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Taking Stock of the Abidjan Principles
Taking Stock of the Abidjan Principles
Education for Peace and Human Rights
Learning from the Failure to Improve Literacy Worldwide
Shadow Education in Africa and Beyond
Why is Vietnam an education superstar?
School Dropout, Child Marriage & Early Pregnancy
Technology, Education, and the Digital Generation
Education Development and the Future of Curriculum
What role does higher education play in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals?
My guest today is Tristan McCowan, author of the new book entitled Higher Education for and beyond the Sustainable Development Goals, which was published earlier this year. Tristan interrogates the idea of a so-called developmental university working towards the SGDs, identifying both positive and negative outcomes.
Tristan McCowan is a Professor of International Education at the Institute of Education, University College London. I spoke with Tristan in his office in London, which just so happens to be around the corner from mine. This is actually the first podcast that I’ve recorded at my new intuitional home at the Institute of Education. There’s a lot more to say about the future of FreshEd now that I live in London, but I’m going to wait until next year to tell you all about it. For now, enjoy our latest episode and stay tuned for our end of year show with Susan Robertson and Roger Dale, which will air next week.
Citation: McCowan, Tristan, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 184, podcast audio, December 9, 2019. https://freshedpodcast.com/mccowan/
Will Brehm 1:39
Tristan McCowan, welcome to FreshEd.
Tristan McCowan 1:41
Thanks, Will. It is a great pleasure to be here.
Will Brehm 1:43
So, I want to start by talking a little bit about the SDGs, but specifically about higher education because this is something that might not get talked about as much as primary or secondary schooling. So where in the SDGs – in the Sustainable Development Goals – is higher education even mentioned?
Tristan McCowan 2:02
So, I think it is worth thinking about what comes before the SDGs to talk about how it does appear. And in the Millennium Development Goals that came before, there was a conspicuous absence of higher education there. So, the education goal was around primary education. I suppose higher education might be included in the requirement for gender equality that was also there, but it was absent in the education goal. And this was also indicative of a general neglect of higher education in the development community for some decades before. So, the inclusion of higher education in the SDGs marks something of a return – a rekindling of interest – in higher education generally in development. And there was a lot of discussion in the consultation around the creation of what was going to replace the MDGs about how higher education might be included in that. In the SDGs themselves, the most obvious inclusion of higher education is in how it appears as a target in itself. It appears along with vocational education, tertiary education, and a specific mention of university. So that is the access goal. It is not very demanding, in my view. It doesn’t require universal access or anything resembling that. What it requires is equal access, which, as we know from international law, is really around nondiscrimination. It is an important requirement, but it is not very demanding on this. But nevertheless, it is there. And I think it is very important that universities mentioned in terms of access, getting people into university or some form of higher education. But that is not the only way that it appears in the SDG. In the book, I distinguish between three different ways that it appears. So, there is that first one we have talked about, which is access, and then two others. The second is as part of the education system as a whole. And this relates to one of your previous podcasts that was talking about SDG 4.7 and the overarching aims of education in terms of promoting global citizenship, sustainable development itself. So higher education fits into that. It is part of the education system. And it might promote a lot of the goals that we would like to see in society. The third role for higher education is the one that the book focuses on mainly, and that is higher education as a driver for all of the goals. So, every one of the 17 goals in all different areas: environmental, health, poverty, and so forth require to some degree on universities in the broadest possible way, through its teaching, but also its research and community engagement and all of its functions.
Will Brehm 4:45
So I mean, in a way, what you’re saying is that universities have this massive role to play in the SDGs not simply as access not simply as being part of the education system to meet some of these very lofty goals of 4.7, which, as the previous podcasts have shown are very sort of diverse and complex ideas. But more importantly, and perhaps most importantly, this idea of higher education as being a driver of development. So, this is a pretty large role for education, for higher education. Can universities actually even fulfill this role, do you think?
Tristan McCowan 5:24
I think my answer to that is yes, but perhaps not in the way that might immediately be imagined. So, I think the potential of universities is extraordinary. And one of the arguments that I try to make in all different kinds of fora is that universities are essential for all countries and not just for the wealthy countries that we might imagine might afford it. Universities aren’t luxury; they are critical part of all countries, however impoverished they might be, however many challenges they might face. In fact, we might think of as being especially important in those. The teaching role of universities is crucial for forming professionals in a whole range of different areas, including the kinds of primary services that were focused on in the MDGs, but also in the SDGs, around education, health, and so forth. There is a much broader teaching role of universities as well for civic and personal benefits. There is the research role of universities, breakthroughs in health, the environment, all sorts of areas in which there are huge challenges facing humanity. And then the community engagement role where universities can apply that knowledge and also engage with the knowledge that communities have. So, the potential of universities is extraordinary. Whether they can fulfill that is a different matter, and that does depend on the level of quality that universities have, the resourcing that they have, how they are organized, the kinds of autonomy they have. So, it is not guaranteed. And I think, you know, the empirical research that we have… and we have fairly good research on some countries, less good on others. The research we have shows that they are sometimes able to do that. Sometimes they are able to do that in ways that we hadn’t actually imagined. In others, they struggle to. It is worth pointing out that in low-income countries, universities have roles that are not present in higher-income countries as providers of basic services often. So, communities will often use universities because they don’t have other spaces for meeting, for, you know, cultural pursuits. Even for things as basic as Internet access, and so forth. So, universities can play a really crucial role in all countries. The final point I’d make is that the role of universities as a driver perhaps is not as automatic or guaranteed as we might imagine, even when we might consider that to be a quality university. And that is because there is a level of unpredictability to all processes of learning and scholarship.
