in Education

Obliquity, PISA, and ‘shareholder value’ in education.

At TEDx Warwick last Saturday I was first up, meaning I could sit back, relax and listen properly to the other speakers. Whilst I could write several posts about floating islands, medical implants and sustainability, I want to focus on just one of them.

John Kay, author of Obliquity: why our goals are best achieved indirectly, gave what I considered to be a fascinating talk. His book has been on my Amazon wishlist almost since it came out and I’ve now got several more reasons to read it.

Before I go any further, the stimulus for writing this post comes from the TES article ‘Wales asks schools to teach to the Pisa test‘. As I mentioned in my recent Purpos/ed Ignite presentation, education is under the control of governments, and PISA is pretty much the only tool they have to compare educational outcomes. Unfortunately, it focuses on a very narrow aspect of education and is accused of using discredited statistical techniques.

John Kay’s key point was that we often achieve the ends we desire indirectly. He summed this up perfectly by his example of ICI, the chemical company. I haven’t got the exact quotations he used, but in the 1970s ICI’s mission statement focused firmly on innovation and customers. ‘Shareholder value’ was merely a by-product of the core function of the company. By the 1990s this had reversed, with ‘shareholder value’ being the number one priority.

Of course, ICI no longer exists having lost its innovative edge. Likewise, if we focus on narrow and questionable measures of education to make comparisons with other countries, we miss the point of learning. PISA is the educational equivalent of ‘shareholder value’. Focusing on the by-product rather than the core mission is worrying.

Perhaps it’s time to take education out of the hands of politicians?

If you’re interested in debating the purpose(s) of education, you might want to join the debate at purposed.org.uk. Look especially at our call for more #500words contributions!

  • http://twitter.com/MJChupa Mike Jones

    That’s a brilliant analogy.  We have the same problem over here with each state having its own version of a high stakes “skills” test.  Truly a case of putting the cart before the horse

    • http://dougbelshaw.com/ Doug Belshaw

      Indeed. I wish the students were the shareholders. :-/