Posts by Alyssa Buccella

“Opportunities to Reinvent and Redesign”: The Druk White Lotus School

“Design at its best is not only sustainable, it is holistic.  It considers future needs as well and supports ancient traditions.”

            –The Druk White Lotus School

After watching another documentary for the final meeting of my graduate level class Globalization and Curriculum Implications, I wanted to write a follow-up piece in response to an original blog post of mine: “‘Schooling the World’: The Myth of Progress?” This original posting grappled with many difficult questions and some subsequent feelings of turmoil and sadness regarding the way in which the ever greater spread of a formal, mass, and an essentially western style education system is destroying the last independent and sustainable indigenous cultures all over the world.  The second documentary assigned to my class was a short piece on The Druk White Lotus School in Ladakh, India.  As a graduate student in the field of education, and more specifically Comparative and International Education, it was incredible to watch this piece and see an example of how tradition and modernity can co-exist in harmony, and an education system can contribute to supporting an indigenous community to thrive.

As stated in the documentary, the vision of The Druk White Lotus School is that it will serve as a model of “appropriate modernization.”  What this means more concretely is that the founders of this school and those who have designed and developed it believe it is critical to educate youth in Ladakh about the modern, but also about the merits of their own culture. Underlying the establishment of this school is the belief that one must know their foundation, their past and traditions, to responsibly move forward into a more modern future. [1]

Wonderfully stated by one of the environmental engineers on the project, Francesca Galeazzi, “the school is a product of merging the traditions and the culture of the society with the needs of modern education,” and this is done in a number of ways. [1] Tashi Tsering, the principal of the school and also a teacher, on one hand acknowledges that there is “no option other than providing a modern education” for these children.  They prepare the youth in this school for a challenging future locally or abroad by providing a curriculum based in the English language from kindergarten.  On the other hand, however, there is also a passionate commitment to the premise that these children do not forget where they came from and what their roots are.  They also learn their own language and once every week an instructor visits the school to teach the students moral education and to give them Buddhist mantras to recite. [1]

Buddhist traditions are widespread and strong throughout this culture and this is further reflected in the design of the school buildings and their layout.  It is noted both on the school website and in the film that the vision for the school was inspired by a spiritual leader in the community, His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa. [1][2] For example, the school assembly courtyard is designed after a dharma wheel in its cylindrical shape with eight pavilions organized out and around a central space and this represents Buddhist teachings.  The way in which these spiritual elements are incorporated into the design of the buildings is remarkable. [1] As noted by Jonathan Rose, one of the architects of the project, the school is a “project planned around a scarcity of resources and the desire to do as little harm to the earth as possible.  Both are Buddhist principles but also, not coincidentally, basic tenants of sustainable design.” [1]

It is this loss of a sustainable relationship with the Earth due to Western education that was emphasized in the documentary Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden.  In contrast, to see the sustainable practices used to develop modern education in this rural area was encouraging.  All of the building for this school is done by hand with little tools and little power.  Importing materials from outside Ladakh puts a tremendous strain on the surrounding Himalayan Mountains, so a commitment was made to using materials locally available.  This would ultimately mean that what was built would be appropriate for the community, would support the local economy, and would utilize the knowledge and labor of local people who knew how to work with the materials being used with techniques developed in India for centuries.  The buildings themselves are designed to capitalize on the use of daylight and ventilation so that they don’t rely on electricity at all for lighting or heating, and in the context of a high altitude desert scare of water, water conservation was essential as was the incorporation of ventilated improved pit latrines. [1]

It was interesting to watch and listen about how, about 25 years ago, the addition of an airfield to the area opened this environment and culture up to tourism.  This was a huge draw for people in the rural communities to come and work serving the tourists and in turn making money, but this also put a tremendous amount of pressure on a traditionally subsistence economy.  The even bigger question from an educational standpoint was about the pressure this put on the youth in the area about how they should learn and develop. [1]

