Summer Hiatus

Here at IEN we are taking a short break at the end of summer so that we can gear up for the new school year. Please check back with us in September when we will share new posts on the development of new educational opportunities both inside and outside of schools, as well as interviews with researchers on international education improvement efforts. As always, we will continue to share links to international news articles from around the world on Twitter.

Promoting Social Justice in Physical Education Around the World

Revitalizing the physical education social-justice agenda in the global era: Where do we go from here?” examines the impact of increasingly globalized education policies and standards of health and fitness on physical education (PE). In the article, an international group of authors — Laura Azzarito (Teachers College, Columbia University, NY), Doune Macdonald (The University of Queensland, Australia), Symeon Dagkas (School of Health Sport and Bioscience, University of East London), and Jennifer Fisette (Kent State University, Ohio) — explores the ways in which policies of accountability, standardization, and competitive performance, alongside idealized images of body and health in popular culture and public campaigns, can have a detrimental effect on ethnically diverse young people. The authors’ recommendations for curriculum policy are of particular relevance for educators, curriculum developers, school leaders, and policy makers in an international context. They highlight the following examples of culturally relevant, affirming health and physical education (HPE) curricula that help counter the potentially detrimental effects of standardized PE curricula.

  • In Australia’s national curriculum, “key ideas in the curriculum (educative intent, strengths-based approaches, development of health literacy, valuing of movement, inclusion of critical inquiry) together reflect priorities for a futures-oriented HPE experience for every student. These key ideas, which are intended to build personal and community capacities for lifelong, healthy active living, are complemented with national cross-curriculum priorities (e.g., Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures) and capabilities (e.g., personal and social capabilities; intercultural understanding)”
  • In the U.S. context, “the implementation of a Body Curriculum might engage young people to become active agents in negotiating issues of inequalities, Whiteness, bodies, and identities .” A body-focused curriculum is key to enabling young people to critically consider and negotiate health and fitness demands on  their bodies. The Body Curriculum uses strategies of visual storytelling to have students reflect on their experiences of difference, exclusionary media representations, and body issues.

We followed up with author Laura Azzarito, with a few more questions for IEN readers.

How has the international perspective shaped the findings of this article, in a way that a solely US-focus would not have allowed?

Internationally, scholars committed to the pedagogical aspect of physical culture and social justice have advocated for the development of critical, culturally-responsive curricula that might potentially tackle complex social justice issues and challenges generated by globalization. For instance, around the world, school PE is under increasing pressure to adopt standardized, packaged curriculum to address public concerns about the “obesity epidemic” and the decline in young people’s exercise, fitness, and health by managing and disciplining students’ bodies. Such curriculum often fails to respond to diverse cultural perspectives on health and fitness, and works counter to social justice goals. Top-down fitness interventions in schools to address the obesity epidemic, such standardized testing, measurement of body weight, and fitness-driven practices in PE (i.e., fitness testing, Body Mass Index, FITNESSGRAM) reduce learning outcomes to simply behavioral change.  This is problematic for young people’s learning for a number of reasons. First, disciplinary approaches to young people’s education of the body deny young people the enjoyment, playful expression, and pleasure associated with physical activity. Second, such fitness practices and testing simply aim to measure young people’s fitness performance, without attention to the complex ways in which young people (especially ethnic-minority young people) embody and negotiate issues of body size, shape, muscularity, gender, social class, and race; and without attention to ethnic-minority young people’s upbringings, locations, and cultural experiences of fitness and health in their own communities. Third, fitness testing can have a damaging impact on young people’s self-perceptions, self-confidence, and self-worth, and thus detrimental consequences on their health. Forth, when fitness success is not achieved, the current individualistic, monocultural, colorblind, and gender-neutral approach leaves ethnic-minority young people to self-blame for their failure to make the “right” choice in fitness and health.

The international perspective also allows us to explore efforts to promote social justice in PE around the world. Key ideas in the Australia’s national curriculum (e.g., intercultural understanding, critical understanding, educative intent) and the Body Curriculum in the USA offer examples of constructivist school curricula that integrate a sociocultural view into fitness and health, taking into account young people’s diverse cultural backgrounds, upbringings, and experiences of fitness and health.  Such curricula have the potential to promote and nurture young people’s meaningful, positive, and educational engagement with fitness and health as well as to address body issues and inequalities. They can also create pedagogical spaces for students to critically engage with issues of the body, size, shape, and muscularity, gender and race as well as to construct meanings about their body that are positive, affirming, and culturally relevant.

