Friday, February 1, 2008

Education in the "Flat World"

Bill Gate in his speech before the National Governors Association states: "When I compare our high schools to what I see when I'm traveling abroad, I am terrified for our work force of tomorrow.... In math and science, our fourth graders are among the top students in the world. By eighth grade, they're in the middle of the pack. By 12th grade, U.S. students are scoring near the bottom of all industrialized nations. . . . The percentage of a population with a college degree is important, but so are sheer numbers. In 2001, India graduated almost a million more students from college than the United States did. China graduates twice as many students with bachelor's degrees as the U.S., and they have six times as many graduates majoring in engineering. In the international competition to have the biggest and best supply of knowledge workers, America is falling behind."

According to Thomas L. Friedman, the author of a book “The World is Flat,“ our parents were telling us: “Finish your dinner. There are children in China and India who are starving.” Now, we should be warning our children: “Finish your homework. There are students in China and India who want your job.”

Number of American students earning science degrees has fallen to 17th in the world. Science and engineering degrees represent 60% of all B.S. degrees in China, 41% in Taiwan, and 31% in U.S. According to 2004 Trends in International Math and Science Study, 44% of 8th graders in Singapore scored at the most advanced level in math, as did 38% in Taiwan, and only 7% in the U.S.

Bill Gates in his interview with Friedman speculates that thirty years ago, if you had the choice between being born an average person in Poughkeepsie or a genius in Bombay or Shanghai, you'd take Poughkeepsie, because your life opportunities would be so much greater there, even as an average talent. Today, you'd much rather be born a genius in Bombay or Shanghai, because in the flat world you can plug and play, collaborate and connect from anywhere.

Princeton economist Alan Bliner notes, “It is clear that the U.S. and other rich nations will have to transform their educational systems so as to produce workers for the jobs that will actually exist in their societies… In the future, how we educate our children may prove to be more important than how much we educated them."

Friedman considers that the most important skills for students in the "flat world" are: learn how to learn, navigation skills, curiosity and passion, a solid foundation in liberal arts, and right brain skills.

1. Learn How to Learn

According to Friedman, the first, and most important, ability you can develop in a flat world is the ability to “learn how to learn” – to constantly absorb, and teach yourself, new ways of doing old things or new way of doing new things (p.309).

During one of the meeting, a ninth grader asked Friedman: “…how do you learn how to learn? What course should I take?” Friedman suggested the student attending popular teachers classes who could teach students to get excited about learning. “To learn how to learn, you have to love learning—or you have to at least enjoy it—because so much learning is about being motivated to teach yourself. And while it seems that some people are just born with that motivation, many others can develop it or have it implanted with the right teacher (or parent).

2. Navigation

As the world flattens, more information will reside on the Internet. Teaching students how to navigate that virtual world, how to find the real sources of knowledge becomes more important than ever. Students often consider any information on the Internet as a valid source and often use it in their research papers. Some schools forbid students to cite Wikipedia, but Joel Cawley from IBM disagrees with this policy because teachers missing an opportunity to teach their students to navigate and to distinguish between valid sources of information and misinformation (p.313).

3. Curiosity and Passion: CQ + PQ > IQ

IQ is an intelligence quotient, and PQ is curiosity quotient. Friedman writes: "Give me a kid with a passion to learn and a curiosity to discover and I will take him or her over a less passionate kid with a high IQ every day of the week. Curious, passionate kids are self-educators and self-motivators. They will always be able to learn how to, especially on the flat-world platform, where you can both download and upload."

"Work matters," said Searls, "but curiosity matters more. Nobody works harder at learning than a curious kid."

4. Liberal Arts

Since the new middle jobs require great synthesizing skills, students should be encouraged to think horizontally and connect disparate dots, and, according to Friedman, liberal arts could help students to make connections among history, art, politics, and science.

Steve Jobs shared his story with Stanford University students at a commencement speech. Jobs decided to drop out from the Reed College and started taking classes, which were not required, but interested him. Jobs took a calligraphy class and learned about serif and sans serif typeface, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. After ten years, Jobs used his calligraphy knowledge in designing Macintosh computer fonts. If Jobs didn't take this course, Mac would have never had multiple typeface or proportionally spaced fonts (p.317-318).

5. Right Brain Skills

According to Daniel Pink, the author of "A Whole New Mind," students should learn how "to mesh together different perspectives and disciplines to produce a third thing."

In the new flat world, we have to teach our students right-brain skills "such as forging relationships rather than executing transactions, tackling novel challengers instead of solving routine problems, and synthesizing the big picture rather than analyzing s single component," argues Pink.

India is a largest English speaking country in the world with millions of skilled workers who are capable to absorb most computer coding, accounting, legal research, and financial analysis jobs. However, the plenty of opportunities remain for less routine work for programmers who can design new systems, accountants who serve as life planners and bankers experts in the art of the deal. Pink argues that "Now the foreigners can do left-brain work cheaper, we in the U.S. must do right-brain work better."

One way to nurture the students' right-brain is by encouraging them to do something that they love, because students will learn to bring something intangible into their work, something out of their right brain, which cannot be easily repeated, automated, or outsourced.

We should teach our students how to be a good collaborators, leveragers, adapters, explainers, synthesizers, localizers, and personalizers. These are the most important skills, which help our students to survive the competition and succeed in the "flat world."

Thomas L. Friedman (2007). The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century


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