Mr Gove is out-of-step with the countries he admires

Janet Downs's picture
Mr Gove said in Parliament that “countries such as Sweden, Singapore, Finland, Hong Kong, Alberta and South Korea all recognise the need to reform their education systems” to justify reforming UK education. However, the reforms that five of these countries propose run counter to Mr Gove’s proposals.

Sweden: in 2009 introduced an Education Act which would ensure that municipal and independent schools would be governed by the same regulations as much as possible. (No different rules for different types of school in Sweden)

Singapore:  lists 21st century skills necessary for the globalised world: Civic literacy, global awareness and cross-cultural skills; Critical and inventive thinking, and Information and communication skills

Finland:  reformed their education slowly and with consensus over many years. They have a winning formula – why should they reform it?

Hong Kong:  has rejected a content-based curriculum.

Alberta: listed these competencies for the 21st century: high levels of literacy and numeracy together with Critical Thinking and Problem Solving , Creativity and Innovation, Social Responsibility and Cultural, Global and Environmental Awareness, Communication, Digital Literacy, Lifelong Learning, Self-Direction and Personal Management, Collaboration and Leadership.

Compare the above with the Education White Paper, a particularly dreary document especially when compared with Singapore’s vision.

If Mr Gove really wanted to emulate the countries he has listed, then the Education White Paper should say more about 21st century skills than curriculum content, floor standards, Academies, Free Schools and the rest. He is looking back to the future – the countries above are looking forward.
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Andrew Old's picture
Wed, 16/02/2011 - 17:03

Oh for pity's sake. What have you shown here? That some effective school systems use meaningless American jargon like "21st Century skills"?

Who cares what jargon they use? How (and what) do they teach?

Michael Keenan's picture
Wed, 16/02/2011 - 21:46

The argument that the conservatives seem to be sticking to is that teachers are somehow against teaching literacy and numeracy skills to the detriment of our children. This is not the case. A prescriptive, subject heavy national curriculum was introduced in 1988 - I can still remember it now, at one point 10 or 11 binders full of things we were supposed to teach!
Much later, the introduction of the literacy hour and a specific time devoted to numeracy was supposed to make sure the core subject teaching times were protected which meant reducing the time spent on the other subjects.
The result of changes like these have been that over the years, good teachers have managed to combine several subjects together to make the curriculum more interesting for their children - learning a topic in history, writing a report on it in literacy, filming it and perhaps even blogging about it using (whisper it) ICT.

This government unfortunately seems very keen to get rid of things based on evidence that suits them. I'm a teacher and the evidence of what works is not reflected in their reforms. Sadly, we will have lost a generation of learners before they realise it.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 17/02/2011 - 09:15

The schools that Andrew Old dismisses as "some" were five of the six countries which Mr Gove cited as exemplars in Parliament, as my original comment made clear. If Mr Gove wishes to emulate them then he should at least be aware of what they actually promote.

The term "21st century skills "which Andrew Old condemns as "meaningless American jargon" is used by Andreas Schleicher of the OECD, a respected international organisation. The report says: "21st century literacy is about reading to learn and develop the capacity and motivation to identify, understand, interpret, create and communicate knowledge.",3746,en_2649_201185_46846594_1_1_1_1,00...

Lily's picture
Fri, 25/04/2014 - 20:10

Hi. Albertan here.

I would caution you against relying on the "21st Century Learning" label. Alberta's incredible achievements were all gained in the pre-"21st Century Learning" era. Since we embarked on "21st Century Learning" in math, we've slid from the top in Canada to below average. In fact, on the latest 2012 OECD PISA results, our rate of math innumeracy has doubled, from about 7% to 15%.

It's a meaningless label that can mean anything. But here in Alberta, it's been used to justify moving away from a classical curriculum based on knowledge and content, and moving to the American model (birthplace of 21st Century Learning) of learning to learn, competencies, group work, kids not being actively taught, but rather told to discover stuff. The writers of the previous curriculum that got us to the top of the world have labelled it a total disaster.

There's actually a huge debate going on in my province about it.

Andrew Old's picture
Thu, 17/02/2011 - 21:08

Sorry, are you now arguing that meaningless jargon ceases to be meaningless jargon if an OECD report uses it?

Give me a break. What makes those education systems so widely admired is that the people educated in them can read, write and add up better than people in this country and there's nothing particularly "21st century" about those skills.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 18/02/2011 - 08:24

Andrew Old says that jargon doesn't stop being jargon just because the OECD uses it. However, the OECD is a widely respected organisation much praised by Mr Gove himself. Mr Gove holds the OECD in such high esteem that he will even distort their figures so that his pronouncements seem to have the OECD seal of approval. If Mr Gove rates the OECD so highly then surely it follows that he should not dismiss their other findings because it is "jargon".

Your contention that people in the UK fail in the 3 Rs compared with the other countries cited is not upheld by the 2007 TIMSS report which found that English pupils topped the European league in Maths and Science. However, this report has been airbrushed out of Government pronouncements.

The point is that these widely admired countries are moving away from the type of education favoured by Mr Gove. They recognise that in order to compete in the 21st century, they must concentrate on skills as well as content.

Georgina Emmanuel's picture
Fri, 18/02/2011 - 09:54

I lived and worked in Singapore and Hong Kong for some 21 years. Yes, both countries have produced some enviable results in their schools and colleges but have, as Janet has suggested, continued to revise their curricula to focus more on creativity and innovation.

However, the key issue is that you cannot really import one country's pedagogy into another's. Each country has to design a prgoramme that resonates with the attitudes, values, presumptions, expectations and needs of that country. Singapore ,for example, has a particular cultural ethos surrounding education that is deep in that nation's psyche. I'm not saying that parents in the UK do not value education hugely - just that perhaps we don't always have the same level of respect for the teaching profession as can be found in parts of the Far East.