Arup Corporation, the company involved in designing the school buildings, is a large consultancy that is involved in projects all over the world.  While this does mean that there is some foreign influence on this community and their vision for education, both parties talked about the process as one of mutual collaboration, exchange, and learning.  On one hand, Arup was committed to linking very closely with the local community to obtain an intimate understanding of their needs and expectations, rather than just coming in and imposing some fancy Western design.  On the other hand, those from the local community in no way wanted to shut out modern education or ways of life, but rather, wanted to embrace the best of the old as well as the new. [1]

Hopefully, the total of ten awards that have been given to this school thus far is an indication of recognition that this is the type of model that we need to be paying more attention to and replicating. [2] Not just in “developing” communities that are grappling with questions of how to modernize responsibly, but also in “modern” communities all over the world that undoubtedly need to exist more harmoniously with our environment.

 

References

[1]http://vimeo.com/37135957

[2]http://www.dwls.org/awards.html

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An Effective Source for Change? A Look at Teach for America

Recently, I read a blog post by a classmate of mine regarding this classmate’s own personal experiences with Teach for America (TFA).  This personal account really resonated with me because I found it strikingly similar to my own struggles when I grappled earlier this year with the decision of whether or not to apply for a Teach for America position.

I too was captivated by the idealistic notion of committing my time to making a difference in the lives of underprivileged children.  A Teach for America recruiter expressed her excitement at my interest and offered me the very rosy sales pitch for why I should join.  As I began to do my own research and as I progressed further through my Master’s in Education gaining a better understanding of the education system and of various education policy debates along the way, I quickly became very disillusioned with the idea that I would actually be doing some good as a Teach for America recruit.  With each e-mail that the recruiter incessantly sent me following our conversation urging me to apply, which was also mentioned in my classmate’s blog post as excessive and caused her to perceive TFA as “more commercialized and less competitive,” I increasingly questioned my desire to join until I ultimately chose not to.  It is here that I wish to shed some light on why.

My major is Globalization and Educational Change, and I am interested in just that: change. Education can easily be used as a tool to reproduce the status quo, but whether it is in my own backyard or somewhere across the world, I am passionate about seeing education increasingly being used as a force for empowerment and self-fulfillment.  Ultimately, I am skeptical that Teach for America is contributing to change in the entire system of education in a positive way.

Teach for America is an organization that sees itself on the frontlines of “A Solvable Problem,” and that problem is the achievement gap. [1] TFA representatives believe that all children, even those in poverty, can achieve at the highest levels – despite the challenges they face – if provided the opportunity. [1] This is without question a cause worth believing in, but what do the statistics show?

The Institute of Education Sciences’ National Center for Education statistics cites Hispanics as the fastest growing sector of the United States population. [2] There is certainly a story to be told by looking at fourth grade and eighth grade scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) from 1990 to 2009 for Hispanic students as compared to White students.  While the score for both groups overall have improved with time in mathematics, the achievement gap has largely remained unchanged. When looking at these groups nationally across all fifty states, Hispanic students have remained on average a steady 21 points behind in 4th grade and 26 points behind in eighth grade.  In reading, when comparing scores over time from 1992 to 2009, the picture is essentially the same with Hispanic students hovering right around a persistent average of a 25-point deficit in both fourth and eighth grade. [2]

In short, the achievement gap is maintaining a stubborn hold within our society, as it has persisted for almost 20 years, essentially unchanged.  Interestingly, Teach for America began in 1990 and has been operating ever since.  While one can argue that the achievement gap has not widened very much as evidenced above, it does not seem as though Teach for America is addressing some of the systemic ways in which our education system in the United States is failing certain populations of students.

