Given Georgia’s dysfunctional educational sector, it is impressive how many Georgians excel intellectually. For example, ISET regularly sends some of its graduates to the best Ph.D. programs in the world, proving that many Georgians succeed in realizing their intellectual potentials despite unfavorable conditions. At the same time, we notice that a considerable share of students who get enrolled at ISET are not well-endowed with essential knowledge and competencies, lacking, for example, presentation skills, writing proficiency, and resourcefulness in discussion and argumentation. During their two years at ISET, these students must undergo a difficult and often painful catch-up process, and not everyone is up to this enormous pressure: about 50% of admitted students leave the program within the first year. Smart and motivated young Georgians are often exceptional intellectual achievers, yet it seems that they succeed despite the Georgian education system, not because of it. While the best minds also excel under adverse conditions, for the less brilliant students the Georgian educational system is a liability.
Indeed, there is no doubt that Georgian schools and universities are largely not generating the kind of human capital needed in the 21st century, as proved by the fact that the Georgian educational institutions are often not producing the kind of graduates employers are looking for. The result is an unfavorable situation of simultaneous unemployment and shortages in qualified personnel. This is but a disaster for a country that aspires to catch up with the economically developed world within the next decades. Out of pure necessity, within a few years from now, Georgia will have to carry out sweeping reforms of its educational sector, and the decisions made in this context will set the course for Georgia’s economic success for a long time to come. But what is available on the menu of educational approaches, and what is suitable for Georgia?
INDIVIDUALIZATION OF LEARNING
One of the newest trends in the never-ending search for the best pedagogical approach is the idea to set up an individual curriculum for each student. The Khan Academy, founded by educational inventor Salman Khan, offers a platform that sets new standards in this regard. The learning content is subdivided into very small portions, called modules, and each module (“dividing fractions”, “graphing functions” etc.) ends with exercises. A student completes a module if s/he correctly solves sufficiently many exercises of the module. Once a module is finished, the student can decide where to go next on the “knowledge map”, which consists of interconnected modules – only modules are available for which the preliminary modules were already taken (e.g., one cannot learn logarithms before one has mastered exponents). Some of the modules are mandatory for class accomplishment, some are optional, and the students can choose their individual paths through the knowledge map according to their own preferences. But what is the role of the teacher in this system?
As the exercises are served and solved online, the teacher of the class can monitor the self-paced progress of each student. If a student is lagging behind or shows difficulties with particular subjects, the teacher can tutor (usually online) the student and target the very problems sh/e is facing at that moment.
A similar but less internet-dependent approach to achieve individualization is pursued by the Steve Jobs School in Amsterdam. Each child has its individual development plan (IDP), and parents, “coaches” (not teachers), and the children regularly evaluate their plans and readjust them, based on their achievements. Maurice de Hond, the school's founder, says: "Based on the outcome of the IDP, the child is offered new personal learning challenges and instruction moments to choose from." Like the system offered by the Khan Academy, the school emphasizes the importance of every child going at their own pace.
While these ideas seem convincing at first sight, it still has to be seen whether extreme individualization of the learning process will stand the test of time. What to do, for example, if a child is heavily demotivated and does not progress in any modules in the Khan system? In a regular school, a demotivated child – if attendance is obligatory – will still be exposed to the classroom environment and pick up something just by being there. Moreover, the rather joyless experience of not performing well in a group of pupils with whom one is sitting in a room, being one of those who “do not get it”, may create some healthy pressure to catch up with the others. If, on the other hand, a child is just sitting in front of a computer screen, the negative feeling of being an underperformer may be rather abstract, easily forgotten when the child dulls their mind with the next computer game. This problem is not as severe in the Steve Jobs School, but also here there is a risk that extreme individualization reduces competitive pressure and gives every student the feeling that s/he is doing well when pursuing their individualized curriculum. Yet, the merciless ranking of different students according to the same standards and curriculum, showing some children very bluntly that they are not doing well, may have its merits too.
The second author of this article experimented in one of his courses with the so-called “flipped classroom” approach, where the information absorption is done at home by the students independently by watching videos and reading texts. The time in the classroom is filled with discussions, group work, and problem-solving. There is definitely something ingenious to this approach, yet it turned out that also here, the practice may not always live up to the promises of the abstract concept.
For example, students were not necessarily eager to read at home. They did not always see great benefit in a classroom discussion or group work, in particular in view of the upcoming exams, where the emphasis was put on formalized and replicable skills and knowledge. There are definitely students who just want to get stuff explained in a rather straightforward manner, with the interaction limited to the possibility of asking questions if something was not well-understood.
It is also interesting that at ISET, there is hardly any connection between the innovativeness of pedagogical styles and the teaching evaluations – lecturers with very conservative, classical approaches get good grades, and innovative approaches which emphasize debate, creativity, and critical thinking, are often not honored by the students.
SOFT SKILLS RULE?
Melamed and Salant (2010) identify the so-called “21st Century Skills”: informational literacy, higher-order thinking, communication and cooperation, technological competence, and learning how to learn. Informational literacy refers to the ability to gather, edit, analyze, process, and connect information. Higher-order thinking is about problem-solving, argumentation, and the competence to criticize. The meaning of the other skills is self-explanatory.
It is noteworthy that none of these skills refer to formal knowledge about a subject matter. Moreover, given their nature, the 21st-century skills can be, and need to be, conveyed throughout the whole educational career of a person, which today starts at preschool education and ends at retirement age (the so-called “lifelong learning”).
Finland, which has for many years dominated the PISA tests, has recently been putting more and more emphasis on soft skills at the expense of learning facts. Finnish schools encourage discussions, try to avoid mere lecturing, and there is less homework and there are fewer examinations. Moreover, teachers in Finnish schools have the freedom to innovate and experiment with new approaches to improve learning to develop thinking skills, ICT skills, skills for the working life, and skills to thrive in multicultural contexts (these are the priorities of the Finnish new national core curricula). The OECD calls these changes an “outstanding education reform on an international level”.
Yet, is it clear that soft skills trump conventional literacy? It is an interesting observation that Sweden implemented similar reforms and dropped dramatically in the PISA ranking, and also Finland has dropped in the PISA ranking in the last years since it put emphasis on “multicultural contexts” instead of math.
THE DEBATE MUST BEGIN!
The debate of what is an optimal education is very old. Many ideas, from Montessori to Steiner (Waldorf Schools) to Summerhill, have been discussed and tried out since the 19th century, yet there is still no consensus on the most effective way of teaching. At the same time, classical teaching is all but dead – even Soviet-style learning has experienced a revival with the Russian Schools of Mathematics, which are mushrooming throughout the USA, offering “best practices of math schools in the former Soviet Union, adapted to the US educational environment.”
It remains an open question which pedagogical approaches the Georgian education system should follow, and the answer should be grounded in the specifics of the Georgian economic, cultural, and infrastructural context. It is high time, however, that the debate begins!