Schooling at the Speed of Thought – Interdidatica 2011

Here’s the keynote that I delivered at the Interdidatica event in Sao Paulo, Brazil on 10th May.

Slides, in Portuguese, are here:

Schooling at the Speed of Thought, Interdidatica, Portuguese online

For the English version see the Chinese Ministry of Education event article below.

The speech summarised Schooling at the Speed of Thought.

A great video showing how distance learning is being used for continuous professional development for 220k teachers in Sao Paulo State can be found here:

Thanks to Jorge Vidal for the invite, and congratulations on a very succesful event. Thanks also to my Brazilian colleagues – especially Emilio Munaro, Renata Cacace, Adriana Siliano Pettengill, and Mara Carvalho.

China Ministry of Education and Microsoft Conference on ICT

It was a real pleasure to deliver a keynote at the “International Symposium on Chinese Innovative Educational Informationlization” in Beijing on the 6th May.

The conference, the first of its kind in China, was a collaboration between the Ministry of Education and Microsoft. In total, 250 leaders from states, universities and other eduation institutions attended the two day event.

The speech summarised much of what is in “Schooling at the Speed of Thought“, but with an emphasis on Effectiveness, Skills, and Software for Learning.

Slides are here: Schooling at the Speed of Thought, Beijing Final online

Special thanks to my colleagues in China – Tom Tang, Carrie Chen, Sean Zhang, Min Zheng, Yositta Wong and Yolanda Wang.

High Performance Schools

It was a thrill to deliver a keynote at the High Performance Schools conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil on April 14th.

The speech summarised much of what is in “Schooling at the Speed of Thought“, but with an emphasis on Effectiveness, Skills, and Software for Learning.

Below are the main points from the presentation:

This presentation will attempt to answer the question of what are the key ingredients of high performance schools from the perspective of:

  • Skills and competencies for the modern world
  • Personalisation and
  • Software

Let’s start by looking at effectiveness

  • Imagine a desert island made of 2.4trn used $1 bills… on fire. This really happens every year…
  • Every year, $2.4trn is spent on Education
  • In some countries, the effectiveness of this spend could be as low as 7% (World Bank)

What a waste!

Courtesy of Mark Treadwell, Schooling 2.0


Let’s agree that most schools are far from high performing, not through lack of trying, but through employing outdated and ineffective organisation models.

We’ve hit the limits of the book based, or factory schooling, paradigm, and its no longer possible to squeeze more than a few percentage points improvement every year.

If I said that you could have 2x your current budget, would you get 2x as good results? Clearly not.

Since the factory school appeared in the industrial revolution, the rest of society has changed dramatically. Schooling will have to change too – just as the age of steam had to give way to the internal combustion engine.

But moving beyond the factory approach – at scale – is really hard. This is because schooling systems are ecosystems – everything is connected to everything else. It’s also hard because you have to change them whilst operating them at the same time – a bit like rebuilding an aeroplane whilst flying it. Because this is hard, it doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t make the necessary changes though. We just have to think carefully about how we’ll do it.

The way other sectors do go through transformative change is through building enterprise architectures. The rest of this presentation explores three parts of Schooling Enterprise Architecture – Outcomes, Information, and Technology.

Schooling Enterprise Architecture

So let’s next look at the outcomes that we want from Schooling.

What skills should schools be developing and why?

The first thing to note is that – according to OECD, citing Levy and Murnane – the skills that are in most demand by employers are not just knowledge work skills.

Its really interesting to note, that the skills and knowledge that are easiest for schools to teach and test are the easiest to automate and outsource.

So, the kinds of skills that are needed for the modern economy are those that prepare learners for change – namely:

  • Creativity
  • Communication & collaboration
  • Problem solving
Levy and Murnane work trends, cited by OECD PISA


That’s not to say that academic knowledge is not required – it’s just not sufficient on its own any more. So many schools now recognise that a “Standards and Competencies Based Curriculum” is a core part of modernising the schooling. Others are offering vocational qualifications. Many more are developing 21st Century Skills and competencies.

So what are 21st Century Skills? Basically, there are four key categories:

Ways of Thinking

  • Creativity and innovation
  • Critical thinking,
  • Problem solving and decision making
  • Learning to learn & metacognition

Ways of Working

  • Versatility
  • Editing and communicating
  • Creativity and Synthesis
  • Collaboration and Orchestration

Tools for working

  • Information literacy
  • ICT literacy

Living in the world

  • Citizenship, global and local

Implementing 21st Century Skills demands a different approach to assessment –

  • Knowledge – “standard” responses to questions
  • Values + attitudes – challenging tasks
  • Skills – creativity, problem solving and collaboration

There are many individual innovative schools across the world delivering 21st century learning. But the question is how do we transition our factory schools into high performance schooling systems – at scale?

First, you need a simple but powerful goal. I would argue that the highest level goal should be “effective learning”. One way to approach this is Problem (or Project) Based Learning. In essence this is about selecting and using the learning methods that will have the greatest learning impact. Originating in Medical Schools, many universities now employ this approach – for example, Maastricht University uses PBL across all its courses to great effect.