Will Brehm 8:01
So, what do you mean? Is there a downside, sometimes, to higher education?
Tristan McCowan 8:06
There certainly can be a downside. I mean, universities have not always had positive impacts on their societies through history. One of the downsides is in exacerbating inequalities in societies. So, while universities can certainly act as mechanisms for social mobility, they can also do the opposite. And in many points in history where access has been restricted to an elite, or for particular religious or language groups, or just for men, for example, it has actually made things worse rather than make things better. So, there is that element. Also, universities have been implicated in fostering of prejudice and xenophobia as all parts of the education system.
Will Brehm 8:51
Right. Okay. So you’re sort of taking this complex view, whether it’s good and bad, the development is not always this positive linear idea but can have a complex multitude of outcomes as a result of work in higher education, or any sector, I would imagine in education more broadly defined. So, I guess when we think about the university, what you are sort of saying is that not all universities are the same. There is a lot of potential in higher education, but what actually happens looks different in different contexts; the cultural context, the national context, whatever it is. So, when you think historically, then, how can we make sense of, you know, different types of universities? You know, maybe ideal types, not necessarily what actually exists. How can we start categorizing different types of universities?
Tristan McCowan 9:48
Thanks. It is a really important question, and one that’s not posed often enough, I think. And it is worth saying at the start that what we are seeing now across the world in higher education is much less diversity than there might have been. Historically there have been models of higher learning in many parts of the world – in India and China, in the Islamic world, in Mesoamerica. Other places as well that have been quite distinct. And many of those have been lost. In fact, most of them have been lost through history. We’ve seen a dominance of the European model of university from medieval Europe, which in its spreading around the world has gained new forms of diversity, but perhaps not as much as we might have wanted and still rooted in some very similar assumptions. So, there is a degree of homogeneity around the world, but what I argue is that universities have a kind of a mixing of different historical models within them. And as you say, they are partly ideal types and partly real historically. So, you have got the medieval institution, which was a community of scholars, a community of students, engaging and debate over authoritative texts. You have the Humboldtian model that emerges in the 19th century of the research university on the pursuit of truth and academic freedom and so forth. You have then got drives towards greater relevance of the university to society, and the land grant universities in the United States were very influential in this regard. Also moves in Latin America in the early 20th century towards democratization of the university space. And leading to what in Africa in the post Second World War period was called the “developmental university,” one that is tied very much to service to society. And then most recently, the emergence of the entrepreneurial or the enterprise university, one which is focused on income generation through selling of its services. So, we have got these different models, and I think we can see them all in our institutions. In some, you know, the entrepreneurial model is dominant. In others, we might see, you know, more of the Humboldtian model, but jostling for space, and of course, in the different actors that are engaged as well.
Will Brehm 12:07
You are thinking through this developmental university because it sort of links in with the SDGs. So, in what way do you see the developmental university? How do we think about that university, that type of university, if it truly does do service to society in the ideal that is written in the SDGs?
Tristan McCowan 12:31
Yeah, I mean I think if you look at the role that’s proposed for universities, it is something close to the developmental model: a university that has as its primary purpose serving society in an egalitarian mode, or perhaps beyond the egalitarian, actually focusing primarily on the most disadvantaged populations. By privileging those populations, reducing poverty and so forth, and dealing to a large extent with applied knowledge and an impact on nonacademic communities. And there is something of a contradiction there between the kinds of higher education that are promoted by many of the international agencies, which in many ways actually undermine that kind of developmental role of universities.
Will Brehm 13:13
Tristan McCowan 13:15
Particularly through a promotion of expansion at all costs. Now, there is a real need for expanding higher education. Access has grown rapidly over the last 20 years. But much of the expansion has taken place in very commercialized, for-profit sectors of higher education, or sometimes distance education with low quality, which has, while it has allowed more people to gain higher education diplomas, it has not necessarily allowed them the learning that will be meaningful in their lives, and certainly hasn’t promoted research and community engagement in the public interest. So, there have been dynamics in the growth of higher education sectors, which have brought some benefit for individuals, but without much of a contribution to the public good.
Will Brehm 14:04
So, given this sort of “massification” of higher education and how that might begin to challenge some of the value and the functions of the university, what sort of trends have you noticed worldwide? You know, let’s take a broad view here. Broadly speaking, what sort of major trends do you see in higher education today?
