Category Archives: About K-12 International Education News

Headlines around the world: PISA (2015) Well-Being Report

This week, we provide a quick scan of headlines related to the release of OECD’s first global study on the well-being of students,  OECD’s analysis of PISA 2015 results focuses for the first time on students’ motivation to perform well in school, their relationships with peers and teachers, their home life, and how they spend their time outside of school. As the OECD shares on its website, “the findings are based on a survey of 540,000 students in 72 participating countries and economies who also completed the main OECD PISA 2015 test on science, mathematics and reading.”

The results show that many students are very anxious about school work and tests and the analysis reveals this is related with how supportive they feel their teachers and schools to be. On average, 59% of students reported worrying that taking a test will be difficult and 66% reported feeling stressed about poor grades. As reported on the OECD website:

Teachers play a big role in creating the conditions for students’ well-being at school and governments should not define the role of teachers solely through the number of instruction hours. Happier students tend to report positive relations with their teachers. Students in schools where life satisfaction is above the national average reported a higher level of support from their teacher than students in schools where life satisfaction is below average.

To read the full report, go to


PISA (2015) Well-Being Report headlines::

Competitiveness at school may not yield the best exam results, The Economist


The three measures by which Australian students are ahead of Finnish ones, The Sydney Morning Herland

Teacher flaws stifle students, The Australian


PISA study: Finnish youth – especially boys – content with life,


Pisa-Studie zum Wohlbefinden: Wie ein Abendessen am Familientisch die Leistung der Schüler verbessern kann. Spiegel Online

Mobbing – ein großes Problem an deutschen Schulen,

Neue Pisa-Auswertung: Sportliche Schüler sind glücklicher,


UK Teens ‘Among The Most Miserable In The World,’ Huffpost

New Pisa happiness table: see where UK pupils rank,


Report reveals how Irish teenagers feel and perform as compared to peers across the world, Irish Examiner


It May Surprise You To Learn Where The World’s Happiest Students Live, Forbes


Japan’s 15-year-olds struggle with life satisfaction, OECD survey finds, The Japan Times


Kiwi students report second-highest rate of bullying in international study,


More than one in six schoolkids get bullied in Sweden: study, The Local


Korean Teenagers Study Hard But Feel Unhappy,


OECD PISA 2015 ‘Student Welfare’ report: First time in misery, Hurriyet


Italian schoolkids make friends easily but suffer high anxiety, The Local


Lux. teens report low levels of study anxiety, Delano


Most Mexican Students Say They’re Happy, But Harassment Is Alarming Problem, Latin American Herald Tribune

Deirdre Faughey

School success in the Netherlands

This month, the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) is focusing on the Dutch education system. In one post, Jennifer Craw shares statistics that show the Dutch system is one of the top performing education systems worldwide. For example, Dutch 15-year-olds are a full year ahead of their U.S. counterparts in mathematics. In a recent blog post, Marc Tucker points to the country’s powerful math curriculum called Realistic Mathematics.


Tucker shares his reflections on a recent conversation he had with Sander Dekker, the Netherlands’ State Secretary for Education, Culture and Science. In this and another post, written by David Loewenberg, both authors highlight  aspects of the Dutch system that might contribute to the country’s success. According to Loewenberg, the success of the Dutch system can be attributed to the country’s commitment to building a coherent system that:

  1. supports children and families from a very young age;
  2. allocates extra resources for disadvantaged students;
  3. continually strives to improve the quality of its teachers;
  4. maintains a system of school accountability; and
  5. includes a robust system of career and technical education.

Here at IEN, we published a Leading Futures post focusing on the Dutch education system last May. Written by Alma Harris, Michelle Jones, Jan Heijmans and Job Christians, the authors argue that in addition to identifying structural features of successful education systems, it is also important to understand that education systems are complex and often there are multiple reasons for improved outcomes that interact and intersect. In this post, the authors argue that “the Dutch system provides an example of ‘principled educational performance,’ combining a focus on democratic values with an approach to policymaking that relies on both collaboration and autonomy.”

A quick scan of recent education news from the Netherlands found the following articles, which provide additional context. 

