Untapped Talent - Day Two - Innovations from the Regions

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Dec 14, 2015
by Louise Hallman
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Untapped Talent - Day Two - Innovations from the Regions

Fellows share how Latin America, North America, Europe, Africa and Asia are tackling assessments, data gathering and nurturing creativity

With Fellows attending from across the globe, examining how different countries are tackling the related issues of assessments, data gathering and nurturing creativity was a natural start to the first full day of the Untapped Talent session.

Latin America

Fellows started in Latin America, a region that has enjoyed significant economic growth in the past 25 years, coupled with rising education spending and standards. Significant improvements are being made, but this is happening at different rates in different countries. Some countries have well-established public school systems with regular testing and comparable results. Some are only just starting to do this and remain to be convinced of the benefits of regular assessments and data collection.

However, even in countries that do conduct regular testing and data collection, such as Chile and Mexico, their best students’ results lag behind even the poorest students in China, according to PISA data. The lowest performing schools are making the greatest improvements, but the highest performing schools are stagnant, leaving the region’s school leavers and graduates unprepared to enter the global economy.

Encouraging regular and comparable assessment, and the collection of basic data such as numbers of schools, teachers and pupils, are just two approaches the Inter-American Development Bank has taken to try to improve the region’s education outcomes. If policymakers don’t even know how many students they have living in a given area, how can they distribute adequate resources? If schools test one age group one year but a different group the next, how can they make comparisons and track progress year-on-year? More countries are starting to adopt these practices. 

Another key area in need of reform in the region is teaching. Low admittance standards to training courses, and low esteem of the profession, often make it hard to attract the best students to teaching. The region is facing a stark contradiction: everyone wants to improve education but no one wants to be teachers. Raising pay is not enough. Conditions, mindsets and attitudes towards the profession must also be improved. Generating evidence of good teaching practice and learning outcomes is needed to support such changes.

North America and Europe

In North America, while teaching is held in higher regard, issues still remain, such as “math anxiety.” Of all US college students, those studying to be elementary school teachers profess to have the highest level of “math anxiety,” questioning their math skills or simply declaring that they “are not a maths person.” If teachers lack confidence in their math skills, they run the risk of passing on this math anxiety to their students, especially when this is compounded by parents’ math anxiety.

Two solutions to tackle math anxiety (and untap students’ unexplored talents) were proposed by panelists speaking on North America and Europe: one – enable more STEM-learning at college level, and two – introduce more meta-cognitive and meta-creative thinking into the learning process at all levels of education.

The US education system, especially at high school and college level, is already broader and less specialized than the curriculum on offer in much of Europe, where students are often made to specialize in a field or specific subjects from the age of 14. Many US colleges require the students of all majors complete math and science courses. The earlier these course requirements are taken, the greater the opportunity the student has to discover their talent in this field and switch majors. Much of the debate surrounding STEM study focuses on the take up of the field, but those leaving the field shouldn’t be seen as a failure – they can bring valuable knowledge and skills to other fields, such as education, policy and law.

Instilling meta-cognitive and meta-creative skills in all students can help with their problem reasoning and enhance their critical thinking and creativity, encouraging such questions as: what is the problem about? How is the problem similar to other problems I’ve already solved? What strategies might work to solve the problem? Does this solution make sense? Could it have been done another way? Am I stuck? Why? It is such new pedagogy that will accelerate creativity and learning, not testing, argued one Fellow. [continues p2]

Unlike its neighboring region, the US already collects a lot of assessment data from its students, but the use of this can be controversial. Some colleges use the “blunt instrument” of SAT scores and GPAs to calculate students’ eligibility for funding, for example. However this data often does not highlight the more “creatively disruptive” students, whereas their essays, teachers’ recommendation letters and in-person interviews will likely offer greater insight. If we persist on using quantifiable data, how can we assess and quantify creativity?

Africa and Asia

This is a question also asked in Africa, where much of the education system was inherited from former colonial masters, and there is little focus on creativity. Although access to education across the continent has improved, the quality of the education offered is poor in many countries. Approximately 250 million children worldwide cannot read, write or count even after four years of primary education – the majority of these children are in Sub Saharan Africa. Creative or critical thinking is not encouraged, with “teaching to the test” prevalent. Children are taught only to reproduce what they are to be tested on – but this could provide a window of opportunity: if children were to be tested on creativity, they would be encouraged to be more creative. However, much like other regions, there is still little understanding at this stage of exactly how to assess such creativity. 

Assessment is considered important because without testing, it is not known  how well the system is functioning, schools and governments cannot be held to account, people are not empowered, and ultimately education will not be improved, one Fellow said.

In India, tests and exams are also widely and regularly taken – but they are also widely and regularly cheated on. Cheating has become so widespread that it has become a “community affair”. Students cheat so they don’t have to study; parents encourage them so their children can work, teachers encourage them to meet standards and receive pay and bonuses; and politicians turn a blind eye or accept bribes to cultivate votes. Cheating is so prevalent, lamented one Fellow, that “the next generation of teachers won’t even be qualified enough to help the next generation of students cheat!” 

One effort to move away from cheating and build greater trust in assessment results has been to trial a system of “non-competitive one-to-one interactive evaluation process.” Students meet with their professor for a one-on-one discussion on their understanding of a given subject. Depending on their understanding, this appointment takes between 15 to 60 minutes. This might seem time consuming but it cuts down on the professor’s time spent in setting and marking exams – and is impossible to cheat. 

The need for greater trust was one of the motivations for the innovation of community-led schools in post-revolution Egypt. Poor education, high unemployment and political interference have all led to a low level of trust in the public education system in Egypt. Community-led schools are accredited by the Ministry of Education but the curriculum is set by local parents, teachers and community leaders, leading to a sense of ownership – and greater trust. The curriculum also covers more than literacy and numeracy, with greater focus on “life skills”, allowing for greater creativity. 

Read more in our daily session newsletter (downloads PDF)


The Salzburg Global program Untapped Talent: Can Better Testing and Data Accelerate Creativity in Learning and Societies? is being hosted in collaboration with the Educational Testing Service (ETS)the National Science Foundation, and the Inter-American Development Bank, and in association with the Royal Society of Arts (RSA). More information on the session can be found here: www.salzburgglobal.org/go/558.