Tristan McCowan 14:24
Well, one of them I have touched on already, which is the move towards commercialization. Which is present in the astounding growth of the for-profit sector. And that is very evident in one of the countries that I work very closely with, which is Brazil, but you can also see it in many other parts of the world. But also, of course, there is a commercialization of public institutions through so-called cost-sharing policies, the charging of fees, and other forms of creeping privatization. Now commercialization is a term that encompasses a whole range of different activities which have different kinds of influence. And it is certainly, in an immediate sense, has assisted in allowing higher education systems to grow. So, it is complex. But if we are thinking about the SDGs, or about the public good more generally, there are some very worrying outcomes of that. Firstly, around the attaching of quality to price. So, as the system starts to marketize more, variable costs of courses will start to become attached either to quality or to prestige, which has worrying implications for equity. But also it makes it much harder for universities to engage in research in the public benefit, or community engagement in the public benefit, without some kind of a name to generate income from those communities; makes it much harder to fulfill the SDGs. So that is one of the big trends. A second trend is associated with the very often discussed international rankings in higher education. And one of the implications of those rankings is a privileging of a certain kind of university or a certain kind of university action. And I am not saying for a moment that the elite universities that do well in rankings are not benefiting the SDGs. Actually, I think they are with a lot of their work. But it is certainly not the only kind of institution that does that. And much of the work that is most beneficial for communities around the world is not valued by those rankings. Community engagement has almost no presence in the rankings. And an inclusive intake of students also is not valued through most of the rank.
Will Brehm 16:33
In your book, you point to this like unbelievable indicator or proxy for, I think its quality of teaching in these rankings, that is used. Can you explain what it is?
Tristan McCowan 16:44
Well, in the Shanghai ranking, the number of alumni with Nobel Prizes is taken as a proxy for quality, which is…
Will Brehm 16:52
That is crazy! I mean, so, these rankings then, the way they sort of measure this idea of quality across universities, can be pretty absurd, almost to the extreme sometimes.
Tristan McCowan 17:06
It is a small minority of all higher education institutions that are listed on international rankings at all. So, you could say, “Well, perhaps it’s irrelevant”. But actually, it does have an influence. Because even if most institutions don’t have a realistic chance of getting into the upper echelons, discursively, it does influence the way institutions see themselves. They start not to value the good work that they are doing. And they start to aspire towards work that perhaps isn’t in their best interest.
Will Brehm 17:33
I mean, we are sitting here at the Institute of Education, and out the front door, there is a big sign with the ranking on it. I mean, it is sort of, you know, it is the first thing you see when you walk into this building.
Tristan McCowan 17:46
Will Brehm 17:48
So, one of the last trends that you write about in your book, you use the word “unbundling”. Can you explain what this is? I never really came across this term before.
Tristan McCowan 17:57
So, it is a term that comes from business originally. And it is the process of separating out products that had previously been sold together for commercial advantage, either for the producer or sometimes for the consumer. I suppose the most obvious example in contemporary times is low-cost airlines, where you are not tied into paying for your baggage or your seat or so forth; you can purchase things individually. In higher education, it is a very controversial process. It is quite incipient; we’re just seeing the earliest signs of it yet. But for example, the separation out of different parts of what we might have considered to be the bundle of higher education. Of instruction, assessment, research, extracurricular activities, and so forth. So, one way that this has manifested itself is in the provision of no-frills, what I call no-frills courses. Very basic provision, where you pay a lower cost, and you just have access to the basic instruction, and you have to pay extra if you want some other things
Will Brehm 19:01
Such as? Like access to the library?
Tristan McCowan 19:03
Well, I have never seen a case of no access at all to the library. But certainly, there is an example in the UK where you have very minimal access to university facilities beyond what you would basically need to do one’s course. You know, this does open the door to a kind of a segregation of lower and higher-income students.
Will Brehm 19:25
Of course. And where does the process end? Right, you almost can get to the point where you have to pay to use the bathroom.
Tristan McCowan 19:30
Absolutely, absolutely. I think it is very worrying. It is a seductive idea because it appears to be addressing the huge escalation of costs, particularly in the United States. And allowing more people into the higher education system. So, it is seductive in that sense, but it is very worrying because then you start to have a very hierarchical system, a stratified system, where disadvantaged students have access to less.
Will Brehm 19:54
Second class students. You know, these are pretty worrying trends. This idea of status, this idea of commodification and commercialization, and this idea of unbundling. So, do you think this idea of, you know, the developmental university, service to society, these sort of liberal democratic ideals. You know, what has to change so we can actually create universities that embrace those ideas rather than … or, you know. It seems as if some of these other ideas and trends you have been talking about sort of go against some of these developmental ideas.
Tristan McCowan 20:32
Well, I think we need two things. I think there does need to be state investment; there needs to be public investment and state support. But I wouldn’t want to say that all of initiative needs to come from the central state. I think we also need to create more opportunities for local innovation. So, in my work, I am very interested in and supportive of various grassroots initiatives in higher education. I think this is a really important part of the answer as well. And there are some great examples around the world of developmental institutions. They are fragile in many cases, but they are very inspiring. So, we have got University for Development Studies in Northern Ghana, which is a very interesting institution serving the arid regions of Northern Ghana, working in very innovative ways with integrated teaching and research and community engagement. There are the so-called “thematic” federal universities in Brazil, which were established over the last 15 years to promote different forms of international engagement and local development. They are fragile because, to a large extent, they just depend on the governments of their day. And in Brazil, you have had a very radical shift to the right and the consequent withdrawal of support from these institutions. You have also got challenges with innovative institutions starting to, you know, being pulled back to the conventional type over the years. So, there are challenges, but there are some inspiring examples that we can look to.
Will Brehm 22:01
I also think about some of these protests in Chile. I know it started recently with bus fare increase, but it sort of dovetailed with that longer student protests from 2013 that was very much against what we might call the “neoliberal university,” or whatever it might be. And even here in London, they only just had, in the UK, 60 universities went on strike for about eight days trying to really counter a lot of these same trends that you are talking about. So, there are these signs, it seems, of pushback. Now, will it actually result in any action, that’s another sort of question, I guess.