I have long questioned whether our system could use more alternative routes into teaching, whether our standard methods of study and certification are ultimately leaving out large portions of individuals that, while they may not be able to afford to get a college degree or a master’s degree, could prove to be excellent in the classroom with some time and experience.  For example, Darling-Hammond, Holtzman, Gatlin, and Heilig (2005) explore how various pathways to certification affect the effectiveness of both TFA and non-TFA teachers in Houston, Texas.  The authors cite that alternatively certified teachers in Houston were particularly effective in raising students’ Aprenda scores, which is a standardized test given to students who receive reading and language arts instruction in Spanish.  Their rationale for this trend was that the Houston alternative certification program enrolls a very large number of Hispanic teachers, many of which are Spanish-speaking and may be better able to support the literary progress of Spanish-speaking students. [3] It is clear here that an alternative pathway to certification may prove to be very valuable in serving this population, especially given that a majority of students in Houston are Hispanic.

It may be argued that Teach for America is another one of these alternative pathways into teaching that ultimately places passionate and capable individuals in the classroom.  However, it is no secret that Teach for America recruits students at the top of their class from elite universities, as they have been criticized for becoming merely a stepping-stone for these elite students on their path to becoming something greater.  These recruits are then placed in ‘hard to staff’ districts to teach the most at-risk youth in the country.  Is this really changing at all the demographics of teachers that have access to the classroom?  While some of these recruits may be successful, others struggle to relate to their students and are unable to meet their specific needs.

The aforementioned article by Darling-Hammond et. al. (2005) also states that experienced teachers are significantly more effective than inexperienced ones, and that there is no instance in which an uncertified TFA teacher is as effective as a standard certified teacher.  I fear how teacher status would be affected by the assertion that no special training is needed to become a teacher and that one simply needs to be generally academically able and have strong subject knowledge to be successful.  Rather than staffing the most vulnerable classrooms with uncertified, and more importantly highly inexperienced teachers, I think we need to focus on the system as a whole and on relevant policies at all levels such as teachers’ pay, working conditions, and support.  We must create a climate in which a diverse pool of well prepared teachers are put into all of our classrooms and are there to stay for the long haul so that all students can benefit as they gain confidence and experience. [3]

 

References

[1] http://www.teachforamerica.org/our-organization/our-history

[2] http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pubs/studies/2011459.aspx

[3] https://coursesite.lehigh.edu/pluginfile.php/1023185/mod_resource/content/1/LDH-teacher-certification-april2005.pdf

Teacher Status and Student Achievement: A Global Comparison

On the 17th of March, as may as 1,800 teachers across 26 state run upper secondary schools in Iceland have gone on strike. [1] Updates that followed nine days later reported that the strike was still ongoing with no end in sight. [2] The Icelandic Teacher’s Union, Kennarasamband Islands (KI), has cited that teachers earn, on average, 17% less than other university-educated workers in the public sector.  Further, a law was changed in 2008 calling for teachers at all levels to obtain a Masters degree in order to get a teaching license, however teacher’s salaries have not increased as much as those for other professions since 2006.  Teachers are now fighting for better conditions with support from the union, and the president of KI has stated that they will back down until their demands are met. [3]

Interestingly, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) “warned Iceland that because the salary difference between teachers and other university-level professions is too large, young people are not interested in becoming teachers and choose other professions.” [3] Essentially, the OECD is commenting on the ways in which indicators of teacher status, one of which is monetary compensation, affect how the best and brightest young people are attracted to the teaching profession.  This ultimately has very obvious implications for the quality of education and student achievement.

Speaking further to this issue, in October 2013, the Varkey GEMS Foundation published a study, the 2013 Global Teacher Status Index[4] In the foreword of this report the chairman of the foundation, Sunny Varkey, states that research shows that better paid teachers are associated with greater student outcomes overall.  In 95% of the countries surveyed, survey respondents thought that teachers should be paid more than the salary participants thought teachers currently received; this held true even in Finland, a country that already achieves outstanding results in student achievement. [4] Of note, in the United States, people generally underestimate the salaries that teachers actually make, and teachers generally make more than people deem a fair amount; along with this, 80% of people in the US support performance-related pay for teachers, which was an overwhelming trend in the study overall. [4] While Varkey supports governments increasing the pay and working conditions for teachers as a whole as a way to increase their status, he acknowledges that this is not all it will take to add to the cultural value placed on teachers in various contexts. [4]

