The Global Education and Skills Forum 2015, part 1: Sheikhs on a Plane

15th March 2015 at 07:56

I'm waiting for my plane on my way to write about the Global Education And Skills Forum, an enormous conference held annually in the UAE. Me, a Scotsman, sitting in an English airport about to board a flight to Dubai, texting my Polish wife while eating Japanese sushi – I'm just one example of how our lives are now a Bento box of internationalisation, but far from the only one.


Take the English language: a hunter's stew of Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Latin, French, and – if you ever dip into Facebook – variations of Klingon and vaguely racist illiteracy. Most alphabets are Arabic, like your religion, probably (if you have one). Your DNA is a daisy chain of ethnicities that stretches back to Pangaea. The world crept into your living room while you were sleeping, filled your phone with African rhythms and wrapped you in blankets from Belize.


It crept into schools too. Remember Batman – the 1960s film starring Adam West? The Joker and friends kidnapped the United Nations Assembly (first turning them into test tubes of coloured powder), who were caricatures of a dozen nations, jibber-jabbering away in a dozen tongues. That's most classrooms I've taught in the last ten years, so different from the Caucasian-only clubs in which I grew up.


Several levers sprung this mousetrap: air travel shrunk the world to a day's travel. Telecommunications shortened that to the time it took someone to pick up a phone. The European Union, and the diasporas of war, blew great clouds of refugees and immigrants – the ambitious, the desperate, the industrious – into our ports and onto our beaches, walking through airports and clinging to lorries.


The world turned. People turned with it. And now we see education catching up with modernity, or at least apeing it. This concerns education in at least four ways: diversity of student population; global outcome comparators; opportunities to learn from different systems; and what is often called global citizenship. Diversity, and its concomitant opportunities and challenges, is another topic entirely. I'll deal with global citizenship in the next blog. I have a feeling it's going to come up a lot.


Keeping up with the Magnussons


Now, we don't merely compare pupil with pupil through examinations; or simply school versus school and borough versus borough. Our microscope has become a telescope: we stand countries and continents up against each other, like an enormous police identity parade. The usual suspects get most of the attention: the Finlands, the Singapores, the Polands and Hong Kongs. PIsa and Talis have provided new and gigantic ways to measure how high up the wall everyone can pee, new ways to feel bad about ourselves – as if we lacked that already.


A weird side-effect to this beauty contest for educational ecosystems is that inevitably the front-runners, in an attempt to show everyone how mercilessly committed to self improvement they are, devote considerable effort to being even better – usually, it appears, by stopping what made them successful in the first place. Fans of schadenfreude will enjoy the sight of UK politicians endlessly visiting the Far East to learn more about direct instruction, drilling and core content, while teachers over there make pilgrimages to see wonderful English schools and learn about skills curriculums and SEAL. The grass remains eternally greener in your neighbour's garden. Debates rage about the dangers or opportunities of lifting educational solutions from their context, when the context might be the thing that provides the solution; for example, Poland is lauded as a literacy miracle, but discussions of the reasons for this frequently focus on strategic interventions (for which policy-makers can take responsibility) but rarely mention the high status teachers and education enjoy, and relatively low levels of classroom disruption due to cultural factors.


No, Mr Bond, I expect you to learn


If you're a fan of David Icke and his project to expose the secret Masters of the Universe, you'll be familiar with the concept of GERM, which is teaching's answer to SPECTRE. It stands for Global Education Reform Movement, and refers to the alleged conspiracy of multinationals and neoliberal politicos to turn education into a factory process producing neat, biddable consumers, tailored to the needs of the industrial/military complex. I don't believe in GERM – mainly because I don't buy in to the idea of global conspiracies; I'll believe cøck-up over conspiracy almost every time. However, I do believe that there are many commercial players who see education as a ripe field for harvesting, as they see any other market, and we need to be mindful of that.


I'm at the Global Education and Skills Forum for the TES to cover this circus in the desert. If I have to throw myself down every waterslide in every pool in Dubai, I'll get to the bottom of things.


Tom Bennett will return in....part 2.