What do you hope policy-makers or educators take away from this article?

First, the rise of fitness testing and practices in school can be very detrimental to young people’s learning in school PE, and in particular, it discriminates against ethnic minorities’ experience of their bodies. Second, we know that students do not see the point of fitness testing and performance. We need to move away from a hidden curriculum in school that aims to shape young people’s bodies into a standardized idea of what it means to look ‘fit’ without regard for their cultural backgrounds. Fitness and health mean different things to different people. Thus, if we are seriously committed to address persistent issues of social inequalities in health, fitness, and physical activity, we need curricula in schools that promote critical and intercultural understanding of the body; create pedagogical spaces for young people to share their own “stories” in fitness and health through self-representations of their bodily experiences; and help all young people imagine themselves as “fit” and “healthy” bodies in affirmative, empowering, and culturally relevant ways.

Could you help us imagine forms of visually presenting this research, to make the key insights and recommendations accessible to a broader audience?

The Moving in NYC photo exhibition of students’ work at the Macy Art Gallery at Teachers College provided a site for visually sharing part of the research findings of the implementation of the Body Curriculum. One of the aims of the exhibition was to educate the public about ethnic-minority young people’s embodiment of fitness and health. The Moving in NYC photo exhibition aimed to challenge the deficit thinking of the body-at-risk discourse that labels ethnic-minority young people as “unhealthy” “bad” or “lazy.” In doing so, it aimed  to create a public space to bring ethnic-minority young people’s photo-narratives, ideas, and experiences alive.  In this exhibition, ethnic-minority young people’s visual representations of their own body storytelling and experiences of fitness and health in their local communities offered narratives of the body that countered and resisted the media’s dominant gendered and racialized representations of the idealized body, raising self and social awareness around issues of inequalities and difference.


For more on physical education in a global context from IEN, see A “Right to Play” in Daily Education.


Lead the Change Interview with Nic Spaull

Nic Spaull is a Senior Research Fellow at the Research on Socioeconomic Policy (RESEP) group at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. Informed by a background in economics, he researches and publishes articles on assessment, accountability, literacy, and educational policy in South Africa. Spaull was recently a Thomas J. Alexander Fellow at the OECD and is currently Co-Principal Investigator for a project titled “Leadership for Literacy: Understanding resilience and exceptionalism in high-functioning township and rural primary schools in South Africa”  funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Spaull has his own blog, which includes a recent interview with him by Nali Bali as well as links to his research.

In this interview, part of the Lead the Change Series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest Group, Spaull shares his perspective on key capacity and accountability constraints in South Africa, his ideas on high-leverage improvements to teachers’ professional development, and his urgency around policy-relevant research to promote educational change. Spaull also highlights the importance of asking and addressing some of the context-specific questions that are particularly relevant in developing countries.  As he puts it:

I think the most important issue is the same as it has always been: conducting policy-relevant research using the most rigorous methods, to provide the best advice we can to those in elected office. I’m excited that there are still fields in education—particularly in developing countries—that remain completely un- or under-researched and under-theorized. Things like understanding how decoding might be different in agglutinating African languages, or whether the reading fluency-comprehension relationship is different in African languages than in English. For example, the oral reading fluency norms that have been established in English are not applicable to agglutinating African languages where prefixes and suffixes are added to a root-word creating a longer single word. Even things like lists of high-frequency words by language – these don’t exist for our African languages. We really don’t know the answers to these questions and won’t have them until we spend time, energy, and money doing that research.

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 interviewed with Louis Volante.

10 Surprises in the High-Performing Estonian Education System

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For many, the most surprising thing about the Estonian education system is that it is, in fact, high performing (using the conventional criteria of international tests like PISA).  Even with some press in the Hechinger Report, Estonia’s educational performance has garnered much less attention than other high performers like Finland and Singapore. Nonetheless, Estonia has performed at a consistently high level on the PISA tests since 2006.  In 2015, Estonia was ranked in the top ten nations in both math and reading on PISA, and in science, it was ranked third in the world behind Singapore and Japan.

