The chicken or the egg …?

Viewpoints

It’s a conundrum which faces us in many areas of life including education (and in many areas of that too). Over the past few years I’ve become more and more involved in education projects that cover a wide-range of issues, from textbook design to teacher training, from curriculum reform to assessment systems. And, as the number of countries I visit increases, so does the number of times I come across people implementing one part of the educational process while neglecting the others (‘we’ll do that later’, being the line I hear). But how can you do something later when you don’t know what comes first?

Education (even if kept to one field such as ELT) is a complex process. It is not like a jigsaw puzzle where you can fit the pieces together one-by-one and, regardless of the order you do it in, end up with the same result! Sure, assessment comes after textbooks in that there’s no point designing the assessment (at least in minute detail) without first having designed what you are going to assess. The caveat is here because you can certainly decide how and when you will probably assess even before you’ve actually written the materials—it’s the what that has to come later.

If you produce a new textbook which is different from the ones before (and why produce a new one if it’s just the same?) but fail to provide training so that the teachers can use it, it doesn’t matter how good the material is—it will fail. ‘But that’s why there are Teacher’s Books’, I hear. Yes, but reading about how to do something is not the same as seeing it done, or doing it. It’s a poor substitute to training—like plugging a dam with your finger!

Education is more like a mini eco-system where all the parts slot together and a small change at one stage, wherever that is in the system, will have an impact on the other parts of the system.

Imagine you are a farmer and you are growing apples. You find there is a bug that is eating your apples so you spray your apples with a pesticide which kills the bug. Now the bats that ate the bugs no longer have their food supply so they die. The small mammals, which ate the bats, die and the big mammals, which ate the small ones, follow. Now there are no animals producing the manure that helps your apple tree grow, so that in turn dies! In just the same way a small change in an education system can have huge consequences.

So, let’s imagine you identify a problem in your education system—the quality of primary teachers isn’t very good. In the long run you want to improve the quality of training they get, but as a short-term measure you move some of your better tertiary and secondary teachers to teach at primary level. The results are very good with the standard improving, but suddenly a new problem emerges. The standard of secondary and tertiary teaching has declined and consequently the quality of new teachers being produced has deteriorated. By trying to find a quick fix to the original problem you’ve actually made the long-term situation worse—just like the apple farmer.

Looking at systems within education as lots of individual parts which slot together (the jigsaw), as opposed to a complex system where no one part is an isolated piece that can simply be slotted into place, is a prelude to disaster. At the moment it seems that many education systems around the world are lurching from one crisis to another: throwing jigsaw pieces away, losing the pieces, trying to put pieces from two different puzzles together, even changing the entire jigsaw; introducing new textbooks without providing adequate training alongside them; adding assessment systems on after everything else has been put in place (and has been up and running for a number of years)—often written by people who had nothing to do with the original textbook development and don’t seem to understand the rationale behind the materials! And so on.

The answer is simple. Don’t look at education as being a series of component pieces that are put together. Look at it as a mini eco-system which needs nurturing and treating holistically—where changes to one part can have dire consequences on the rest of the entire system. A holistic approach, where each part is treated as part of a whole and concurrently, is far more likely to be successful than the approach that is currently being used across much of the world.

adrian.tennant@ntlworld.com

Originally published in IATEFL Voices 221 July-August 2011

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