Is Uniformity the Best Policy?

The US is currently in the throes of a major educational debate: should it nationalise its curriculum or retain a system that allows individual states to create and deliver their own? For a nation that is currently in the top ten richest countries in a global economy which is becoming increasingly knowledge based it is a question that has never been more pertinent.

Chester E. Finn Jr., chairman of the Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education confirms why countries with significant international influence such as the US place such emphasis on education; “There is a reason big, modern countries care about education: Decades of experience and heaps of research have shown a close tie between the knowledge and skills of a nation’s workforce and the productivity of that nation’s economy.” Thus a question as significant as the future of the nation’s education system is one that is of great importance to most Americans.

In a 2012 world ranking of educational standards published in The Guardian based on the latest PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) study, countries including Finland, New Zealand and the UK were placed in the top ten. What is interesting is that all of these nations have an education system underpinned by a nationwide curriculum, suggesting it is a successful model. Many would argue that a homogenous curriculum enables all students to receive an education that is of an equivalent standard to those of their peers regardless of what region they are from. With an ever increasing degree of inter-state and even international mobility, such standardisation becomes ever more important. However the implementation and management of such a system is inevitably much more straight-forward in countries which are geographically smaller and less culturally diverse than the US.

Jay P Greene, department head of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas argues; “When it comes to education, one size doesn’t fit all. Yet that is exactly the kind of system we would get if the U.S. required all students to meet a single set of national academic standards.” Many fear that a nationwide curriculum would fail to account for the variations in relevance between states and take away the autonomy of individual schools and teachers. Indeed I have heard many UK based teachers bemoan the ‘shackles’ of the national curriculum which they feel restricts creativity and can create a learning environment that is stuffy and non-progressive.
Ironically, I believe a giant nation such as the US can resolve some of the complexities of introducing a state-wide curriculum by looking to Lilliputian Finland. At the top of the education poll, there is no doubt a lot be learnt from this small nation of over-achievers who spend less time in the classroom than most of their international counterparts.  So what is the secret?  For a start teaching is a well-respected and competitive profession in Finland with only one in ten applicants accepted on to teacher training programmes. In addition, all qualified teachers must be educated to Masters level thus breeding an attitude towards teachers that is refreshingly deferential.
From a student’s perspective, there is more time and space to develop creatively and academically without the constraints of regular standardised examinations (most students only take one test in their whole schools careers at the end of voluntary upper-secondary school) and homework is usually limited to half-hour for high school students and none at all in younger years.

Finally, unlike the US Finland does have a national curriculum which is intended to ensure the equality of opportunity rather than strictly prescribe curriculum content or teaching methods. In his article “Why Do We Focus On Finland? A Must-Have Guidebook” Jeff Dunn notes “Teachers are largely responsible for developing their own curriculum within (…) basic guidelines, assessing student progress, and running virtually every aspect of the children’s educational experience.”

Perhaps then it is possible to introduce a nationwide curriculum that will be flexible enough to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of both students and states and provide a sketch of a curriculum which teachers can then render however they see fit for their specific context, rather than an educational blueprint based on the findings of academic surveyors who have not tested their educational measures in the rich variety of grassroots contexts the US encompasses.
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How to Successfully Chart the Seas of an International Teaching Career

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So you’ve slogged your way through hellish teaching placements where the status of trainee teacher is akin to wearing a massive ‘L’ plate (for non-Brits this an embarrassing sticker all learner drivers must have their car brandished with) and those more experienced and doubtless jaded shunt you at every turn. Your nerves have weathered the relentless storm of brutal observations and now the flickering light at the end of the tunnel which you have squinted at through heavy lids as a beacon of hope for the last year is in danger of being snuffed out by student debt, wages that make the work to reward ratio at the fast-food joint you worked at through college appear comparatively favourable and the ever-growing stacks of marking on the kitchen table.

The solution: go international. Of course we all know the dangers of seeking the balmy delights of sunnier climes or the adventure of an exotic destination to remedy discontent. However teaching abroad provides more than just an ex-pat oasis for knee-jerkers who have jumped shipped after a couple of bad placements. With a burgeoning new market for local international schools in many regions of the Middle East, the introduction of an IB curriculum in many more educational establishments in the West, the wholesale export of some of those very same establishments to locations such as China and the increasingly globalised perspective required of the highest-flyers in all sectors, international teaching experience really can be the fuel needed to propel your career quicker than your peers.