A rather interesting case for examining this distinction is that of China.  Out of 21 countries surveyed, China was the only country in which people saw teachers as having equal status as doctors, in contrast to less than 5% feeling this way in the UK. [4] Further, while 50% of parents in China would encourage their children to become teachers, a mere 8% of parents in Israel would do so, with very similar numbers in Brazil, Japan, and Portugal. [4] While those conducting this study recognized many elements that could be included under the umbrella of “teacher status”, they utilized four such elements to create an index score that ranked countries on a scale of 1 (low status) to 100 (high status): ranking status for primary teachers, secondary teachers and head teachers against other key professions; analyzing the aspiration of teaching as a ‘sought’ profession; creating a contextual understanding of teachers’ social status; and examining views on pupil respect for teachers. [4]

China received an index score of 100 and more respondents were likely to believe that students respect their teachers.  Conversely, in most European countries surveyed, a majority of participants felt that more students disrespect their teachers than respect them. [4] Ultimately, there was no conclusive correlation between this index score and student outcomes in each country, but the authors still stress that there is considerable variation in the ways that teachers are viewed in societies across cultures and considering the implications this may have for teaching and learning, these dynamics should continue to be explored more closely. [4]

Returning full circle to the teacher strikes in Iceland, and the demands for compensation comparable to other university graduates in the public sector, there are some important questions to consider.  Does the status afforded to teachers through monetary compensation behave differently in societies, and have different effects on student outcomes, than status measured by teacher respect and the ranking of the teaching profession as a whole as compared to other professions in a certain country?  Is the external motivation of a higher salary enough to get the best of younger generations out of universities and into classrooms teaching children rather than moving into careers as doctors, lawyers, or engineers? Could this be incentive enough to defeminize the teaching profession and attract a more balance demographic of teachers at all levels? Further, what does it mean for a student’s learning that they respect their teachers?  On one hand this could mean that the student finds it worthwhile to pay attention and listen to what their teacher has prepared each day, to do their homework and study, and to put forth a certain amount of effort in class.  In other contexts, this may mean that a student respects the teacher as an absolute authority and subsequently might feel that it is inappropriate to ask questions to their teacher or raise their hand in class.  These two scenarios will likely have very different impacts on a child’s learning overall.

A final thought is that regarding the way in which teaching and status is increasingly tied to ever-greater levels of credentials, as evidenced in the case of Iceland, and the impact this has on both teacher’s wages as well as the profession as a whole.  I have heard more than one friend of mine in the United States comment on the fact that in many states, especially if you are an early childhood educator, having a masters degree would most likely be a huge barrier to getting a teaching job because you are “overqualified” and schools are unable or unwilling to compensate you at the appropriate monetary level.  What message are we sending our teachers about the value of their work if we are unwilling to compensate them for their hard work and time they are putting into teaching our youth, especially when movie stars and professional athletes are easily rewarded by our society for the entertainment they provide.  Beyond this, by requiring ever increasing levels of credentials are we missing out on a population of enthusiastic, caring, and dedicated teachers of diverse backgrounds that may not be able to afford education to that level?  All of these questions impact the quality of education delivered as a whole both in the United States and in contexts all over the world, and undoubtedly must be explored in greater detail.

References

[1] http://icelandreview.com/news/2014/03/17/teachers-iceland-go-strike

[2] http://www.ei-ie.org/en/news/news_details/2950

[3] http://www.ei-ie.org/en/news/news_details/2934

[4] http://www.varkeygemsfoundation.org/sites/default/files/documents/2013GlobalTeacherStatusIndex.pdf

“Schooling the World”: The Myth of Progress?

sc

Recently, for a graduate level class Globalization and Curriculum Implications, I was required to watch a documentary titled “Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden”.  Given the class discussion that spurred from the viewing of this film and the tumultuous feelings that it incited within many of my classmates, I felt compelled to share this documentary with the educational community to hopefully to start a conversation around some of the key themes and points that it raises.