Tristan McCowan 22:41
Absolutely. I think there are mobilizations in different parts of the world. South Africa recently has had a huge student mobilization around decolonization, the curriculum, and also around fees. I think we look at Chile as a great example of a student mobilization, not only because of its massiveness, but also because, perhaps unusually, but very successfully, what started as a student mobilization started to bring other spheres of society on board. And also gained real endorsement from society and, you know, made things … you know, the government couldn’t ignore it anymore. So, I think it is a really successful example.
Will Brehm 23:20
You know, that actually makes me think of the Chicago teacher strikes in America, where it wasn’t higher education, but it was public school teachers going on strike, I think 2012/2013. And one of the reasons that they were successful, that many scholars point to, is precisely the same reason is that they had this broad coalition; it wasn’t just this narrow focus on teaching and learning, but it brought in all sectors of society, and it became such a massive movement that the government had to respond. And more importantly, a lot of the leaders from that strike ended up getting elected in many parts in Chicago. So, I mean, it seems like it is a bigger conversation on social mobilization and successful social mobilization.
Tristan McCowan 24:03
That is a really interesting example. And it also makes me think of, you know, these ideas of “post-truth” and “anti-experts” that were coming out in 2016, through Brexit and the election in the United States. And I think some politicians have tried to drive a wedge between universities and society by creating resentment. And I think it is a really important task that those involved in universities have is to try and communicate with society this shared enterprise to a large degree.
Will Brehm 24:32
Exactly. And to see it as a service to society. It is not just our own little siloed workspaces here. So, as great as that makes me feel: this idea of social mobilization and trying to change universities away from status competition, away from commodification, away from unbundling, I do wonder – and you point out in your book – that, you know, there’s a critique, as well, of that movement. Of, you know, promoting a university for liberal democracy, for furthering capitalism in many respects. So how can we even begin to think about post-development: a critique of development itself?
Tristan McCowan 25:14
So, this is why I ended up making the title “For and Beyond”, because it is very important to look beyond as well. And I see the SDGs as being important. I am not trivializing them, but they are an intermediate step. And I think ultimately, they are not going to solve all of the problems that the global community faces at the moment. As you say, the SDGs are rooted in liberal capitalist model, to a large extent, a modernization model. And there are some deep flaws in those, and indeed, you know, we can be very skeptical about whether a capitalist system can ever really achieve, you know, equality and sustainability in a global community. You know, some of the incentives for accumulation and profit that corporations have are precisely the problem that we have with the fossil fuel lobby and so forth. So, there are some real problems there. There’s another issue with the SDGs in the lack of attention to questions of identity, culture, language that leading into another issue that I think is important to a certain relation to higher education, which is around what Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls a dialogue of knowledges. So how can we think about epistemic pluralism? How can we think about not just mainstream Western academic knowledge, which is important. But how do we put that in dialogue with other forms of knowledge from different knowledge communities, from indigenous peoples, from diverse traditions around the world, which will inevitably enrich that knowledge. And this is a very important aspect of where we go with development and also where we go with higher education. And I think we need to think about two forms of creativity and imagination in the higher education space: one is around questioning the institutional forms that we are very familiar with. You know, we look at a university, and we assume that it’s going to have very particular kinds of structures and practices. And I think we need to open up our imagination, perhaps drawing on Ivan Illich’s ideas of deschooling to think about how our university might be otherwise. And then the second point around epistemic pluralism, around having different kinds of knowledge in the university, and drawing on the experiences. I’m familiar with experiences in Latin America, indigenous institutions around the continent, but there are some in other parts of the world as well, Swaraj University in India is an interesting example of how we can create universities in different ways. And if we need to go beyond the SDGs, we need to think about sustainable development. It is a different kind of university that’s going to help us achieve it.
Will Brehm 27:56
Tristan McCowan, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. It really was a pleasure talking today, and I look forward to your next book.
Tristan McCowan 28:02
Thank you very much.
The timeframe to achieve the sustainable development goals is tight. We have just over a decade to complete the 169 targets across 17 goals. Target 4.7, which aims for all learners to acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, is particularly challenging. What are the knowledge and skills needed for sustainable development? And how can they be integrated into policies, programs, curricula, materials, and practices?
My guest today is Andy Smart, a former teacher with almost 20 years’ experience working in educational and children’s book publishing in England and Egypt. He is a co-convener of a networking initiative called Networking to Integrate SDG Target 4.7 and Social and Emotional Learning into Educational Materials, or NISSEM for short, where he is interested in how textbooks support pro-social learning in low- and middle-income countries. Together with Margaret Sinclair, Aaron Benavot, Jean Bernard, Colette Chabbot, S. Garnett Russell, and James Williams, Andy has recently co-edited a volume entitled NISSEM Global Briefs: Educating for the Social, the Emotional, and the Sustainable. This collection aims at helping education ministries, donors, consultancy groups and NGOs advance SDG target 4.7 in low-and middle-income countries.
Photo by: Helena g Anderson
Citation: Smart, Andy, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 182, podcast audio, November 25, 2019. https://freshedpodcast.com/andysmart/
Will Brehm 3:03
Andy Smart, welcome to FreshEd.