Perhaps most impressive, Estonia has among the most equitable outcomes of all the countries participating in PISA. Although the Estonian population is largely homogeneous, there are distinct groups of lower-performing Russian language schools, as well as considerable differences in the size and performance of schools in cities and rural areas. Although Estonia has among the smallest class sizes and teacher-student ratios among OECD countries, those figures hide the fact that there are some very small rural schools, with particularly low ratios (and students of different ages mixed together), but also many city schools with class sizes higher than the OECD average. Despite these differences, students do quite well on average across all regions, with the percentage of students who are low-performing the smallest in both Europe and the world.

In another surprise, Estonian students perform at a consistently high level despite an aging teaching population and difficulty attracting new teachers.  In fact, almost half of Estonian teachers are over the age of 50 and Estonian teachers have some of the lowest salaries among OECD countries. In addition, although most Estonian teachers report overall satisfaction with their job, only 14% think the teaching profession is valued in society. On my recent visit there, one of the teacher education institutions I visited even reported they have had only a handful of applicants for some of their programs in recent years. Certainly teachers are important – and other high-performing countries like Finland and Singapore demonstrate the value of well-prepared and well-supported teachers – but Estonia shows that it’s possible to have a high-performing education system – and sustain it and improve it – even with problems in the teaching force.

What’s more the Estonians describe their system as one in which schools, school leaders, and teachers have a considerable amount of autonomy. Schools have to provide a minimum number of course hours in set subjects, but they also have some latitude in emphasizing a particular focus like the arts, technology, or the natural sciences.  As a result, some students may end up taking more hours of math and science over their school careers, others more in art and language.  Nonetheless, on average, Estonian students still demonstrate consistently high and equitable performance

Given these equitable outcomes, for me one of the biggest discoveries was finding some school choice in Estonia. While students are guaranteed a place in their neighborhood public school, they can apply to attend private schools, selective schools, or another neighborhood school if it has space. In most private schools, tuition is largely subsidized by the state, but schools can also charge additional fees that can make them out of reach for some students. Some of the private schools are religious schools or international schools, but in recent years, a variety of other groups have started own private schools. I spoke with the founders of two different private schools who both described how parents got together to create schools when they were unhappy with their local options. In both cases, founders described the Ministry of Education’s willingness to assist and support the new schools’ efforts. As one put it, there is a “flexible” attitude toward regulations in Estonia, and the officials understand that “if there is a problem, they understand they need to solve the problem, and everybody helps.”  While only about 5% of schools in Estonia are private, there are also public schools that the Estonians themselves describe as “elite” and selective. In order to enter these selective schools in first grade, 6 year olds have to pass a high stakes entrance test for which many of those who afford it go to a tutoring center to get prepared.

With the choice and autonomy of schools, one would expect that significant monitoring and oversight would be needed to make sure that all schools are performing well. But when I asked the head of the education department of one large municipality (essentially the equivalent of a district superintendent in the US), he threw up his hands and said he trusted the school leaders and teachers to do their jobs. To guide that work, he reported talking on a weekly basis with the local school leaders.  One recent meeting focused on revising and then signing a memorandum in which all committed to 8 points of agreement including “the schools shall value developing a scientific mindset in students”; “the schools shall move towards wider use of digital teaching and learning materials”; and “the students shall get credit for what they have learned in a hobby school to decrease their study load in school.”

Correspondingly, high-stakes testing is limited primarily to exit exams at the end of high school. Results of the exit exams are made public and newspapers and others often publish rankings of upper secondary schools, but no specific rewards or consequences are attached. In elementary and lower secondary schools, in contrast, national assessments are strictly “sampling tests”, as in Finland, given only to a portion of students at the end of 3rd, 6th and 9th grades. The results of those tests are not made public, but instead provide the schools, municipalities, and the Ministry a way to gauge performance and guide planning and policymaking.

Even the Estonian system of inspecting schools is considerably less intrusive than those in many other countries. In England, for example, inspectors from Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills), “carry out hundreds of inspections and regulatory visits throughout England and publish the results online.” In contrast, in Estonia there is no separate inspectorate, and no complex, full-scale inspection is conducted.  Instead, the Ministry of Education and Research carries out individual school inspections primarily for licensure applications or in case of complaints. As a former leader in the office of school inspections in Estonia explained it to me, “the system of evaluating schools in Estonia is not very strong, and that is one of the best parts of our system.” When I asked him to describe how he knew if there were schools that were having problems, he responded that “someone would call me.”  In turn, he reported that the best approach to fix the problem was usually to call someone he knew who also knew the head of the school with the problem.  It’s a kind of management by “phoning around” (akin to “management by walking around” made famous by the founders of Hewlett Packard in the US) that reflects the small size of Estonia and the powerful social networks that connect almost everyone.  As one of my hosts explained, Estonians believe that everyone in the country is only two phone calls away.

