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Quality and the case for how you learn

The recent commitment of UN member states to quality in education through the ratification of the Sustainable Development Goals reflects the worldwide concern with opportunity for every child. It’s a welcome initiative, of course; but it raises a challenge. What do we mean by ‘quality’ when it comes to education?



There is an inherent subjectivity in defining the quality of most things, and education is no different. However, government agencies have tended to focus on aspects that can be measured and therefore seen through the layers of bureaucracy. That means that quality has been defined by visible measures, and in education the most common are test scores. Hence quality has become closely bound up with passing tests, a proxy that simplifies and lets us more easily manage the complexities of education delivery.



But it’s a definition of quality that brings tensions. Test results are used not only to measure students; they also bring teachers, schools and governments under the microscope. Funding and other policy decisions often give substantial weight to these measures, which leads to teachers being strongly incentivised towards teaching to the test. The headlines will often tell us this results in a profession of low morale, where accountability to students has been replaced by accountability to bureaucracy. But we can also detect this tension in the dissatisfaction of employers and governments with the general attributes of those entering the workforce, and students increasingly uncertain about their futures.



A recent contribution to this debate is a concept known as the ‘Breadth of Learning Opportunities’, which was first aired in a 2016 paper published by the Learning Metrics Task Force, a global project set up by the UNESCO and the Brookings Institution. The paper recommended that, alongside traditional ‘outcome’ measurements such as numeracy and literacy competence, the global education community needs to introduce an indicator to “track exposure of learning opportunities.”



I recently set out to investigate more about how the idea of a Breadth of Learning Opportunities indicator was being received, in a study involving 27 prominent academics and policy professionals.



The group were generally supportive of the idea that ways of reporting against learning processes in addition to learning outcomes are important; 78% of those I spoke with could be described as enthusiastic for the introduction of an indicator in this area. Many pointed to the potential it would have in correcting the exaggerations of the assessment culture that defines so much of education today. As one respondent put it: “A narrow focus on things we can easily test like literacy and numeracy has negative unintended consequences in practice – in narrowing and distorting teaching-learning processes. An indicator on breadth of learning can counterbalance that.”



We should probably not be surprised that this ‘Breadth of Learning Opportunity’ approach is an attractive one. The evidence of where education is falling short is all around. It seems with every week that goes by, another influential report is bemoaning that schools and universities are failing to produce the young people with the behaviours, skills and knowledge to function effectively in the 21st century world. In particular, employers and governments have been concerned with a perceived lack of creativity and curiosity, and a shortage of communication and team working skills. But if students spend their time being crammed with facts in didactic fashion with the sole purpose of regurgitating them in a test, it’s hardly surprising that many of these behaviours are not cultivated.



The range of learning experiences is important because it enables students to try learning in different ways – not only different subjects, but learning by doing, by reading, by dancing – all sorts of environments and adventures. Students who have a range of experiences, I suggest, are more likely to be able to make better choices on what they want to do next, to do so with greater conviction, and are more likely to seek out new challenges and cope better with change.



The evidence is starting to assemble. But assessments are so interwoven into the machinery of education, and so accepted by society as the norm, that it would take a lot of declogging to switch gears. Assessments may have their drawbacks, but complication tends not to be one. You take a test, you get a score – everyone gets it. But the Breadth of Learning Opportunity is a harder concept to understand, and evidence is needed to support it. Describing this challenge, one of my interviewees argued that “ultimately, what gets measured gets done”. So developing the metrics that prove its impact, and then telling that story so it moves hearts as well as minds, will be key to getting it higher up policy agendas.





最近对这场辩论是一个概念被称为“广泛的学习机会”,首次出现在2016年的一篇论文中发表的学习标准工作组,全球项目设立的联合国教科文组织和布鲁金斯学会(Brookings Institution)。论文建议,与传统的“结果”等测量计算和读写能力能力,全球教育社会需要引入一个指标“追踪学习机会的接触。”

















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