“I find it difficult to answer why the Netherlands is doing so well because what do grades mean? To which countries do you compare?”
These are the words of a young teacher, Cees, from the Netherlands. The question he poses is an important one for understanding the complexities in global education. Education is measured according to statistics. The statistic obsession begins in classrooms when we measure our students’ abilities according to numbers. But statistics are a necessary evil it seems. Without statistics in education, how do we get a sense of measuring outcomes and talking about how change needs to happen?
Cees teaches in a country that boasts one of the best education systems in the world. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment 2012 study the average performance in reading for 15-year-olds is 511 points, compared to an average of 496 points in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. In mathematics on average, 15-year-olds score 523 points, compared to an average of 494 points in OECD countries. In science literacy they score 522 points in the Netherlands compared to an average of 501 points in OECD countries. In North America and Western Europe, 96% of children reach grade 4 and achieve the minimum learning benchmark in reading. By contrast, only one-third of children in South and West Asia and two-fifths in sub-Saharan Africa reach grade 4 and achieve the basics. It seems obvious, students in wealthier countries perform better than students in poorer countries. But let’s consider the simple question, what are the teachers doing?
In reflection Cees highlights the importance that is placed on professional development in the Netherlands: “Everyone has to write a professional development plan and in that plan you have your growing points — your developing points — and we do this every year … we have a lot of training in how to deal with problem kids — pedagogical side — and those trainings are really moving because they tell a lot about your own personal difficulties. [Teachers] design choice in [the] lesson programmes for the disadvantaged students. So the more [we] focus on the pupil with learning activities, the more different choices they have. Lots of 360° reflections on yourself in Holland; thinking about what does this problem I have say about me. 5%-10% of our time is reserved for professional development every year — courses and training. 10% is a big amount!”
Cees also adds that when new teachers begin teaching they have supervision and mentors — two coaches — one for supervision on the psychological reflection and one for more general studies. Once the teachers have gained experience they don’t have a coach, but in every school a community of practice is created where five teachers with equal teaching experience, share techniques and teaching strategies. Teachers use this time to reflect about their practice (and these conversations are preceded with special training to lead such conversations). Good teaching is not simply about being in the classroom (that is the minimum requirement), but it’s about what happens before teaching as well as the reflection that happens in between. How do we measure the effect of this kind of practice? Is it possible to statistically represent the qualitative work that goes into teaching (in Cees’s case) and then compare with other countries as he poses? I’m sceptical about that. Professional development goes beyond the hours spent on thinking about one’s practice. It’s about the value you place on it in order to make the most of your teaching and improve it. Professional development is about resources, both tangible and intangible.
Cees describes his students as students who are “the masters of their own learning process”. They are taught how to cooperate, how to be self-supporting, and to make their own decisions about how to learn things. Cees does not teach at an “elite school”. By South African standards, the kind of professional development and student body described here can be found in schools where there are resources; where the teachers and students are largely middle class and resources available to create performance-driven schools. The average school in South Africa does not have this kind of culture of teaching and learning.
Quality education is not about the basics (can the children read and write) but rather about the whole experience of teaching and learning as well as the future consequences of the education one has received. Hence, children in countries that are performance-driven have better results than children from poorer countries. But the table below highlights this complexity further. If one looks closely, countries like Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Trinidad and Tobago are unlikely candidates for school performance given their resources. This shows that there’s something happening in these countries where they are able to perform in spite of not having the resources.
Context, culture, history always disturbs calculations about what really matters in education. Teaching and learning is a human-intensive profession with factors that can be measured and others that cannot be measured. Teaching and learning is about both qualitative and quantitative elements that need attention in different ways. The question posed by Cees — “To which country do you compare?” — highlights the complexity of teaching and learning. It’s too easy to say it’s about being rich and poor. It’s more than that. When we focus on Cees’s story about teaching in the Netherlands is it fair to compare it to someone in a completely different context such as Margaret in Kibera or Esnart from Malawi?