In Autumn 2020, whilst much of the world’s education had gone online, a group of schools from every corner of the globe held a series of meetings to share their dissatisfaction with the status quo, and to plot a solution. This group became the Coalition to Honour All Learning. In common with the Rethinking Assessment movement, the group felt strongly that end-of-school metrics fail to do justice to the rich and varied learning journeys of our young people. Their narrowness is neither satisfying as a record of a person’s achievements, nor adequate to inform universities or employers about their particular strengths, experiences and passions. How did we get to such a point? And what could we do about it?
To start with, a historical retrospective:
Some of the earliest traces of education to humans, known to us by ancient paintings, texts and myths, suggest that across the planet, the common practice was for small groups of initiates to follow the teachings of a Master. By about 3500 BCE to 2000 BCE, we know that in Vedic India, Gurukulas – small gatherings around a guru – were prominent; in First Nations Australia, teaching happened in small familial communities; in China’s Xia dynasty, small groups of children would be taught statecraft and in Egypt, children training to be priests and scribes, would be taught the mystic art of hieroglyphs.
There were issues with this model, as pointed out in Education and Elitism: this was an education for elite groups or initiates only: the vast majority would not access powerful knowledge; it was an education for the few and not the many.
However, there was something positive too. The thrust of these different types of schooling was similar: to think deeply, to reflect carefully, to discuss, to master certain traits to perfection. This idea of deep learning is strong in much classical literature: Confucius’ Analects speak of life as something to cut, file, chisel and polish; Aristotle’s skolé (meaning place of leisure) was there for young scholars to find the “Eudaimonia” (the “good life”) as they walked around the Megara as “peripatetics”. Reading through Plato’s wonderful dialogues, one cannot help but be struck by the time taken to discuss a single point of information, the depth with which arguments, counter-arguments and constant seeking run through every page. Learning objectives were few, but they were deep, as described in the Ancient Greek trivium or Achaemenid education (related by Herodotus): “horsemanship, archery, and telling the truth”. The idea was to take the time and the energy to learn well and to learn deeply.
In order to think deeply, to practice, to discuss, to create and reflect, a structure is needed that allows for mind wandering: the curriculum should encourage depth. A number of primary education models allow for this: the Montessori method whereby children choose to work at their own pace; the Steiner method where children learn by doing as they spend substantial amounts of time on projects and other types of project-based learning or systems where the curriculum is not too crowded, as is the case in most primary school curricula.
Educating the whole person
These models of education developed spiritual, intellectual, social and physical capabilities: the Chinese Chun-Tzu was not just a wise person but a kind person, engaged in civic life; the Greeks, like the Romans, emphasised the importance of athletics and in early Madrassas, students would not just learn literature, preaching and geometry, but trade and craftsmanship too. This ancient idea of developing the head, the heart and the hand influenced the pioneers of many modern educational systems: Pestalozzi, Froebel, Dewey. Broad-based educational programmes such as the International Baccalaureate, Matura and Arbitur were anchored in this belief that an education should be holistic and not narrow.
The pressures on our students in the 21st Century
If the core pillars of a good education have been holism on the one hand and the necessary mindfulness to allow for depth on the other, what we could call breadth and depth, then the reality of the end of high school for most young people today is very far from those ancient goals.
There are a number of reasons for this: as knowledge grew through time, new subjects were invented (such as the pure sciences) and the curriculum became heavier. In order to be competitive in the market, students would need to have covered a wide range of types of knowledge and skill. Today, forecasts of what skills will be necessary for the future of work point to areas that are not even taught explicitly in the curriculum. Alongside this, with the expansion of education, pressure began to mount on students to perform well. Today some of the world’s highest ranked universities boast extraordinarily high rejection rates while millions of students are competing to gain entry into a small number of higher education institutions.
The last years of schooling are a highly pressurised experience where teaching to the test, efforts to score the highest number of points possible, excessive stress, lack of sleep and in extreme cases, anxiety, predominate. The narrowing effects of high stakes assessment cast a grim shadow over the upper secondary experience, as compared to the more mindful and creative practices of primary and middle school. This often means that students have to stop following those activities that they are passionate about and when they do explore options outside of school, it is rare that these efforts will be recognised fully by schools or universities since the overwhelming emphasis is on academics. This unique focus on examination scores is particularly acute in European and British universities.
What does it mean to be an educated person? There is so much to this question that goes well beyond academics.
The problem of the narrowing effects of purely academic transcripts is something that employers have identified too. It is well accepted today that much more than narrow test scores are needed to predict success in the world.
As our network of schools met and shared our concerns, we realised that we shared three key convictions:
As we deepened our discussion, more schools joined the movement. We wrote a white paper and contacted universities for them to work with us to enhance our work.
Today, the Coalition to Honour All Learning includes more than 30 schools from all continents including the United World Colleges movement, the International School of Geneva (where the IB Diploma was originally invented), the University of Toronto and a number of independent schools in India, Singapore, Korea, Japan, Thailand, China, Hong Kong, Qatar, Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Australia, the United States, Canada, Ghana, Kenya, the UK, Hungary and Norway.
The group is rallying universities and employers to consider alternative transcripts, some that are still in development, such as the Learner Passport, micro-credentialing, global citizen diploma. What these alternative transcript systems have in common is that they celebrate more than simply academics and allow students to shine in more diverse ways than traditional end of school certification.
Our goal is to design an interactive competence-based matrix that will allow universities, employers, schools and even students directly to understand what alternative transcripts are in force and which universities accept and recognise them. By promoting and enhancing alternative transcripts, through time, students will be able to tell a richer story of who they are to admissions officers and schools will embrace more holistic avenues of learning in every child’s profile that will be necessarily different and original. Taking the time to follow a passion will no longer be at ends with schooling, but a formally recognised part of it.
This is our vision that, in so many ways, takes us back to the core function of an education: depth of thought and whole person human flourishing.
To join the coalition, write to [email protected]