Learning to grow

Learning to grow

Justina Treigyte argues for a new school of thought in secondary education to boost Baltic GDP.

Shortcomings in a secondary school system can have an adverse ripple effect, pervading the higher education system and beyond that, into the economic life of the nation. The job of the Baltic States’ educational establishment is not just to think about the kind of schooling that children receive, but how we might reshape the entire system for the greater good of the region.

The October 2014 Cambridge Baltic Conference, a gathering of high-calibre speakers from a variety of fields met in Britain’s most distinguished university city. They heard speeches and panel discussions that played variations of a constant theme: the supreme importance of teachers and teaching to national economic development.

The event underlined what we all know, but sometimes neglect to think about too deeply: improving the way we impart knowledge to our kids is vital if the Baltic region is to compete globally.

It should be stressed that, although, like everywhere else, there are areas where a change of attitude amongst the teaching profession would help, there is nothing irreparably “wrong” with the pedagogy applied in the Baltic States. It stands up well against the world’s leading educational systems. And even if there was some fundamental fault, it would not be realistic to somehow replace the existing stock of qualified teachers. There is no alternative corpus of teachers waiting in the wings.

Nor are shortcomings to be addressed, as has been suggested, by simply spending larger proportions of Baltic GDP on secondary and tertiary education. More cash does not equal better outcomes.

Rather than simply resolving to write bigger cheques, it would be logical for Baltic governments first to look at current spending patterns and consider reallocating the
existing budget more strategically, before pouring cash into areas that do not necessarily deliver returns.

As was suggested many times at the Cambridge event, the need for re-organisation in Baltic education goes beyond re-training teachers. Evaluation should begin with close examination of the core subjects and how they are offered.

Judging education in my own native country of Lithuania from the perspective of an expatriate student, I must praise the openness towards foreign languages there. This is in marked contrast to the UK, where the lack of professionals with satisfactory language skills has raised justified alarm in the media.

The fact that the number of languages spoken by an average person in the Baltic region is one of the highest in all of Europe is something that we can and should be proud of. Efforts could be made to encourage our young people to apply and to polish these skills further by going overseas for part of their studies.

As suggested by the conference’s keynote speaker, business education benefactor Sir Paul Judge, it would be good for the future of the Baltic States if about half of the region’s young people gained experience abroad under the EU’s Erasmus exchange programme, or through other means.

Given the small size of the Baltic States, we cannot afford to ignore the influence of dominating powers in our continent and indeed around the world. This is not to say that we should not seek to maintain our own identity, but more interaction with those larger countries is crucial.

Before the Baltic economies can create the educational systems that will help them retain their talent and make it fit for the 21st century they must review their programmes for the final two years of schooling. The current system under which post-16 pupils study a broad and diverse range of subjects is not developing enough of the skills that employers are looking for.

These skills can only be gained and honed by in-depth study. Specialisation is the way forward and we should work towards a system that encourages such narrowing down.
Too many in the Baltic States are under the mistaken impression that a teacher ought to know everything, and should be embarrassed if they do not, and that they should pass this knowledge on to students.

In the internet age, more knowledge is readily available today than ever before. This needs to be borne in mind when devising syllabuses. The teaching of history is a case in point. To put it crudely, you can Google important dates, but you cannot Google comprehension and contextualisation.

Digital means cannot teach the understanding that can only be gained from intellectual debate. In other words, the good news for humans is that they are irreplaceable in the classroom.

This point was underlined in the closing address by another Cambridge Conference participant, the Nobel Prize-winning Yale economist Prof Robert Shiller. Although he was participating by video link himself, he pointed out that online lectures and virtual teaching were unlikely ever to replace the need for teacher-student interaction. Teachers, he suggested, should focus on the intellectual framework of the subject itself. For example, in the study of history they should impart such concepts as cause and effect, and methods of analysing primary and secondary historical sources to deepen critical thinking.

Unfortunately, this approach is being neglected in the Baltics in the flurry of imparted dates and events, also known as general knowledge. Displaying such knowledge may impress people in social settings, but it does little for job applicants seeking a competitive advantage in the workplace.

Much is claimed about “learning for the sake of learning” but to advance education in the Baltic States and to align it more closely with the region’s economic priorities, sadly such knowledge does not equal competence and capability in the workplace.

To put it simply: education should address the current needs of students, rather than the ingrained ideology of those in positions of authority. Baltic high school students applying to Oxbridge and other universities of comparable international stature soon discover that the knowledge required to succeed in, say, the Lithuanian national maths examination is insufficient to the demands of a challenging undergraduate course there.

As it stands, education offered by the state does not suffice and so additional stepping stones to successful international study are needed, such as the not-for-profit National Student Academy in Lithuania or the hiring of private tutors.

While such initiatives have a positive impact and can improve chances of securing a place at foreign universities, longer term solutions to curriculum inadequacies are needed. If a student’s time outside the classroom is spent seeking to catch up, they have few opportunities to develop non-academic but equally important talents. Extracurricular activities are integral to education.

According to OECD criteria, education in the Baltic States has improved in recent years. The Lithuanian system, for example, has progressed from ‘fair’ to ‘good’ by their measures.
Nevertheless, we need to maintain the pressure, as there is still room for new ideas. The current system in the Baltic States encourages students to become Jacks (and Jills) of all subjects, but masters of none.

Teaching in the Baltic States is based on high principles that will, and should, continue. The structures and forms in which they are conveyed need to be a better fit for an increasingly interconnected and competitive global market.

Justina Treigyte is media spokeswoman for the Cambridge Baltic Conference.