Kicking Away The Ladder

ladderDeveloped countries stimulate developing countries to adopt the “good” institutions and “good” policies which will bring them economic growth and prosperity.   These are promoted by institutions such as the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank.  Recipes such as abolishing trade tariffs, an independent central bank and adhering to intellectual property rights feature high on their agendas.

In his book “Kicking away the ladder” Ha-Joon Chang shows that these policies are not so beneficial for developing countries.  Through historical analysis he shows that developed countries actively pursued all types of interventionist policies to achieve economic growth, contradicting the recipes they are now prescribing.  A case of poachers turning into gatekeepers.

Policies that were intensively used by the USA and European countries include tariff protection, import and export bans, direct state involvement in key industries, refusal to adopt patent laws, R&D support, granting monopoly rights, smuggling and poaching expert workers.  Chang points out that alleged free trade champions, the UK and USA, were the most protective of all and only switched to liberalisation after World War II when and as long as their hegemony was safe (see table below).  Asian tigers such as South Korea and Taiwan did the same, which explains their success.  Ha-Joon Chang shows that, in comparison, current developing countries offer relatively limited protection to their economies.


What does it imply for development cooperation? Developed countries often expect developing countries to adopt world-class institutions and policies in a nick of time.  However, the path to these kinds of institutions for developed countries was a long and winding path, a slow process that took decades, with frequent reversals.  We sometimes forget that universal suffrage was only achieved as recently as 1970 (in Canada) or 1971 (Switzerland). It took the USA until 1938 to ban child labour. Switzerland was notoriously late to adopt patent laws (explaining its success with pharmaceutical companies).  Imposing world-class institutions or policies on developing countries can be harmful because they take a lot of human and financial resources, which may be better spent elsewhere.  In fact, adopting such institutions and policies mainly benefits the developed countries, not the developing ones.

Ha Joon-Chang calls this practice of using successful strategies for economic development and then preventing other countries from applying the same strategy “kicking away the ladder”.  The WTO negotiation rounds or regional trade agreements have a lot in common with the “unequal” treaties between colonisers and colonised countries.

Why is institutional development so slow? Are there no last-mover benefits?  Chang gives following reasons:

  1. Institutional development is firmly linked with the state’s capacity to collect taxes. This capacity is linked to its ability to command political legitimacy and its capacity to organize the state (see blog post on Thinking like a State).  That’s also another reason why tariffs are so important for developing countries: they are some of the taxes that are easiest to collect. Institutional development is linked to the development of human capacity within a country by its education system. Setting up “good” institutions in countries that don’t have the human capital for it will lead to undermining, bad functioning or draw away scarce resources from other sectors.
  2. Well-functioning institutions and policies need to fight initial resistance and prejudice. Chang points to the resistance to introducing an income tax at the beginning of the 20th century in western countries.  It can take years and gradual policy changes to overcome this. The struggle to raise the retirement age in western countries is another illustration of the sometimes double standards we use toward developing countries.
  3. Many institutions are more the result of economic development rather than a condition for it. This is contentious, but Chang points to democracy as an example.

Chang advocates for developing countries to pursue an active interventionist economic policy.  His thesis confirms the importance of supporting developing countries in the strengthening of their education systems.  However, it also illustrates that the financial harm to developing countries as a result of unequal trade policies can be much higher than the aid flows to these countries.

The Smartest Kids in the World

book-photo-smartestThe premise of Amanda Ripley’s book, The Smartest Kids in the World, is the large gap in the 4-yearly PISA results between the USA and a number of Asian and European countries.  As the PISA tests focus on skills such as problem solving and critical thinking, the results are extremely worrying for the USA.  Ripley sets out to analyse education systems in 3 highly performing democracies, South Korea, Finland and Poland.  She does this by following 3 American exchange students as they study one year in those countries.

Education systems in those 3 countries are very different.  South Korea’s success is to a large extent based on a very competitive and hierarchical system in which good marks at the graduation exam determine access to universities, which in turn determine job prospects.  South Korean parents invest heavily in hagwons, private tutoring companies.

