This week’s edition of The Economist contains a review and discussion of Amanda Ripley’s “The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way.” The book readdresses some of the woes in the US education system where the notion of ‘teaching to the test’ has become the norm and ‘critical thinking’ has been forgotten. As usual, Finland and several Asian countries do very well. Poland also gets good marks for the improvements in its education system. European who have been panicking about the supposed army of Polish plumbers ready to invade Britain, France and Germany should be warned. Soon they may be joined by battalions of highly skilled accountants, lawyers and doctors.
Many of Ms. Ripley’s idea have already been set down by Tony Wagner who has been championing the ‘critical thinking approach’ for the past five years. Mr. Wagner will be glad to have a new ally. Ms. Ripley makes two very interesting points in her discussion on the book.
Lots of technology does not always mean good teaching
The first is that lots of technology can help teaching but only if used intelligently. Indeed, some of the best teaching she saw occurred in some of the poorest environments. In contrast Ms. Ripley talks about wonderfully equipped classrooms in the US being inhabited by some of the most bored students. Dire lessons being taught in high tech rooms. This technology obsession has got to the point where certain schools across the world are now even imposing the use of iPads in class even though any teaching will tell you just what a distraction they are.
None of this should not come as a surprise to anyone that really enjoys teaching. Most good professors and teachers that I know have a very low tech style. Wasn’t Socrates rather a good pedagogue despite his lack of high tech equipment? And if I think back to the good teachers I remember from my school and university days, they had a similar style. In fact, what they did was very simple. They asked us challenging questions and then made us interact to find answers and solutions. Exactly the same type of challenges that millions of people face up to every day in their work.
For sure, having technology in the classroom is a great aid. It is quite wonderful that thanks to “You Tube” in a middle of a discussion on strategy I can bring Michael Porter or even the late Steve Jobs into the class with me. Such video clips are a lively way to break up the lessons and to keep students’ attention. It also gives them the opportunity to make judgements for themselves. Having, anyone using videos to illustrate certain points will know that students tend to switch off after a few minutes. This doesn’t make them bad students; it makes them human. They switch back on again when they are asked for their opinion and required to engage once more with their colleagues. Learning, as Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger have consistently pointed out, is a social interaction.
Economic incentives to attract the best people to teaching
Ms. Ripley also points out top performing countries such as Finland, South Korea, Japan and Singapore also introduced some basic economics into the process of teaching training. The teaching training colleges were closed down so that future teachers could be taught in the elite universities. In Finland 8 out of 8 universities that teach teachers are deemed to be ‘highly selective’ and requires applicants to be in the top 10% of their high school cohort. (In the USA, only 1 in 20 colleges is selective. So, teachers suddenly have a high status.) These countries then accompanied this policy by financial incentives to encourage the best students to go into teaching.
Investing in people in business and in education
In his book about his time at General Electric, Jack Welch stated that his first instinct was always to attract and keep the best people. The same idea that works so well in business should be applied to education. Perhaps education policy makers should begin to take note. Invest in people, not in objects. Use financial incentives and competition to bring the best talent into teaching and the results will follow. Of course, on the flip side this would mean that teachers and professors would have to accept positions that gives fewer guarantees than they do today. If they are confident in their abilities to enhance learning in a classroom, this should not be a problem. Real market forces within the education system. It has worked in countries as different as Finland and South Korea, so it should work anywhere else.
Over the past 20 years, management schools in France have led the way in providing young internationally minded graduates fit to work in modern business. They should recognize this and stop apologizing for what they have achieved.
The Sint-Jozef business school in Belgium has made the purchase of an iPad compulsory for all its students. This has provoked the ire of a certain number of parents who complain about the extra cost. What few people have mentioned is that the academic performance of the students will almost certainly diminish once they have an iPad. This often happens when the technology begins to dictate academic decisions.
AACSB Annual Meeting (ICAM 2013): Learning, Leading, and Teaching in the 21st Century (Tony Wagner, Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard)
At the AACSB ICAM 2013 Conference, Tony Wagner, Innovation Education Fellow at Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard, talked about the learning gaps that are affecting students across the world, and gave some strategies for how to prepare them for the new global knowledge society.
Crazy Train to Tinky Town: “The very first morning, I slunk into her class and claimed one of the desks at the rear whilst awaiting the hellion herself. As we all made to stand she gestured for us to remain seated before what I came to discover was her usual soft-spoken greeting of “Good Morning Ladies”.