Although many countries provide some support for early childhood education, I was surprised to find that Estonia assures a right to municipally funded early childhood education for each child beginning at the age of one and a half.  As a consequence, almost 90% of children between the ages of 3 and 7 (when children begin first grade) are enrolled. As one member of the Ministry commented, this is not “glorified babysitting,” these early education centers have a national curriculum that emphasizes seven aspects of development including the arts, music, movement, language, and mathematics. In the preschool I visited, the students participate in two lessons a day in small groups for guided instruction. Children who speak another language at home also start to learn Estonian as a second language at the age of three; and all those who complete the curriculum receive a school readiness card that documents each child’s development. What’s more, early childhood teachers in Estonia are required to have a Bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education, a substantially higher standard than in many other countries, including “high-scorers” like Singapore.

In another surprise, state and municipal support for education extends afterschool as well. Estonia has a whole system of hobby schools and youth work (a legacy from the Soviet system) in which children can participate. In fact, students get funding from their municipality to participate in at least one afterschool activity a week. According to the Standard for Hobby Education, goals include to help young people to develop “into members of society with good coping skills” and to “grant joy in engaging in hobbies.”  Hobby schools provide instruction and activities in sports, technology, culture, nature, music or other arts.  Like preschools in Estonia, hobby schools can be privately run or run by schools or other organizations.  In hobby schools, educators, often university students or others with expertise in a particular subject, work with groups of students on a weekly basis. In one hobby school I visited, physicists and astronomers at a nearby university offered a course in which students participated in the development of a satellite that was eventually launched into space.

While I did see examples of technology use (including programming classes in almost every preschool, elementary, secondary, and hobby school I visited), I was also surprised to hear that the Estonians themselves are unsatisfied with the level of tech integration in schools. According to OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) only 29% of Estonian teachers use ICT for students’ projects or class work.  Even more surprising, although Estonia has established itself as a world-leader in e-services – offering online voting and the opportunity to register a business online in a matter of minutes – Estonia doesn’t have much of an edtech sector.  In fact, when I asked to visit a local edtech company, my Estonian colleagues didn’t know where to look; and when I did connect with one local company (who are developing a platform for teachers to share their work), they told me they weren’t sure whether to tell their investors that they were one of the few edtech companies in Estonia or the only edtech company in Estonia.

Of course, every educational system has problems. In Estonia, in addition to the concerns about the teaching profession, there are serious concerns that instruction remains too traditional and that some students are disengaged or over-stressed. Nonetheless, given Estonia’s educational success, it’s also remarkable to see the number of new initiatives underway designed to continue to move the system forward. These include ongoing efforts to attract new teachers, among them an increase in teachers’ salaries of more than 40% over the last 5 years.  The Ministry is also pursuing initiatives to shift the focus of teaching and learning at all levels of education to support the development of eight competences that encompass cognitive and social skills, creativity and entrepreneurship; to create an in-service system for teachers and school leaders to support that focus; and to use digital technologies more effectively and efficiently in the process. The Ministry is also sponsoring efforts to develop assessments for some of these competences that could increase the likelihood that the schools and teachers incorporate them into their curriculum. In fact, five years ago, Estonia changed their high school exit requirements for all students across the country. Now, instead of taking three compulsory exams (Mother Tongue – Estonian or Russian; Foreign Language, and mathematics) and two other subjects of their choosing, all students are required to complete a research project or a “practical project” in order to graduate.  Research projects involve conventional studies and research methods such as conducting an experiment in physics or surveying a group of students.  Practical projects include organizing a local Olympics or developing a collection of insects for a museum.  Both projects are  designed to encourage interdisciplinary work as well as promote the development of the eight competencies.

