Nancy Gedge reviews Cleverlands by Lucy Crehan
I first met Lucy Crehan a couple of summers ago, at the Wellington Festival of Education. At the time, having no idea who she was or what she was doing, I freely admit I was somewhat distracted, she struck me as being very nice (she gave me a gin and tonic, what’s not to like?). So, when her book came out, seeing that I had a tenuous connection to Lucy and considering that I am interested in how different countries ‘do’ accountability – she said there was a bit about that in her book – I rushed off to Amazon and bought two by mistake (I put one in the work library, and will be checking on a regular basis whether my colleagues have read it, and kept the other for myself).
One of the best things about this book is that it is eminently readable, which makes a refreshing, and pleasant change. That’s not to say that all other education books are as dull as ditchwater. They are however, not the sort of thing I usually spend my Christmas holidays reading, and even less chuckling out loud to in more places than I care to mention (I think my favourite comment was made by a Finnish teen, who advised Lucy against moving to Finland to work because, ‘you might die’). I even found myself taking a pencil to the margins, something I rarely do and secretly disapprove of.
However, while Lucy’s engaging style makes reading Cleverlands an enjoyable experience, it is not the book’s main strength. It is, for me, a toss-up between the rigorous academic underpinning that makes it a serious work and the scope of the project, which covers five top performing (in terms of PISA) education systems, exploring the reasons behind their international rankings.
Whilst a spot of international teaching might not be my choice of ‘geeky gap year’, by spending time teaching in ordinary schools, covering all age ranges, and staying with ordinary teachers in Finland, Japan, Singapore, Shanghai and Canada, Lucy gains insights that would otherwise remain hidden behind data headlines.
In Finland she highlights the care and attention to detail for SEND learners, and the additional qualifications and expertise required of those who teach them within mainstream schools. In East Asia (Japan, Shanghai and Singapore) she highlights the influence of a Confucian culture that prioritises a pupil’s hard work and effort over innate ability. In Canada she explains how an education system can be accountable without the carrot and stick (mostly stick, let’s face it) of high stakes testing or punitive inspection.
At the end of the book, and based on reflections of her educational trip, she offers up key recommendations. She identifies five principles as the foundation stones of both high performance and equity within education systems. While she is at pains to point out that she has not written a ‘how to’ guide to educational change, these principles can, and should, give plenty of food for thought to policymakers and education leaders or, people like me who happen to have an interest and like to mull things over in a not-quite-so-equal-that-I-am-about-to-go-on-a-globe-trotting-school-trip-myself geeky fashion.
I have no hesitation in recommending this book to anyone interested in education, not because it will make you chuckle, or even because it will make you think, although it will in my view, do both of those things well. No, I recommend this book because in it you will find the humanity and joy that is working with young people: their energy, the funny things they say and do, and the very special relationship they have with their teachers – in whichever country you care to mention. Lucy may no longer be working as a teacher in a school, but she clearly hasn’t forgotten the most important and best thing about it.