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Saturday, February 26, 2011

When Reforms Don't Transform: Reflections on Philippine Education (Third Part in a Series)

UP Centennial Lecture; November 12, 2008 (DRAFT)
by Ma. Cynthia Rose B. Bautista, Allan B. I. Bernardo, and Dina Ocampo

Learning in the periphery of reform

For decades now, we have been talking about education in the Philippines in “crisis” terms. Asin any such situation, decisions are made out of urgency or exigency, instead of long-term considerations. Thus, education reform often resembles relief operations that hurriedly address obvious gaps and plug problematic holes in the system. The problem with doing reform using a “crisis-relief” framework is that it does not directly resolve the crisis. We never get to truly reflect on what it is we should be reforming and how.

In contrast, countries that successfully reformed their educational systems used a long-term transformational approach. The process of reform was both comprehensive and sustained over time. The transformation of their educational systems was designed and so that they could meet long-term national development goals. These successful reforms first reckoned with a rather simple question: “How do we reform the school system so that students learn better?” Corollary is the more difficult problem: “What should students be learning in schools?” These countries have grappled with defining what kind of knowledge and skills their citizens need to allow them to be effective participants in today’s rapidly changing, highly networked, knowledge societies.

In the Philippines, there are initiatives that aim to improve student achievement levels, such as the 57-75 advocacy to reverse the low academic achievement of students. But the question of what and how our students should be learning has not been a central concern in discussions of education reform.

We propose that all education reform in the Philippines first formulate answers to these fundamental questions: First, what kinds of knowledge and skills will enable Filipinos to participate effectively in the world of work and also to transform their communities and societies? Second, what kinds of knowledge and skills will enable citizens to build better futures for themselves and for others in their communities?

The present answers to these questions can be found in the DepEd and CHED curriculum standards for schools and specific courses. The present learning goals are defined in terms of particular sets and sequences of concepts and procedures. In contrast, in current reform discourses, students need to learn competencies, and not just knowledge and skills.

A competency is the ability to successfully carry out a task with complex requirements. It includes both cognitive and non-cognitive knowledge and skills. Cognitive knowledge requires higher levels of thinking such as being able to manage and critically reflect on information in order to apply these for the learners’ purposes. The non-cognitive dimensions refer to values,beliefs, and attitudes that motivate and guide the performance of these complex tasks.

The key competency that should be targeted by all school systems is subsumed under the expanded definition of functional literacy. For example, the Organisation for Economic Coopertion and Development or OECD defines functional literacy as “the capacity to access, integrate, evaluate and manage information and knowledge. It provides learners a window to the world and the linguistic, textual and symbolic tools to engage with the world as acting and autonomous individuals interacting with various groups.”

This expanded definition is now a key feature of learning goals in truly reformed educational systems. In addition, reformist educational systems include “transformational citizenship” as an important learning goal, where citizenship is conceived of as involving the competencies to make societies and communities better for all people.

We underscore that expanded functional literacy will promote transformational citizenship if the texts and materials of our public social life are used as objects of the competencies. As a result,learners will not be mere passive observers of public services and governance. Instead, they will participate in transformative ways; they will learn to understand and analyze, to negotiate and cooperate, and if necessary, to protest and initiate new forms of social participation.

This is when the non-cognitive dimensions of these competencies become important. It is not sufficient to simply equip our students with high level technical knowledge. We must develop in them the motivation and the confidence to apply their mental abilities to transform Philippine society. More importantly, we must develop the belief and the conviction that, yes, they can transform Philippine society.

On paper, the various DepED and CHED curricular statements make reference to such goals and aspirations. But what we find in these national curricula are still isolated bits of knowledge and skills which are clearly inadequate compared to the expanded concepts of functional literacy and transformational citizenship. So far, we have not seriously discussed how to reform this curriculum in substantial terms.

In many Philippine communities, the successful high school or college graduates are the ones most likely to leave their community. Why? Because the knowledge and skills they have acquired in our schools are often irrelevant, or worse, opposed and hostile to the ways of life in their community. The modus vivendi is that these educated persons leave the community, and support the community by sending money or other forms of support to their families. This will always be the case as long as our schools do not develop the competencies that will motivate them to be useful and transformative in communities they value,

Since the 1960’s, mass movements have criticized the irrelevance of our formal education system to the plight of Filipinos in poor communities. Our partners in industry have also called our attention to the mismatch of what our students are learning in our schools to their employment requirements. These are presently complicated by the fact that social environments
are rapidly transitioning, and that Filipinos now move across different geographic and cultural spaces, either by choice or by circumstance. Because of this, specific competencies become obsolete rather easily, and persons have to acquire new sets of competencies as they move on in their lives.

This leads us to the discourse of lifelong learning. Ten years ago, noted scholar Simon Papert wrote: “…the model that says, learn while you’re at school, the skills that you will apply during your lifetime is no longer tenable. The skills that you can learn when you’re at school will not be applicable. They will be obsolete by the time you get into the workplace and need them… The one really competitive skill is the skill of being able to learn...”

In addition to the two goals of expanded functional literacy and transformational citizenship, we should add a third goal which is to develop in all our students an intrinsic value for learning and knowledge. This will ensure that the competencies associated with functional literacy and transformational citizenship are continuously renewed as the person grows and moves through different spheres of life and work.

