Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Pearson's Renaissance (1): History and Revolution

Pearson has released another essay/position paper/world conquest outline. This one comes from Peter Hill and Pearson Commandant Michael Barber, and it's entitled "Preparing for a Renaissance in Assessment." We've looked at a Pearson position paper before, and it was kind of scary, so for that reason alone, this is not for the faint of heart. The fact that this paper is eighty-some pages long is also reason to balk. But because I love you guys, I am going to wade through this so that you don't have to. Although you probably should, because it's always good to get to know your new overlords.

I'm not kidding about the 88 pages.I'm going to break this up into several posts, mostly because I know some of you read on phones and tablets and I don't want to bust your thumbs. If you would like to get just some highlights, try this post. But over here we'll power through this a bit at a time, starting with the first segment of the paper, which presents Pearson's version of History So Far, what is driving the revolution in education, and what the revolution demands.

The Preliminaries

The cover features a multi-ethnic group of teenagers sitting at school desks working on digital tablets, just so you have an inkling of where we're headed.

Inside we get the intro to Pearson and our two authors. You may be less familiar with Peter Hill unless you are Australian, in which case you may have noticed him monkeying around with your educational system making sure you suffer through the same reformy GORP as the rest of us. Michael Barber, Educationist, gets his own wikipedia page. The least you need to know about him is that he runs Pearson, and that he was a big wheel at McKinsey. He is an A-list reformster.

There are some acknowledgements, and a forward from Lee Sing Kong. He's a trained horticulturist who somehow ended up as a bigwig at the National Institute of Education in Singapore. His intro: Blah blah blah thanks you guys for writing this awesomely important paper.

I. Setting the Scene

Schooling is made out of three parts: 1) curriculum, 2) learning and teaching, 3) assessment. They work together, but we're focusing on the third because it's the "lagging" one and also there's a consensus (somewhere) that it's on the verge of a rebirth. That's what we're going to talk about. We'll cover the reasons and nature of the change, tell governments, schools and leaders what they're supposed to do, and "provide a framework for action to enable change." Because Pearson does not dream small.

We're going to try not to be all technical, and we are going to focus on fifteen- to eighteen-year-olds. And we will particularly focus on assessment used for "certification, selection, accountability, and improving learning and teaching." And to do all that, we're going to have to set the stage.

The Educational Revolution

They take a pile of words to say that in modern times, education has changed less than anything, and that what changes have occurred haven't really changed any fundamentals of schools. So the question-- is the current upheaval in education indicating real revolution? "We have concluded...that this time things are different." Which is, of course, what they always say.

But the authors argue that this real revolution is being pushed by globalization and digital technologies and being pulled by the realization that "the current paradigm is no longer working as well as it should." Both of these factors are of course just natural and spontaneous and not at all trends that Pearson and other corporations have spent a gazillion dollars trying to foster and grow.

Globalization: the Key Driver of Revolutionary Change

Globalization is driven by technology, which is changing the world into the "Knowledge Society." And as God is my witness, they call this "the new world order," because they are not Americans.

In the past, it was possible "to talk with some certainty about the kind of education needed to prepare young people for life and work." The writers are not clear about how far in the past they think this magical time was, but okay. But nowadays, all the jobs are going away. Airport counters, bank tellers, supermarket checkers-- "anything that can be automated is being automated" is what they say next, though they don't follow it with "and if we have our way, that will include teachers." Then they suggest that Europe doesn't have enough STEM grads to fill job needs. So I guess it is possible to talk with some certainty about the kind of education needed to prepare young people for life and work?

They present two educational choices: 1) traditional core of schooling and 2) non-memorizing cross-disciplinary doing-not-knowing learning. Having created this artificial divide, they then declare that they don't think it's actually a conflict.

So what do they want? They want more. More of everything. More cross-curricular skills. More twenty-first century skills. More critical thinky stuff. And more intra-personal skills. Pearson wants your whole brain.

They like the Australian scheme of seven general capabilities:

1) literacy
2) numeracy
3) information and communication technology capability
4) critical and creative thinking
5) personal and social capability
6) ethical understanding
7) intercultural understanding

Which, I have to say, is way better than the Common Core that we are saddled with. Apparently the international benchmarking that our leaders claim to have done did not include any Aussies.