Teachers strike could shut Dutch primary schools for days

Dutch Members of Parliament Want to Mandate ‘Inclusiveness’ Education

Dutch Kids Aren’t Stressed Out: What Americans Can Learn From How the Netherlands Raises Children

PISA study: Finnish youth – especially boys – content with life

Working together is a key part of the Dutch psyche –

Leading Futures: Making Change Make a Difference, Scotland

In this latest post in the Leading Futures Series, edited by Alma Harris and Michelle Jones, George Gilchrist applies some of the ideas presented in Andrea Stringer’s post, which focused on Australia, to the Scottish context. Gilchrist is Headteacher of two primary schools in the Scottish Borders, where he has lived for the last 25 years. In 2015 he became a Fellow of the Scottish College for Educational Leadership. He has spoken regularly on leadership and learning at events within Scotland, and further afield. He has his own blog entitled ‘School Leadership – A Scottish Perspective‘ and uses this for thought pieces and collaboration with educators across different systems.

Making Change Make A difference, Scotland

The issues around educational change and reform faced by educationalists in Australia, Scotland, and across other systems are all too familiar and often the same. Pasi Sahlberg, has pointed out characteristics and issues with what he termed the General Educational Reform Movement (GERM) for a number of years now. Sahlberg cautioned against GERM and its negative impacts for pupil learning, but it would seem that many Governments have still decided that ‘they know best’ and have determined to still introduce such ‘reforms.’ The fact that there is little evidential basis as to their efficacy, but a lot of evidence and research shows that they have the opposite effects to those envisioned, seems to count for little in the face of strong political will and ideology.

In Scotland we have been taking a different approach to curriculum design within education for many years now. Our Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) came out of a national discourse around education completed in 2002. From this emerged a new curriculum (CfE) in our Primary (Elementary) schools, and early years of Secondary education.  This envisioned a learning experience that was broadly based, and which placed value on skills development, as well as the development of positive attitudes and aptitudes for learning, not just knowledge acquisition. Four key capacities were to underpin learning. These were for our learners to be: Successful Learners, Effective Contributors, Responsible Citizens and Confident Individuals. The original vision and principles for CfE were contained on a few sheets of A4 paper and there was much to be admired about the approach. That is not to say it was without its critics or faults, what system is? Perhaps the two biggest failings at the outset were firstly, in not carrying out any sort of meaningful baseline assessment to see where we really were, and which would allow us to demonstrate improvement in performance. The second, was to not pay enough attention from the outset to the exam structure, and changes, that would be required in secondary education. Both of these failings, combined with others, have caused lots of problems for teachers and schools trying to implement CfE and to demonstrate its impact to various audiences. You could read more of the work of Mark Priestley and Walter Humes to explore this further.

Like Andrea identifies, there are numerous ‘voices’ that need to be heard in any discourse around education, but unfortunately the one that is still heard loudest is political. So much so, that others are drowned out and often not heard at all. The Scottish government have stated their aim to deliver an educational experience that is based on ‘Equity and Excellence’ for all. They want to raise attainment and reduce the gaps for those from our most disadvantaged backgrounds. This is all encapsulated in the latest policy documents, the National Improvement Framework (NIF) and ‘Getting It Right For every Child’ (GIRFEC). There is no one within the Scottish system that would argue much with the laudable aims and vision found in these two documents. Where we get most divergence is in how we go about achieving this vision for Scotland and its children. The NIF promotes a ’top-down’ high-stakes accountability and standardised agenda with all the attendant issues.

Andrea asks ‘Whose voice represents Australia’s education?’ A question we should ask of our own systems. Hopefully, our conclusions will be the same, that this should be a collective ‘voice’, authentic and with agency for all. Speaking as a practitioner, I could make the case that the true authentic voice of the profession is rarely heard or listened to in the Scottish system. There is a plethora of ‘consultation’, but this is often blighted by the timings of when this occurs, but more so by the fact that decisions have clearly already been made. Faux consultation is no consultation at all. The listening skill that Andrea refers to is crucial. Do we listen to understand and empathise, or do we listen to reply?

Andrea suggests some possible solutions to the issues facing education in Australia and to ask some pertinent questions of all the stakeholders in the system. All of these could be quite easily transposed into the Scottish system, where they should be easier to answer and implement, as Scotland is smaller than Australia. We need only look across the sea to Finland to see what smaller systems can achieve with collective and cultural agreement, augmented by high degrees of trust. Change is a constant in all schools and systems, and hopefully in all classrooms. But change for change sake makes little difference that is meaningful and sustainable. Change needs to be managed, informed by evidence and research, adapted to context, and should produce positive impacts for learning. The following are my suggestions to help us make the right changes, for the right reasons and to make a difference for every learner in our schools.

