Thomas Friedman wrote an op-ed article in the New York Times he probably wished it never happened. “The Shanghai Secret“, as the op-ed is titled, received a blistering response from Ann Qiu. It’s not like Thomas Friedman said anything outrageous. By contrary, the article is as inoffensive as it can be, similar to many others commenting on China’s extraordinary effort to achieve international reputation in education. Anyone following the PISA rankings knows the Shanghai region is included in this list as a country. The world was surprised to see it topped the PISA score ranking in 2009.
After visiting Shanghai’s Qiangwei Primary School, Thomas Friedman declares he found the secret of Shanghai’s schooling performance: “a deep commitment to teacher training, peer-to-peer learning and constant professional development, a deep involvement of parents in their children’s learning, an insistence by the school’s leadership on the highest standards and a culture that prizes education and respects teachers”. One could think he may have stirred the ire of some American or European teachers who work very hard doing exactly that, but surprisingly it was a Chines educator who took offense of the comments made in this article. Ann Qiu decided to write a replay when she read “what Mr Friedman said to the American people through this very influential newspaper, I couldn’t help feeling upset”. She goes on to say “an American who has interests in China at least should have some basic understanding of Chinese contemporary history. To me, Mr Friedman is not such a person”. That’s harsh. The game is on!
The anger stems from a personal experience shared by many parents in China. There are two frustrations that are brewing in this reply: firstly, the students are homework force-fed, they rote learn and they have to pass standardised tests as an absolute measure of success in education, and secondly, the parents are responsible for the homework, working long hours as if they have a second job, unpaid, mind you.
While Thomas Friedman quotes a Chinese teacher who said with pride that his job also includes “parent training”, Ann Qiu almost explodes at that thought: “Mr Friedman was applauding a deep involvement of parents in their children’s learning, Chines parents, in fact feel kidnapped by it. […]. Every afternoon, after school time, before dinner time, on a mother or father’s mobile phone, a homework list is sent by the teachers who often are in charge of three major subjects: Chinese, math and English. […]. Through these tools, teachers pass their duties to parents because it then becomes the parents’ job to make sure that their children complete the homework.”
This reminded me of a documentary I watched in the early nineties about the education system in Japan where students and parents were under relentless pressure to perform and produce good test results. Young students from primary to secondary school levels would go to coaching colleges after school and then continue to study until late night with just a few hours to sleep before going to school next day. Japan invested in education with a clear goal of creating a skilled and disciplined workforce to establish itself as a global economic leader at any cost. It seems China is following the same steps Japan took a few decades ago.
Forces disrupting education are gaining momentum. This is made visible by the increased investment in innovations outside the mainstream educational institutions. This will feed the demand for more education services supplied by businesses that although they did not exist only a few years ago they have a huge impact on the way education is delivered around the world.
In an interesting diagram published by The Chronicle of Higher Education four players are placed at the centre of the MOOC universe: Coursera, Udacity, edX and Khan Academy. The latter is a little bit of an odd addition to the group, but nevertheless it is an innovator with huge impact.
What seems to be contributing to the fast ascendance to power and influence of these organisations is the network effect supported by the participation of three types of investors: venture capitalists, large non-profit educational institutions and elite American universities such as Harvard, MIT, Stanford and University of Pennsylvania.
It is important to note that MOOCs are not pure technology companies. There are no IBMs or Microsoft or Google in the mix, and this is a good thing, because this allows enterprising educators to create something that has design elements organically crafted with educational DNA.
Why is education an open field for public opinions where so many with no training in teaching are convinced their views are as valid or competent as the professional educators’?
Perhaps deep down we believe we are experts at educating children because the human race has practiced simple forms of education over millions of years of evolution. Humans have the longest childhood among all species. A necessary requirement for becoming an adult is learning how to operate in a complex environment. We are born with instructions that demand us to teach our children how to walk, speak, use tools, and understand social norms.
Parents take pride in the way they “educate” their children at home. This learning period in anyone’s life is deeply emotional. Early years of parental education is a period of attachment during which children and parents establish strong bonding.
In contrast, as a recent invention in our long history, school is an artificial extension of a social relationship created and nurtured beyond the family home boundaries. Teachers never achieve the same status of trusted relationship with children not only because they missed the early opportunity to imprint attitudes, but also because their institutional goals serve a different purpose. Despite the dedication of millions of teachers, the connection between children and school is very thin and fragile. Schools are meant to serve a different master whose interest is to produce a workforce capable of supporting its socio-economic domain.