Andy Smart 3:05
Thanks, Will. It is a great pleasure to be here.
Will Brehm 3:07
Okay, so, I want to start with a pretty subjective question, let’s say. Do you think the Sustainable Development Goals will actually be achieved by 2030?
Andy Smart 3:17
Well, I wish I had the answer to that one. I wish everybody else had the answer to that one. I am naturally an optimist by nature, but I recognize these are hugely ambitious across the board. I mean, you know, targets that talk about, you know, ensuring that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary, secondary education. I mean, the word “all” is a pretty big word. Even goals like ending poverty. Yeah, I wish. So, these are hugely ambitious. And, I was interested to see, just these past few days, how there’s been some discussion over the announcement by the Bank of their ending learning poverty initiative, which is setting what might be called a more realistic target. Of course, that’s been getting a bit of pushback as to, you know, why dropping back from the ambitions of the Sustainable Development Goals? So, you know, you travel hopefully, basically, in this business; you arrive as far as you can.
Will Brehm 4:19
So, you brought up the World Bank’s annual meeting where they introduced this idea of “learning poverty”, some metric to measure learning poverty. This particular show that we’re recording now is not about that topic, even though it probably deserves a whole show unto itself, but you said it is sort of trying to make, maybe a more, a metric that could be achieved. So, what is problematic about the SDGs as they’re currently written, in terms of being able to achieve them by 2030, that has made the World Bank propose something maybe less ambitious and perhaps more feasible?
Andy Smart 4:55
Yeah, I mean this is way above my pay grade, as we might say, but I mean, my view on any kind of system change, which I think is what we’re engaged in within the NISSEM team: we’re looking at system changes which are scalable and sustainable. But you know, systemic change across a country, it means changing the practices of thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, of people. When we are looking at how textbooks impact on classroom practices, we are talking about teachers’ practices. We are talking about all those who support the teachers: the supervisors, head teachers, etc. We are talking about a lot of people changing the way they do things. That is at bottom why I would be cautious about how far you can get within this quite short time.
Will Brehm 5:52
So, in these new policy briefs that you and your colleagues put together and put out as part of NISSEM, you talk about how SDG Target 4.7 is sort of very critical to the SDG 4 overall, if not all of the SDGs. What is SDG Target 4.7, briefly?
Andy Smart 6:13
Well, the shorthand that we tend to use within the NISSEM networking team is the pro-social themes and values. So it’s looking at a more holistic view of the purpose of education, and it’s bringing together some of the stories that have been going on in the education and development arena for decades and trying to group them together in a single package. Of course, it’s very diverse; it seems rather sort of unbalanced, sometimes not very clear. On the other hand, I would say you could juxtapose what you find in 4.7 as being the other side of education: you’ve got the academic purpose, and you’ve got the non-academic purpose. And I think that’s something which resonates for people, both in the practitioner community, but also in terms of parents and students themselves, you know, that is the reason kids go to school, why parents send the kids to school. It is partly, of course, about getting those academic skills and qualifications, but it’s also about a lot more than that. And that’s what 4.7 brings together. It’s the pro-social aspects of education.
Will Brehm 7:33
And so, what would be some of these themes in this pro-social aspect of education, or these non-academic areas? How would we start to classify what some of these themes would be?
Andy Smart 7:43
Well, I mean, you could start with the name of the Sustainable Development Goals itself. So “sustainability” is a clear theme that needs to be unpacked in all sorts of ways. So, sustainability is not simply about environmental protection; it is about sustainability across social fabrics and other aspects. It is also about gender equality; it is about cohesion between communities. A lot of the schools that we are targeting in the low and middle-income countries and post-conflict countries – which are the areas of interest for us in the NISSEM networking group – these are countries which are challenged by social tensions within the country, as well as refugee tensions, etc. So, you know, social cohesion is clearly an important theme, and promotion of peace and resolution conflict.
Will Brehm 8:38
So, these different themes: the social fabric, the gender equality, social cohesion, peace, and reconciliation, even the environment. In the policy brief, the term that is often used is this idea of “social and emotional learning”. You know, I hear that as just jargon, and quite vague and very difficult to even begin to comprehend and define. What is social and emotional learning? And why is it important in the education of young adults and young children?
Andy Smart 9:08
Well, first, I want to thank you for your honesty, Will. To admit confusion, I think, is a great starting point for any understanding. I think everybody has their different understandings. And that’s part of the challenge that we face. To some extent, this is due to the terminologies that are used, many of which overlap, and you will find any discussion or any text that is addressing these issues, especially within the non-OECD country context, has to start out by saying, “Well, we’ve got all these terms. How do they overlap? How do we separate them out? What do they mean in these different contexts?” So that’s going to lead to confusion, that’s for sure. Where there is a common understanding, I think, and that’s what brought us together within the NISSEM team, is that although we come from different backgrounds, we all had this sense that what we were doing needed to be rooted in something that was not part of the narrow academic purpose of education, but it was rooted in what we understand to be the meaning of the word “learning” itself. And so, learning, in my view, is often used as shorthand for “learning outcomes”, and learning outcomes is a shorthand for “academic achievements”. But I think it’s critical that we think of learning as a process, not just as an outcome. And so, “social and emotional learning” describes, actually, how learning happens, as well as the purpose of learning. So, this begins to take us into something which is, I think, very important, very interesting, but also quite difficult to grasp unless you have a lot of time to unpack it in different ways. But separating, to some extent, the idea of the process of learning from the product or the outcomes of learning, I think, is very important.