At the end of the day, the story of Estonia’s high and equitable educational performance on international tests may not be that much of a mystery.  All students have guaranteed access to elementary and secondary education and to publicly supported early childhood education and afterschool activities.  All those learning opportunities are aligned to national curriculum frameworks that emphasize skills in language, mathematics, and science, but support other aspects of development as well. Schools, school leaders, and teachers in Estonia have considerable autonomy, but they also have a relatively small set of aligned textbooks, curriculum materials, national sampling assessments and high-stakes exit exams that help to keep the system focused and on track. The teaching population is aging and instruction may be traditional, but Estonian teachers report less time spent on administrative tasks and on “keeping order” and more time on teaching and learning than those in many other countries. All of this takes place in a small country, where everyone seems to know everyone else. It’s also a country with a population known for hard work and a methodical approach that some of my colleagues here described as a form of “German exactness.” In education, that methodical approach is being applied to goals that are tightly linked to the kinds of activities and outcomes expected on international assessments. (As a former Education Minister in Estonia put it “the exercises used in international surveys that have been made public in the course of previous surveys have been the examples followed by our test and examination writers.”)

In short, the Estonians have developed a coherent and aligned education system that begins in early childhood and extends beyond the regular school day, and they have done it in a place where, less than 30 years ago, basic goods were rationed and it was a luxury to have a telephone. Those of us in the US can’t expect to improve our education system by doing exactly what the Estonians have done with theirs. Policies that work in a country of 1.3 million can’t be simply transferred to 50 states or to large cities in the US. Nonetheless, there are many different ways to create a coherent, focused, and well-supported education system.  Policymakers in the US need to understand that enabling widely inequitable educational experiences across communities isn’t one of them.

-Thomas Hatch


Leading Futures: Alternative Perspectives on Education Reform and Policy

In this latest post in the Leading Futures Series, edited by Alma Harris and Michelle Jones, Jenny Gore and Geoff Whitty describe an alternative approach to improving teaching that challenges predominant forms of accountability. Drawing from their public lecture at Bath Spa University on May 17, 2017, with a focus on the potential of Gore’s work in Australia on Quality Teaching Rounds, they suggest that the approach should now be trialed elsewhere.  Jenny Gore is Professor of Education and Geoff Whitty holds a Global Innovation Chair at the University of Newcastle, Australia. 

Improving teaching: some lessons from Australia

Jenny Gore and Geoff Whitty

Why on earth would we look to Australia for lessons about education? After all, its PISA scores have dropped down the rankings where they now sit alongside those of many other OECD nations. What does Australia have to offer that differs from the apparently more successful countries in Scandinavia and East Asia that have often been the focus of policy tourism?

One answer is, of course, that PISA is not the be-all and end-all of educational assessment. But another reason is that other factors have overridden ‘PISA envy’ for countries like the US and UK, which are much more similar to each other than they are to either Finland or Shanghai-China. Their continuing mutual interest in each other’s reforms probably lies with shared social and political networks and assumptive worlds – and, of course, a common language with which to describe reforms.

Indeed, readers in the US and UK, and many others influenced by Anglo-Saxon policies, will readily recognize the major challenges identified by Bentley and Savage in a recent book on policies changes in Australia in recent years. These include:

  • a national curriculum
  • standardised national assessments in literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN)
  • national reporting on schools (through the My School website)
  • professional standards for teachers and school principals
  • a universally accessible year of pre-school
  • partial implementation of needs-based funding reforms (Gonski).

But they also point out that, despite these reforms, there is unfortunately very little sign of positive impacts or outcomes. For example:

  • The percentage of Australian students successfully completing Year 12 is not improving.
  • State and federal school funding policies are still reproducing a status quo that entrenches sectoral division and elitism.
  • New evidence-informed methods, such as clinical and targeted teaching models, are being taken up very slowly in teacher education degrees and schools.
  • The status and efficacy of vocational learning have shown little meaningful improvement.
  • NAPLAN and My School have not led to improvements in literacy and numeracy, with 2016 data showing either stagnation or decline.
  • The performance of Australian students in international assessments of maths, science and literacy skills has steadily declined.

Depressingly familiar stuff to many of us, isn’t it?  Similarly, take this recent statement by Geoff Masters, CEO of the Australian Council for Educational Research.

There is no shortage of challenges in school education. Some of the biggest challenges we face can appear frustratingly intractable. Despite reform efforts, regular government reviews and ongoing calls for change, progress in addressing our most significant challenges is often slow and solutions continue to elude us.

Equally familiar are the five key challenges he identifies as facing Australian education:

  1. Equipping students for the 21st Century, including by increasing reading, mathematical and scientific literacy levels.
  2. Reducing disparities between…schools, particularly along socioeconomic lines, by ensuring that every student has access to an excellent school and excellent teaching.
  3. Reducing the ‘long tail’ of underachieving students who fall behind year-level curriculum expectations and thus fail to meet minimum international standards.
  4. Getting all children off to a good start, by reducing the number of children who begin school with low levels of school readiness and so are at risk of ongoing low achievement.
  5. Raising the professional status of teaching, by increasing the number of highly able school leavers entering teaching.