Perhaps, for starters, Mr Gove could change his mantra that teaching is a 'craft' that can be learned on the job, to one where teaching is a profession that should be held in the highest esteem.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 18/02/2011 - 10:20

Mr Gove sends out mixed messages about teaching training. He wants to toughen it up but at the same time allow untrained teachers into free schools. He justifies the latter by saying that independent schools have unqualified teachers and that must, he says, be a good thing because independent schools bring money into the country (See Hansard 8 February).

I've never heard particular schools praised as superior because they attract income from abroad before. Perhaps this is another stick with which to beat LA schools.

Mr Gove praises Finland as a centre of excellence for teacher training and cites the high standard of degree required. However, he does not mention that Finnish teachers are required to have a degree in teaching methodology as well as subject content, and are expected to be trained in dealing with pupils with special education needs. This type of teacher training will not be achieved by the kind of "sitting by Nelly" system favoured by Mr Gove and which was in operation over one hundred years ago.

Andrew Old's picture
Fri, 18/02/2011 - 20:09

Janet Downs,

It was me, not Michael Gove, who told you that "21st Century Skills" is US jargon.

I've been reading about it from US sources for a couple of years now:

I notice that since he wrote the first of those articles, Jay Matthews, has now simply gone on to dismiss "21st century education" on the grounds that "People who use that term tend to start talking gibberish, without intending to".

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 19/02/2011 - 09:19

I have looked at the links provided by Andrew Old. The first is a comment by a journalist described as an education reporter. The second, a blog by Daniel Willingham, Professor at the University of Virginia, calls for a balance between subject content and skills. In his first article he doesn’t dismiss these skills out of hand. Andreas Schleicher of the OECD would agree with him:

“How do we foster motivated, dedicated learners and prepare them to overcome the unforeseen challenges of tomorrow? The dilemma for educators is that routine cognitive skills, the skills that are easiest to teach and easiest to test, are also the skills that are easiest to digitize, automate or outsource. There is no question that state-of-the-art skills in particular disciplines will always remain important. However, educational success is no longer about reproducing content knowledge, but about extrapolating from what we know and applying that knowledge to novel situations.”,3746,en_2649_201185_46846594_1_1_1_1,00...

In the second blog Daniel Willingham dismisses 21st century skills as “the latest educational fad”. However, it is a “fad” which many countries and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development take very seriously. The countries praised by Mr Gove for being in the vanguard of reforms are actually countries who are taking their education systems in the opposite direction to that devised by Mr Gove.

In deciding whether those who talk about 21st century education "tend to start talking gibberish", I can choose between an article written by a journalist or a measured report published by the OECD, an expert organisation in the field of education. I think I'll go with the latter.

Andrew Old's picture
Sun, 20/02/2011 - 17:56


I'm not sure why you are commenting on the content of the links. I was just demonstrating how long the jargon had been around, where it came from, and the sort of context it was used in.

You still appear to be under the impression that if an OECD report uses a phrase then it can't be jargon. The "appeal to authority" can be a poor argument at the best of times, but given that offical reports by people who claim expertise are actually among the worst offenders when it comes to obscuring things with jargon, surely this is a particularly inappropriate way to argue this point?

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 21/02/2011 - 17:34

I agree with Andrew Old that official reports (and Government White Papers) can be full of jargon. However, the "appeal to authority" that you say is a "poor argument" even at the best of times, isn't quite true. It depends on how far the authority is respected and trusted. The OECD is an organisation which is trusted by all its member countries; its directorate issues thoughtful and measured reports based on carefully gathered statistics. So this is an authority I would trust. However, I would not trust the authority of a politician who distorts data to push through his own agenda.

I would accept your argument about the phrase 21st century skills if it were used lazily with no reference to what the writer considers these skills to be, but in the case of the countries cited, and the OECD, they have made it quite clear what they mean. I don't think we can dismiss what they have to say about skills just because of the label attached to them.

Shane Rae's picture
Wed, 23/02/2011 - 15:34

I think it's worth noting that the Gov't of Alberta says that its curriculum strives to 'reflect the essential knowledge, skills and attitudes that Alberta students need to be well-prepared for future learning and the world of work'.

Nevermind looking around the globe for solutions that are designed for other cultures' success criteria. Look acutely at the prospects/potential/possibilities of your own cohort and build your curriculum around them-offering the brightest future.

No trying to twist someone else's plan into one that might (or, more likely might not) suit your own needs.

Andrew Old's picture
Wed, 23/02/2011 - 16:03

"The OECD is an organisation which is trusted by all its member countries; its directorate issues thoughtful and measured reports based on carefully gathered statistics. So this is an authority I would trust"

Trust not to use meaningless jargon on its website?

Come off it. Can't you see how absurd that is? You can make as many comments as you like about how reliable OECD statistics are, it's not going to make this any more convincing. Officers of organisations like the OECD are exactly the sort of people who use jargon on websites and no matter how trustworthy their statistics are this is still going to be the case.

Davis Lewis's picture
Wed, 21/09/2011 - 12:13

Jargon should always be challenged, in my experience. Jargon is often a hiding place for those who cannot do the job. I have found that the best and most effective teachers use little jargon because they are too busy teaching and educating their pupils.

Davis Lewis's picture
Wed, 21/09/2011 - 11:51

'The Finnish education system is an egalitarian Nordic system, with no tuition fees and with free meals served to full-time students'

This the first sentence from the Wiki article on the Finnish education system. This sounds like the 'left wing' lunacy as described by Toby Young. but seriously 'egalitarian and 'no tuition fees' - its never gonna happen here.

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