A recurring question that appears on the website promoting the film is “If you wanted to destroy a culture, where would you start?…With the children.”[1] The core premise is that formal mass education, as we know it, is destroying the last independent and sustainable indigenous cultures around the world by indoctrinating the young people of these cultures into being members of a global consumer society.[1]  Further, the film’s tagline “The White Man’s Last Burden” brings to light the, often taken for granted, air of superiority that underlies the mission of mostly white, Western nations that are deemed “developed” to carry out education aid projects in developing nations in order to bring them a “better life” and lead them out of poverty.[1]  The spread of formal mass education has not, however, led to lifting the developing world up out of poverty, and the documentary highlights that it would take four planet Earths for the entire world to consume at Western levels rendering much of the “promises” of formal mass education merely an illusion.[2]

What make these realities particularly disheartening are a few facts that the documentary stresses.  First, that governments are acutely aware that education can serve as a tool of control.  For example, in the 19th century, Native American children were forced into government boarding schools, and a founder of one of these schools quoted its mission as being “to civilize the Indians…immerse them in our civilization, and when we get them under…hold them there until they are thoroughly soaked. [1][2] A commencement speaker for this school proclaimed “let all that is Indian within you die.”[2] Further, the filmmakers cite the hierarchy of values that is imposed by formal education.  They talk about an experience common today of traveling into indigenous communities to talk to elders about traditional knowledge and practices, only to have these elders refuse to provide their insight on the grounds that they are not “educated,” or they defer to their children who have now completed formal education to some level. [4]

Not far in the past there were approximately six thousand languages spoken on earth, but today half of these languages are not being taught to children as English is strictly enforced in many schools as the language that rules so many facets of the world.[5] On the grounds of being economically competitive, a particular type of student and subsequently human being is cultivated within the walls of formal mass schooling that destroys human individuality in the process of training students for scarce jobs in an urban consumer environment.[2][3]  Parents cite heartache over the breaking up of their families as they send their children away or see their children moving away with their own children in search of better schooling. [1][2]

Given that my program of study is Comparative and International Education, my classmates are from very diverse backgrounds.  Some are from the United States or of Western origins and are teaching abroad in various settings such as international schools, others are interested in education policy or international development, while others still are teachers within their country of origin.  Regardless of background, each student had a very similar reaction of both being saddened, overwhelmed, and angry at the ways in which formal mass schooling is impacting so many people all over the world.  Further it really led everyone to question and to think about his or her role in this process.

The most common criticism of this documentary by my classmates was that it brings to light many alarming and important points regarding how formal schooling is impacting people, communities, and our relationship with our planet, but it does very little by way of offering any points for action or change.  I personally feel that while the film grounds its argument from the very beginning in an imperialistic view of education, giving the example of Native Americans in the United States, this dynamic is much less overt and much more complicated today.  Formal mass education has become a deeply institutionalized part of daily life all over the world.  It is no longer explicitly imposed on others as a means of control but, rather, is much more frequently willingly agreed to and accepted by those in indigenous or developing communities.  Many of my classmates questioned why these people do not refuse or fight back, why they adhere to this model of formal mass schooling at the expense of their culture, traditions, family units, and their relationships with the environment.  Why do they sacrifice their sustainable ways of life, their independence, for promises that largely continue to go unmet?

One of the central questions to the course for which this documentary was mandatory was “what gets taught in schools and who gets to decide.”  I think the reason that so many people all over the world acquiesce to the idea of mass schooling as it has come to be known is because they do believe that on some level education can be used as a tool for good.  The questions just posed of what gets taught and who gets to decide become of ever greater importance as we think of not whether we should rid the world of mass schooling completely, but of how we can allow it to exist and to grow in a way that is in harmony with the people that it serves, not in a way that destroys them.  The first step, I believe, is for us to engage in a dialogue about how to disrupt the current conceptions and value systems regarding knowledge, learning, and the goals of education to allow for more inclusive definitions.