Will Brehm 11:08
So, I mean, it almost sounds like it is a philosophical issue here. The purpose of learning, I would imagine there is not one universal purpose of learning; that it would be contextualized both within nation-states, within governments, but also within households. You know, families probably have very different conceptions of the purpose of learning.
Andy Smart 11:30
Absolutely. I mean, there is increasing evidence for how the social and the emotional play a part in learning, not only in academic learning outcomes but also in building the more rounded learner and rounded member of society. So, a lot of this research is coming out of higher-income contexts because that’s where research is better funded. But one of the things we’re trying to do is apply the appropriate evidence and results of this research into other contexts. But at bottom, there are some universal principles, or universal ideas, about how learning happens. After all, the child, who age seven in one country, has pretty much similar developmental processes as a child age seven in another country. And as far as I’m concerned, I think that the differences between contexts are more related to the differences in the way the adults operate around the child than in the way the child is actually following their own developmental path.
Will Brehm 12:41
So, what would be some of these universal principles, then, of social and emotional learning?
Andy Smart 12:47
Yeah, that’s where you get into the wonderful world of models. And so, we love models. We all love models. They have sort of visual directness that is immediately appealing. Unless they’re far too complicated, which some of them are. But there are definitely various models, and it’s not too difficult to bring them together and compare them. And again, when commentators or practitioners are looking at the different models, you have to start thinking, “So, what are the common characteristics of these models? And then how do they apply in my own context?” The best-known model of all – or the most widely quoted, let’s say – is the one that comes out of Chicago: the CASEL model, with these five competencies. Again, the word “competency” itself is a word that needs a bit of thought. But they have these five competencies, which are: the two related to the self, or the intrapersonal, which has the self-awareness and the self-management; and then the interpersonal, the relations between people. That is the social awareness and the relationship skills. And then the fifth competency is responsible decision making. That is one of the models, and there are several around. They tend to be simplifying because that has to be the nature of a model; otherwise, it’s going to be difficult to grasp. And sometimes you might think, “Well, this is a bit too simplistic”. So, I think that has to be a balance between what these models try to do in terms of simplifying and what they have to do in terms of recognizing the complexity of what we’re talking about.
Will Brehm 14:31
Another idea in the NISSEM policy brief is about this idea of 21st-century skills. And I’ll admit that this also causes some confusion for me, because it’s rather vague, and you know, why are we talking 21st-century skills rather than 20th-century skills? Are these skills that people in the 20th century, in the 19th century never needed? Why aren’t we talking about the 22nd-century skills? So, what on earth is that idea? How do we begin to understand 21st-century skills?
Andy Smart 15:03
Yeah, I think probably – I haven’t done a sort of word count on this – but I think in the NISSEM global briefs, you probably won’t find so many references to 21st-century skills, at least not necessarily from within the co-editors. It is not a term that we have used a great deal. I think different contexts have different preferences for the way they think about these, what may be called sometimes “soft skills”, what may be called “21st-century skills”. What we prefer, as a way of thinking, to call “social and emotional learning”. I would say my personal view is that very often, when people are talking about 21st-century skills, first of all, they’re talking about, to some extent, vocational or pro-career, pro-work kind of soft skills, and therefore it’s not something which is as much used in terms of primary education as for secondary and post-secondary education. So, I would say the opposite of a 21st-century skill might be the traditional academic skills. To some extent, we are back to what we were talking about at the beginning of this conversation. It is about thinking about these different skills areas and different purposes of education. Some of that comes from studies about what employers are looking for: they’re not just looking for the hard skills, sometimes people rather disparaging call “the basics” – the reading, writing, and so on. But the employers are talking about they need these “people skills”, these 21st-century skills. But again, those are very often coming from higher-income environments, which are not our main area of focus.
Will Brehm 16:45
So, let’s turn to some examples here, right. So, SDG Target 4.7 has this non-academic focus of social and emotional learning, maybe 21st century skills or soft skills, all these other non-academic skills that are valuable and important to the learning process. Now, what does that actually look like in practice? In non-rich countries, what have you found? Can you give some examples of, you know, what even exists today?