While this last challenge resonates with the aspirations of many countries, and policy direction of initiatives like Teach for America, Gore et al. have demonstrated that the solution identified here by Masters may be misleading. Rather, the sort of approach we describe below may be a better way to enhance professionalism in teaching.

Bentley and Savage say of Australia, over the past decade ‘the policy landscape has become riddled with reform “solutions” that subject students, teachers, administrators and policymakers to mounting levels of pressure and stress’ and that ‘the short-term cyclical churn of today’s politics and media clearly exacerbates these problems.’

Although the policy context of other countries differs in detail, their actual policies have much in common. In many countries, regulation and accountability have taken a hold on government attitudes towards the teaching profession, alongside (though in different degrees) a belief in market forces as providing a way forward. Education academics (ourselves included) have been rather better at critique of such developments than in pointing to an alternative way forward. What we want to argue is that widely sought-after improvements in teaching will remain elusive unless teachers are afforded more respect, trust and, especially, professional support.

One tested example of such an approach lies in work conducted at the University of Newcastle, Australia, which puts down a challenge to policy makers who seek genuine improvement in teaching. The approach, known Quality Teaching Rounds (QTR), has produced measurable impact on the quality of teaching while simultaneously enhancing teachers’ morale and confidence.

QTR is a form of teacher professional development designed by Bowe and Gore to bring together the benefits of professional learning communities (PLCs), instructional ‘rounds’, and the Quality Teaching (QT) pedagogical framework (NSW Department of Education and Training [NSW DET], 2003). The framework centres on the three dimensions of Intellectual Quality, Quality Learning Environment, and Significance. QTR involves teachers working in PLCs of three or more teachers to observe and analyse each other’s teaching, using the QT framework, followed by extended conversation about their collective practice. QTR is a distinctive form of professional development which: is applicable across stages and subject areas; addresses teaching comprehensively; requires minimal external input; and is adaptable to the specific teaching context. This is in contrast to professional development that: is stage or subject-specific; addresses a part of teaching practice only; requires ongoing provision of external expertise; and is highly prescriptive of practice.

In a recent randomised controlled trial, 24 NSW public schools participated in an investigation of the impact of QTR. Eight teachers at each of the schools were involved in the study, with lesson observations carried out by researchers, who were blinded to group allocation, at three time points – baseline, post-intervention (6-months), and follow up (12- months). There were two intervention groups (QTR-Set and QTR-Choice) and a wait-list control group.

Participating in QTR was found to significantly impact on the quality of teaching (d =0.4-0.5) within the relatively short timeframe of this intervention (most teachers were involved for four days or less) across a diverse range of schools. Moderators of intervention effects were explored for: type of school, SES, location, teaching experience, and gender of teacher.

The key findings were that the quality of teaching improved for both intervention groups and these effects were sustained six months later, signaling the sustainability of impact into a new school year. Effects were independent of school type (primary/secondary) and location (urban/rural) and years of teaching experience. Effects on teacher morale and sense of recognition and appraisal yielded similar results for the two intervention groups, relative to control group. In interviews, teachers reported positive impacts on their own and their colleagues’ teaching and professional confidence, on collegiality and school culture, and on their students. The next study in this programme of work is another RCT designed to investigate further the impact of QTR on student learning outcomes.

The findings from the earlier study demonstrate the value of QTR in not only improving the quality of teaching but simultaneously enhancing teacher morale and teaching cultures across a range of schools and classroom settings in diverse communities. QTR was found to be an effective form of professional development, improving the quality of teaching in primary and secondary schools across subject areas and for teachers at different stages of their careers. The positive effects of QTR are thus highly generalisable across school contexts.

The approach not only builds on widely accepted ‘principles of effective PD,’ but can be implemented at scale and at a relatively low cost. It supports teachers in improving their practice while also developing their efficacy, well-being and professional engagement. This is in stark contrast to approaches that subject teachers to greater levels of accountability, evaluation, and performance review.

