Cleverlands – A Smart Read

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Lucy Crehan‘s Cleverlands is a great read. As well as providing a fantastic overview of the workings of many of the world’s leading education systems, Cleverlands also offers a unique insight into the culture and people who live and breathe the systems on a daily basis – the parents, the teachers, and the students themselves, all of whom, in one way or another, are asking the same fundamental questions about education: what should young people learn, and how can we make education better and fairer for all?

After working for three years in a London secondary school teaching science, Crehan wanted to find out more about why some countries seemed to perform better with their educational outcomes than others, at least according to PISA assessment scores. She embarked on a journey that took in most of the world’s prominent education jurisdictions – the usual suspects such as Singapore, Finland and Japan – with the aim of getting to the heart of the reality behind the statistics of national comparison data. The result is this fantastic book, written by someone who clearly understands that headlines only ever tell part of the story, and who has a keen eye for the nuance of research data, which we know is too often appropriated by those looking for quick fixes and easy answers.

Cleverlands is organised into 18 perfectly weighted chapters that each focus on exploring an aspect of a particular educational system. One of the things that make this such a pleasurable read is the clarity of Crehan’s writing, and in particular her effortless blend of travelogue, considered analysis and opinion. One moment we’re inside the home of one of the many teachers who agree to house her during her travels, to show her around their schools and to act as her interpreter, and the next we’re taking a step back to review the bigger picture, looking at the research, or learning about a country’s social and cultural history.  Throughout I felt cheered by the essential kindness of strangers, and by the way that so many teachers around the world were willing to help Crehan on the back of just a few speculative emails, which she herself admits were rather optimistic and the potential actions of a ‘lunatic’.

There is something to learn from each of the countries under examination. Not so much in terms of directly taking any of the ideas or approaches being described and blindly applying them to a different classroom, school or even system – the book is clear that, despite what some politicians might think, it’s a bit more complicated than that – but more in the sense in which the insights that the book offers into the lives of others, enables a greater understanding of ideas, beliefs and practices much closer to home. In many respects, I found myself thinking how much we fall short in comparison to our international colleagues, and I don’t mean in PISA scores, which often don’t reveal the complete picture.

Compared to the very best education systems our system does not appear to be very systematic at all, at least where it really matters: in developing great teachers, in raising the status of the profession and in giving the time and resource necessary to genuinely improve educational outcomes. Whether or not you like the Singaporean approach to widespread streaming (I suspect you won’t and to be fair, neither it seems do the Singaporeans), you have to admire the fact they have a coherent plan, one that a great deal of thought went into producing. Time after time what emerges from each of the stories of educational success from China to Canada is the notion of coherence and joined-up thinking. There are drawbacks, caveats and nuance aplenty, but at least the world’s leading education nations have a strategy, whereas all we seem to have is fracture, self-interest and free market chaos.

Depending on how much you read about teaching or follow education policy in the media, there will be bits of Cleverlands that you will probably already know about, or at the very least with which you will be quite familiar. For instance, Japan’s large class sizes, high levels of parental engagement and collaborative teaching practices will be common knowledge to most who will seek out this book in the first place. Likewise the triumphs of the Finnish system that lead to the outstanding results of the 2006 PISA report are well documented, in particular the high standard of teaching training, the prestige of the profession in society and the role of high quality textbooks in ensuring curriculum coherence. Familiar too will be the backlash against this success and the supposed fall of the Finnish star in recent years.

But even within the familiar, there are surprises and lesser known, but nevertheless fascinating, observations. For instance, the significant changes in demographics that Finland has faced in the last 20 or so years was news to me, as was their heavy investment in a multi-discipline approach to tackling welfare issues early on in a child’s education. Crehan describes the weekly meetings that take place in Finnish schools between education specialists and class teachers to discuss individual students and devise plans to tackle their social and academic needs. Whilst there are, admittedly, signs of the all too recognisable bureaucracy here, as Crehan rightly points out, it’s ultimately the right approach at the right time. Whereas the Finns look to act on disparity and need early on, in this country we tend to put ‘interventions into place that attempt to deal with a symptom of a problem, rather than its underlying cause.’ Too little, too late in other words.

Cleverlands is published by Unbound using a crowd-funding model, where readers who like the sound of the book’s synopsis contribute to its production. Judging by how quickly Crehan reached her target, it’s clear that there is a lot of interest for this kind of well-informed, well-written educational voyeurism. Whilst there are similarish books on the market– I’m thinking of Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World ­– nothing I’ve read quite manages to achieve the same happy balance between human sentiment and cool analysis. Clearly Crehan’s previous incarnation as a teacher has helped her to focus on the things that we want to know and presented them in such an engaging way that leaves you feeling better informed, if not slightly frustrated at the continued failings and short-sightedness of our own not-so-clever land. This really is a smart read – buy a copy as soon as you can.

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