Tuesday, October 23, 2012

What British educators can learn from Spain (and other countries)

Below is an edited version of the text of a short piece that I wrote recently for an article in the Guardian on-line’s education section...

“If I could point to one idea that I would bring back to the UK from overseas it would be that that awful corporate-speak word 'innovation' - though I would call it creative teaching, rather than anything else.

In Spain, it's uplifting to see how older kids treat and care for younger ones, and this is done naturally and informally, not with prefects or head boys or head girls. The quality of school food is generally good there, and Britain can learn from the health benefits of this.

In Australia, where I was blooded as a teacher during my first four years, educators were encouraged to take risks with their teaching methods, whether this was bringing in sometimes slightly unpredictable guest speakers into the classroom or just simply reading poetry outside in the sunshine. Also, one or two states in Australia have not relied so heavily on exams and testing to assess students' knowledge and abilities. This has given teachers more choice and lets students produce work not purely for regurgitation in an exam.
It's easy to say that we should take personal and collective responsibility for our schools, but in Japan you will see teachers and students every afternoon, side by side, mopping and sweeping the corridors, classrooms and toilets. Admittedly, the low level of attention often paid to this ritual meant that the school was more spiritually clean than physically clean but there is a lot to be said for 'doing the dirty work' together.

The other contributors to the piece, teaching in Bhutan, New Zealand, China, New York and Qatar are also worth a read and (as usual) some of the comments underneath the article are  interesting as well.


CIngram said...

I quite agree that these are good ideas and should be imitated by any educational organization that doesn't use them, but I'm surprised you've found them in Spanish public education. My experience of it (especially at secondary level) is that it's politicized, paralyzed by bureaucratic demands, and filled with people too jaded to care any more, or who were never competent in the first place. The atmosphere in many high schools is either poisonous or just leaden, and there is little incentive, and little room for manoeuvre within the law, to change things.

I work outside the state system, but in parallel with it and I know it well. (In Castilla-La Mancha. Catalonia, presumably, is different, and I'm very glad to hear it.)

Brett said...

Thanks for the comment, CIngram. Well, only some of those ideas came from the Spanish private system. The others were from Australia and Japan. I'm sure your experience of government ("state") education here is completely standard, sadly. There's a huge amount of the usual problems that we get in Spanish private companies also to be found in the private education world where I have worked, and where my son went to until this year, his first year in secondary now. The neptotism, power politics with parents and general mediocrity and incompetency where I have worked is very frustrating to be a part of and ultimately disenchanting. The more local people in positions of power in international schools here, the worse it is, with a few notable exceptions. It may be slightly better here in Catalonia but I somehow doubt it.

CIngram said...

I'm sorry to hear that. I thought at first it was good news about Catalan schools. Private schools, as you say, have their own problems. In my experience these are usually ethical. Real education, and a lot of time, is sacrificed not to politics, laziness and incompetence as is often the case in state schools, but to whatever ideology brought the school into being (all schoools seem to think they need one, for some reason).

At least the parents tend to be more motivated, which keeps the children and the parents on their toes, but private schools in general don't pay well, and most younger teachers with any ambition are looking for a better job. (Those without ambition... you can imagine how useful they are about the place...)

Brett said...

I'd have to take issue with you on a couple of points. In my experience here with two different international schools around the Barcelona area it is not in fact the case that “the parents tend to be more motivated." On the contrary, there is a general attitude from many parents of "Well, we've paid our expensive fees so now all the rest is up to you, teachers. We can completely forget about supporting the school in any other, particularly in regard to our kids’ homework effort but we will be the first to complain when our child gets consequences for poor behaviour or inadequate effort."

It's a huge problem because the kids know that their parents will almost always make excuses for them and cover-up any learning or attitude defects. There are some excellent teachers in the schools (my wife, for example!) but there are some pretty terrible ones too.

I could go on and on about all the many and varied ways in which parents at these private schools do not often get good value for their (or should I say "our") money. In some respects they are no better than many public schools. It is often a matter of social status. If I am rich and I live in X area/town, then I will send my children to the closest international school in X.

One thing they do generally get is a much better level of English there and that is the main reason why we took our son out of a concertada where 6 years of his primary education his was almost all in Catalan to a small, new secondary school where the main language is English. For his future he will almost certainly need English writing skills which he would not get in any public or private Catalan school.

I have not seen much real evidence of an ethic at work in the two international schools where I have worked, apart from the usual corporate slogans and generic edu-bullshit that, as you say, schools seem to think they must have. Rather, there is a distinct lack of genuine educational ethic because the most important thing to the greatest number of parents (at least the Spanish/Catalan ones) is that their kids "are happy" and therefore this is what the so-called school leadership puts it's focus on.

CIngram said...

Then it's even worse than I thought.

In my experience of La Mancha there are now bilingual programmes in most private/concertado schools, and all new state primary schools in the region are supposed to be completely bilingual. In practice this works well or badly depending on the people involved, like everything else really. The programmes are only ever 'getting started'. The promised results never quite appear. I run an Academy where many of the students are from schools, public or private, that have these programmes, but they need an Academy as well to get ahead.Which shows how succesful they really are. The promise is that the children will reach B1/B2 level (I assume you know what that means) in English, and even that is rarely achieved. In the Academy we take them, at the end of high school, to B2/C1.

It's not just about money or other resources. The problem is the way these programmes are put in place by the people in charge of them.

I understand what you mean about status. There is no big, international, prestigious private school here, but the most fashionable is one run by the Marianistas, once private, now concertado. The sort of people who care about social status want to send their children there, but I would never send mine to it, and I wouldn't work at it. It's a ghastly place, on a human and academic level it is now very poor, but it has status. The school I'm involved with, on the other hand, works quite well, in part because the headmaster is very good at his job. Very strict, very just, very kind.

Brett said...

I think you're very lucky to have a headmaster who is good at his job and is strict but fair. That's exactly what's needed because too often schools everywhere end up with heads who mainly exhibit a species of cowardice. They are usually little more than smiling PR men - mere spineless politicians, in my experience.

Status is such an odd human trait. As you suggest, it often runs directly against the more concrete reality of a social setting. I think you’d write something very worthwhile and interesting if you put your mind to it.
As for me, I now have a hot water problem to deal with!