There are many paradoxes in education today. For example, on the one hand there is an increased focus on standardised testing and educational league tables that compare schools and universities based solely on test scores and on the other hand the need to foster entrepreneurship and creativity in schools. There is considerable evidence that success in tests does not correspond to creativity and innovation. However, the more national authorities focus on success in, for example, PISA the more teachers will need to teach the test and that in turn leads to students focusing not on learning but on cramming facts to pass the tests.
There is of course intense competition between nations as markets become more global and every country tries to stay ahead of the competition by being more innovative. But maybe standardised testing in schools and colleges is counter-productive. This is the essence of an article by Katrina Schwartz, In an Era of Global Competition, What Exactly Are We Testing For? which discusses the research Yong Zhao, professor of education at University of Oregon. Zhao has compared students from countries with high test scores in mathematics, like Korea and Japan, with countries with lower average scores and discovered a negative correlation between high math scores and confidence. The "successful" students are not particularly interested in the subject they are supposedly excellent at and have low confidence in their ability. They have focused on memorising the facts needed to pass the test rather than applying them and thinking creatively. In schools where students can choose more freely and have more control over what they learn and how they learn there is greater commitment and higher levels of creativity, even if they may not perform so well in standardised tests.
What is the focus for educational institutions then? Should education start with a curriculum of facts that every student must know or does it focus on the individual and build on her/him? It would seem to be a choice between conformity and creativity. We need to learn how to learn rather than learn to pass tests.
“The new education needs to start with the child. Not with the prescribed content,” Zhao said. “We start with individual differences; we start with their cultural strengths.” Beginning with the individual and building upwards from there allows each person to become uniquely great at something. And when students are passionate about anything, they can then be creative and entrepreneurial. For Zhao, the new model has to be about creating a new middle class based on creativity.
To do that, he suggests giving students more autonomy over their learning and emphasizing the importance of making authentic products that solve problems. He also emphasizes a global learning community that can collaborate to fill the gaps that each country, school or teacher experiences.
The problem is that tests focus on facts and acquired knowledge but do not test the skills that today's employers value most: creativity, entrepreneurship and collaboration. If we really want to promote these skills we need to find new methods of assessing real skills and practical competence and let students follow their natural talents and learn in the manner that suits them best.