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What makes an education exceptional?

It’s a huge question to ask, and certainly a huge one to attempt to answer in a short presentation, but I’m going to try and do my best.

We might start by asking: What do we want most for our children?

If you are like the thousands of parents that I’ve spoken to over the years, in countries as varied as Australia, England, Singapore, Italy, Indonesia, The USA and Slovakia, your responses included ‘Happiness’ ‘confidence’ ‘contentment’ ‘fulfilment;’ ‘balance’ ‘purpose’ ‘kindness’ ‘satisfaction’ ‘love’ ‘being valued members of society’ ‘success’ – in short, wellbeing is what we all want most for our own children.

Next we could ask: What do schools teach?

If you are like most parents and teachers in Slovakia, your responses now include ‘conformity’; ‘literacy’ ‘mathematics’ ‘test taking’ ‘discipline’ ‘memorization’ and the like.

What schools currently teach is the skills needed to survive in the workplace of the past.

There is almost no overlap between the two lists – and I would invite you to think long and hard about why that might be.

We no longer live in the world of the previous century – and our children are not going to be facing the workplace as we know it today.

Children of the future are going to need an entirely different set of skills to allow them to succeed in the world of the future – And those skills involve the ability to speak multiple languages confidently, engage with and be forward thinking, critical interactors with the world around them, to solve complex problems, and to lead others passionately. They will need creativity, and they will need to understand the business of acquiring knowledge in a way that current students do not.

Traditional models of education focus almost entirely on two aspects – that of what to teach, or the content of the classes, and that of how to assess whether it has been learned. Two dimensions define a plane, so we might refer to this as ‘plain’ education.

But education is so much more than that. If we are to become more conscious and purposeful about what education can truly offer, a number of further questions arise.

What do we really want for our children?

What do they need to succeed in school, in their future careers, and in the pursuit of their dreams?

What are the habits and qualities of mind that we want to be cultivating?

The answers to these questions inevitably constitute a ‘third dimension’ to education – not one that is in opposition to, but in fact orthogonal to our original diagram.

It is important to understand that Education is an epistemic apprenticeship – ‘epistemic’ in that it is to do, centrally, with the activities of thinking, learning and knowing.

Over 15 years of schooling, a student’s interaction with teachers, knowledge, and ways of learning constitute a protracted and expansive apprenticeship in what and how to think and learn.

Education inevitably involves the cultivation of an epistemic mentality, we might say: a set of ways of approaching complexity, uncertainty and difficulty, and it also helps to shape the development of a set of beliefs and attitudes about one’s own rights and capabilities as a thinker, learner and knower – an epistemic identity.

It is critically important as a teacher and as a school to be aware of this legacy of schooling – the epistemic residues that it leaves in students’ minds – and into the appropriateness of the apprenticeship that you provide in preparing your students for intelligent engagement with the rigours and vicissitudes of 21st century life.

That is why so many countries round the world have recently been rewriting their specifications of these values residues.

Singapore, as of 2009, for example, is now committed to developing an educational system which will produce young people who:

  • have the moral courage to stand up for what is right;

  • pursue a healthy lifestyle and have an appreciation of aesthetics;

  • are proud to be Singaporeans;

  • are resilient in the face of difficulty,

  • are innovative and enterprising,

  • are purposeful in the pursuit of excellence;

  • and able to collaborate across cultures, think critically and communicate persuasively.

The new Australian Curriculum (ACARA 2013) starts from the view that

‘education must… anticipate the conditions in which young Australians will need to function… when they complete their schooling’,

and take account of ‘the changing ways in which young people will learn, and the challenges that will continue to shape their learning in the future’.

It acknowledges that: 21st century learning does not fit neatly into a curriculum solely organised by learning areas or subjects that reflect the disciplines.

In a world where knowledge itself is constantly growing and evolving, students need to develop… general capabilities and dispositions that… equip them to be lifelong learners able to operate with confidence in a complex, information-rich, globalised world.

This leads the curriculum to give a central role to the development of ‘the capacity to learn’ itself, as well as to ‘think deeply and logically’, ‘plan activities independently’, ‘collaborate and work in teams’, and ‘act with moral and ethical integrity’.

The cultivation of ‘personal values and attributes’ such as creativity, innovation, imagination, resourcefulness, resilience, empathy and respect for others, is also placed centre stage.

One could point to very similar thinking in a host of different countries including New Zealand, Finland, Scotland and Ireland, as well as multinational agencies such as the OECD.

Schools become exceptional because they have vision and are prepared to take risks.

They see society’s problems and they take the lead by doing something about them.

When that something has never been tried before, that is a risk.

One of the risks that we are running is to bring to Banská Bystrica a vision of education that has not been seen here before.

We offer an opportunity for our students not only to engage with the world in two languages from the very beginning of their learning journey, but to operate under a cross cultural learning system, which builds on the best practices developed within educational curricula around the world, in order to build resilient, well rounded, and confident citizens of the future.

A great school is one that encourages interdisciplinary learning between subjects, and which focuses on cultivating those habits of mind that will enable them to identify themselves as pioneers and equals in the continuous  quest for knowledge, to become critical learners, to truly examine knowledge, and to develop the key skills of creativity, critical thinking, wellbeing, and lifelong interest in learning that a truly exceptional education can offer.

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