By carefully charting out your career as an international educator you will be able to navigate your career and steer towards bountiful new destinations like Columbus, however if you just stick a pin in the map and aim for the nearest international school that will take you, you may end up more like a half-cut Jack Sparrow festering away on some God forsaken island wondering what happened to the treasure. If you are serious about gaining valuable and career enhancing positions, it is important to do your homework and be realistic. As much as you would like that gold-plated job at that highly-esteemed international school in Hong Kong, inevitably they have the pick of a rather large bunch which includes those with years of experience under their belt. This doesn’t mean you must resign yourself to staying at home but you must identify the steps you need to take to climb a career ladder that has a slippery first rung. If you get your footing right from the beginning and keep your eyes fixed on where you want to end up you’ll have a much better chance of making sensible and rewarding career choices.

At Edvectus we work closely with each individual teacher to help them identify what they want to achieve professionally, how this balances with their personal lives and how they can successfully achieve these goals. If you play the game right you can secure that gold-plated job in your dream destination, just don’t expect to do it on your first move. The mistake often made by teachers is to view teaching overseas as a career break, rather than an opportunity to bolster their CVs, gain unique insights into teaching in a different context or a different curriculum and a chance to build a long-term international career if so desired. We are in it for the long game and are equipped with the knowledge and global contacts to support you in building a career whether you want your international teaching experience to be one stepping stone in your career path or the over-arching theme of your entire professional journey. We are your trusty navigators if you will!

So if you feel disillusioned with your native education system or simply desire the thrill and challenge of cutting your teeth in a new environment; do your research, make a plan and summon the courage that served you so well as a trainee teacher and in the words of Columbus himself “by prevailing over all obstacles and distractions, one may unfailingly arrive at his chosen goal or destination.”

Bon Voyage!


En Francais

iStock_000023225459XSmallOVERTThere has been an ongoing debate in the UK about the teaching of foreign languages. On one hand the government has funded and required language teaching only at Key stage 3 (ages 12 to 16). But on the other hand the UK laments that it’s at the bottom of the league table within Europe for languages taught.

Studies released this year show that only 9% of pupils continue studying French at A level after completing their French GCSE. Probably because you get out what you put in. “We give only half the time to language teaching that they do in continental Europe”, said Richard Hudson, Professor Emeritus in Linguistics at University College London.   Thankfully there is new legislation next year that supports teaching languages at Primary school, which is when most studies say is the best time to start because our younger brains are more able to acquire new language skills.

I’ve been away for a week with my sister, my 20 year old niece and her 20 year old friend to the south of France and it was exhausting but fun.  It’s especially fun to take young adults who have never

been to Europe (or overseas to speak of) abroad for the first time. My niece who took French throughout her high school years was timid at first about using her shaky French but after hearing me use even more shaky Italian and German as the situations required, she realised that when travelling abroad that trying to use even rusty foreign languages is much more fun when there’s not a teacher assessing you or friends ready to snigger at your mistakes.   Indeed, the main goal during travel is to get to a point of mutual understanding … about the cost of a bunch of tomatoes or the bill for dinner or directions to the beach. It doesn’t matter if your grammar is perfect or that you are speaking in ‘Frenglish’ accompanied by what you hope are universally understood symbolic hand gestures. Just get the job done. By the end of the trip she was having quite long, natural and entirely voluntary Frenglish conversations with our local shopkeeper without batting an eye. I call that a successful trip.

Living abroad takes this experience to the next step and allows you not just to be understood verbally but to understand culturally your surroundings and your hosts.  And just like when trying to speak a foreign language for the first time, you are bound to make some gaffes. It’s part of the territory. And nothing helps you learn more quickly than when you recognise that awkward expression on someone’s face when you have inadvertently said something funny/insulting/irreverent or rude… but didn’t know it.  Making mistakes is part of the journey and learning from them makes you realise just how big and complex is this world we live in.

So molto bene to the UK government for putting more of a focus on language teaching at young ages, even at a time of austerity.  As the world becomes ever more connected, having an understanding of the language if not the diverse culture of our neighbours is essential to success.

