‘Over testing risks squeezing out creative skills in pupils’

This article was featured in the Telegraph newspaper on 9th April 2015:

This year’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report, published today by Unesco, underlines the stark disparities in education between the rich and poor world.

In particular, it highlights that the world’s poorest children are four times more likely to be out of primary school than the world’s richest children.

While the West frets about the future of skills and how to equip young people for technological change, some battered education systems in the developing world are struggling with the basics.

For education ministers in these countries, the correct policy prescriptions are clear, even if they are fiendishly difficult to implement given their lack of resources.

For their equivalent numbers sitting in their ministerial limousines in the developed world, who have the luxury of being free from such fundamental worries, it is perhaps less clear what they should be doing to ensure that their education systems turn out young people who can compete against lower-paid skilled workers from emerging economies.

The standard response in the world’s education ministries has been to judge how they size up to the global competition through placing faith in the OECD’s PISA rankings, especially on those in STEM subjects.

Countries as varied as Germany, the UK, the US and Sweden have undergone bouts of hand-wringing after disappointing PISA scores. Policymakers everywhere make the trip to Shanghai and South Korea to find out if they can bottle the elixir of educational success that has propelled these countries to the top of the rankings.

The lesson that Western countries seem to have taken from the East is that the curriculum needs more maths and science and less emphasis on the liberal arts. This is generally accompanied by the claim that, to raise standards, a heavy dose of standardised testing is required to hold teachers to account for pupil performance.

Of course STEM subjects are vital, but the pendulum has swung too far in favour of a curriculum that undervalues the creativity and the critical thinking that can come from the liberal arts. Politicians from all parties have acquiesced in this.

Witness, for instance, the former UK Education Secretary Charles Clarke’s description of medieval history as “ornamental” and a “waste of public money”. Or Florida Governor Rick Scott’s recent claim that the state doesn’t need “more anthropologists” but instead people with “technology and engineering degrees”.

This dichotomy that is unthinkingly repeated between the ‘practical sciences’ and the ‘self-indulgent humanities’ ignores the fact that many innovators do not come from a science tradition.

Neither Steve Jobs nor Mark Zuckerberg were STEM majors. Jobs attended Reed College – a liberal arts school – and later said that it was a course in calligraphy that had the most influence on the revolutionary design of the first Apple Macintosh.

Zuckerberg’s studies at Harvard ranged from ancient Greek to psychology; Facebook’s success relied less on technical innovations than on insights about how people would present their identities on the Internet, and Zuckerberg has said that Facebook is “as much psychology and sociology as it is technology”.

There are countless other examples of innovators being informed by insights from the liberal arts. George Soros’s spectacular success on Wall Street can be attributed to belief in the irrationality of markets that came from his reading of Karl Popper and other philosophers.

And Financial Times journalist, Gillian Tett, perhaps the only mainstream journalist who predicted the financial crash, saw the risks of collateralised debt obligations by drawing on lessons on group dynamics from her PhD in anthropology.

The second assumption is that STEM education teaches skills that automatically lead to innovation. For example: it is hoped that the current vogue for teaching coding in schools will kick-start a new generation of development wizards.

We should be cautious. As many programmers will testify, learning how to code requires two things that will not be covered in any coding class: a large number of hours of experimentation, trial-and-error, and problem solving – mostly done either as part of a job or for fun in one’s spare time; and a real fascination with designing and fixing software. Jobs and Zuckerberg were technically able but they didn’t become so at school.

Standardised testing, introduced by countries fearing they are falling behind the global competition, is in danger of squeezing out the innovation that countries will need to succeed.

Even Arne Duncan, US Education Secretary, has warned that standard testing is “sucking the oxygen out of the room”. An obsession with testing can narrow the curriculum – so that creative pursuits such as art and music are seen as dispensable, limit the scope and time for extra-curricular activities, and prioritise rote preparation at the expense of a wider understanding of subjects.

So how should we encourage innovation? The answer of course is that we need STEM-literate humanities graduates and humanities-literate STEM graduates.

Yes, we need some testing to understand how well teachers and pupils are performing. But we don’t want testing to become an obsession that leaves both stressed and focused on getting through an exam rather than opening up their mind to new possibilities.

We don’t want the school day so crammed that there is no room for literature, poetry, music and art.

Today’s report does actually also show that things are very slowly getting better for developing economies. Since 1999, the number of out of school children and adolescents has declined from 204 million to 121 million.

There is still a long way to go but I would urge education ministers, as they continue to develop their curriculums, to learn from the mistakes we have made in the developed world.

If the story of Steve Jobs, who created the world’s biggest company, teaches us anything, it is that we can never predict from where in the curriculum inspiration and innovation will come.

Vikas Pota is Chief Executive of the Varkey Foundation