Many educational initiatives attempt to describe themselves as “student-centric”, or caring for “children’s wellbeing” don’t’ tell the entire story, which is the fact that they are designed to comply with the demands of the political system that funds them, and which in turn are separated by so many levels of bureaucratic layers from the individual families. They want to be close to the students, but the gap between individual families and state-wide social systems is so wide, they cannot ever achieve the ‘kinship’ status.
The relationship between schools and parents is difficult and the main reason it has worked so far is because of its practical value. This invisible contract worked for a few hundred years despite many difficulties because the parents and schools in the end served the same master. As children learned skills they need as members of the future workforce in a society representing their ‘natural’ habitat, parents have no choice but to accept the school’s role in preparing their children to survive as adults. Plus, parents need to go to work and someone has to mind their children while they are away from home; they have to outsource the education to people outside the immediate family.
How can schools give their students life skills? What worked in the past two hundred years doesn’t necessarily work in the next fifty years. In Australia the unemployment rate is now 5.4%. If you think this is a good rate, compare this with the unemployment rate in 1970: 0.9%. In 1951 it was even lower: 0.3%! In absolute numbers, we have 656,400 unemployed people today versus 78,000 unemployed people then. Schools were doing wonders; if you had education you got a job, no question asked. Today, good school education does not give any guarantees.
The lack of certainty plays on one essential evolutionary concern: our children have strong bodies and sharp minds that can figure out how to solve problems during their adult lives (in line with the culture they belong to). There is no other profession, other than medical care, that is so directly linked to our survival as a species. Medicine has been a mysterious secret protected by a few since the dawn of mankind. It needs access to scarce materials and know-how and it cannot be practiced at home. Education, on the other hand, that is another story. Key to survival of the individual, the tribe and its culture, it has remained a part of us as probably the oldest occupation that we still practice without even knowing. This is why people are so passionate when it comes to education.
An eerie silence is present just before Windows 8 launch. The big stories of the day are the battle between Apple and Samsung, iPhone versus Android, and Google versus Apple. The trending topics on Mashable are in order: Twitter, Google, Apple, iPhone, Social Networking, Google+, Social Media, YouTube, Business, Android, iPad, Google Chrome, and… down the ladder somewhere is lurching Microsoft. No trace of Windows 8.
GigaOm, proudly promoting its own brand of research has almost no trace of Microsoft or Windows 8. Today on its navigation bar there is a prominent Apple menu item and a long list of articles on the home page, only one of which mentions Microsoft related story, although even that is about Xbox music service to launch on Android and iOS. Top articles menu bar has iPhone 5 on a prominent position.
Others are more preoccupied with the imminent invasion. ZDnet and C/Net have tons of articles on Windows 8, but they also have articles criticising the new operating system and predict failure (see below prediction for Win 8 RT certain failure). However, if you browse these two sites, it strikes you how many announcements of new Win 8 products are rushed by a large number of vendors even before the official launch of the platform software. The latest one is from Samsung, the Korean electronics powerhouse who unveils an ultrabook and tablets.
None of the media outlets dares to look into the significance of the new operating system. Sure, it’s risky and judging by the success of Windows Phone 7.5, Microsoft has had an aura of outdated technology. I may be wrong, but I don’t understand why they fail to see the magnitude of Microsoft’s transformation. I can see how they would want to avoid publishing risky prediction, but at least they should take a look at what is going on deep under the surface and forget for a moment the buzzwords of the day. The online journals have columnist who cultivate a loyal relationship with its biased readers. This is always a gold mine for ratings. Whenever and article is published about Apple or Google, an army of loyal fans work hard to make their presence felt. The ratings go up and everyone is happy. Postings about Windows phone 7 have a far smaller ‘stir’ factor.
I don’t have that kind of problem, so I am at an advantage. I can write what I want. To me, Microsoft has achieved an incredible turn around and it has become the innovator, while the others have acquired the status of the conservative incumbents. The tiles introduce a very novel and powerful concept. Because they are designed to be dynamic displaying real-time information pushed by various digital services, the combinations across the massive array of technical services starting from cloud computing platforms, to music, emails, weather, and anything in between, Microsoft is building a super-ecosystem using a quasi-seamless operating system . An example of what kind of services is possible in this super-ecosystem is Xbox Music. This is very difficult to replicate. Google has an excellent search and social network platform, but its operating system is fragmented to say the least. Apple is mono-cultural and built around one service: the AppStore/iTunes.