[1] Schooling the World. (2010). The film. Retrieved from http://schoolingtheworld.org/film/

[2] Schooling the World Part 1/7 [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XLSIgZWNR9M

[3] Schooling the World Part 2/7 [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jeZSQTE8RrE

[4] Schooling the World Part 3/7 [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arzoZqTceic

[5] Schooling the World Part 5/7 [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V5mm2YtiO0A

Student Protests as a Force for Change: The Case of Venezuela

Venezuela

The photo depicted above was shared on a social media website one week ago by a dear friend of mine, with the caption below it reading: “It is an unexplainable pain: your country is slipping through your fingers and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.  You can only hope it pulls through. SOS Venezuela”.

This post is in response to the protests against the government in Venezuela that have been ongoing since early February, the largest to sweep the country in the last decade [1].  After spending five months living and studying abroad in Milan, Italy with her and understanding where she came from and how much it means to her, to see her express such concern over what was happening in her native country was heartbreaking.  This experience resonated with me and made me want to know more so I could gain a better understanding, so I immediately contacted her to discuss the matter and her perspective on it.  She was more than willing to share with me because she feels strongly that while she is in the United States the most important and positive contribution she can make to the struggle is spreading information and raising awareness.  Just one day prior to my conversation with her, a friend of hers in Venezuela was taken by the National Guard for peacefully protesting, was beaten by a guard, and then held for four hours before ultimately being released.  The protests are indeed violent with 13 protesters dead, at least 150 injured, and more than 500 arrested since the protests began [1][2].  Understanding the struggle is both eye opening and thought provoking in a number of ways.

The protests were initiated by students on a campus in the city of San Cristóbal, in the western state of Táchira [3] and spread to the capital, Caracas, on the 12th of February when the student movement organized a peaceful march there [1].  Venezuela is cited as having the fifth highest murder rate in the world, and widespread insecurity and crime, as well as a report of a female student of an alleged rape attempt, sparked students’ demands for increased security measures against violence.  Further, while Venezuela is Latin America’s largest exporter of crude oil, with the world’s largest petroleum reserves, it faces 56% inflation and major goods shortages in essential basic items such as milk, sugar, and toilet paper [1][4].

While students initiated the movement initially, it has swept across the country and the protests now have a middle class majority making demands with the nationwide effort being called “La Salida” or “The Exit”[1][4].  Prominent members of the political opposition group have stepped forward to join the protests including former mayor Leopoldo Lopez, currently in jail awaiting trial for instigating violence, and Maria Corina Machado, a member of parliament [1].  Current President Nicolas Maduro only narrowly defeated Henrique Capriles, elected leader of the opposition, a mere ten months ago [4].  Politics in Venezuela are severely divided and have been all throughout the 14-year presidency of Hugo Chávez, Maduro’s predecessor and mentor [3].  While the opposition leader was initially opposed to the marches, he has since voiced support for and has emphasized peaceful demonstrations [1]

Collectively, protestors have a number of demands.  First, they wish to see the release of leader Leopoldo Lopez from jail as well as a number of other student demonstrators that have been detained [4].  Further, the government has been heavily criticized for the excessive violence it has used in response to the student movement, evidenced by its sending of the National Guard into residential areas, accusations of beatings and torture of arrested protestors, and the rising toll of deaths and injuries that have together been called a violation of human rights, much of which is denied by the government [3].  Protestors want pro-government groups to disarm and to address the aforementioned issues that are plaguing the nation, and attention has been called to a blockage by the government of media sources leading demonstrators to demand the free flow and more reliable sources of information within the country.  Even more extreme members of the opposition want Maduro to step down from office [1][4].