Different ways of learning have different degrees of effectiveness


Whilst the theory is fine, for vast majority of schools the dominant learning mode is lecture and the organisational model is factory.

So what can you realistically do to transition to a more effective paradigm?

A key first step it to acknowledge that learning is by definition personal. No one else can learn for you. Thankfully everyone is different – with different strengths, needs and learning styles. To get to effective learning, we have to build learning around the individual, not the other way around.

The second step is to work out how learning can be tailored to the individual. The RISC model is a great example of this, where schools move from a time to a performance based system.

In practice, we can take a knowledge-work framework, and build learning experiences around the three key knowledge-work tasks – analysis, synthesis and delivery.

The “home base” concept was developed in Australia and is well documented. Here, a student works from a base where he/she organises learning tasks, then goes to the area where the next learning task can be completed.

The “Home Base” approach


Applying this to a standard classroom block seems daunting, but in reality it is possible to knock down walls and build different kinds of furniture cheaply.

Costs can be offset by re-engineering staffing structures – using this approach can actually increase the number of adults involved in the teaching process, at the same or reduced cost.

The Learning Plaza concept in New Line Learning in Kent, UK, is a great example of this.

Modifying classroom blocks is more practical than knocking them down and starting again.


I would agree that this is complex.  However, managing complexity is something that software does extremely well.

Much of the debate in recent times has been about hardware, but the latest Educause Horizon reports picks out 6 of the most impactful technologies – 5 of which are software!

When you can reach entire populations through mobiles, or turn an entire room into an immersive display, our focus should be on what learning impacts can be achieved through software.

Telescopes enabled us to observe the universe. Computing allowed us to construct models of the universe.


Software for learning is currently undergoing a major transition, not dissimilar to the evolution of astronomy.

  • First generation of learning software, like the telescope, was about representing the world in ever clearer ways.
  • Second generation of learning software will enable learners to construct their own models of the world in increasingly connected ways.

The clear trend is that content is moving from the book paradigm to that of social construct. It’s no longer sufficient to think of ICT as a vehicle for transmitting content into empty minds. Delivering content is important, but the bigger impacts from ICT come from enabling learners to develop their own content, collaboratively – because in the process they learn creativity and problem solving skills.

Learning Software 2.0


In what I call “Learning Software 2.0” there are, in essence, three principles:

1. Learning is a social construct.

2. Creating content is better than consuming content.

Imagine you were given the task of getting a group of students to understand how the heart works and you have to choose between the following three approaches:

  • Method 1. Take an unlabelled diagram of a heart and annotate it to explain how it works.
  • Method 2. Explore a multimedia content.
  • Method 3. In a team, take a real heart in a tray, shoot a video of the heart being dissected, and then narrate an audio track on top of the video. Post the video on a website for peer review.

Clearly the last method would work best because you are engaging all three learning styles, and getting the students to teach something.

3. Use data to personalise learning.

We’re seeing very rapid growth in the use of CRM for managing intelligent interventions. Gestar in Brazil, for example have developed a solution called SRM (Student Relationship Management) that uses data to automatically run workflows using triggers such as poor learning performance, absence, or low reading age.

SRM has the potential also for taking out significant costs from administration – eg multiple schools dealing with lateness and absence can use a centralised SRM system to run the same administrative and escalation routines.

CRM (SRM) can be used to individualise learning experiences at scale through “intelligent interventions” such as addressing lower than expected reading age.


Microsoft’s vision for education is Anytime Anywhere Learning for All, which includes high performing schools. Brazil is has exactly the kind of conditions that can enable this vision to become a reality. So what kind of technical architecture do you need to deliver Anytime Anywhere Learning for all?

The Cloud is making it possible to imagine delivering high quality and personalised learning services to every citizen in the country – in or out of school – so a municipality, state or even country level Cloud based architecture makes sense.

The Anytime Anywhere Learning vision for Brazil is for end users to have access to:

  • Range of learning opportunities
  • More personalised learning services
  • Social network based learning
  • Tools for producing as well as consuming content

The key building blocks are:

  • Learning Management
  • Student Relationship Management – integrated student records and Student Information Systems
  • Decision Support (BI)
  • Communication and Collaboration
Schooling Enterprise Architecture – exploiting the Cloud

The Cloud increasingly means massively available computing at a fraction of the cost of current solutions, as this implementation in New South Wales, Australia, shows.

I look forward to helping Brazil take full advantage of this.

Skills, Knowledge and Competencies – What, Why and How?

As the world gets more complex, students will need to know more and be able to do more in order to succeed. But are schooling systems preparing students with the skills they really need?

Schooling systems the world over are dominated by the pursuit of academic qualifications – which was fine in the Industrial era, but is no longer sufficient in the Knowledge era.  

The dilemma for schools now, according to the OECD, is that the skills and knowledge that are easiest to teach are the easiest to outsource and offshore. The graph below, cited by Prof. Andres Schleicher from OECD, shows where jobs have grown and declined since the 1960s:

As automation has grown, work with routine elements have fallen. Manipulating non-complex knowledge is something that computers can do better than humans, hence the fall in routine cognative work.  In a global economy, the drive for cost effectiveness will ensure that all work that can be digitised, automated or outsourced, will be digitised, automated or outsourced.  So, we need to ask ourselves what key competencies education systems need to provide for young people to succeed, and how can schooling better align with these needs?