Interestingly, these three education systems share some elements as well:

  • high selectivity in the entrance to the teaching profession;
  • strong pre-service training, including long teaching practice;
  • standardized testing upon graduation
  • focus on learning in schools (vs. sports…)
  • strong focus on equity, including investing more in those who need it and late tracking
  • societal-wide focus on educational rigour
  • large autonomy for teachers and schools
  • high expectations for all learners.

Finland and Poland, and the turnaround they realized since the 1970s and 2000s respectively, get the most admiration.

“Interestingly, Finland’s landscape used to be littered with small teaching colleges of varying quality, just like in the United States.  That helped explain why the first phase of reforms in Finland were painful, top-down, accountability-based measures.  In the 1970s, Finnish teachers had to keep diaries recording what they taught each hour.  National school inspectors made regular visits to make sure teachers were following an exhaustive, seven-hundred-page centralized curriculum.  Central authorities approved textbooks.  Teachers could not be trusted to make their own decisions.

Also, the Finns rebooted their teacher-training colleges, forcing them to become much more selective and rigorous.  The Finns decided that the only way to get serious about education was to select highly educated teachers and train them rigorously.

A virtuous cycle is thus initiated: better-prepared, better-trained teachers can be given more autonomy, leading to more satisfied teachers who are also more likely to stay on:

With the new, higher standards and more rigorous teacher training in place, Finland’s top-down mandates became unnecessary.  More than that, they became a burden, preventing teachers and schools from teaching a higher level of excellence.  So Finland began dismantling its most oppressive regulations, piece by piece, as if removing the scaffolding from a fine sculpture.”

On the focus on equity in Finnish education:

“Equity was not just a matter of tracking and budgets, it was a mindset.  Interestingly, this mindset extended to special education in Finland, too.  Teachers considered most special ed students to have temporary learning difficulties, rather than permanent disabilities.  By their seventeenth birthday, about half of Finnish kids has received some kind of special education services at some point, usually in elementary schools, so that they did not fall further behind.”

Despite the top scores in the PISA assessment, Koreans have been seeking to reform their education system since decades:

“The lesson seemed to be that without equity, the system would be gamed and distorted,  Parental anxieties would lead to an education arms race.  The rewards for an education had gotten too great and too rare in Korea, based on metrics that were too rigid.”

As long as students’ graduation scores determine the universities they can access and the name of the university determines the jobs that are attainable, parents will do whatever it takes to ensure the best possible outcome for their children.

However, the Korean education system offers some lessons on how parents can effectively support their offspring:

During the 1980s and 1990s, American parents and teachers had been bombarded by claims that children’s self-esteem needed to be protected from competition (and reality) in order for them to succeed. So, it was understandable that American parents dutifully sold cupcakes at the bake sales and helped coach the soccer teams.  They doled out praise and trophies at a rate unmatched in other countries.   They were their kids’ boosters, their number-one fans.  Korean parents, by contrast, were coaches. They spent less time attending school events and more time training their children at home.   They saw education as one of their jobs.Contrary to the stereotype, it did not necessarily make children miserable.”

The one thing American schools have most is technology in the school.   Ripley links the idea that learning should be fun and effortless with the American credulity for educational gadgetry:

“That’s what gimmicks do: they promise to make learning easy for everyone. Can’t learn math? It’s because your learning style hasn’t been identified. Trouble with Spanish? This new app will make it fun and effortless.”However, that kind of relentless studying could not be sustained, and there was evidence that Korean kids’ famous drive dropped off dramatically once they got to college.”

