Tuesday, February 19, 2008

What Knowledge Has the Most Worth?

From The School Administrator, February 2008 issue. See http://www.aasa.org/publications/saarticledetail.cfm?ItemNumber=9737 . Our thanks to Diane Roberts, Math Teacher, for pointing us to this article.

What Knowledge Has the Most Worth?

Reconsidering how to cultivate skills in U.S. students to meet the demands of global citizenry

By Yong Zhao
SIDEBAR PHOTO: Yong Zhao directs the U.S.-China Center for Research on Educational Excellence. http://www.aasa.org/publications/saarticledetail.cfm?ItemNumber=9737

But what about AYP?"

This is the question I encounter from an educator almost every time I finish my presentation on how globalization requires schools to reconsider what they teach to prepare students to become competent citizens.

The exact wording of audience members may differ, but the sentiment is the same: American educators have become very concerned by mandates prescribed in the federal No Child Left Behind Act and a slew of state-level reforms such as new curriculum standards and requirements. It is difficult for them to entertain other suggestions.

The concern is understandable because noncompliance leads to unbearable consequences. Failure to make AYP - adequate yearly progress - can result in a series of punitive actions ranging from student losses to school reorganization. But the even more serious consequence is the public shaming of schools resulting from the publication of a school's lowly ranking. While the latter is simplistically based on student performance on tests in math and reading, it is viewed by the public as indication of the overall quality of the school. In other words, regardless of what a school has achieved in other areas or the validity and reliability of the tests, as long as its 3rd graders or 8th graders are not good test takers, the school is considered needing improvement, a euphemism for a poor-quality school.

As educators, however, we are charged with a much more important task than responding to bureaucratic requirements - the moral responsibility to prepare students to lead successful lives. People may have different opinions about what a successful life is, but it should certainly include financial independence, competent participation in community life and positive contributions to society. Schools should at least equip students with the attitudes, perspectives, skills and knowledge that will help them find and keep a job, interact with their co-workers and neighbors and understand as well as make informed decisions about issues affecting society.

The specific attitudes, skills and knowledge schools aim to cultivate should be responsive to changes in society. What was important before may be irrelevant today, and what is considered essential in one society may have little value in another. Historically, we have seen subjects that once dominated the student timetable, such as Latin, Greek and grammar, being replaced by advanced math and modern sciences. Internationally, other countries have decided what is most important for their society. For China, it is math, English and Chinese. Today, we are in the midst of a significant transformation. Globalization, the multitude of forces that have made our world smaller and more integrated, is likely to turn the world into a global village where geographical distance matters little, and our lives are affected by and impact distant people and places across the world as much as, if not more than, our next-door neighbors. What is needed to live a successful life in this village is certainly different from when the world was separated by geographical distances and political boundaries into small local communities.

A Competitive Edge

One of the consequences of globalization is the increasing free movement of human capital on a global scale. Whether through physical relocation or virtual telecommuting, human resources are fluid across national and geographical boundaries. Businesses can find employees across the globe through outsourcing their business operations worldwide to maximize their profits and stay commercially competitive. Political actions and patriotism no longer are sufficient to keep businesses from sending their jobs abroad.

Meanwhile, nothing prevents Americans from working for foreign businesses through telecommuting or relocating abroad. But the problem is that on average American workers are much more expensive than their counterparts in developing countries such as Brazil, China, India and Mexico. For them to continue to be employed and paid a salary to sustain their current standard of living, Americans must have talents that are more valuable or unavailable in other parts of the world at a lower rate. This is clearly articulated by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, a group of influential business, education and political leaders in their 2007 report "Tough Choices or Tough Times."

In part, the commission's report says: "Today, Indian engineers make $7,500 a year against $45,000 for an American engineer with the same qualifications. If we succeed in matching the very high levels of mastery of mathematics and science of these Indian engineers - an enormous challenge for this country - why would the world's employers pay us more than they have to pay the Indians to do their work? They would be willing to do that only if we could offer something the Chinese and Indians and others cannot."

What then is that "something" the Chinese, Indians and others cannot offer but Americans can?

Writer Daniel Pink, in his book A Whole New Mind: Moving From the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, suggests the right brain-directed (R-directed) skills (simultaneous, metaphorical, aesthetic, contextual and synthetic) are the new ones Americans should acquire because jobs that use the left brain-directed skills (sequential, literal, functional, textual and analytic) are being outsourced to Asia and machines. Correspondingly, the new essential aptitudes, Pink says, are design, story, symphony, empathy, play and meaning.

