A recent meeting of the Global Learning Alliance (GLA) included a series of presentations from educators around the world responding to the question: “What in the world are schools doing to cultivate 21st century capacities, and why does this matter?” The GLA was established to to share ideas for moving schools and educational systems towards supporting the development of 21st century skills and brings together scholars, researchers, teachers and school leaders from China, Canada, Singapore, Finland, and the US among others.
Presentations at the conference included discussions of recent developments in countries like Singapore and Finland as well as considerations of broader issues of change and innovation. A symposium of educators from Singapore, for example, described innovative school level programs designed to support the development of engineering and design skills amongst high school students. At the same time, Dr. Suzanne Choo, of Singapore’s National Institute of Education, also cautioned that while students there are excelling in many areas like English language and mathematics, fewer and fewer students are taking traditional liberal arts subjects like English Literature. Dr. Jari Lavonen, of the University of Helsinki, suggested that many of the conditions for innovation in schools are in place in Finland. These include a long-term policy vision rather than “ad hoc” ideas from multiple policymakers; decentralized decision-making and assessment at a local level instead of standardization, inspections, and national testing; trust-based responsibility instead of test-based accountability; and collaboration, networks, and partnerships vs. competition and rankings.
Dennis Shirley, Professor of Education at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College and author of The Global Fourth Way, also focused on the possibilities for cross-cultural learning in education. Shirley, who began his career as an education historian, discussed how examples of cross-cultural learning through history, including the way kindergarten permeated the rest of the world, could be vehicles for innovation or for maintaining the status quo.
At issue throughout were fundamental questions, however, about what constitutes “innovation”: When is a program or a practice actually “new” and when and to what extent do “innovations” lead to better schools and educational systems?