So far, we have emphasized the need to shift from developing knowledge and skills to developing competencies that are comprised of expanded functional literacy; transformational citizenship; and the value for lifelong learning.  How does one actually develop these types of competencies? What types of schools and learning activities would help our students develop these learning goals?

Our answer is: Schools that create powerful environments where diverse types of students can work together to develop these competencies. There is no single standard of powerful learning environments, instead these are characterized by core features. Schools must:

  1. articulate and aim to develop high standards of performance related to the target competencies,
  2. provide opportunities to actively work on real-life problems and projects, where the integration and application of rich knowledge is experienced;
  3. provide opportunities for students to process, negotiate, and apply varied forms of knowledge in cohesive and iterative activities;
  4. provide many opportunities for students to work collaboratively, to share and to negotiate with other students who have diverse ways of experiencing this knowledge;
  5. support the learners aspirations to grow and to transform their life circumstances by affirming their personal agency, their capacities to make choices, and respecting their individual and social identities and motivations; and
  6. utilize various forms of authentic formative assessment to help students clarify the learning goals, to articulate their personal learning goals, and to provide them with feedback to better control their own learning.

Educational reform must transform our schools into powerful learning environments. The adoption of these features in our school system is not an easy process to facilitate. It is difficult because the practices of teachers and activities of students in the classrooms and schools are actually sanctioned by explicit and implicit regulatory processes that limit the options of teachers and students.

One prevailing constraint to transformation is the privileging of traditional pedagogies for classroom instruction. The core features of powerful learning environments can be encountered in varied types of experiences in classrooms. But they are also found in informal and nonformal activities and practices based in communities, places of work, and even in the virtual spaces of the internet. These learning environments outside the classroom can provide more authentic, more contextualized experiences that support complex learning. Thus, it makes no sense to completely privilege formal classroom instruction over the learning activities in alternative learning systems both in and outside schools.

The combination of creative and flexible forms of alternative learning systems will best provide access to powerful lifelong learning opportunities to as many diverse learners as possible. Filipino students are very diverse in their prior experiences and knowledge, social-economic circumstance, geographic location, and individual learner characteristics. We need to match the students’ diversity with an equal measure of diversity in our pedagogical approaches and learning environments.

We now know that the one-size-fits-all approach is most harmful to highly diverse student populations. Thus, our schools and teachers should be allowed to explore diverse approaches to helping our students attain the desired learning competencies.

Yet our educational reforms have still focused primarily on the formal school systems and the traditional curricular and pedagogical forms. The explicit and implicit educational regulatory bodies, including the accrediting bodies and professional regulatory agencies, have also limited the options and spaces for schools to experiment with these alternative learning systems.

We must acknowledge that there have been many attempts to apply the various learning-oriented reformist concepts, particularly in the basic education sector. As early as the late 1940s, there was already the community school movement that was a forerunner of the lifewide learning approach.

Project IMPACT, implemented in 1973, was a successful lifewide learning project that promoted learner empowerment and featured many key qualities of powerful learning in non-school activities. Perhaps the first coherent articulation of the need to refocus the goals of Philippine education came from the education NGOs like Education Forum, supported by the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines (AMRSP) in response to mass movement’s criticisms of the Philippine educational system during the 1960s and 1970s.

Remarkably, this articulation was developed from outside the DepED but eventually found itself expressed again in Projects BEAM and Strengthening Basic Education in the Visayas or STRIVE that are being administered by the DepED. Today, the goals of expanded functional literacy, transformational citizenship, and lifelong learning are fully enshrined in both the Philippine Education for All 2015 Plan and the BESRA.

These learning-oriented reform concepts are much less evident in the higher education sector.  Learning activities in most colleges and universities still embody traditional didactic approaches that transmit concepts and teach skills instead of developing competencies. This continues even as there are now equivalency and accreditation programs in CHED that recognize the knowledge and skills acquired by persons outside the college system.

Perhaps the University of the Philippines should assess itself against these observations. Indeed, the higher education system as a whole seems to be more focused on credentialing students rather than their acquisition of complex competencies. Although there are learning-oriented reform concepts that are alluded to in some colleges and universities, by and large, these concepts are not the guiding principles of reform efforts. And this is the point that we wish to emphasize. In educational systems that have been transformed successfully, the design and implementation of the reforms were guided by the strong purpose of improving student learning of the highest possible form. All specific reform activities such as designing alternative learning experiences, assessment systems, teacher development, educational technology, educational management processes are supportive of the core features of powerful learning environments.

Unfortunately in the Philippines, discourses on learning have remained in the margins. All the reforms suggested by the different major educational surveys, starting with the Monroe Survey, have all been based on some implicit discourse about how students learn. But the appreciation and understanding of such frameworks by our lead educational agencies, by our schools, and by the larger society have remained superficial. And the goals and processes of high level student learning have never become the key organizing and unifying frame of Philippine educational reforms.

Instead, in most contemporary discourses of education / reform has focused on crisis and relief, addressing poor inputs and gaps in the processes. The discourse is sometimes accompanied by simplistic arguments about how reform efforts relate to improving learning, such as what we saw in the DepEd’s fairly recent CyberEd proposal which was unwittingly premised on some of the most outdated principles of learning that are definitely inappropriate for young learners.

We strongly believe that the most enduring exemplar of the harmful effects of ignoring the discourses of learning can be seen in our educational system’s inability to meaningfully resolve the language of instruction issue.

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