The signs of adoption of innovation are there: first, all vendors have announced a myriad of products, many of them quite innovative. Secondly, the new products are creating new categories which promise to fill the gap between tablets and laptops. Microsoft Surface is leading this trend. For Microsoft the innovation cycle starts anew.
Thirdly, the IT managers show a great deal of interest in Windows 8. It is interesting that in a survey published on InfoWorld Google Android is loosing share, while iOS is gaining. This is pointing to a problem that Android has in the enterprise space: fragmentation. This makes it difficult to support. Windows 8 will not have that problem and because of its strong compatibility with the legacy Windows platform it will have a faster adoption than the other two. And finally, Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 RT have a strong support from all vendors. This is where Apples win against Samsung might prove to be a very costly mistake, a Pyrrhic victory. I should also mention Nokia, which released Nokia Lumia 920. For the first time, Nokia looks better on paper than its main competitors, Samsung and Apple.
Windows 8 may have an impact on the education market. iPads are great looking devices, but they are difficult to integrate and use as effective learning tools. The new detachable and convertible ultrabooks may prove to be more practical and for the same reasons IT managers are ready to adopt Windows 8, education systems may have a strong interest in the new devices.
“I cannot figure it out!” he said in frustration. My son was distressed. After a long gruelling schedule which started at 5:30am, by the time he started working on maths at 7pm after late and gruelling tennis training, the homework just seemed too much. He could not concentrate; the exhaustion was plainly clear in his body language: slouched shoulders, long face, and heavy eyelids.
I asked him how much homework he had to do that night. He had to work on maths and history. I suggested he does history first, but he wasn’t enthused by the idea. He wanted to do the more difficult part first. Despite the frustration and lack of progress, he did not want to back down and give up. He was not ready for that yet.
I offered to help. He insisted we start with the exercise which was causing him so much grief. After reading the problems and the first question, I realised it was in fact quite easy. His issue was mental blockage; he got stuck in a negative loop. I asked him the same question in a slightly different way and his face suddenly lighten up. The tiredness was gone like magic and the frustration disappeared as if it never happened. He answered the question so quickly, I could not follow him. Next, he hurriedly wrote the answer and in a flash the entire exercise was finished.
We talked a bit more that night about how they get the homework. I thought the teachers would guide their students about which exercises they should focus on as a minimum together with some problem solving strategies. It turned out that it wasn’t like that. In some cases, the system leaves it entirely up to the students to do their homework as they see it fit. If they learn something about geometry, the teacher would describe the homework for the next day by giving them a broad list of questions from which they can choose; nothing about individual problem solving strategy.
What’s wrong with this picture?
The traditional routine homework is the mirror copy of one way lecture in the classroom: a monotonous activity for etching knowledge in the students’ memories. Drill, drill, drill! The homework effort is considered linear. You work more, you solve more exercises and you get better at it. You work less, and you are not as prepared in answering the same type of questions in an exam session. It sounds logical. But is the effort linear? Is the student ready to spend energy in equal portions of effective effort during the homework time? The anatomy of a school day shows too many variations and stress points to support the hypothesis of a linear study. What happens when the student doesn’t know what to do? What happens if the student is not motivated or if it takes too long to solve one problem causing a mini time crisis?
If skill is required to solve a particular type of exercise, which is not covered or explained in the manual, how would the student overcome that hurdle? I am not suggesting that students should be hand-held all the way to save them of any pain, but in the current situation of information and tasks overload, students need a different kind of support.
The key is to teach thinking strategies, the art of coping with stress, how to think in different ways, be effective and stay sane. In the current model teachers give students the homework without any of these personal tools, there is nothing about how to think and how to deal with difficult situations. They teach them no ‘tricks’ about how to deal with frustration and how to recognise their own abilities and talents.
Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy said in a Ted conference presentation that the schools should let the students read the theory at home and do the homework at school where teachers can help them to learn how to think, and how to solve problems. It makes sense.