She notes that Finland, Poland and South Korea all experienced moments of crisis—economic and existential—before they buckled down and changed their stories. America, she argues, may yet have to experience such a moment.
The idea of the book is simple. Ask exchange students how they perceived education in other countries.  However, Ms Ripley packs a startling amount of insight in this slim book.  Its insights align well with the research of John Hattie, a New-Zealand researcher, and the writings of Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator.
The most interesting and relevant part for me was the description of the evolution from a prescriptive, top-down system to a decentralized and bottom-up system, as teachers and schools get stronger.  It’s a long term vision which we, in South Africa, also should envisage.  Starting with strengthening teacher training colleges stronger and making access to them more selective, and gradually giving them more autonomy. South Africa, as the US, and for various reasons, still seems to have the equation wrong:

“We were trying the reverse engineer a high-performance teaching culture through dazzlingly complex performance evaluations and value-added data analysis.  It made sense to reward, train and dismiss more teachers based on their performance, but that approach assumed that the worst teachers would be replaced with much better ones, and that the mediocre teachers would improve enough to give students the kind of education they deserved.  There was not much evidence that either scenario was happening in reality.”

In short, a well-written, truly fascinating book that I’d well recommend.

13 Lessons to Take Away from the National Colloquium on PLCs

pic2On 18 and 19 September the Ministry of Basic Education organized a nation-wide colloquium on Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). The Integrated Strategic Framework for Teacher Professional Development (ISPFTED) foresees the nation-wide implementation of PLCs by 2017. This colloquium was a first step towards that implementation. During the first day a wide range of speakers from academia, government, unions and subject associations provided input on international and local research, local experiences and various initiatives on PLCs.  On the second day, participants were invited to provide feedback on two draft documents: a policy document on subject committees and PLCs and a practical guideline on implementing PLCs.

Here are 13 lessons from the two days:

  1. Hardly anyone doubted the useful role PLCs could play in the South African education system.  However, it became clear that more conceptual and practical work needs to be done before PLCs can be rolled out nationwide.
  2. Any guideline on PLCs should clearly describe the concept. The prominent place of PLCs in DBE’s Strategic Framework 2011-2025 (ISPFTED) and the excitement on the ‘new’ concept make that all types of professional development are dubbed PLCs.  A clear definition of what they are, is needed to avoid losing the power of the concept. Prof. Brodie stressed that PLCs are more than sharing resources over tea. They require intensive collaboration to develop resources and prepare and evaluate classroom practice together.
  3. We should be realistic in our expectations for PLCs, both in terms of numbers and outcomes and conceptual purity.  Much depends on what kind of PLCs we want.  Do we only count PLCs that are truly teacher-led, data-driven and collaborative in nature?  Or do we include all kinds of regular teaching meetings, in order to reach ambitious quantitative targets?  As such, stating (unrealistically) high targets might water down what are considered PLCs and reduce the process-oriented and collaborative character of PLCs.
  4. Implementation of PLCs should also take into account the existing education system and school culture. Can we expect PLCs to become beacons of a collaborative, data-driven and self-driven view on professional development, if the education system in which they operate is prescriptive and bureaucratic? Could we hope for PLCs to become a Trojan horse for change of the education system? How far should we be prepared to compromise? Criteria such as teacher-driven, school-based, continuous and collaborative surfaced as key criteria without which a PLC is not a PLC any more.
  5. PLCs are as much about changes in school culture as they are about individual teacher development.  A successful PLC manages to instil a culture of ‘us-ness’.  Teaching and learning become a collective responsibility for the school rather than an individual responsibility for the teacher. pic1
