So Long, Knowledge Transmission

New  approaches for the global innovation economy. (DrAfter123/iStockPhoto)

In the 20th century, education centered on a relatively fixed body of content.

School systems understand that this “knowledge transmission” model of education is no longer adequate. Today, when knowledge itself changes rapidly and people can access unlimited content on search engines, students need to become self-directed, lifelong learners.

School districts are largely engaged in or contemplating wide-ranging reforms of curriculum, instruction, and assessment to prepare students for the increasingly complex demands of life and work in the 21st century. The Asia Society Global Cities Education Network is comprised of of policymakers, practitioners, and researchers from Chicago, Denver, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Seattle, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore, Toronto, and the American charter network EdVisions. They came together to discuss the critical challenges they face and to identify ways to learn from each other and from the world’s best practices. They shared their experiences in trying to move their systems towards 21st century learning environments.

Hong Kong has undergone a decade of major education reform. Starting in 1999, spurred by fundamental social and economic changes, Hong Kong implemented a comprehensive overhaul in the structure, curriculum, language of instruction, and assessment both in schools and higher education. The learner-centered reforms underlying this new system have been far-reaching. They involve significant expansion of educational opportunity and a shift of emphasis from teaching to learning, from fact memorization to development of learning capacities.

Reforms included the abolition of the end-of-primary school exam to encourage more active learning; the replacement of traditional subject matter in secondary schools with “learning areas;” the system-wide development of “liberal studies,” which promotes interdisciplinary studies and project-based learning; and the introduction of “applied learning,” which enables students to gain real-life experience within different sectors of the economy.

The reforms have shown considerable success. Hong Kong primary students rose from fourteenth place in reading in the 2001 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study assessment to second place on this exam in 2006. Hong Kong also scored second overall on the PISA assessment of fifteen-year-olds in 2009. Still, there are significant tensions in the system. For instance, it has been challenging to shift teachers from a knowledge-transmission teaching tradition to more active pedagogy, and to balance an innovative curriculum with an intense parental focus on admission to the best higher education institutions, fueled by a large private tutoring industry.

EdVisions, a network of charter schools in across several U.S. states, has no courses, classes, or bells. Education is completely personalized around student-designed projects that follow students’ interests and through which the required subject matter standards are acquired. Teachers are called “advisors;” they act as a “guide on the side” rather than a transmitter of knowledge. Both advisors and other students assess student projects using standard rubrics. The schools are organized around the principles of student engagement, mastery, choice, and voice. One challenge to this learning environment model: Students are behind on conventional state-required mathematics tests.

Seattle’s approach to 21st century skill acquisition has sparked the creation of internationally themed schools within the public school system. These schools grew out of surveys of parents and businesses about what kind of education they wanted for their children and what knowledge and skills would be needed to prepare them for the changing society and economy of the future. The city started with one internationally themed elementary school in 2000, and there are now eight international schools, with a goal of twelve, including elementary, middle, and high schools. The schools emphasize either full- or partial-immersion in one or more world languages, the study of global issues, and service learning both locally and globally. Community partnerships with business, universities, and parents have been essential to the schools’ development, and technology is used extensively to link schools to other countries.

The international schools aim to produce students who can be successful citizens in both local and global settings. The main challenges Seattle faces in implementing these international schools include: expanding teachers’ knowledge; balancing the development of basic competencies with the development of 21st century skills; spreading best practices from these models to other schools in the system; and assessing global competencies. Asia Society’s International Studies Schools Network is another example of schools being designed for the future. Their aim is to produce students who are college-ready and globally competent.

Singapore has had a very strong knowledge-transmission education system that consistently ranks among the world’s best on international assessments. However, its education philosophy and practices are continuously evolving. In 2004, the “Teach Less, Learn More” policy promoted a different learning paradigm, one more focused on engaged learning. In 2008, a Primary Education Review further pushed for a better balance between knowledge transmission and the development of skills and values; this led to the introduction of more art, music, and physical education. At the secondary level, a portfolio of schools is being developed with different themes, including art, music, and sports, to encourage students’ different interests and talents.

Singapore has developed its own framework of 21st century competencies, which are being infused into curriculum development for each discipline and into the redesign of teacher preparation. In moving in this direction, Singapore is determined to widen teachers’ pedagogical repertoires and getting both basic and 21st century skills to high levels, since ultimately students will need both. The city also wrestles with how to assess 21st century skills (since they need to be assessed over time and inevitably involve some subjectivity) and whether they should be assessed in a high-stakes or low-stakes forms.

Seoul’s representative spotlighted the constraints on 21st century skills imposed by test-driven education systems. In Seoul, students excel at knowledge transmission, as is evident in Korea’s outstanding performance on all international assessment measures. However, students are not happy or engaged with their own learning. Korea now wants to focus on competence and creativity, not just knowledge regurgitation. Its initiatives in this direction include STEAM, which attempts to link the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, in which Korea is traditionally strong, with the arts. STEAM programs are now in all elementary and middle schools. Part of the middle-school day has also been opened up to locally developed curriculum innovations to encourage creative expression, teamwork, and the like.

There is also a more explicit focus on communication skills to counteract Asian students’ traditional fear of being wrong. To this end, Seoul began to implement internally developed curriculum innovations within schools, to encourage creative expression and teamwork. Cooperation and creativity are fostered through reading, essays, and discussions between students and teachers, as well as peer-to-peer discussions. Furthermore, the reworking of the student evaluation process helps create an assessment based on creative solving processes rather than memorization. Finally, to ensure that students of the 21st century are well-rounded and sociable individuals, schools are implementing a renaissance of cultural arts and physical education programs. These new programs include “one child, one instrument” and a variety of afterschool sports clubs available for students of all levels.