How damaging could this be for students that get stuck in some of these issues? “I feel so dumb!” my son told me before he solved the exercise. Why would he say that, when he is one of the best student in his grade? Because when you don’t succeed at working out something you feel dumb. What happens with students that don’t get to see other ways of thinking and the experience is repeated over a few weeks pushing them into a negative and self-downgrading belief? I am wondering how much of this could be attributed to the attitude of disconnect from school that some students have.
Anyway, I would argue, that schools should teach students how to deal with stress and recognise when dangerous thinking habits can form and take them down. Very often, students, and this goes for any adult too, cannot find solutions not because they don’t have the capacity to, but because they lack the emotional and cognitive tools to deal with difficult situations.
Why don’t schools teach thinking smart?
The problem with schools is that they have superimposed a different agenda. The performance indicators are not designed to measure improvements in students thinking and positive attitude, but scores at maths and literature assessment. For example, the National Assessment Program for Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) in Australia is the dominant metric used for measuring school and student performance. The NAPLAN results are used for public show and tell for everyone to see which schools perform better. On My School web site, the school performance is measured using the NAPLAN results. The information presented invites parents to judge a school based on NAPLAN results and financial profile.
An entire industry flourished under NAPLAN, “to capitalise on their [students, schools, teachers] anxieties” as Christopher Bantick put it in an article published in The Age. These assessment scores have become the focus of the public perception inching out other learning priorities (“Why teach a Shakespeare text at year 9 when it will be interrupted by a month of trial tests, spelling lists, endless grammar exercises and punctuation: sonnets out, NAPLAN in.”
There is no time for learning about thinking.
We talk abundantly about 21st century skills, but schools are too busy calibrating their operation in compliance with industrial educational standards. Everybody knows this, but it is just not enough time and the system doesn’t seem to find the resources and the determination to make a drastic change.
Will the next generation of students be able to cope with a world that changes dramatically when the static knowledge absorbed during the school time might be of little use? The Knox Grammar School headmaster John Weeks stated once that the focus on NAPLAN results “threatens to make us factories for one-dimensional students“. 40 years ago the education system was giving students tools which they could use with confidence to manage a career in organisations with fixed hierarchies, with prospect of lifetime employment. Today, the system is still giving students the same tools, but they are of little value. Back then the school classes were a rehearsal of future work place scenarios. Now, the class monologue of lecturing teachers and the linear homework are a rehearsal that prepares students for a scenario that is increasingly irrelevant in the real life.
Higher education faces similar problems, even at the top of the food chain. In “The Organization Kid”, published in The Atlantic in 2001, David Brooks describes what has become of most students studying at top universities in US: “… at the top of meritocratic ladder we have in America a generation of students who are extraordinarily bright, morally earnest, and incredibly industrious”. It doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with being “bright, morally earnest” but if this is the product of a sausage factory like education system, it is a problem. When education is like a massive train where everyone is on board set for the same destination (get the exams right) no one will know what to do when the train needs to stop at a different destination.
Let’s drop the grades!
Maybe the grades are the culprit? Having a measurement system locked onto a model that is as relevant today as it hand crafting is to computer programming forces everyone to focus on the wrong outcomes. At the core of what we need to possess as a skill is the ability to figure out the answer to a complex question by interacting with data sources and other people.
I don’t mean that in a ‘trick’ way. I mean it as an ability to understand what is going on; what are the personal preferences, talents and experience and decide how to get information, learn and apply that knowledge to produce an outcome over time. This requires a capacity to evaluate the environment, but also to self-evaluate. Schools could teach students the art of self-evaluation and give them tools to deal with difficulties in ways that suits their condition.
The focus on grades, takes the focus away from how to become more productive, how to be confident, how to deal with your own difficulties, and how to adapt. The grades are artificial and encourage toxic competitiveness. Instead of grades we should have a system that describes personal attributes and skills. As an example, this system could give the following value “marks”: student X is agile, fast and detail driven while student Y is methodical, perceptive and creative. Student X had a preference for sports, mastering kinetic skills, and has an interest in operations; she has worked on organising sport events, robotics or public transport management. Student Y has interest for research in human sciences, social behaviour and organisation of enterprises; he has worked on writing essays and organising surveys.
By focusing on personal growth, mastering learning, self-discovery, problems-solving, creativity and collaboration, the students would be given tools they will be using for the rest of their lives. The grades are not that important anyway.