  • Invest time and support into our Early Years programmes. We need to get the base right. This does not mean starting formal learning earlier, but it does mean working with families and children before they arrive in our schools. Research by Sue Ellis and Edward Sosu for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2014 showed that equity gaps are established before children reach our schools. We need to have more play-based learning in early years and to work with parents to help them develop their children’s learning, creativity and problem solving.
  • Andrea identifies ‘Collective Networks’ in order to encourage collaborative and problem solving at all levels. This is System Leadership, wherein all see their role as bigger than just the one in their own classroom, school or cluster. We have a responsibility to consider how we impact positively for all learners in our schools, area and system. We do this by sharing expertise, coaching, mentoring and supporting everyone to develop practice and their ‘voice’. This is a collective responsibility.
  • Linked to this, is the development and support of true teacher agency. Our best teachers are trained, professional and reflective practitioners; they are not mere ‘deliverers’. They have adaptive expertise and know their learners well. Individually and collectively, ‘teachers are not the problem, they are the solution,’ as Alma Harris commented on Twitter last year. We spend a lot of money and time preparing and training teachers, we should trust them more and support them in what they do.
  • From my own experience and research, I would recommend the adoption of practitioner enquiry, or other enquiry approaches, so that we situate professional development in our daily practice and our context. Career-long professional development, focused on impacts for learners, needs to be a disposition for all educators, and seen as something done by you, not to you. The aspect of school systems that has the greatest impact on attainment is teacher expertise, we all need to commit to keep improving and supporting the development of this. ‘Not because we are not good, but because we can be better,’ as Dylan Wiliam would say.

I believe the time is right for another ‘conversation’ around what we understand by education and curriculum in Scotland. When we have explored those issues again, we would be in a better position to identify a way forward, instead of repeating the mistakes of others. We still spend too much time on systems and structures and not enough on improving learning and teaching.

I remain optimistic for education in Scotland and elsewhere. But practitioners and researchers need to be working closer together to support each other and to fight the neo-liberal driven agendas that many of us face across our systems. We owe it to all our learners, and our profession.


Leading Futures: The Collective Network, Australia

In this latest post in the Leading Futures Series, edited by Alma Harris and Michelle Jones, Andrea Stringer shares her thoughts on building a collective network. She argues that a collective network promotes collaborative leadership and collective efficacy by including all stakeholders in education. Andrea Stringer is a teacher in Sydney, Australia, who has received the The Keith Tronc Award for the most outstanding teacher from the Australian Council for Educational Leaders.

“Not cut out for teaching leave & do what you love. Students suffer as much as you do for staying.”  (Oct 3, 2016)

Posted by an education consultant on Twitter, this comment reflects little understanding of the passion and frustration most teachers have for their profession. Many teachers report that they are not motivated by monetary or personal gain, but by their desire to support students, contribute to society and make a difference. What contributes to and affects the motivational level of educators over time? Globally, early career teachers are exiting the classroom at an alarming rate . In Australia, researchers are estimating around 30-50% of teachers will leave in the first five years. With the amount of time and money invested in our early career teachers, the expectations are high. Defining the problem is simpler than being part of the solution.

Dinham (2013) calls for educators to find their voice and four years on, I question if they have found or utilized their voices effectively. Listening is the prerequisite for voices to be heard. In education, do we actively listen to each other? As a coach, I recognize that active listening is a crucial component of coaching and to support each other within our schools and beyond, this essential skill is acquired and developed with practice. My postgraduate research involves listening and learning from early career teachers’ and their experience of coaching. Fullan and Hargreaves maintain that if you ‘attract, select and develop teachers with high levels of human capital in terms of knowledge, skill, and talent’, you will receive a good return on your investment. They suggest we need to continuously challenge and support all educators as professionals through structured experiences and feedback. This teacher and teaching investment must be long-term and well supported.

Coaching is about supporting the growth of others, while respecting their self-determined learning and professional needs. Supported by the research I have recently read, the top-down, mandated accountability and compliance approach, which currently dominates the Australian context, does not generate the most passionate, effective educators. Coaching is not about telling teachers they need to improve or how to improve. Instead, it is the process of having one-to-one conversation that focus on developing the educator’s learning through increasing self-awareness (van Nieuwerburgh). A coach has a belief and faith in another’s ability and their capacity for growth. A principal once inquired where I’d like to be in five years and then asked how she could help make this happen. With her sincere support and genuine interest, we established a collective long-term vision of improving student achievement. This is vastly different to the more common evaluation and accountability model.

