Image courtesy of Michael Anderson, Unsplash, Unsplash licence

Education systems around the world have traditionally been characterized by closed knowledge systems, overly prescriptive curricula, narrow conceptions of success and achievement, and a failure to fully empower teachers as facilitators of learning. This inhibits their ability to develop a full spectrum of human learning capabilities amongst learners, especially in their formative schooling years. A recently published paper by Neil Butcher & Associates (NBA) argues that, while there may be various reasons for these issues, one critical problem is that many education systems are inhibited by complex policy environments that, most likely unintentionally, impede meaningful learning and create educational closure.

Education policies often create new rules that accumulate over time, giving rise to inefficiencies and unnecessary constraints that do not support (and often obstruct) learner success. One manifestation of policy complexity within education systems is the growing granularization and rigidity of the formal national curriculum, which has led to the proclivity to use standardized testing and high-stakes examinations as a proxy for learner success. This complexity has also eroded autonomy for teachers, constraining what they can do in the classroom and increasing the tendency to ‘teach to the curriculum’ (or, worse even, to the examination). Standardized testing and high-stakes examinations have also increased anxiety and tension amongst learners, parents, and teachers, who perceive a false equivalence between test performance and success in later life.

The paper argues that despite the diverse nature of education systems around the world, many share a common problem of complex policy environments. Increased use of standardized testing models and resulting curriculum rigidity does not lead to better quality education but can have a deleterious effect on learner achievement. As complexity filters down into the classroom, another consequence is that the teachers who are tasked with delivering curricula are increasingly constrained and disempowered by these central policies. The consequences of this are far reaching as they emphasize rigidity and closure in knowledge acquisition, leaving little space for substantive learner-teacher engagement, contextual adaptation, and discovery.

In response to these challenges, we can use the principles of open learning as a tool to reflect on policy complexity in education systems, including the extent to which a policy environment is facilitating openness or promoting closure. A useful mechanism to tackle policy creep and ensure that education systems are geared toward a broader definition of learner success is to adopt and systematically implement the concept of openness within education systems, which begins at the policy level. Prioritizing openness offers significant opportunities for teachers and learners to reclaim what happens in the classroom and become more engaged members of society.

Integrating open learning principles into policy discourse would be a step forward in reducing unnecessary complexity and closure within education systems.