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“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” Thomas Jefferson

A recent study released in Australia caused a brief discussion about the “urbanization” of youth lives and public was informed that too many students lost contact with nature and sources of food. In a short presentation of results of this study it is noted that “75% of year 6 students think cotton is an animal product, 27% in year 6 think yoghurt comes form a plant and 37% of year 10 students think wildlife cannot survive on farmland.” This important and surprising example of functional illiteracy was mostly missed by moving attention on sterile debates about urban vs rural life. The question of what our students learn was avoided even when the natural reaction when you hear that so many of them  don’t know that yoghurt does not grow on trees is to ask yourself what they really know at all. If students going for years to school to learn various disciplines – including biology – think that wildlife cannot survive in a farm it is fair to ask what happened with our education. However, this part was not part of the debate.

There is a common (and disappointing) mistake to think that this is an isolated example. The quality of education in Australia is reflected by relatively good results on international tests, such as PISA and TIMSS. These good rankings show that there is no substantial difference for any other Western country. There is also a long list of examples (some presented in previous posts on this blog) to admit that we talk about a trend rather than an isolated situation. Maybe is the time to accept what the majority of our students know and believe in most Western societies: you must go to school, but learning is not cool. Teachers are poorly paid (as a fact), they don’t have “a real job” and their social status is on a constant decline for the last decades. Students’ motivation for education is mostly extrinsic and it is widely promoted through mass media – and accepted – that only nerds and some characters unable to socialize hit the books. There are two important factors to take here into consideration: the marketing engines promote (through movies and television productions) a model that is at least disconnected from – if not openly against – the educated and cultivated minds. Social success is disconnected from hard work and study: it comes as you are “born this way”, a twisted and widespread use by media of the myth of innocence. A joyful and aggressive ignorance is promoted as positive features, those under this image are portrayed as being connected to reality, human and “like us” as opposed to the asocial nerds or educated snobbery, that reveal themselves to be deceiving and corrupt characters. This fad of the last decades may seem marginal, but the impact on the quality of education – and generations – is substantial. The constant symbolic, social, economic and ideological pressure on all aspects of education may be crucial in times when education is called – and expected – to bring solutions for a world engulfed in financial, social, ecological and sustainability crisis with unprecedented importance. On top of all these is the fierce competition of the globalized world. 

The main problem with this model turned into an engine of glorified mediocrity, false reassurances about individual and collective sense of relevance and mastery of knowledge is suggested by a recent study presented by Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This study is mapping the correlation between performance on the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, exam — which every two years tests math, science and reading comprehension skills of 15-year-olds in 65 countries — and the total earnings on natural resources as a percentage of G.D.P. for each participating country. They find “a significant negative relationship between the money countries extract from national resources and the knowledge and skills of their high school population.” Results show that students in Singapore, Finland, South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan stand out as having high PISA scores and few natural resources, while Qatar and Kazakhstan stand out as having the highest oil rents and the lowest PISA scores. (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Algeria, Bahrain, Iran and Syria stood out the same way in a similar 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, while, interestingly, students from Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey — also Middle East states with few natural resources — scored better.) Also lagging in recent PISA scores, though, were students in many of the resource-rich countries of Latin America, like Brazil, Mexico and Argentina. Africa was not tested. Canada, Australia and Norway, also countries with high levels of natural resources, still score relatively well on PISA, in large part, argues Schleicher, because all three countries have established deliberate policies of saving and investing these resource rents, and not just consuming them (See the data map here).

There is another interesting thing about this correlation: most countries with limited resources, good results in education and booming economies are placed in Asia. A possible explanation for their outstanding results is that respect for education is still at the core of most Asian cultures. Teaching profession is a respected and desired career and being highly educated is still the common dream in these countries rating very well in international tests of skills and knowledge. Finland is aligned to this model and is the quoted exception of the Western world. Here is something we should learn from countries like Finland, Taiwan, Singapore, or South Korea. The last is a perfect example of dramatic positive changes in just few decades. In sixty years South Korea has metamorphosed from one of the poorest countries in the word to having the world’s 13th largest economy. Korean students have some of the highest rankings in the world, and a higher rate of acceptance into American Ivy Leagues than any other foreign country.

With a dramatic history, Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world, with few natural resources and rapidly growing population pressures. Nowadays, South Korea is one of the G-20 major economies, a high-income developed country. In 1960, the per capita Gross National Product was around 80 US dollars, and 25 million people resided on the approximately 100,000 square kilometers of land. South Korea is still one of the fastest growing developed countries, along with Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan.

1990-2010 evolution of GNP (Gross National Income, expressed in purchasing power parity dollars to adjust for price level differences across countries)

Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Director and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD’s Secretary-General is inspiringly using a Bible metaphor to explain the meaning of the correlation between education results and prosperity of a country: “Moses arduously led the Jews for 40 years through the desert — just to bring them to the only country in the Middle East that had no oil. But Moses may have gotten it right, after all. Today, Israel has one of the most innovative economies, and its population enjoys a standard of living most of the oil-rich countries in the region are not able to offer.” The lesson if that prosperity was and stay in the power of educated minds.

Of course, there is the other part of this story that seems to be at least equally important: capacity of these educational systems to nurture and use creativity and innovation. Even some universities have the decisive advantage on creativity and being centers for innovation, we have serious reasons to avoid being complacent – just an updated read of international reports on investments in research and innovation in China show the pace of change and the nature of this competition. In one of the most discussed books of last years, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia we find some facts relevant for this trend. Using Collegiate Learning Assessment  instrument (which is designed to measure gains in critical thinking, analytic reasoning and other “higher level” skills taught at college), authors evaluated students at various points before and during their college educations, and the results reveal disturbing facts. To take just some examples, we can see that:

  • 36 percent of students experienced no significant improvement in learning over four years of schooling.
  • 35 percent of the students sampled spent five hours or less a week studying alone; the average for all students was under 9 hours.

It seems that the last thing students typically do in campus is… studying. Various new and consistent  research support these findings. To take another example, we can mention the work of Philip Babcock, at the University of California Santa Barbara, and Mindy Marks, at the University of California Riverside. They published a recent study where we find that the average student at a four-year college in 1961 studied about 24 hours a week and that today’s average is just 14 hours. The decline, Babcock and Marks found, is common for students of all demographics, in all majors, gender, race, size or ranking of the school. The common situation is that – at home or in campus and any other context – students are studying less. Research also show (in USA, UK or Australia alike) that grades get higher and this does give some arguments to admit that it may be possible to have a decline of learning and grade inflation. However, if grades do not matter too much, it is of utmost importance to be realistic about the state of learning, knowledge and the capacity to enhance the potential of an educated generation for challenges ahead.

In the following parts we will discuss about commercialization of higher education, the impact of dilettantes and entitlement and how the sum of these anomalies lead to a disruptive reality for higher education. This crossroads point may lead to a decline and dominance of Asian universities or to what Thomas Kuhn describes in The Structure of Scientific revolutions: a paradigm shift.

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