A parent recently asked my view of Australia’s ‘dismal’ PISA results because according to the newspaper and social media, Australian education is getting left behind. Very few practitioners were quoted in any of the media reporting or political discourse that follows such statements. My intention is not to discuss our students’ ability or inability, but to simply ask a question. Whose voice represents Australia’s education? Is it a soloist or we all part of a choir? Politicians, academics, government agencies, education organisations, school leaders, teachers, parents and various associations are all stakeholders. All perspectives are important and significant and we need to engage and listen to each other, especially our students. They are our focus and the product of our education system.

The main feature of any education system is the curriculum and to assist students to live and work successfully in the 21st century, the Australian Curriculum includes general capabilities, such as critical and creative thinking, ethical understanding, and personal and social capability. Teachers are required to include these in various subject areas, but are all the education stakeholders modeling these skills, attitudes and behaviours?  DeWitt defines collaborative leaders as those who ‘find a balance between leading initiatives and fostering cooperative learning between adults with diverse ideas’. According to Donohoo, we can strengthen ‘collective efficacy’ in schools by doing three things:

  1. Create structures and processes for teachers to engage in meaningful collaboration
  2. Promote teacher leadership and extend teachers’ decision-making power
  3. Build awareness that collective efficacy exists and that it is the number one factor that influences student achievement

A ‘Collective Network’ would incorporate collaborative leaders and collective efficacy and expand to include all those stakeholders in education. This concept prompts some questions.

  • When academics and universities work with schools and classroom teachers, is the process straightforward and transparent?
  • How many politicians personally seek the ideas and expertise of general classroom teachers?
  • How could agencies, such as AITSL, seek teacher voice through genuine connections, not surveys or apps?
  • Before implementing any learning resources or strategies, could schools seek knowledge and research data from academics?
  • How many members of the New South Wales Education Standards Authority (formerly BOSTES) represent the classroom teachers or parents?
  • How do educational consultants who provide professional development and resources commercially, connect personally with classroom teachers?
  • Could practitioners share their practice by writing more journal articles?
  • How are other agencies, policy makers and stakeholders held accountable for their impact and effects on the profession?
  • What is the balance between individual agency and impact versus collective impact & responsibility?

For expertise in the classroom and in leadership, colleagues, my professional learning network, professional reading and discourse support me. I also tap into the expertise of academics I have connected with via Twitter. With that broad depth of expertise, I learn, explore, implement and reflect. It is about connecting, building relationships, increasing awareness and developing empathy. Social media has provided a platform for this to happen, although some sectors have restrictions. Social media decreases the traditional hierarchy within education and allows more stakeholders the opportunity to connect.

Scotland has the International Council of Education Advisers to provide a broader insight into bettering their education. Australia first needs to effectively connect and utilize the knowledge and expertise within our country. Here is my ‘call to action’ Australia. To develop insight, understanding and build empathy, academics could connect and speak with teachers and teachers reach out more to academics. All accreditation agencies converse with classroom teachers to promote professional growth, as well as compliance. Focus beyond the mandated professional hours and more towards personalized learning. Hold companies providing professional development more accountable using transparent feedback. Educational journals could invite more practitioners to share their practice. Instead of independent hierarchal structures, we should create the collective network to ensure all stakeholders have a voice and all students are supported.

The Collective Network

Lead the Change interview with Susan Moore Johnson

Dr. Susan Moore Johnson

Susan Moore Johnson is the Jerome T. Murphy Research Professor in Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she served as academic dean 1993-1999. A former high school teacher and administrator, Johnson has an ongoing research interest in the work of teachers and the reform of schools and school systems. Johnson has written three books about teachers and their work: Teacher Unions in Schools (1984), focuses on the role of teachers unions in the day-to-day work of schools. Teachers at Work examines the school as a workplace for teachers. Finders and Keepers: Helping New Teachers Survive and Thrive in Our Schools (2006), written with colleagues at The Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, centers on the experiences of new teachers. Subsequent research at the Project focuses on teachers’ careers, alternative preparation, the role of unions, hiring, induction, performance-based pay, teacher teams, and teacher evaluation. Between 2007 and 2014, Johnson served as co-chair of the Public Education Leadership Project (PELP), where she and her colleagues wrote Achieving Coherence in District Improvement (2015), which examines the management relationship between the central office and schools in five large urban school districts. Johnson is a member of the National Academy of Education.

In this interview, which is part of the Lead the Change Series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest Group, Johnson shares her thoughts on the most important issues in education change today:

At this time, public education is being seriously challenged in the US by citizens and politicians who do not believe that our society should invest the resources necessary to educate all students. Educational change is not being designed to provide greater opportunity for all students, but instead, to increase options for some students. Although I think that market-based strategies and de-regulated schools can contribute to a richer, more robust system of schools, relying on those mechanisms alone will not lead to a well-informed, prosperous society. Although this current direction of reform concerns me greatly, I continue to be encouraged by the work of certain states, districts, and schools that reap benefits from their sustained commitment to both equity and excellence.