  6. PLCs are inherently connected to the concept of teacher agency. Implementing PLCs raises therefore wider questions. How do we see the role of the teachers, as implementers of policy and curriculum or as education professionals? This raises the question whether the current climate in South Africa is conducive to teacher agency?
  7. Imposing PLCs on teachers and schools will result in command and control, compliance and resistance, nipping any potential of PLCs in the bud. Participation in PLCs should be voluntary, based on teachers’ assessment of what constitutes valuable professional development for them.
  8. However, PLCs are unlikely to grow spontaneously. An important role for the Department of Basic Education lies in scaffolding and providing initial support to starting PLCs. Results from the Data-informed practice improvement project (DIPIP) Project indicated that this initial support may well be needed during several years. The challenge lies in finding a good balance between prescription and support.  An important role in providing this support lies with the provincial and district administrations.  Subject advisors should focus on their pedagogical rather than judgemental role and provide the necessary resources and capacity building.  Provinces should equip them with the skills to construct knowledge and be part of PLCs themselves.
  9. Time is most prominent on everyone’s list of challenges for PLCs. Arguments whether time should be provided to work in PLCs went both ways. Professional development and preparing lessons can be considered core parts of a teacher’s job description. PLCs intend to facilitate a shift from teaching as an isolated activity to a social approach to teaching. Secondly, if teachers find PLCs a valuable activity, they will invest time in it. However, if PLCs are to make headway beyond the very motivated, it was estimated that at least 2 consecutive hours per week should be dedicated to it. The 80 hours that are currently earmarked for professional development in teachers’ schedules could form the backbone of such a system.
  10. Conceptions of what constitutes valuable knowledge are changing. Rather than providing people with a bag of facts, it becomes more important to equip learners with 21st century skills such as information fluency, creativity fluency, collaborative skills and media fluency. New conceptions of knowledge also require new forms of CPD.
  11. We should be patient and be careful not to expect immediate effects of PLCs. Moreover, defining outcomes for successful PLCs is hard. PLCs are not going to change the ANA results in one year. First, PLCs are a slow and ongoing process, as much about the process of creating trust and developing a culture of systematic enquiry, as about tangible outputs. Reporting on the activities in PLCs and the products that come out of them is only a first step. More relevant outcomes of PLCs lie in bridging the gap between educational research and practice, promoting data-informed practice, instilling an attitude of lifelong learning and creating safe spaces for addressing practical issues. Most importantly however, but also hardest to measure, are the impact PLCs have on learning outcomes, equity, teacher identity and school culture.
  12. The distinction between PLCs and Subject Committees should be made very clear. Subject committees are structures at district, provincial and national level, organized per subject and aimed at providing advice on policy and curriculum issues. PLCs are primarily school-based structures to facilitate teaching and learning. However, this does not mean there is no learning, no professional development taking place in Subject Committees. There is also a clear link between PLCs and Subject Committees, as they feed each other with information and ideas. Moreover, PLCs that are supported by a broader network have turned out to be more successful. Ideally, PLCs engage in a process of moving out of the local and back in to access and bring in external expertise in PLCs.
  13. Principals play a crucial role in supporting PLCs. They should be more than enablers, providing time and space for PLCs. Their role extends to instructional leaders within PLCs, motivating teachers to engage in them, providing guidance to resources and facilitating conditions for a culture of collaboration across grades and subjects by for example promoting team teaching, lesson observations and seminars. Hence, DBE and PED’s support to PLC should for a big part lie in capacity development of school leaders, school management teams (SMTs) and Heads of Department (HoDs).

