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Education: What Do We Hope to Prevent?

School - Moyan Brenn.jpg

Today's guest blog is written by Gavin Dykes, Programme Director at Education World Forum in the United Kingdom.

Last week I enjoyed a brief talk by John Bell of the Iona Community who reflected on the difference between "prevention and cure." John compared the celebration of those who miraculously cured the seriously ill with the lesser attention given to those who, through their actions, prevented people from becoming ill in the first place.

Bell's line of thought took my mind to my work, many years ago, as a young civil engineer when I was struck by the professional irritation of some engineers with the reluctance of their clients to undertake adequate site investigation. Site investigation often involves drilling exploratory boreholes to map out the ground on which foundations will be constructed, or through which tunnels will be excavated.

In a wise world, such investigation can and should be the basis of the design of the structure above. My engineering colleagues wondered, how their clients could ignore the risk of significant additional expense through skimping on investigation.

In a much more drastic example, there was a recent debate in England regarding the implementation of a new approach to looking after new-born babies with a particular condition. Getting the new approach right had proved difficult, and a small number of babies had died. Unfortunate, sad, devastating or tragic are just some of the ways we can describe that loss of life.

One supporter of the pioneering work talked of his sadness at the deaths, and then suggested we all should think of the greater common good. Common good? Was he being serious? He was challenged by another debater who talked of work on the design new aircraft. Would it be ok, did he think, if the planes were put into service, and we lost a few...with all passengers...because ultimately there's some greater common good?  

It's a debate that still continues, and I began wondering how it relates to education. As the Programme Director at Education World Forum, I often wonder how prevention and cure relate to learning and education.

What might we try to prevent?

What happens when we don't succeed and we need to look for a cure?

Prevention might relate to preventing the challenges of illiteracy or students not reaching the levels of learning that we might hope. We might also prevent lost potential and unfulfilled dreams.

OECD and Eric Hanushek of Stanford University has estimated that if US students achieved as well as Canadian students in the PISA tests, then the impact on the US's GDP would amount to approximately $70 trillion over the lifetime of the students. While this significant sum, or something close to it, isn't quite the cost of prevention, it could be seen as part of the impact of not preventing underperformance in education.

That expense would be increased by the cost of cure, because if a cure is required, then some failure had already taken place.

In education we see quite a lot of this. I always liked the way that people working for the Department of Education (or Education and Skills) in England used to introduce themselves in meetings with their name then the Division for which they worked. For example, if I worked for that division I would be Gavin Dykes, Behaviour and Attendance. Behaviour and Attendance was the division funded to deal with poor behaviour and inadequate attendance.

While I understand the need for some work in that area, it led me to wonder if there was a way to encourage the engagement of children in their learning, to a much greater degree, and thereby to decrease the amount required to fund Behaviour and Attendance?  Or perhaps to refocus on Engagement and Enjoyment or Supporting Aspirations. My concern would be that we felt the need to teach Engagement and Enjoyment and Aspirations rather than foster them.

By the way, I always wished that I could have worked with the then Division for Gifted and Talented. That would have made for a much more positive, though not necessarily accurate, introduction in meetings.

What links and lessons might there be for prevention and cure when it comes to assessment? Might assessment be targeted at prevention rather than cure. Cure seems associated with summative assessment, while formative assessment could be something more to do with prevention.

I wondered whether my view of formative assessment was influenced by a view that it is more often assessment that is for the direct benefit of students. That brings me to another recent discussion related to the differences between policy and implementation.

Policy-making is so often seen as key requiring the highest level of skills, while implementation is more menial in almost every field. Yet the art of design is not only about beauty, but also about build-ability and use-ability. Do we want people who can pass exams, or who can do things, or both? Are passing exams and doing things one and the same? If not, perhaps they should be.

That shift from academic task completion to doing real things is another place for applying prevention rather than cure. So the proxy of being able to pass an exam may show something but it does not tell the whole story.

Some of my favourite experiences working in education have been associated with developing real work with real impact for students in schools. If that real work is built on observation, analysis and solution development by students, then my experience is that the positive impact on the students personally and on their work can be fantastic.

That made me wonder if proxy prevention was something we should adopt in assessment. This is something that Bill Rankin alludes to in his Three Ages of Information presentation as he advocates a return to apprenticeship for today's students.

Buckminster Fuller observed "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." I do wonder if Fuller's observation is helpful as we think of learning and education, and if it is, whether John Bell's "prevention rather than cure" can provide the basis of a new model.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Moyan Brenn

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