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Five Things I Know for Sure


Today, Pearson Foundation launched a new project that aims to share the insights of education leaders called Five Things I've Learned. I'm humbled to be included on this site along with prominent education leaders whose daily efforts are improving outcomes for students inside and outside the classroom. Below is my contribution, but I urge you to visit the website and read the wisdom shared by others.

We are all connected in a global web of interdependency.
Long before the Internet, when Twitter was a sound and Liking someone meant you actually liked them, Martin Luther King Jr. prophesized the nature of things in the 21st century: "We are all tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality." Today, given the ubiquity of technology, we are, indeed, inexorably connected in worldwide economic, social, environmental and other systems. That interdependence requires us to rethink the consequences of our actions and the potential scope of our influence. As adults and educators, it requires a conception of ourselves as global citizens and global advocates, responsible for the development of our own children, the children next door or thousands of miles away.

An interconnected world requires global competence.
Educators the world over have recognized the need for students to develop "21st Century skills" encompassing problem solving and critical thinking, communication and collaboration, and the use of digital technologies. But despite their moniker, these are not new skills. In fact, apart from proficiency in today's technologies, if there had been education reformers in the age of Socrates they may well have called for the same learning outcomes for students to navigate the complexity of the 4th century BCE. What is new is the context within which these skills are needed—a global context. The problems we must equip our students to solve are global problems. The people we want them to communicate with are all over the world. The information and perspectives we want them to consider in making decisions come from cultures very different than their own. So, yes, 21st century skills are vital—contextualized within a global environment. Put simply: students need global competence.

The seminal problems in education practice and policy are common the world over.
The second International Summit on the Teaching Profession just concluded in New York City, where leaders from over 20 high performing or rapidly improving nations met to discuss strategies for improving the quality of teaching. Guess what? Attracting highly talented graduates to enter the teaching profession is as much an issue in Sweden as it is in the United States. Performance pay for teachers is a hot topic in Hong Kong and in Estonia. How to develop in children acceptance of diversity and a disposition for democracy is equally urgent in Norway as it is in Singapore. Perhaps it should have been a no brainer. But what international meetings like the Summit make clear is that because the fundamentals of human development are the same everywhere, the issues education systems face in guiding students' development are fundamentally similar, although they may manifest themselves in vastly different circumstances. The opportunities for learning with the world about strategies for solving common problems are enormous. What's even more exciting, we can design new solutions to common problems in education if we create the right collaborative platforms to do so. Beyond swapping strategies, as helpful as that is, it is time to foster international partnerships in education to shape a shared future.

The most important thing educators need to know is how human beings learn.
What is the purpose of education? To develop students' content knowledge? To hone their 21st century skills (until the next century when they will presumably need 22nd century skills)? To create caring human beings and stewards of sustainability? Nope! The purpose of education is to catalyze student learning. It is disconcerting, therefore, that there is so rarely a call for the training of educators to include a deep understanding of how humans learn based on the most current scientific research and the most ancient wisdom of philosophy. And extremely few education reform movements, in the US or elsewhere, begin with the premise: "this is what we know about how children learn, therefore we advocate x, y, and z education reform strategies." Einstein once said "Education is what's left after you forget everything you learned at school." What's left after you forget when the Civil War ended or the half-life of plutonium is, hopefully, the ability to learn. We need to know how that happens to make it happen.

All children can learn and equity in learning to high levels is possible.
In international comparisons of student performance like PISA, the sweet spot that nations covet is the intersection of high academic performance and low variance in outcomes for students from school to school, even though there may be significant differences in the racial and ethnic make-up of schools or in the wealth of the children's parents. The really good news is that there are nations like Canada, Finland, and Singapore—replete with what some might consider lethal diversities—that have achieved excellence with equity. They have designed education systems that don't leave children behind, rather leave behind the obstacles to learning stemming from poverty and differences in status—and the excuses that go with them. The key to each of these countries' success is a national will to develop the potential of each and every child. There is unfortunately very little evidence that a similar will to truly level the playing field exists within the United States. If anything, inequalities are increasing. So one of the things I know for sure is that we cannot sustain our standard of living, much less our security, if we don't somehow find a national will for excellence with equity—and fast.

CORRECTION: Five Things I've Learned is a Pearson Foundation project. The earlier post incorrectly attributed it to Pearson.

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