Andy Smart 17:17
Yeah, before I answer that, what I wanted to just underline is that we are not promoting the idea that non-academic skills are any way more important than the academic skills. So, I think the big message from the research, and the message that we carry, is that the two are interrelated and impossible to disconnect. And I think this is something which the neuroscience is very much telling us, and particularly the researcher who we interviewed for the NISSEM global briefs, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang at University of Southern California. So, this is really about how social and emotional learning in the field of cognitive science and neuroscience supports academic learning, and you cannot separate the two out. So that is the first thing I want to say. So, going back to the examples, well, I mean the examples that we are looking at primarily, as you know, are the lower-middle-income countries. And the reason we are focusing on that is partly because that’s where we’ve always worked all our lives. That is where I started out as a teacher, in low-income countries, in government schools. And the reason that what we’re promoting as a sort of NISSEM approach is that there are characteristics across low- and middle-income countries that make them slightly different from contexts of high-income countries. One of the differences is the way that the curriculum operates. What is called a curriculum in a school in, say, the UK or the US, is very often something that belongs to the school. You have national curriculum standards or state standards, and then the school develops a curriculum within that sort of framework. Now, in low- and middle-income countries, that’s different. The curriculum is what comes down from government, from the Ministry of Education. And very often, it’s what’s represented in the textbook. So, that’s why we see the textbook as so critical to this whole business: because the textbook shapes so much of what happens in the classroom in terms of the teaching, learning and the activities, and the way of thinking, and the pedagogy. So that’s something which is really characteristic of the lower-middle-income countries. And it is why we are focusing on textbooks as a main vehicle for the NISSEM ideas. Now, there’s a paper in the NISSEM global briefs which comes out of my own experience working with the National Curriculum Textbook Board in Bangladesh a few years ago, where we were asked to work with the curriculum developers who were, to some extent, also the textbook writers. And all the textbooks in Bangladesh are centrally written by the NCTB, National Curriculum Textbook Board. All schools use the same textbooks. And we were asked to come in and look at how the textbooks shape what happens in the classroom to improve learning outcomes. So, this was funded by cross donor, sectoral approach and the paper that’s in the global briefs talks about what we were able to do in terms of the social studies for upper primary, and to set out a different kind of way of teaching and learning in the classroom what we and others have called a “structured pedagogy”, which is not scripting a kind of step-by-step, this is what you should do as a teacher and reducing the teacher’s autonomy to very narrow area, but setting out a principle for teaching and learning that will work in a crowded classroom, limited number of resources and doesn’t push the teacher into something which is an imported kind of over child-centered pedagogy, but it’s something that takes them into something which is supported by social and emotional learning principles, but within an academic framework to achieve better learning outcomes, more engagement by learners, and frankly, more engagement by teachers. And we’ve had some great feedback from the teachers who have used these books in Bangladesh.
Will Brehm 21:16
So, I would imagine this then, you know, not only changing textbooks in a particular way, but I would imagine the preparation of teachers and how to be a teacher, teacher training, in a sense, would similarly have to change to incorporate these social and emotional learning.
Andy Smart 21:36
Yes, absolutely. And I don’t want to oversell the power of the textbook to create change. I mean, after all, the tool is as good as what you do with it. But what we see the textbook as is a sort of lever for change; it enables different way of thinking, a different way of supporting good pedagogy that can be translated into teacher education, into the professional development, even into the assessment approach. But the textbooks legitimize approaches. I think this is a critical point about the role that textbooks play. There is a textbook in every classroom, and many cases in every home in the country. In a large country like Bangladesh, there is a lot of, sort of policy statements and legitimization statements going on. And what we found was that the textbooks that were in use beforehand were really gearing the teacher to teach by rote learning. In fact, there was really no other recourse for the teacher other than to teach by rote learning, for various reasons. Partly, because the language was very dense, very academic. Too many concepts piled onto the page, partly coming out of the curriculum itself. And then a textbook writing plan that is based on what I would simply call, you know, “comprehension plus”. So, you have a great chunk of text. It could be two, three pages of text, uninterrupted text, followed by some very narrow gap-filling, you know, right-or-wrong type answers. And that’s the way that science was taught in terms of the textbook. It’s always social studies, very often language. So, the core subjects are being taught in this sort of comprehension plus kind of way. And I would say by comprehension, we’re talking about a narrow definition comprehension; we’re talking about comprehension where there is only a right or wrong answer. So, what we tried to do is just rethink that text in the textbook so that it is supporting a pedagogy. So that when you open the textbook as a teacher, you can see how this could be taught. And this is how teachers across the world, in contexts where they have a chance to choose their textbooks, that’s how they evaluate a textbook. They pick up a textbook; they open it up and say, “Oh yeah, I can see how this would work in the classroom”. And they’re not only looking at the language level and the quality of illustrations, but they’re looking at how the learning will flow out of the way it’s presented in the materials. So that is what we’re trying to do in an appropriate way for the context that we’re working in.
Will Brehm 24:17
And have you found any challenges? I mean it seems like, you know, here’s a group of foreign experts coming into a country and saying, “Based on these globally circulating policies and ideas, this is the more appropriate way to design a textbook, or have teachers’ pedagogy implemented in a classroom. So, in a sense, there must be challenges. It must be deeply political since education is a deeply political process, particularly at the national level. And if textbooks are being centrally created, even more so. So, I just wonder: have governments been open and receptive to some of these ideas that have been sort of externally brought into some of these countries?
