Micro-Qualifications Are Going to Dominate Education

Hand using an iPad with a laptop in the background.

We’re at a unique moment in history when we can look at education from a different vantage point with school closures forcing us to re-evaluate what education means and where it is going.

I set about interviewing some of education’s most interesting people in researching his book, Literacy Beyond The Classroom, in order to get deeper insights on how we might rethink education.

Mark Steed spent his career working in top independent schools before moving to Dubai in September 2015 to take up the reins as the Director of JESS. In the UK he worked as a Teacher, Head of Department, and Boarding Housemaster prior to his two senior leadership roles as Headmaster of Kelly College in Devon; and then as Principal of the Berkhamsted Schools Group. In September 2019, he was appointed Principal and CEO of Kellett School, Hong Kong. He writes a column for Tes and is active on Twitter, @independenthead.

An undisputed leader in the use of technology in schools, Mark is light years ahead of the majority in terms of experience of what works in the classroom. I was desperate to pick his brains and talk about the ideas that will eventually catch up with us all.

Does the curriculum need changing for the 21st century?

Yes, the current curriculum is too dominated by 20th century thinking where subjects are put into silos and teachers think of themselves as teachers of subjects rather than teachers of children. That’s a big shift for people to make. The other thing is that we need to abandon the qualification and assessment mindset because they are driving a very backwards view of what’s happening in the classroom itself. That’s not to say that I have a problem with testing as a way to differentiate between students, there’s a sense that this isn’t a bad thing in helping people to find the right path in life whether that’s going to Oxbridge or a BTEC followed by an apprenticeship.

We can already see the signs of how the current qualification framework will collapse in the way that companies from Starbucks to the big four accountancy firms are no longer using qualifications to recruit staff. In the past, qualifications were a proxy for employability but they’re not anymore. Instead, firms are using intelligent and emotional tests, different forms of interviewing etc. My son went for a summer job yesterday and he wasn’t questioned about his studies. Instead he was asked about his most treasured possession, to write the best man speech of a guy he’d only just met. We’ve got to prepare young people for a world where employers are going to find a different way to recruit based around things like teamwork and communication.

One of the things we did this at JESS was to find 80 minutes a week to do activities around design thinking and innovation. We set them a series of tasks like designing and building flat pack furniture or a robotic arm. Some tasks were open ended so that there was no time for a group of students to complete the task; and the next team had to pick up from where they left it. This is a real world situation – most of the time people pick up someone else’s project halfway through and have to finish the job. How many times do we have to do that in life and how many times do we teach that in school? Our aim is to teach design thinking, teamwork, collaboration all at once.

We saw a very positive response from parents, although initially it was important to spend time educating the parents that education isn’t just about getting a set of qualifications. As educationalists we’ve got to square the circle: schools are in a tricky situation with on one hand trying to get qualifications for a 20th century style way of life when the future doesn’t look like that at all apart from a few traditional routes to employment. At the same time, those of us who are passionate about education are desperate to equip our young people for the mid 21st century world that they are going to live and work in.

Are we in a state of compromise at the moment between the 20th and 21st model which we can’t avoid? Or can we move even closer to the reality of the 21st century?

I think it will all move to the latter with design thinking and innovation sessions becoming the norm with subject boundaries breaking down bringing true project based learning into the mainstream. Teachers increasingly are a scarce resource and this will mean that it will become far more unusual (or at least a luxury) to see a teacher standing in front of a class of 20-30 students at a time. The current model is unsustainable in the context of needing 44 million more teachers by 2030. We need to explore new models, particularly for secondary schooling.

If you think about how the adult world works, how many times have you been asked for your qualifications? In practice, you do a whole load of stuff in a job which you put on your CV and LinkedIn and build a personal profile and reputation in an industry which helps you to move within your industry based on your experience and qualities. I think this will push into schools too with a portfolio approach with schools showcasing what they can do. People and companies aren’t really bothered about how you learned to do it, they are just going to test you and if you can do it, you get the job and if you can’t you don’t. That’s where this portfolio of skills approach is going to be so important.

Over Christmas, I did an Elements Of AI online course from the University of Helsinki. At the end of the course, it asked me if I wanted to add the certificate to my LinkedIn profile where it now sits alongside my Microsoft 365 qualification and others than I’ve done. This trend of micro-qualifications is going to dominate education. Your GCSE certificates aren’t that important once they’ve determined that you’re literate and numerate. It’s about more than that. I make students do LAMDA public speaking exams because that’s as important to success as GCSEs.

Without subject silos, what is going to happen to teacher recruitment and teacher training?

During my Masters a couple of years ago, I did some research on alternative models for schooling which is really interesting. When you aggregate the tasks that teachers do, it starts to look really interesting because only a few of them are really specialised with the other tasks being common to teaching in general.

With specialist knowledge being taught via video-conferencing or pre-recorded video, qualified teachers become more learning facilitators rather than teachers (HMC Disruptive Innovation and Schooling – Slideshare). According to UNESCO there are 263 million children in the world who don’t go to school, technology enhanced teaching powered by AI is the only way that we are going to manage to increase our capacity to provide education on that scale.

At JESS, we completed a proof of concept test for VR teaching. We put a 360 degree camera in the second row of a Year 8 French classroom and streamed the lesson to a group of students sitting next door. The students who were participating in the lesson “virtually” actually thought they were in the room and were even raising their hand to answer questions. As a proof of concept it totally worked. Once bandwidth reaches a certain point, students can have a first class education just by logging on and using a VR headset, regardless of where they are. Now people might struggle to see how thousands of people in developing countries using VR for education is in any way a practical solution to the education crisis, but ten years ago, very few people predicted how radically the rollout of mobile phones would change how business is done in Africa.

So all of this is going to change the role that teachers play in education. We have already seen the rise of the celebrity teacher, such as the South Korean maths teacher Cha Kill Yong who, in 2014, made $8million running an online cramming site.

In this ‘Brave New World’ there is no place for the all-knowing ‘Sage on the Stage’ – instead, if you want to push kids through an online curriculum they don’t want to do, then they need to be motivated. So, going forward, the teachers need to be inspirational. The flip side of this is that we won’t need that many of them, especially with a move to virtual teaching.

How do we bring these ideas into the mainstream?

Innovative thinking comes down to leadership and that is under pressure from things like Ofsted etc which forces headteachers to look backwards rather than forwards. But I don’t buy – it is too easy to use inspection and regulation as an excuse not to innovate. In Dubai we have yearly Ofsteds (KHDA inspections) and over 20% of our timetable is dedicated to things like Arabic and Islamic studies giving us less time to address the British curriculum than schools in the UK. Where we win here is through great resources and from clear leadership which comes from a clear vision.

One of the greatest problems facing school leaders today is that, in general, parents, teachers and headteachers thrived in a system where they got their qualifications, it worked for them. Their great mistake, in my opinion, is to impose that same autobiography onto children of today. The world has changed. For example, when JESS Dubai moved to a new paperless pedagogy using OneNote Classroom in our Secondary school, people asked whether it would deliver improved exam results to which my answer was, ‘It’s not my reason for doing this’. There’s a good chance the new pedagogy will deliver better results because it’s better for collaboration but it might also be completely neutral in terms of improved results. The point is that asking about improved exam outcomes is the wrong question – what we are trying to achieve is more about preparing young people for how they will work and work within a successful organisation.

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