The winners in a globalised economy are those who can engage in expert thinking (up 8%) and complex communication (up almost 14%).  A strong foundation of subject specific knowledge will always have significant value, but it is no longer enough.

Let’s be clear though—academia has played a massive role in human achievement.  The scientific, technological, medical, financial and social revolutions that have led us to the prosperity that so many of us enjoy today owe a huge debt to “academic” thinking, research, discipline and rigour.  For large numbers of students, a university education is a natural choice.  On the other hand, for many students a university degree has no relevance or appeal. It’s quite possible for people to make valuable contributions to society without needing formal academic thinking skills or qualifications, so the question is—”to what extent is academia relevant to schooling today?”

Most involved in education would argue that there continues to be a strong role for academia, but increasingly people are realising that it’s not the only focus that a schooling system should have.  Yes, of course, there is knowledge, skills and understanding based on academic principles that are critical for successful induction into society, preparation for the world of work, and personal formation—but academic principles aren’t the only principles on which these capacities are built.

Whilst it’s clear to see that a modern curriculum needs to go beyond its grounding in academic discipline, the reality for most schools is that they are judged by last year’s final examination performance or their academic test scores. But it simply has to be possible to go beyond just delivering an academic curriculum if students are to be adequately equipped for what lies ahead. One approach is to combine Academic and Vocational qualifications with 21st Century Skills:

There has been a lot of excitement about 21st Century Skills recently, but what exactly are they? In a nutshell, 21st Century Skills combine a range of competencies, skills and knowledge required for the modern world. Below are selected highlights from the 21st Century Skills Assessment work being done by University of Melbourne, Cisco, Intel and Microsoft.

21st Century Skills can be broken down into 4 categories:


 Ways of thinking

These skills emphasize the upper-end of thinking skills, but also incorporate more straightforward skills such as recall, and drawing inferences. A major characteristic of these skills is that they require great focus and reflection.

Ways of working

In business we are witnessing a rapid shift in the way people work.  Outsourcing services across national and continental borders is just one example.  Another is having team members collaborate over distances on the same projects. To support these types of work scenarios, excellent communication and collaboration skills are essential.  Communication must be rapid, concise and cognizant of cultural differences.

People working in modern organisations also need to demonstrate:


Schools need to nurture individuals who are not only able apply subject matter knowledge, but have the ability and motivation to expand their horizons, and transfer and apply skills and knowledge in new settings.  

Editing and Communicating

With the explosion in the amount of information available through the internet, people who can meaningfully sort and filter information and explain specialised content will become increasingly important. This needs to be reflected in modern assessments.

Creativity and Synthesis

Creativity and innovation enabled through strong communication and collaboration skills are what will give individuals and nations the competitive edge.  In today’s workplace, value is created by synthesising unrelated pieces of data and information.

Collaboration and Orchestration

With exponentially increasing complexity in the global marketplace, the more organisations need more sophisticated co-ordination and management. Valuable skills and attributes are interpersonal skills, teamwork and leadership. The problem is that in the vast majority of schools, students learn individually and at the end of the school year their individual achievement is certified.  In the interdependent world of work, collaboration is a core skill.  In assessments at school, collaboration is usually considered cheating. 

Tools for working

“Tools for working” are about information and ICT literacy and skills—critical skills given that work is increasingly represented electronically.  Just to paint a picture of how important it is to be truly literate in the use of ICT, consider that it is estimated that a week’s worth of the New York Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across in a lifetime in the 18th century.  In one year more unique information will be generated this year than in the previous 5,000 years.  Students must develop the skills to access and evaluate new information efficiently so that they can effectively utilize all that is available and relevant to their tasks at hand. One of the ways they will capitalise on this information explosion is through skilled use of ICT.

Living in the world

Essentially people must learn to live not only in their town or country but also in the world in its entirety.  As more and more people individually move in the 21st Century to connect and collaborate, it is even more important that they understand all the aspects of citizenship.  It is not enough to assume that what goes on in your own country is how it is or should be all over the globe.

Assessing 21st Century Skills

Students claiming to possess 21st Century Skills will need to demonstrate that they can integrate, synthesize and creatively apply content knowledge in novel situations.  21st Century Skills Assessments must therefore ask students to apply content knowledge to critical thinking, problem solving, and analytical tasks throughout their education.

Successful learning is as much about the process as it is about facts and figures, so another aim of assessing 21st Century Skills is to make students’ thinking visible.  The assessments should provide insights into students’ understandings and the conceptual strategies a student uses to solve a problem.

In the figure below, as one moves from knowledge towards demonstrations of skills, attitudes, values, the need for more open-ended and extended opportunities to demonstrate abilities increases. The most complex demonstrations of competencies—e.g. unstructured inquiry, problem solving, learning to learn, creativity, communication, collaboration, citizenship, and personal and social responsibility—must be examined in contexts that allow tackling larger-scale tasks over a longer period of time with more performance-based demonstrations.


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