Classrooms of the future
Why we need a minimum viable education globally
Hi, it's Ben from the Tony Blair Institute. To coincide with the launch of our report Tech-Inclusive Education: A World-Class System for Every Child, this week we look at why incremental change is no longer enough in education. We need a new system, in which technology is critical, but is more than just a bolt on.
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Global education is in a bad way. A target to provide all children with primary and secondary education by 2030 will be missed without radical action: 100 million more school places than forecast need to be created each year to meet it. The issues also run far deeper than access and have been made more acute by the pandemic. However, Covid-19 has also provided a vivid reminder of how critical good schools are for children, for parents and for society. As we look to build classrooms of the future, disruption, with technology as a core component, is therefore necessary.
As with many public services, education faces a trilemma: education must be available at immense scale, at a sustainable public cost, and to an acceptable standard of quality.
The demand for new places shows that we are not yet meeting the scale challenge. Crucially, quality is also lacking: almost 40% of children in school get such poor quality education that they are unable to read or write after 6 years.
Even within countries that appear to perform well such as the UK, there is a glaring chasm between the opportunities offered to the most well-off students and their least-fortunate contemporaries, leading to unfair results: 31% of English schools in the most deprived areas were rated ‘Requires Improvement’ or ‘Inadequate’, compared to just 13% in the least deprived ones.
So what about cost? Clearly, increased spending and investment is part of the answer. But our research shows that above a threshold (around $5,000-$7,000 per pupil per year), quality does not continue to increase. And with education spending already accounting for a significant chunk of budgets, increasing in line with demand isn’t feasible. We need to overhaul our whole approach to designing and delivering education.
In many areas of life, technology has helped overcome challenges of scale, transforming the way whole sectors and industries look and feel (think about how travel booking looked 25 years ago compared with now, for example). But this hasn’t happened in education. There has been no “game-changing” disruption, and teacher productivity has remained stable while student numbers went up, meaning the price of education has actually risen:
This isn’t for lack of trying: on the scale side, initiatives like One Laptop Per Child aimed to bring highly usable hardware to millions of children at an accessible cost. And for a lucky few with access to the best quality education, new technologies are completely transforming their experience. Sophisticated artificial intelligence can now help to personalise a student’s learning, assessing their understanding and proposing tailored interventions (practical examples, groupwork, 1-1 coaching with a teacher) to best support their progress. Virtual reality can help students to really experience what a rainforest might be like. And video conferencing platforms mean real-life experts are more readily available.
Our research has found that for a technology to be successful in improving educational outcomes, the entire education system needs to be ready and equipped. A stack of iPads won’t benefits students if teachers lack the training or will to use them; a superfast internet connection and state of the art cloud provision won’t reduce administrative burdens if local level rules means that exams still need to be paper-based. Getting this right requires systems-level thinking and will mean making substantive revisions to the way education is run at every level, from central government, local authorities or groups of independently run schools like academy trusts, down to individual schools and teachers.
The concept of the “minimum viable product”, first used by web developers, has now become mainstream. To be ready to launch as efficiently as possible, a product needs to reach a minimum standard across each of a set of essential elements. We have built on this concept to develop a framework for assessing and developing “Minimum Viable Education Systems”.
Once a system meets minimum requirements in all five areas, it becomes feasible to introduce radical innovations and trial reforms (both hi- and lo-tech), measure their impacts, refine and expand them.
Some examples of what these might look like include:
Increasing class sizes by 100% and introducing team-teaching (i.e., sharing the work of lesson prep and delivery between 2 or more teachers) as standard, to bring greater flexibility for students, and make the work of teaching more efficient, and more rewarding.
Giving students access to all of their education data to support new models of assessment and accreditation.
Allowing students in areas with a poor choice of schools in their local area to attend top-flight schools remotely.
Pockets of excellence, innovation and experimentation already exist (some of the ideas above have already been tested by the Cornerstone Academy Trust based in Devon, UK, for instance). Once education systems are better equipped to adapt to change, the best ideas can be rapidly shared and mainstreamed.
Making these systemic upgrades will take time. The first step is acknowledging the need to start from where we are, taking stock of which elements are missing in any given system. After that, work can begin in earnest on bringing up quality levels and reducing the gap between best and worst, promoting genuine equity, so that the classroom of the future is open to all.