Things change

It’s always hard to admit you are wrong, well certainly for me.  Having been to the COBIS conference I was really happy to find that indeed, it has changed and is welcoming and useful.  I met Head Teachers from Cairo, the Netherlands and Kazakhstan, School Board members from Brazil and Belgium and many more.  Ok, I can admit it- I was wrong.

iStock_000019866253Small fish jumping to new bowl

 One of the themes of the conference was about putting internationalism into the fabric of every school. It may seem like an easy thing, but it’s not.

There are many kinds of international schools – from those that serve expatriate abroad to those that serve host nationals who want their children to have an international education  and even to state schools with international type streams.  There is no one type of international school, even though we all probably have one picture in our minds of what that looks like. So be prepared to change your mind and throw out the rule book

Along these lines,  I got into a debate at the conference  around the question of “‘what is an international school”. Again, seems simple but it’s not.  For instance, is a state school in the US teaching American children using the International Baccalaureate curriculum an international school? What about a school in Spain teaching the Spanish curriculum to Spanish children but partly in English? What about a school using the UK curriculum in Egypt but teaching exclusively Egyptian children with Egyptian teachers?   It’s not easy.

When you enter the world of international teaching, you must be prepared to change your mind. About almost everything. International teaching will challenge your interpretation of the world and leave you a more enlightened person but it’s not an easy path for those who think they know it all and are not prepared to consider that they are, indeed, misinformed.  Yet this is the beauty of travelling the world. You get to see things through a lens you could have never accessed at home.

So if you can admit you are sometimes wrong, like I was wrong about the COBIS conference this past week, then perhaps you have what it takes to teach and travel.

Getting Unstuffy

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I’m attending the COBIS  (Council of British Overseas schools) conference in London on Sunday and Monday, for the first time in about 10 years.

I attended many years ago, but stopped going because I found it unhelpful…. and because it was painfully stuffy, bordering on pompous and I felt distinctly unwelcome.  You see, as a born and bred American, even though I’ve lived in the UK for 12 years, I don’t do stuffy or pompous very well. Probably because I don’t know where I sit in the hierarchy of pompousity – I can’t see the rungs on the ladder. I’m somehow selectively blind to them by birth and rearing in American society which aspires to be the self made man with humble roots rather than to be the entitled son of a Baronet. Don’t get me wrong- I don’t talk loudly on trains or in public and don’t switch knife and fork when eating (anymore)   – I’ve assimilated somewhat. But one can only go so far in a decade.  I draw the line at stuffy.

This unfortunate blind spot of mine makes for very awkward social situations where I’m sure I’m doing something wrong or at least not what’s expected of me, but I don’t know what that thing is so there’s no way to correct it.  Alas, this is the life of an expatriate abroad. Always stumbling around like Mr Magoo but hopefully, like him,   landing upright and with my martini intact.

Now I’ve been told on good authority that COBIS has changed and become more informational and less painful under its new leader, so I’m giving it another go with high hopes.  Indeed, many formerly stuffy British institutions are letting their stuff hang out a bit more nowadays because that’s what the situation demands.  An article in the Economist HERE, featuring a friend of mine, Simon Lucas from EC Harris, points out that in the race to open up overseas schools many veddy veddy British schools such as Dulwich and Harrow have had to temper their stuffy Britishness to an extent in order to comply with overseas customs and, in some cases, laws.

Don’t get me wrong – I  really admire the British with their love of order, tradition and history.  I now know how to properly say Southwark (Suth-Ark)  and oregano (OR-eh-GAAAH-no) and can queue like nobody’s business.  But I’m glad they are leaving the downsides of tradition behind when it’s appropriate and opening their lovely doors to half-blind Mr Magoo’s like me.

My first blog

Image Today is a bit of a milestone for me. I have set up the social networks for my new company, Edvectus. Amongst them- my blog!

Edvectus, the word, is made up of two Latin words- “Educo ” meaning to teach or educate, and “Advectus” meaning transportation afar. Together, the two words make up what we do- we help teachers to find work abroad and at the same time, we educate them.

The thing is, teaching abroad can be really life changing but it can be really scary at the same time. Through my many years of facilitating the process, I have come to one conclusion… people don’t always know what they don’t know.  And with my new company, I hope to change that. How I plan to do it will unfold as the weeks progress.

I used to blog weekly at my old company, and I’m hoping to do the same at Edvectus. Stay tuned and come with me as we start up a new company from scratch. It’s going to be a really fun ride!