Evidence and transformation

I had the great privilege in November of being a delegate to the most recent convening of the Global Education Leaders Partnership (GELP), held in Auckland, New Zealand.  This year, GELP convened a global ‘network of networks’: bringing together a cross-sectoral group of change makers working towards education transformation.  Our SVA education team was invited, and I attended with my colleagues Matt Deeble and Sue Cridge.

Over five days, we delegates considered three themes: (1) what is learning for; (2) the shared responsibility for learning; and (3) innovative learning environments.  I’ve summarised the key points raised on each theme below.

What is learning for?

Education needs to prepare young people for a world that is placing different demands on them than have been placed on previous generations.  These demands are personal, economic, political, social and ethical, and young people are feeling them as they go through their education, not just at the end of a pre-defined time period (e.g. the end of 12 years of formal schooling).  While students must master traditional academic knowledge and skills to meet these demands, such knowledge and skills are not sufficient for young people to thrive in the world.

The shared responsibility for learning

Formal education systems cannot alone help young people prepare for these new demands – responsibility for young people’s learning needs to be shared more broadly; by families, local communities, the business community, and non-profit organisations.

Innovative learning environments

Traditional learning environments—which focus on centrally-defined curriculum content delivered by teachers to a cohort of students grouped by age—will not help young people to develop the broad range of knowledge, skills, capabilities and dispositions they need to thrive in the world.  Instead, we need innovative learning environments, characterised by a wider range of subject matter, teaching that is more targeted to students’ current level of understanding, greater permeability between learning in and out of formal education settings, and learning activities that will help students to develop broader skills, capabilities, and dispositions.

Taken together, these perspectives imply the need for the transformation of our current systems of education.

This is no surprise, given that GELP convened us under the banner of ‘Building future learning systems: from exceptional innovations to systemic transformation’.  In the education discourse, this ‘transformation agenda’ often sits in opposition to an ‘improvement agenda’, which assumes that the current system is largely adequate to young people’s needs, we just need to make sure it works better and for more young people.

With all this in my mind, and in light of our education work at SVA, I came away from GELP with one observation and one question:

1) We’re already in the transformation game.

Through our Education Dialogue, SVA has been convening a conversation about transformation in Australia over the last five years.  We have brought together an ‘uncommon alliance’ of leaders from education systems, business, philanthropy and non-profits to look at new ways of addressing our national education challenges.  Commonwealth Bank CEO Ian Narev’s keynote address to the 2015 Dialogue was a clarion call for us as a country to redefine what education is for.  Also, through our Bright Spots Schools Connection, we work with and support a network of schools that are at the forefront of innovation, connecting them to each other and a broader network of business, government, and non-profit leaders.

2) How does evidence inform transformation?

As I’ve written about before, at SVA we’re committed to acting from and generating a robust evidence base about what works to address key social challenges.  The education transformation agenda often focuses on the need for innovation without a strong emphasis on how innovations can be informed by evidence or how innovations can be evaluated so that we can generate an ever-growing body of knowledge about what’s effective.  So, I wonder how a commitment to transformation and a commitment to evidence can complement each other in the service of better educational outcomes for all young Australians, particularly those doing it tough.

Over the next year, our team will be working with teachers, school leaders, researchers and education system leaders around Australia to help them generate more and better evidence and to make best use of it for the benefit of the kids they serve.

In some corners, this work might look like it sits squarely within the improvement agenda; but I’m excited by the promise that our work can bring evidence to bear in the transformation agenda as well – to support and advance the innovative work of educators around the country.