My keynote presentation is available on Slideshare.

Why We Disagree on Climate Change (M.Hulme)

hulme coverMike Hulme is a professor of climate change and director of the prestigious and controversial research Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research  .  The book is not a book on the science of climate change.  If it were only about the science, Hulme argues, reaching agreement would be straightforward.   Rather, disagreements on the science of climate change are symptoms of much more fundamental differences in human nature.

Such underlying reasons include:

  • Different ways people look at science and understand its limitations
  • Different ways people see the relation between (scientific) knowledge and policy
  • Different ways people consider risk;
  • Different ethical positions people take about their responsibility for future generations and are willing to invest for future welfare (quantified in the ‘discount rate’)
  • Different beliefs in our duty to others, who’s responsible for climate change and our religions
  • Different world views, described by Douglas and Wildavsky’s Cultural Theory
  • Different ways people communicate about climate (no message is neutral) and interpret those messages
  • Different ways people think climate change should be governed.
Four Rationalities in Cultural Theory

Four Rationalities in Cultural Theory

Cultural Theory distinguishes four dominant world views, expressed by the intensity of bonds between people (individualist vs collectivist) and the extent to which people believe that few or many rules are necessary to control behaviour.

  • Fatalists: nature is a lottery, there is nothing we can do
  • Hierarchists: experts can manage the outcomes if we get behind them
  • Individualists: it’s down to individuals and markets
  • Egalitarians: altruism and common effort, built on social justice, are the way forward

The cultural dimension of climate change is also revealed by the language and images we use.  Expressions like ‘dangerous’ climate change, ‘save’ the climate, ‘tipping points’ and ‘fragile’ climate express different views on climate.  Greenpeace has used a range of images of the years, from the ‘climate change bomb’  to the polar bear to communicate climate change to different target groups.

In discussion on avoiding ‘dangerous’ climate change, questions such as whose climate (small island states, Western Europe, Saharan Africa…), dangerous for whom and what climate is desired (pre-industrial, Holocene…) are often glossed over.

These underlying differences have created various ‘stories’ about climate change, inspired by 4 basic human desires:

  • nostalgia for a lost ‘ideal’ climate
  • fear for the unknown future
  • mastering and controlling nature
  • call to respond to social injustice

Climate change has become a central concept in development as well.  Climate change prominently features in calls for proposals or as a transversal theme in programmes.  At first sight, this might seem strange.  Does it make sense to invest funds in the welfare of future generations if current generations lack basic amenities such as basic healthcare and education.  Investing in the economic development of the poor will enable them to protect themselves better against any natural disasters.  Limiting fertility rates (as a result of economic development) is likely to do more for climate change than any planned ‘development’ intervention (as China likes to point out).  Climate change mitigation and development are frequently in conflict each other.  Projects under the Clean Development Mechanism rarely benefit the poorest.  Increasing trade is bad for the carbon level in the atmosphere but has lifted millions out of poverty.  The European decision to subsidize biofuels has pushed up food prices.

However, if you look at climate change as an idea (like ‘democracy’ or ‘terrorism’) that has as much to do with science as with culture, it makes more sense.  Climate change as an idea carries a variety of meanings and interpretations.  Then, climate change becomes a tool to advance development agendas of social justice, better functioning markets or public welfare.

As solution, the book gives some recipes from complexity science.  Rather than aiming to find one global solution, a variety of approaches catering to different world views, ideas about governance, science etc. stands a better chance at curbing climate change.  Climate change derives from various other problems, such as population growth, unsustainable energy, endemic poverty, food security, deforestation, biodiversity loss…  Rather than framing climate change as a mega-problem, requiring a mega-solution, Hulme argues that disentangling the issue, moving climate change to the background, is more likely to yield effect.

If you like an intelligent take on why climate change is about so much more than debates on science, then this book is for you.  For development people, discussions on the IPCC, the Stern Report and the disagreements between North and South are all there.  Duncan Green from Oxfam also has a fine review of the book.

Some Takeaways from TALIS 2013 for Flanders

The OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) is a 5-yearly questionnaire with (primary education and lower secondary education) teachers and school leaders. It’s not a competency test, but more an investigation of their attitudes, satisfaction and engagement with professional development.  TALIS asks a representative sample of teachers and schools in each country about their working conditions and the learning environments.  It links results to various educational policies in the participating countries and regions.  Results can be downloaded from the OECD website.  A report with an interpretation of the results for Flanders can be found here.
Some personal takeaways (it’s interesting to see how everyone identifies different highlights in this extensive report):
  • the general education level of teachers in Flanders is low (many professional bachelors, few masters);
  • the high autonomy of schools in Flanders translates into responsibilities for pedagogical matters (but not in curriculum), human resources (but not in salaries) and financial policy.
Degree of autonomy in Flemish schools vs. comparable countries

Degree of autonomy in Flemish schools vs. comparable countries

  • Flemish school leaders indicate they compete actively with other schools to attract pupils (only in England the percentage is as high).  The free choice of school is obviously related to this.
  • Flemish teachers see little need to engage in professional development.  Notwithstanding many have engaged in some professional development during the last year (88%), only 10,5% sees a strong need for ICT training and only 5,3% recognizes a need to learn more about helping children with special needs.
CPD needs Flemish teachers compared with TALIS average

