Valerie Hannon is a Board Director of Innovation Unit, an independent social enterprise based in London that develops innovative, low-cost solutions to social challenges. She is also Co-Chair and Co-Founder of the Global Education Leaders Partnership (GELP), which convenes a wide variety of system leaders in education and brings together people who are seeking to create the kinds of systems for the future that they think their countries and jurisdictions need.
Do you feel that the current way we are educating children fully prepares them for the needs of the 21st century?
When one looks globally at the approaches being manifested in education at the moment you can see everything on a continuum, from an almost nineteenth century approach to rote learning, of people being fed information that they are expected to regurgitate, right through to approaches in education which seek to enable people to draw upon their creative, innovative, problem solving, collaborative selves.
Perhaps by my description you can tell which approach I prefer, but it is a very wide continuum that our different states and jurisdictions are in transition along, so change will take time to embed.
I don’t think there’s any doubt that the needs of our economies and societies have changed to the point where young people, or learners of all ages actually, are unable to address either the problems facing them or the problems ahead in a very uncertain and risky future. I try to confront system leaders of education with this evidence in my new book Thrive: schools reinvented for the real challenges we face. In that, I argue we have to define a new purpose for education; and we have shirked doing that.
Literature on what the next twenty years might look like tells us that there will be major disruptions ahead and that we’ll need all the skills young people could have so that they can identify and solve problems that face us. That doesn’t come out of thin air; they need practice and experience of working and thinking in that way. Fortunately, we do see new examples of the promotion of such skills in every sector, from the earliest years to higher education. So that’s encouraging but there is more to do.
Do you feel that teachers have enough support to accommodate for the skills that students should be learning?
No I don’t. I think this is one of the really big questions as to how we change initial teacher education and continuing professional development to enable teachers to adapt to a fundamentally different role in light of the explosion of knowledge that we have seen occur through the digital revolution in the last ten years.
It has become apparent, particularly in secondary education, that teachers can’t be the fountain of knowledge in any given subject area. Nor is it sensible for them to be the transmitters of knowledge when there are very open access channels to knowledge for young people and learners of all ages to acquire.
So, the question for teachers really is: how do they start to reshape a role which both exploits their subject knowledge, but at the same time makes the very best use of what should be their key skill, which is in designing great learning experiences?
Some teacher training and leadership programs are now starting to look at what that entails, but I fear that too many teachers are still being inducted into a world where the role of the teacher is pretty much the same as it was in the 1950s ,or even before, and that is not serving them or our pupils well.
The exceptions to that are really powerful learning institutions that are creating their own graduate schools of education, along with some initial teacher education programs that are giving teachers the real skills, attitudes and dispositions that enable them to be confident designers of learning.
How does testing need to change?
The first point to make is it needs to be as and when it is appropriate, rather than in pre-determined time slots. The fundamental issue is that we need to see assessment as a process for learning. A process which gives data, feedback and great information back to learners themselves to empower their learning in future. If it is always an externalised judgement then it does not empower learners and does not help teachers to better plan learning processes for the future either.
So the timing needs to change, the format needs to change and, in a sense, the balance in the purpose needs to change. Assessment has always had a range of purposes, from accountability on one end to feedback and learning on the other. The emphasis has been too much on accountability in recent years, and the very best systems in the world have very little emphasis on that. They recognise that assessment is important to learning, but if you shift the purpose of assessment to being all about accountability, then a great deal is lost for learners and for teachers.
What do you think the most exciting learning environment would be?
I think there is going to be a diverse set of learning environments, but they will probably have some shared characteristics.
Firstly, I would say that learning environments will be highly personalised. I don’t mean individualised - personalisation isn’t the same as individualisation. Nor does personalisation mean simply powered by technology and delivered by screen.
Personalisation means that the passions and interests of young people as well as their choices and their voice are really taken into account. I think a personalised learning environment will be one where young people feel valued, feel known, feel that their interests are important and where learning is anywhere and everywhere. Personalisation is my first expectation and profound hope.
Secondly, inquiry or project based learning is going to be a very significant dimension. We already know that through the very best practice of project based learning we see terrific examples of how learners are deeply engaged in a profound inquiry, which at the same time enables them to acquire the knowledge and skills they they need in other circumstances and which is transferable. Moreover, such inquiry enables young people to develop an sense of purpose: and that is fundamental to a meaningful life.
Thirdly, I think that great learning environments will be distributed. That is to say that they won’t be confined to the four walls of classrooms and we’ll see much more learning going on in a variety of settings. The best schools undertaking this now arrange internships for their young people, arrange for learning experiences outside the classroom, in museums, theaters, studios, in apprenticeships and in higher education and colleges. Wherever the personalised learning path of a young person takes them, they will find an appropriate environment.
So fundamentally schools will be a kind of base camp for learning where young people bring their learning back to make sense of it and synthesize it.
Finally, for me great learning environments in the future will very much involve great relationships. They will be human. I shiver when people talk about learning environments in the future being those of people lined up in front of screens. I hope and pray that’s not what we see, because I think that learning is a fundamentally social construct and the very best learning goes on from the youngest age onwards where great relationships are forged. Schools have a great role in ensuring that this happens.
What was your favorite moment from your own formal education?
It was absolutely, undoubtedly participating in drama productions where I felt part of something collective, collaborative and creative. Where you gave it your best and really cared about the outcome. The whole process involved learning about not just texts and how to put across great ideas, but also learning about oneself. You had a real sense of loss when the experience was over and you were hungry for more.
Did you have a favorite teacher?
No, but I had some memorable teachers.
The most memorable teacher was my mathematics teacher who was very encouraging and who marked me out and said I had talents in the area and should continue to pursue it. I went on to study mathematics.
I have not got a favorite because I feel that the model of teaching and learning which was embedded in that relationship was not a healthy one. It was one that was very much about pleasing teachers and I don’t know if it did my learning identity that much good.
The next 100 years
The next 100 years of Finnish education should… demonstrate to the world how, from a platform of a strong twentieth century model of learning, a new twenty-first century approach could be built confidently. It should be unafraid of making the changes that are necessary.