New Questions and Developing Trends

During the wide-ranging discussion that followed the city presentations, a number of practical issues were raised that cities wrestle with, but that lack definitive research. For example: How much early childhood education is necessary to have a significant impact on achievement? At what age should early childhood programs begin in order to get maximum benefit on the extra dollar? What are effective ways to get high-quality teachers into disadvantaged schools and how can system leaders work constructively with teachers’ unions on this issue? What is the relationship between hours of studying (including afterschool tutoring) and academic achievement?

Do more personalized learning designs increase or reduce inequity?

The definition of equity is also evolving. Should the focus of the definition be on resources? Opportunity? Outcomes? Achieving equity is often discussed in terms of reducing or eliminating achievement gaps between groups, but is that realistic? For instance, in Denver, the achievement gap has not been closed despite advances in the lower tier of students because the top-scoring students have also improved. In Singapore, the policy is to protect the bottom-tier students while allowing the top-tier students to soar as high as they can.

The discussion also centered on the increasing diversity of cities. Even cities that adopted many of the measures outlined in the OECD background paper (link!) are finding that the intensification of diversity makes success more difficult. In Toronto, for example, more than twenty percent of the population was born outside of Canada (and are referred to as “new Canadians”). Despite the overall increase in student performance and secondary school graduation, there are still groups that are falling behind, especially black males, native Canadians, and students who have come from Latin America and the Middle East. In Melbourne, meanwhile, twenty-four percent of students have one parent born overseas and twenty percent speak a language other than English at home. In Denver, the proportion of students who speak a language other than English at home has risen to forty percent. Some time ago, Seattle implemented a voluntary desegregation plan, but its increasingly diverse demography is mirrored in its uneven achievement patterns. In Shanghai and Hong Kong, massive migration from poor rural and inland areas poses challenges to the traditional urban schools. And while Seoul’s diversity is small in scale (two percent) compared to that of other cities, it nevertheless challenges the traditional processes of the city’s education system.

Most cities give more resources to schools serving disadvantaged students, but the quantity of resources may not be as important as the ability to have the best teachers working in these schools. Recognizing that teacher quality is the single biggest in-school factor affecting student achievement, the conference addressed how to get enough high-quality people to become teachers and how to ensure that the neediest students have access to the highest quality teaching.

Two recent International Summits on the Teaching Profession, which brought together education ministers and teachers unions, focused on some of the world’s best practices for recruiting academically talented people into teaching, training them with the tools to deal with diverse students and abilities, mentoring new teachers, and developing and retaining teachers in the classroom, especially in challenging schools. But cities need more specific information on how to implement strategies to improve their teaching force. Some cities, such as Singapore, have extensively pursued the development of a high-quality teaching profession. Other cities have worked on specific aspects of the issue, such as Shanghai’s efforts to get the best teachers into the weakest schools. These efforts and others could be used to inform other cities’ choices.

Another trend in most of the cities was greater choice and options for different types of schools. Singapore, for example, is developing portfolios of schools. Melbourne has government, Catholic, and independent schools. In the United States, charter schools, such as those in the EdVisions Schools network, are increasingly part of the city mix. Seattle pushed a great deal of decision-making to the school level, which has stimulated innovation but exacerbated inconsistent results. All of the conference’s participating cities are moving toward greater decentralization of authority to the school level, with broad policies set at the city or district level. However, choice and decentralization can lead to greater inequities if not designed with equity in mind. So the challenge in running an effective urban system of schools is: What needs to be consistent across schools and where can flexibility be allowed?

Despite their challenges, urban schools also have many advantages. Often the broader cultural and economic environment for education is more favorable. Particular approaches, such as choice among schools or professional learning communities among teachers, are easier to implement in a city than in a rural area. Indeed, an analysis conducted by OECD showed that in many parts of the world, cities outperform non-urban parts of their countries.

Systemic Change

For any school system, the knowledge transmission model is much easier to implement. And while the goals of education for the 21st century may have changed, most assessment and accountability systems have not. So there is a major tension between the rhetoric of 21st century skills and the reality of schooling. Systems assert that they want to develop creative, confident students who are adept in a range of areas, but then they test more basic knowledge-transmission skills. This sends mixed messages to teachers about the skills and interdisciplinary content that students need, since these may differ from what is valued on examinations and assessments for which teachers and students are held accountable.

These are not small changes that are being called for, issues that could be handled through modestly scaled professional development courses. Nor are they altogether new skills; these types of skills have always been a part of the education of elites. But to teach these skills to all students will require the restructuring of whole systems—from teacher preparation and professional development, to curriculum design, to assessment and accountability measures, to the expectations of parents and consumers of education systems. And they will need very high-quality teachers to transform the learning culture of schools.

With a vision in place, school systems and societies can work towards offering equal access to an excellent education. Few priorities are more important.

This article is adapted from the report, Transforming Learning in Cities: The Global Cities Education Network Inaugural Symposium. Download the full report.

Related Links

Teaching and Learning 21st Century Skills: Lessons from the Learning Sciences

Transforming Learning in Cities: The Global Cities Education Network Inaugural Symposium

Equity and Quality in Education: Supporting Disadvantaged Students and Schools