CPD needs Flemish teachers compared with TALIS average

  • Teaching in Flanders remains very much an individual activity. Most teachers stay within the safe confines of their classrooms.  75% never observes lessons from other teachers to give feedback.  Two thirds of teachers in lower secondary education never engage in team teaching.  Thirdly, joined professional development is not common.  31% of primary teachers and 45% of lower secondary teachers never do this (highest % in Flanders).
  • In South Africa, VVOB supports the establishment of professional learning communities in primary schools as an instrument for teacher professional development, as laid out in South African policy documents.  The TALIS results show that also in Flanders courses and workshops are still the preferred means for professional development.  Less than a third of teachers works in a school where networks, virtual networks or peer review are mentioned as a component of professional development.  Flemish school leaders engage more in professional networks.
Participation at professional development activities by Flemish teachers (during 12 months prior to survey)

Participation at professional development activities by Flemish teachers (during 12 months prior to survey)

  • Finally, perhaps a bit surprising, most (approx. 80%) teachers feel recognized by society and only a small minority considers leaving the profession (however most who want to leave profession do so within the first 3 years of their teaching career).

An extensive Slideshare presentation and video (both in English) on the TALIS 2013 results can be found here.  Another review, by Pedro De Bruykere, is available here.

#WorldSTE2013: Malaysia’s Education Blueprint 2012-2025

I highlight briefly the most interesting sessions of the 3rd and 4th day of the World Conference on Science and Technology Education (WorldSTE2013).

Dr. Azian Abdullah discussed the Malaysia’s Education Blueprint, aimed enhancing the quality of STEM education and aiming at achieving developed nation status by 2020.  The country spurred into action on its education system after sharp drops in the international TIMSS and PISA (PISA+ 2009) rankings for science and maths and alarming signals from employers:

”The growing mismatch between the supply of skills and the requirements of various industries in the local market is a reflection of the inadequacy of the country’s education system in producing the relevant human capital that can drive the country’s economy in this globalised, new world order,” (2010) (1)


PISA2009+ scores compared with investment in education levels for selected countries

  • Some interesting elements in the blueprint:
  • The blueprint contains a set of clear targets and SMART indicators.
  • Strong attention for early-childhood education, aiming at a 80% enrolment by 2020.
  • International benchmarks to assess the quality of education are deemed more reliable than the local exams by the Ministry of Education itself.
  • Strong attention for achievement gaps between rural and urban areas, socio-economic groups and gender.
  • Focus on the efficiency component of educational quality.
  • Explicit attention for fostering shared values and experiences by embracing diversity between the three main ethnic groups in Malaysia (Chinese, Malay, Indian).

Extract from Malaysia Education Blueprint

The situational analysis complementing the plan shows:

  • Lack of awareness about STEM education with parents and students, e.g. about career prospects.  Parents prefer law, business, accounting (as in Cambodia!).
  • Content oriented curriculum: a lot of teaching to the high-stake exams, as teachers are rewarded based on exam scores.
  • Although scientific inquiry been officially promoted since the 1960s, teacher-centred pedagogies continue to prevail.  North’s Framework of Institutional Change or Engeström’s Activity Theory would be very suitable to analyse this!)

Some interesting action points include

  •  Changing timetables to give teachers more time to plan lessons collaboratively and engage in Communities of Practice.
  • Installation of school improvement specialist coaches (SICS+) in low-performing primary and secondary schools who act as mentors and coaches and deliver professional development.
  • Compulsory testing of teachers in their content and pedagogical skills. (This raises the question what knowledge a teacher exactly needs to have in order to teach well, better to organize accountability on the school level instead of the individual level.)
  • Campaign to educate public about STEM career opportunities
  • Mobile science centres to access rural and remote schools
  • The plan contains strong encouragement to study sciences.  Students with good results are (almost) compelled to study sciences, as parents of selected students need to apply to the Ministry to ask permission to something else.
  • Tax relief for parents with children doing stem subjects!

The problem analysis and suggested solutions were clearly laid out.  The impression is really that of a decisive attempt to improve the quality of its education system, focusing on efficiency, learning outcomes and equity.  The policy focus of the presentation was welcome and extremely relevant for the Cambodian delegation, as it faces similar problems (although in at a different level of development).