President Maduro refuses to step down and has accused the United States of backing the political opposition in staging a coup [1].  After Maduro forced the removal of three American embassy staff from the country, the United States responded by ordering three Venezuelan diplomats to leave the U.S. [5].  While the United States has a long history of disagreement with the Venezuelan government, it is still the country’s main importer of oil.  Despite this conflict, Maduro is encouraging dialogue with the United States and has been quoted as having said in a speech that “U.S. society needs to know the truth about Venezuela” [5], however it is interesting to consider what “truth” he wishes to convey on an international stage especially given the reported heavy censorship of media within his own country and the denial of much of the violence that is occurring.

Learning more about the current state of unrest in Venezuela and a movement that began first and foremost with students, really led me to reflect on the role of education as a force for change.  As I think about college campuses around the United States today, I cannot help but feel that civic engagement is not as high as it may have been at other points in our country’s history.  While at the level of discourse surrounding education in the United States critical thinking skills are hailed as desired and necessary for innovation and progress, I am skeptical of whether youth in the United States today are encouraged to follow through with these critical skills when it comes to a number of political and social issues.

Education can be just as easily used as a force that maintains the status quo as it can as one for change.  It is intriguing to consider the conditions under which one force takes over the other, and what other factors might contribute to students’ feelings of empowerment to incite change in their own societies.

References

[1]http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-26335287

[2]http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/24/world/americas/venezuela-protests/

[3]http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/25/world/americas/in-venezuela-middle-class-joins-protests.html?hpw&rref=world&_r=1

[4] http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/24/us-venezuela-protests-idUSBREA1N14E20140224

[5] http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2014/02/25/world/americas/25reuters-venezuela-protests.html?rref=world&module=Ribbon&version=origin&region=Header&action=click&contentCollection=World&pgtype=article

Education World Forum: Constructive or Restrictive?

The forum’s global remit offers unparalleled opportunity for ministerial teams from all participating countries to address economic and educational challenges, share experiences and establish a cooperative, future-proof approach to education.”

Dominic Savage
 Director General, BESA

Just over three weeks ago, January 19-22, The Education World Forum 2014 took place in London, UK.  While this international forum has occurred annually under this name and format since 2011, its origins date back to 2002 when the British governmental organization Becta (British Educational Communications Technology Agency) founded the “Moving Young Minds” event [1].  Although retaining the same general structure, in 2009, the conference took on a new identity as the “Learning and Technology World Forum,” which also involved a shift in thematic focus to the role of technology in educational quality and success for the coming generations.  The forum took a turn in becoming what it is today, the “Education World Forum,” in 2010 when government funding to Becta was cut and the contract for the event was privatized becoming the responsibility of the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) [2].

As attendance to this conference has grown over the years to the point that over eighty International Education Ministers gathered in London this year, it has come to be known was “the largest global gathering of education ministers and the internationally recognized ministerial forum for debating future practice in education[3].  Increasingly, goals for education on a global scale are shifting from simply achieving basic education for all children in the world, to achieving educational equity, focusing on quality and learning, fostering curiosity and innovation, and developing methods for life-long learning [4].  Having a forum in which education stakeholders all over the world can share successes and failures, address challenges, and debate the shape of the future of education is undoubtedly invaluable given the previously mentioned admirable goals for education that we face moving forward.

At the same time, however, it is important to look critically at the actors and stakeholders that are part of this forum and their own interests, as well as certain features of the conference itself which work to not only shape but potentially limit the scope of ideas presented and how they are discussed, and legitimize certain solutions and courses of action over others.

Looking at the position of the British Educational Suppliers Association itself is a very interesting place to start.  By definition, BESA is a trade association and works to support UK-based companies that supply equipment, materials, teaching aids, books, and technology hardware and software to members both in the United Kingdom and internationally.  They play the role of lobbyists to government on policy issues, and provide information and training to members on the basis of best practices that they, as experts, have identified [5][6].  The fact that the Education World Form is under the contract of a private entity involved in the national and international provision of educational goods and services, and is also the generator of research and knowledge about educational policies and best practices is not a trivial fact when considering what types of networking and policy prescriptions might be discussed.