This Australian approach simultaneously, and ambitiously, provides evidence of a kind that is persuasive to governments and education systems that want to be sure their investments have pay-off and empower teachers. Such an approach is part of the jigsaw of educational improvement that has somehow been missing in many contexts. We argue that improving teaching in order to improve pupils’ learning depends, in large part, on teachers’ confidence in themselves and each other. This differs from prevailing approaches that seek to improve teaching through forms of accountability premised on a lack of confidence in and respect for teachers. In short, QTR is an alternative that can build public confidence in teachers from the ground up.

Getting Social and Emotional Learning Right

Marc Tucker, president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), responded to a blog post written by Checker Finn on the topic of self-esteem. In his response, which was posted on EdWeek, Tucker takes an international perspective and therefore we are re-posting it her at IEN. While this exchange focuses on “self-esteem,” we note that others, including James Heckman, Richard Reeves, and Angela Duckworth, have taken up the topic of “non-cognitive skills.” This exchange between Tucker and Finn follows an earlier one, which we posted last month. 

On June 28, the Fordham Institute published a blog by Checker Finn titled “Schools Are Still Peddling the Self-Esteem Hoax” that sparked an energetic and interesting debate.  I thought I would weigh in.

In his piece, Checker takes aim at the ‘self-esteem’ movement, and then stands over the dead body of his target to aim his next shot at the ‘social-emotional learning’ movement.

As you know, I tend to come at things from an international comparative perspective, so it won’t surprise you to learn that my take on ‘self-esteem’ is framed in part by the data from the OECD that show that American students, who perform very poorly on mathematics compared to the other advanced industrial countries, think they do quite well at mathematics, while the students from the countries with the best mathematics performance do not rate their knowledge of mathematics as highly. From that perspective, self-esteem is definitely not our problem.  Performance is our problem.

On the other hand, one of the things that has really impressed us about the schools serving very vulnerable children in East Asia is their strategy for dealing with students who all too often grow up in circumstances that teach them not to trust adults—any adults.  These kids often come to school fearful and unwilling to engage.  In places like Hong Kong and Singapore, the faculties of such schools embrace the motto: ‘First the Heart, Then the Head.’  They know they cannot reach these young people in order to engage them in learning until they first do what they need to do to earn their trust.  The faculty in these schools will go to court if they have to intercede on the student’s behalf with a judge, buy them lunch if they cannot afford one on their own, stay in school until 8:00 or 8:30 p.m. if the student has no safe place to go.

None of this invalidates Checker’s point that building self-esteem is pointless if building self-esteem is seen as a substitute for real achievement.  The impressive thing about the schools I am describing is that they are uncompromising on the standards they set for student achievement.  But, at the same time, they will work, sometimes for years, to build the social and emotional foundation on which the student’s cognitive development will then be built.  If a student comes to school believing that no adult can be trusted, the futures available to more fortunate children will forever be denied to them and a life of crime is better than no life at all.

At first, this might appear to run counter to Checker’s argument.  But I don’t think that is the case.  At one point in his blog, he cites the “…traditional obligation of schools to impart academic skills and knowledge.”  One might suppose that this is an invitation to regard anything that does not contribute to that goal as outside the proper role of the school.  But it turns out that his real beef is not with non-cognitive goals per sebut the particular selection of non-cognitive goals embraced by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL). He sees goals like ‘self-confidence” and ‘self-efficacy’ as suspiciously close to the not-so-esteemed goal of ‘self-esteem.’  And he wonders what happened to other goals that the organization might have chosen to mention or to highlight, but did not, like ethics, morality, integrity, courage or honesty.

This made me smile.  It turns out that the debate is not about whether schools should be pursuing non-cognitive goals, but rather which non-cognitive goals should be pursued.  And I find myself in Checker’s corner here.  Perhaps I am very old fashioned, but I see a certain tendency in some quarters toward a rather self-absorbed—on the one hand—and patronizing—on the other hand—outlook that reminds me not a little of what Checker calls the “self-esteem hoax.”

Let’s be clear here.  The social and emotional development of students is not a new goal for education or schools.  It is as old as the hills—or Aristotle.  That set of goals was probably more important than cognitive goals to the headmasters of Eton and Harrow when the Duke of Wellington went to school there.  Self-discipline, teamwork, leadership and moral development were said to be the whole point of playing English rugby, which is why the Duke was famously but erroneously quoted as saying that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of his alma mater.  And Checker is undoubtedly right in thinking that the headmasters of those esteemed schools were not so interested in developing their students’ self-esteem or self-efficacy.

