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Challenging the Productivity Paradigm in Education

Thursday, April 26, 2012

I hear a lot of talk in business and education about paradigms. A paradigm is the current narrative (or story) about how things are in the world or in a particular field such as education. It’s what the American economist J.K. Galbraith called the “conventional wisdom”.

The current story goes like this. Australia survived the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) better than most. However, next time we might not be so lucky. So to maintain a strong economy we need to build our productivity. Productivity means we can produce more goods and services with the same or less workers. To achieve this, we need an education system to train our students with the skills needed for the 21st-century economy. The best way to achieve this is to have national testing of literacy and numeracy skills, to publish the results and highlight the low and high achieving schools. This will motivate schools to ensure students achieve better results, the country’s productivity will improve and give us an international economic advantage.

What’s wrong with this story? Well, unfortunately, it is based on dodgy assumptions, leading to a flaky hypothesis, an inaccurate prognosis and an invalid conclusion.

Productivity and 21st Century skills are all about being innovative, new ways of thinking and creative solutions that can be taken up rapidly throughout the economy. You will not achieve this by narrowing the focus of learning, creating an atmosphere of fear, top-down direction and high stakes comparison of results which are the outcomes of the current system.

So rather than narrow down the curriculum with a view to improving test scores we should be broadening it out. Don’t intimidate students. Build confidence through appropriate challenges, strong relationships and emotional security. Then the creativity will come bubbling out in all sorts of ways and we will get a really happy ending for everyone.

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