Further, the “Platinum Partners” involved in sponsoring the forum are HP, Intel, Microsoft, Promethean, JP-Inspiring Knowledge, and Pearson. The first four of these partners are American multinational companies, and JP-Inspiring Knowledge is a partner company with both Intel and Microsoft.  Every single one of these partners expresses an interest in supporting the development of quality education and innovation to the ends of producing a skilled workforce in the global economy, very specifically through the application of education technology and the “return on investment” that these materials and expertise can bring.  Additionally, Pearson, a British multinational publishing and education company, self identifies as “the world’s largest learning business” and is the provider of textbooks, courses, and resources for both teachers and students all over the world [3].  The “Silver Partners” for the forum, presumably of less involvement than those previously mentioned, are almost exclusively associated with Oxford or Cambridge Universities, as well as Encyclopedia Britannica, which are all UK based sources of education knowledge and assessment material production [7].

While those behind the Education World Forum make the claim that the “event brings together minsters representing the majority of the world’s population,” we must critically realize and understand that the Ministers of Education are but one interest group within education policy networks with a certain degree of power in relation to other members of policy networks that are increasingly global in scale.

The forum has taken place every single year in London, which is not an issue by itself, however attendance to the event is by official invitation only [8].  This gives, year after year, the same essential group the power over who is able to engage in the debate over the future of education and the voices that are able to put solutions to challenges on the table.  The theme of this year’s conference was “Planning for 2014: Policy-making catalyst for a decade ahead: measurement, reach and enterprise,” and the inclusion of the terms “measurement” and “enterprise” express very specific values from the outset [9]. These values are further reflected no only in the expressed definition of education as “a crucial factor in national and global economic health; a country’s strongest resource for its future economic stability and success lies with its young people,” but also in the utilization of this forum space to discuss the OECD’s most recent PISA League Table and the World Bank’s future education plans [8].

The Education World Forum created and posted a video that is a collection of interviews with education minsters from around the world.  What struck me was that included in this video was a statement by the Minister of Education in Colombia that we must go beyond the academic achievement aspects of education and begin to take a look at education encompassing ideas of citizenship, peaceful democratic behavior, and social skills [4]. This is a stark contrast from the overtly economic emphasis put on the purpose of education in the rhetoric of the Education World Forum, from the legitimization of large scale standardized testing such as PISA, and from the goals of privatization espoused by the World Bank.

By taking a closer look at the actors and agents involved in the Education World Forum, I am by no means questioning the value of engaging in dialogue about educational policies, practices, challenges, and successes.  I do, however, strongly put into question the notion that the ideas, needs, and contextual factors of a majority of the world’s population are represented.  It seems to me that this event provides a forum to discuss the future of education and all that this entails within a very particular neoliberal framework that may not be conducive for the successful realization of a variety of educational goals.  I beg the question of whether there is another way.  Will we ever be able to engage in a dialogue about education that is more open, progressive, and less ideologically structured?

[1] http://www.fenews.co.uk/fe-news/becta-launches-global-forum-to-unite-policy-makers-across-the-world

[2] http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20081029165424/http://stage.localauthorities.becta.org.uk/index.php?section=gi&catcode=la_gi_o1&rid=15585&pagenum=1&NextStart=1&print=1

[3] http://www.ewf2014.org

[4] http://www.ewf2014.org/press/videos/education-world-forum-film-2014-a-global-education-conversation

[5] http://www.besa.org.uk/besa-member-benefits

[6] http://www.besa.org.uk/international-services-1

[7] http://www.ewf2014.org/partners/silver

[8] http://www.ewf2014.org/press/press-releases/education-world-forum-2014

[9] http://www.britishcouncil.org.eg/en/about/press/education-world-forum-ewf-and-bett-2014