The first school to be developed in the United States on the model of the great English public schools was the Groton Academy.  It was to be the prep school of choice for the sons of the great barons of finance and industry as the Gilded Age was coming to an end.  Interestingly, it was these very titans of industry and finance who insisted that the dorms at Groton be cold and tiny and devoid of anything that smacked of privilege and a life of ease.  They did not want their sons to grow up soft and entitled.  They wanted them to be tough and disciplined and self-reliant.  Was that part of the curriculum?  You bet it was.

Americans have often been ambivalent about the non-cognitive goals of education.  We often hear parents say that they want the schools to teach their kids the “Three Rs” and they will take care of the rest.  Or other parents say that they are pulling their kids out of school because the schools are teaching values they don’t share.  This is probably what comes of living in a country largely populated by immigrants from very different places, bringing with them a plethora of religious, ethnic and national backgrounds.  And that’s probably why, when you read schools’ goal statements, they seem so devoid of any serious statement about what that community really values.  Yup, don’t we all believe that all students should reach their full potential, grow up to fully participate in the country’s political life, be prepared for work and to be solid contributors to family and community?

For comparison’s sake, here’s what Singapore’s Ministry of Education has posted on its web site about the goals Singapore has for its students:

The person who is schooled in the Singapore Education system embodies the Desired Outcomes of Education. He has a good sense of self-awareness, a sound moral compass, and the necessary skills and knowledge to take on challenges of the future. He is responsible to his family, community and nation. He appreciates the beauty of the world around him, possesses a healthy mind and body, and has a zest for life. In sum, he is

  • a confident person who has a strong sense of right and wrong, is adaptable and resilient, knows himself, is discerning in judgment, thinks independently and critically, and communicates effectively;
  • a self-directed learner who takes responsibility for his own learning, who questions, reflects and perseveres in the pursuit of learning;
  • an active contributor who is able to work effectively in teams, exercises initiative, takes calculated risks, is innovative and strives for excellence; and,
  • a concerned citizen who is rooted to Singapore, has a strong civic consciousness, is informed, and takes an active role in bettering the lives of others around him.

Nothing self-absorbed about that.  Nothing to suggest that self-actualization is more important than learning something.  There will be some among you, I am sure, who will say, “Yes, but isn’t Singapore the place that used to put you in jail for throwing chewing gum on the sidewalk and cane you for using drugs?”  Yes, it was.  But ask almost any Singaporean whether they would prefer to live in Singapore or somewhere else and the answer will come flying back:  Singapore is it for them.

I invite you to read this statement of goals and ask yourself, what do you not agree with?  What is missing?  What is new and what is as old as the hills?  Which goals have always been there for everyone and which are goals that used to be only for a small elite?  Please note that only one of these goals—”communicates effectively”—says a thing about learning anything in particular or to a particular standard. Yet Singapore has consistently been at or very near the summit of the PISA and TIMSS league tables year after year.  Clearly, Singapore places great value on cognitive development.  So, when it comes right down to it, Singapore puts its money on a set of goals for students that speaks directly to some old-time virtues that Checker mentioned, like perseverance, morality, civic consciousness (and by implication patriotism), taking initiative, excellence and responsibility.

If this is what Checker meant, then I stand with Checker.

Lead the Change interview with Louis Volante


Dr. Louis Volante

Dr. Louis Volante is Professor of Education at Brock University in Ontario, Canada. He is also an Affiliated Researcher at the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance, UNU-MERIT (United Nations University–Maastricht Economic and Social Research Institute on Innovation and Technology), in the Netherlands. Professor Volante is currently the President-Elect for the Canadian Educational Researchers Association (CERA) and is a former recipient of the R.W.B. Jackson Publication Award, which is awarded annually by CERA for the best English language journal article. 

In this interview, which is part of the Lead the Change Series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest Group, Volante shares his thoughts on how his scholarship aligns with the 2018 AERA theme: “The Dreams, Possibilities, and Necessity of Public Education.”

The necessities of public education systems are rapidly evolving. Nevertheless, if I were to identify one of the most salient areas that is undergoing a pronounced transformation, it would likely be in the broader field of literacy. How one defines and conceptualizes this construct is changing fairly rapidly—often in response to the digital world that most students within the developed world are situated. The increased use of technology in contemporary classrooms presents both opportunities and formidable challenges — particularly as educators strive to promote an engaging learning environment within contexts that may be under-resourced.

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.