Andy Smart 25:05
So, I think that’s a really important question, Will. And people working in this sector need to proceed with humility. We need to recognize that we’re coming from outside. We don’t bring answers; we bring different ways of thinking. And we proceed through partnership, collaboration, discussion, etc. On the other hand, I would say that even if we might talk about something that looks like the global North on the one hand, the global South on the other hand, each of those communities represents a wide range of different perspectives. So, when we are talking to partners in government, there are going to be people with very different ideas. There are going to be policymakers; there are going to be curriculum directors; there are going to be curriculum writers, textbook writers, teachers. There are not going to be teachers in urban areas and rural areas who are going to have quite different ways of thinking and doing things. So, we have to reflect, as far as possible, a huge range of perspectives and needs. I’ll give an example: So, sometimes, you know, I’m sitting in the office of a curriculum directorate in a particular low-middle income country, and looking at what role experienced teachers are playing in the process of contributing to textbook development, or textbook evaluation so that the materials that are being provided actually are fit for purpose and they’ve been designed with teachers’ needs in mind. And quite often, you get a bit of pushback in those curriculum directorates because they’re often quite senior people, they’ve had strong academic backgrounds, they’re in very comfortable government jobs. And they’re not thinking necessarily about how the teacher in the rural areas thinks about things, and they’re not necessarily valuing how those teachers in rural areas think about things, and maybe just don’t trust the teachers to make good decisions; they don’t trust the teachers’ judgments. And I think that’s part of the issue. So I think, yes, we need to be humble about what we define as our own expertise and experience, but we also need to ensure that the different voices are brought into that conversation at every point, and not just at the sort of high level, policy discussion level. You know, at every point in the chain, which takes us into the classroom in the rural and semi-rural areas of the country.
Will Brehm 27:25
I guess, you know, this idea that there’s all these different voices, and there’s sort of this political process that goes into the creation, the reform of textbooks, of teacher training, of all different aspects of the education system, it would also necessarily mean that the measurement of these, you know, outcomes of academic and non-academic skills would sort of go through this same political process, and then therefore be different in each country. And then the question that I have then is: How then do you begin to think about measurement of social and emotional learning on a global level that is comparable if these measurement indicators are being sort of debated within each nation with a different set of politic?
Andy Smart 28:08
Yeah, I think that is fundamental. And that for us is a really testing question within NISSEM, because to some extent, we are really still trying to develop what you might call “proof of concept”. And by “proof”, we normally expect to see evidence, not just sort of argumentation. So, evidence and measurements, I think we need to think about it in different ways. So, what some people expect from measurement is something more related to accountability. What other people expect from measurement is more related to evidence that you can build on in order to improve what you’re doing. So, I think this takes us back to, to some extent, the way that measurement and assessment are used in classrooms. You know, there is the idea of summative and formative assessment, and I think when we’re thinking about measurement of the impact of social emotional learning, we have to think about it, to some extent, in that same sort of way. So, measurement for learning how to do things better as planners, as policymakers, as curriculum specialists. Yes, I think it’s very possible to create a system for measuring something that is culturally, rather, let’s say, contextualized, but conforms to good practices in terms of reliability and validity, and is a combination of different measurement instruments. So, to some extent, observation. To some extent, self-reporting. To some extent, testing. So, I think that’s all very possible because that’s intensive and quite expensive, and has to be done on a sampling basis. Then, the other kind of measurement, which sometimes what comes to mind in some discussions, is measurements as system-wide accountability, and being treated in the same way that academic learning outcomes would be measured, which, you know, allows you to say whether the system as a whole is benefiting from the inputs that you’re providing. And I think that’s more problematic, and I think that takes us back a little bit to what we were saying earlier, which is the relationship between academic learning and social emotional learning. That the social emotional learning supports the academic learning, but at the same time, it has its own clear validity. It is not there simply to provide a platform for academic learning, that it has its own purpose, that’s part of the purpose of education. And so when we’re measuring the academic outcomes, to some extent, we’re measuring the impact of the social emotional learning, but at the same time, for us at least in NISSEM, we would like to be able to do more to show proof of concept, and to show through more intensive, more diverse measuring processes and instruments, that providing social emotional learning inputs really can make a difference. Not only to the academic learning outcomes but also to long-term engagement with learning, to produce lifelong learners, not learners who are simply able to pass the end-of-month or end-of-term or end-of-year exams.
Will Brehm 31:32
And do you think this will all be possible in the next ten years?
Andy Smart 31:35
Define “this”, Will.
Will Brehm 31:39
I guess, you know, what NISSEM is sort of, you know, this proof of concept is step one, but obviously, moving forward is that there would be some system-level reforms happening in line with SDG 4.7. And, you know, the goals are concluding in 2030. You know, it doesn’t seem like that long for the type and extent of change that is being discussed.
Andy Smart 32:05
Yes. Huge challenge. What I would say is this: that we sense that there is an enormous receptivity to these ideas at the level of policy strategy, both in the global North and, as far as we can see, in the global South. We were encouraged by the responses that we were getting in presenting the global briefs at the World Bank and the Global Partnership for Education recently. So, to some extent, that part, we feel that there is an acknowledgement these are important issues that could make a difference. How do we turn this into a proof of concept? How do we embed what we want to do in the textbooks and curricula of the countries that we are concerned about? I guess “One by one” is the answer to that. So, what we are looking to do is to show, in small number of countries, that here is a different way of doing things. Here is some of the evidence that shows it appears to be working – obviously, the timescale is very short. And then to expand from there. If we were able to achieve a number of changes in terms of textbooks and curriculum in a large number of countries within the next ten years, and the momentum is clearly moving in the right direction, and those who have adopted this approach are able to show that is making a difference to them, and to impress those who have not yet adopted the approach, I would say that would be tremendous progress. And obviously, our part is just a tiny part in the overall drive to achieve as much as possible under the SDGs in this very short time.
Will Brehm 33:59
Well, Andy Smart, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. It really was a pleasure of talking today.
Andy Smart 34:03
Will, the pleasure was all mine. I really enjoyed that. Thank you.