is indeed highly problematic that testing is seen as a benevolent tool to improve and optimize education, when it in fact appears to have an oppressing effect on students subjected to it.
The question is then whether this oppressing cookie-cutter effect of standardized testing is an innocuous but problematic side effect of a benevolent project regarding educational reforms or whether it is actually part of a much more sinister agenda to propagate a certain mindset in students graduating from schools around the world?
One of the most revered critiques of OCED and PISA is professor Yong Zhao, Presidential Chair and Director of the Institute for Global and Online Education in the College of Education, University of Oregon.
In the fourth part of his often-referenced four-piece series of articles titled “How Does PISA Put the World at Risk“ Zhao argues that the PISA program
”was designed to capitalize on the intense nationalistic concern for global competitiveness by inducing strong emotional responses from the unsuspecting public, gullible politicians, and sensation-seeking media. Virtually all PISA products, particularly its signature product—the league tables, are intended to show winners and losers, in not only educational policies and practices of the past, but more important, in capacity for global competition in the future.
While this approach has made PISA an extremely successful global enterprise, it has misled the world down a path of self-destruction, resulting in irrational policies and practices that are more likely to squander precious resources and opportunities than enhancing capacity for future prosperity.”
Zhao criticizes the PISA program for measuring the quality of education purely based on academic achievements, entirely leaving out and disregarding socioeconomic facts as well as the psychosocial well being of students. I have discussed this in a previous article where I mentioned how countries such as South Korea might score high on the PISA tests, but they also have some of the highest suicide rates amongst students – and the question is then whether that is an education system that is worth modeling?
In his closing statement of the article Zhao argues that:
“Until OECD-PISA became the only employer in the world with PISA scores as the only qualification, I would not suggest lawyers and doctors in the U.S., U.K., or any nation to replace your children’s activities in music, arts, sports, dancing, debates, and field trips with math tutoring. For the same reason, it is not time yet for schools in developed countries to close your swimming pools, burn your musical instruments, end museums visits, or fire your art teachers.”
In an 2014 article for the UK-based TES (Times Educational Supplement) newspaper titled “Is Pisa fundamentally flawed?” Educational reporter William Stewart outlined the scope of influence that the OECD has gotten over the past decade: ”Politicians worldwide, such as England’s education secretary Michael Gove, have based their case for sweeping, controversial reforms on the fact that their countries’ Pisa rankings have “plummeted”. Meanwhile, top-ranked success stories such as Finland have become international bywords for educational excellence, with other ambitious countries queuing up to see how they have managed it.”
Like Zhao, Stewart argues that measuring educational quality based on results from PISA is flawed. He argues that the tests are not based on common results but on different results from different students and that this creates highly fluctuating results from country to country and even within the same country, despite the OECD’s claim that PISA is one of the most accurately tools for measuring the quality of education. Stewart argues that it is absurd to expect that 50 countries with widely different cultures can be expected to fit into a one-size-fits-all measurement of educational quality and that the tests may therefore potentially be culturally biased.
So how has a private economic interest organization like OECD within the span of a decade managed to influence the course of national education policies on a global level?
In the past 20-30 years a discourse of global competition has become ubiquitously part of the conversation in media and in political sphere. Global competition for profit and resources (where knowledge is one of the most valuable assets a country can mine), is seen as a natural outflow of the processes of globalization and it is in that discourse that the OECD positions itself within and from which it gains its self-proclaimed relevance. PISA is presented as a tool that governments can (and must) use to optimize their educational policies to not fall back in the global competition.
The question is whether the OECD is doing that in fact or whether they, with PISA are adding gasoline to the fire to further their own agenda, specifically through generating panic and paranoia amongst member countries who feverishly fight tooth and nail to not be at the bottom of the ranks.
When Sweden, a country who otherwise prided itself of having one of the world’s best education systems, keep dropping in the PISA results year after year, it begs the question of whether PISA is doing more good than harm. Students are becoming increasingly more stressed and meanwhile politicians are acting as lapdogs for the OECD, following their every decree, to do whatever it takes to not fall back and risk being losers in this global game of thrones.
It seems as though the increased focus on global competition in our education systems has done nothing but decrease the actual quality of education, which is in itself an irony of massive proportions. It seems as though an undercurrent of paranoia based on an ethos of ‘survival of the fittest’ is governing our education systems and the question is: who stands to gain from a system that is set up to make students fail, despite getting an education?
I leave you with this analogy that may serve as a precautionary tale, to not let organizations like the OECD dictate the future of education based on paranoia.
In the classic 1954 book about survival and human nature, Lord of the flies, Jack (leader of the choir boys) convinces the other boys that there is a monster on the island and he soon spreads paranoia to gain power over the tribe. The boys vehemently start hunting the monster. Later, in a vision, another boy called Simon realizes that the monster is not real and that the boys have created the monster as a figment of their own imagination through the intoxication of fear. Jack and his followers kill Simon before they eventually burn down the entire island and destroy what little community was left.
Education is about learning how to navigate the world in the most effective way, to live together and to take care of the world and each other in the best way possible. Education is about learning from those who came before us, both from their experiences and examples, but also from their mistakes. Education is about developing and living one’s utmost potential so as to best contribute to a world that is best for all, and so for oneself. This is not the type of education that is promoted neither by the OECD, nor by our countries officials when they so desperately follow the OECD’s recommendations without questioning its political agenda.
If we are not interested in an education system designed by a private economic interest organization, whose goal it seems to be to increase paranoia to encourage competition – it is important that we come up with sound alternatives; alternatives such as the democratic (Sudbury) schools that are emerging all over the world, alternatives such as unschooling that questions the very notion of schooling and its capacity to true education our children. At the very least, we ought to question the starting-point with which we send our children to school: is it to teach them to compete and survive in a global version of Lord of the Flies or is it to become the best people they can possibly be, so that they may leave a world that is better than the one they came into?