This Lead the Change interview appears as part of a series that features experts from around the globe, highlights promising research and practice, and offers expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change. Recently Lead the Change has also published interviews with Diane Ravitch, and the contributors to Leading Educational Change: Global Issues, Challenges, and Lessons on Whole-System Reform (Teachers College Press, 2013) edited by Helen Janc Malone, have participated in a series of blogs from Education Week.


The potential, promise and pitfalls of blended learning in India

This story was written by Liz Willen and originally published on The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Photo: Kim Palmer

JAISALMER, India – In a rural desert school, students from this corner of Northwest India sit on the floor, squirming and awaiting instruction They have few desks and supplies and not a single computer. The setting seems highly unlikely for an innovation like blended learning to take root.

Yet throughout India, a number of digital initiatives are underway aimed at improving education in areas that lack sufficient trained and experienced teachers. The Hechinger Report visited schools in India recently and talked to experts about blended learning – which includes an element of online learning with in-class instruction – and the potential it has for helping both teachers and students in the world’s second-most populous country.

Progress is desperately needed: The UNESCO Institute for Statistics estimates that India, where half of the 1.2 billion population is under 25, will need some three million new primary school teachers by 2030. India’s education system has long lagged behind others, despite the country’s enactment of the 2009 Right to Education (RTE) ACT, which was supposed to give every child in the country the right to a full-time elementary education “of satisfactory and equitable quality.”

India has also had long had a problem with keeping girls in school. And many of the public, government-run schools – where 70 percent of all children study – have no computers or tablets.

So why is there so much optimism about blended learning as a solution? Many believe it has to do with both the huge population of India, the country’s many education needs and its chronic shortage of qualified teachers. If done well, blended learning can help all kinds of students – including slow learners – get up to speed, while boosting the ability of those who learn more quickly to master competencies and move ahead.

“I think blended learning has the potential to have a huge impact on education in India,” said Aarushi Prabhakar, an education specialist at Mindspark (also known as IACApplications), a company that that promotes a personalized interactive approach to math and language instruction catering to each child’s pace and style of learning.

Prabhakar acknowledged the lack of computers and connectivity in many Indian public schools, but said plenty of efforts are afoot to build offline solutions or add basic internet connectivity. In addition, the private sector operates 25 percent of the nation’s 1.5 million schools; those schools tend to have better facilities and more up-to-date technical equipment.

She and others are heartened by a public push from senior education officials in India on the potential of technology-aided solutions, and by the “e-India,” strategy led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Tulsi Parida, a director of growth for English learning apps at Zaya Learning Labs in India, said Zaya largely works in schools that have their own digital equipment, or finds ways to persuade outside entities to get computers donated or loaned to the schools. The education nonprofit, which provides after-school programs, designed its own blended learning model and apps to work anywhere in the world. We first heard about Zaya via the  Christensen Institute, a nonprofit think tank that has been out front in studying blended learning and student-centered design around the world.

Zaya’s team “trains the teachers throughout the year, with school visits at least once a month, to share best practices on blended learning,” Parida said, adding that the insights teachers gain from the school visits inform their training, as well. School “implementation managers” visit schools regularly to make sure teachers are trained in blended learning techniques and synchronize the data to double-check progress.

“We are trying to make it more intuitive for teachers in the coming year,” Parida said in an email.

It wasn’t possible to see Mindspark in action, so we asked the company a question many who follow blended learning want to ask: how can we be sure blended learning is working? Prabhakar told us about a randomized trial of the product that showed a large improvement in learning after only four months of a child’s exposure to the program, some of which is outlined in this video.  (Keep in mind this comes from the company itself, so we couldn’t independently verify the results.)

A more nuanced view of how blended learning is working in India can be seen in a 2015 report done by the membership and advocacy group CoSN. A senior delegation including a number of American educators visited the country, and also wondered how blended learning “could be implemented in the absence of electricity and internet access.”

It’s a question worth following, and reading more about in the report.

The new digital efforts come at a time of deep concern over the decline of education standards in India, both in government and private schools. They also come as India’s government is pushing to increase digital literacy in the country and add more projectors, speakers, whiteboards and interactive learning opportunities – and could have fascinating implications for countries struggling to catch up with technology and new ways of reaching students.

Changing Malaysian education from the outside in?

This post was originally published on

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

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