What makes high performing learning systems different?

From the Secretary-General of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development comes the global research results indicating features common to all high-performing education systems. This is the abbreviated version in 6 points. Conclusion? There is no silver bullet. Full study can be found at Schleicher, Andreas (2018), “What makes high-performing school systems different”, in World Class: How to Build a 21st-Century School System, OECD Publishing, Paris.

It is better to compete on the quality of labour rather than on the price of labour. These systems have advanced from sorting human talent to developing human talent.

Quality is a dirty word in some circles. It’s messy. Business likes a well organized spreadsheet. But learning is about the human condition. You won’t win this one even though most data arrives too late to be of any use. Hence the term post mortem data. This is the politics of curriculum. Only results matter. Just as every teacher across the globe uses different learning theories to structure their programs so too should every business department. There is no excuse to be running a common theory across all departments. Learning, development and training are words used for sorting. Try achievement.

In many education systems, different students are taught in similar ways. Top school systems tend to address the diversity of student needs with differentiated pedagogical practice – without compromising on standards.

Let that one marinate for a moment. Different learners are taught similar ways. By taught we mean 1. a relationship must exist between a trainer and trainee and 2. differentiated practice is multiple learning theories running at once in every classroom. Business throttles down learning by adopting learning platforms that create lock step processes. The output is more of the same. Hence the blended learning craze. It’s just content coming at you in different ways. Why claim a special status, such as adult learning, if fundamentally we adhere to the spirit of learning?

Nowhere does the quality of a school system exceed the quality of its teachers. Top school systems select and educate their teaching staff carefully. They improve the performance of teachers who are struggling and they structure teachers’ pay to reflect professional standards. They provide an environment in which teachers work together to frame good practice.

No surprise here. Average people will not deliver a high performance learning system.

Top-performing school systems set ambitious goals, are clear about what students should be able to do, and enable teachers to figure out what they need to teach their students. They have moved on from administrative control and accountability to professional forms of work organisation. They encourage their teachers to be innovative, to improve their own performance and that of their colleagues, and to pursue professional development that leads to better practice. In top school systems, the emphasis is not on looking upward within the administration of the school system. Instead it’s about looking outward to the next teacher or the next school, creating a culture of collaboration and strong networks of innovation.

Stop hording information and pumping the brakes. Give employees the tools they need and let them loose. In other words, set policy, set standards and get out of their way. As an educator some of my most powerful lessons happened when I gave learners the tools they needed to meet an objective and got out of the way. I was able to do this because I could change my assessment standards from summative to formative at a moments notice. Tech does not allow for this. In the first 10 minutes I could assess achievement levels, including my own. Why is it that corporations hire engineers to design and build but stop them from using the same knowledge to design and build their own learning theories and practices? Is the hard part about change identifying its new form? If so, why bother?

The best-performing school systems provide high-quality education across the entire system so that every student benefits from excellent teaching. To achieve this, these countries attract the strongest principals to the toughest schools and the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms.

A high performing learning system can be created in any corporate learning department when specialized educators are brought in to set up a learning system. You can’t go through something bad and expect to come out good. Peter Campbell my horse trainer taught me that. It hurts getting bucked off. You only need to see it happen once to know that. Even my horse can tell if the person on top knows what they are doing. Set up a straw man in one department and build out from there.

High-performing systems tend to align policies and practices across the entire system. They ensure that the policies are coherent over sustained periods of time, and they see that they are consistently implemented.

Of course for this to happen, you have to concede that education is a system not a bunch of disjointed employees sharing the word training in their job title and never found in the same room together.