The writers also note that we're talking about changing the concept of what it means to be an educated person. And then they let their old fart flags fly by suggesting that Kids These Days have a more complicated and difficult world to make sense of than anyone else ever on their road to becoming useful citizens. And they segue again into the notion that education should be designed to develop students with character, students with grit and resilience, students who are The Right Kind of People. Not for the last time, we'll note that Pearson is perfectly comfortable laying out exactly what kind of people should be designed to live in the world. If Pearson ever thinks about Big Brother at all, it must be to think about how he thought too small and achieved too little.

And as we pivot toward the next section, we'll note that globalization not only has implications for how people should know and think and feel, but also for how they should be taught (spoiler alert: with technology).

The Performance Ceiling: The Other Driver

Hill and Barber trot out the observation that student achievement has been flat for decades. I'm always curious about this observation. Do critics think that IQ's should be steadily raised, like stock market averages?  At any rate, here come NAEP and PISA results again, leading to the conclusion that the systems currently in place have gotten all they can get out of juvenile brains. I don't see any research cited here to indicate that there are untapped reserves of educatedness in those juvenile brains; we're just going to take those unplumbed depths on faith, assuming that human intelligence and educational achievement have no innate ceiling and that human beings can expect to get infinitely smarter forever, until we're all big-headed geniuses from an Outer Limits episode.

Let's follow that us with some research used to prop up the idea that teachers are responsible for the topping out. The ceiling is made neither of glass nor brick, but of inert teacher bodies, human speedbumps on the road to infinite smartitude. And here comes one of the recurring themes of the paper-- How Teaching Must Be Changed.

Teaching must be transformed from a "largely under-qualified and trained, heavily unionized, bureaucratically controlled semi-profession into a true profession with a distinctive knowledge base, framework for teaching, well-defined common terms for describing and analyzing teaching at a level of specificity and strict control." We'll be returning to this point many times, so let me just shorten it to "teachers must be converted from humans to robots." We'll learn more about this in Part 2.

The authors would also like to scrap the whole age-grade progression in favor of a system that organizes students by ability instead. This is an idea that makes a great deal of sense to anyone who has not worked with fifteen- to eighteen-year-olds. But what they want is a new paradigm that puts individual students at the center of a personalized learning system.

Because nothing would be better at developing the kind of character and personality that Pearson envisions than looking at students in no context other than the context of their academic skills.

Key Elements of the Education Revolution

Our thesis, then, is that the 'push' factor of globalization and the 'pull' factor of the performance ceiling are together giving rise to an education revolution in which certain long-held beliefs and ways of doing things are being repudiated and replaced by a new set of beliefs and practices.

There are six Old Ways that they believe are being tossed on the trash can of educational history. Here's how Pearson believes the world has changed.

First, they believe the old way was that students were treated as empty vessels with fixed capacity for learning. That has been replaced by "practices that build on prior learning" and a belief that given sufficient expectations, motivation, time and support, all students can meet high standards. I'm not sure which planet used teaching not built on prior learning, but you will recognize the high expectations part in the "one size fits all" approach of Arne Duncan and his assertion that the only thing holding back students with learning disabilities is their teachers' low expectations.

Second, they believe that curricula that emphasize rote memorization is being replaced by "deep learning of big ideas and organizing principles." Honestly, where is this school reformsters keep talking about where rote memorization is still a big thing? Because I don't think I'm in some super-progressive corner of the universe, and nobody has based their instruction on rote memorization here since 1952.

Third, shifting from the school as the focus of educational policy to focusing on the individual student. I'm sure that this has nothing to do with wanting to do more direct marketing of educational products.

Fourth, we're going to replace the old time-bound school day and year with omni-education. Students will learn in all sorts of places all the time.

Fifth, we're moving from the teacher in a classroom to online instruction with more differentiation, with learning partnerships that leave the teacher as an "activator" of the various learning partnerships, connections, cybersymbioses, etc.  Kind of like Julie on the Love Boat.

Sixth, teachers must be converted from humans to robots.

The revolution has already begun (Pearson should know-- they're paying for it), but education is sluggish. Barber backs this up (for neither the first nor the last time) by quoting himself. In the next chapter, we're going to look at how Pearson thinks teaching and assessment should really work.


  1. Peter, I think I love your blog so well because we are contemporaries - The Outer Limits and fluffernutters. Thanks for wading through the muck and mire of this 88 page manifesto!

  2. Sir Mike is very tight with Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester. He came to Boston last year to unveil this hysterically inept report about how Massachusetts has to redesign our whole education system, which is only superb currently because it meets real-world student needs, instead of the not-yet-revealed needs inside his own head.

  3. "Students will learn in all sorts of places all the time." And I'll bet Pearson has an assessment ready for each and every one of them.