In terms more familiar to educators, Pink's left-brain skills are similar to the linguistic and logic intelligences within Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences framework, or in terms of school subjects: math, language arts and science. Some of his right-brain skills relate to the other talents proposed by Gardner: kinesthetic, musical, visual/spatial, interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences.

The natural follow-up question is why we believe Americans can develop the R-directed aptitudes while the Chinese cannot. In fact, no such guarantee exists. China has been reforming its education system to cultivate creativity and the R-directed aptitudes. So, too, have other Asian countries, notably Japan, South Korea and Singapore. The United States, on the other hand, has been emphasizing the opposite. If NCLB and similar standardization efforts succeed, we may well lose the advantage in cultivating the right-brain aptitudes. Before the implementation of NCLB, the U.S. education culture was more conducive to (or at least tolerant of) talents besides the sequential, literal and functional.

A Broader View

"Teachers are gardeners."

This Chinese metaphor fully reveals the purpose of schooling. In its attempt to cultivate certain talents, it suppresses other talents, just as a gardener does. In his effort to cultivate desirable plants, he takes out the undesirable ones and labels them weeds. The fate of a plant is solely determined by the gardener's selection criteria and how he applies them. Similarly, the fate of certain intelligence is determined by what schools value and how that value is applied.

Although, in general, most modern schools worldwide tend to value linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences, the degree to which value is attached to them and other intelligences varies across cultures.

East Asian education systems have traditionally valued academic performance, indicated by test scores, in math and language almost to the exclusivity of any other talents. Schools and parents also have put all their efforts into helping students perform well in these areas. Consequently, these education systems have shown excellent performance in international comparative studies, which have mostly measured performance in mathematics and science.

In contrast, American schools and parents traditionally have tolerated the exercise of other intelligences in schools. They tend to hold a broader, more individualized view of success - the soccer mom phenomenon, the many nonacademic student clubs and the craziness surrounding athletic activities in schools are telling examples. Consequently American schools seem to have produced more diverse talents than their counterparts in Asia.

Unfortunately, all these may gradually disappear as the education reforms further deepen to completely squeeze out other intelligences from school.

Creative Needs

Creativity is another talent that the United States may offer that the Chinese and Indians may not be able to match, at least not yet on the same scale. Of course, it would be ludicrous to believe Americans hold a global monopoly over creativity. However, somehow we must accept the fact the United States has been the world leader in scientific innovations for most of modern times. In fact, as the East Asian specialist William Hannas comprehensively documents in his book The Writing on the Wall: How Asian Orthography Curbs Creativity, modern development in East Asian countries has primarily relied on technology transfers from the West. Leaders of these nations are acutely aware of their creativity problem and have been trying to address it, albeit with limited success. Somehow this fact escapes the attention of leaders and educators in the United States, "where East Asia's technical skills are typically confused with real creativity, and where people have little clue about the degree to which their creative resources are utilized abroad for commercial profit," Hannas writes.

The creativity gap between East Asian countries and the United States is a complex phenomenon, but it certainly has a great deal to do with individuals who are creative. That is, somehow there are more creative people in the United States than in Asian countries, or Americans are in general more creative than those in Asia. Because there shouldn't be any genetic difference in creativity between Asians and Americans, the difference has to be "nurture" rather than "nature." How then is creativity nurtured?

To be creative is to be different. Creative people have ideas, behaviors, beliefs and lifestyles that deviate from the norm and tradition. How deviant people and divergent ideas are treated by others has a defining effect on creativity. Research has found that, in general, tolerance of deviation from tradition and the norm resulted in more creativity.

Schools have been generally found to be either insignificant to or suppressive of creativity because they demand conformity and obedience. But there is a difference in the degree to which that happens: Some schools kill more creativity and some less.

Group Obligation

Here lies the answer, or at least a significant partial one, to the creativity gap between Asians and Americans. First of all, Asian teachers often have been praised by some American commentators for being able to maintain order in the classroom. They also want much more than their American counterparts for their students to think of themselves as a group, to be constantly aware of their obligations to the group and to not to bring shame to the group.

Furthermore, conformity is emphasized significantly more in Asian schools than in America. Inflexible rules, standard routines and an emphasis on conformity are just the right tools to squelch creativity.

Second, American parents and educators often have been criticized by reformers for having low academic expectations of students, which is actually a sign that shows American parents and educators define success more broadly and strongly emphasize children as individuals, and thus it is important to respect their wishes and abilities.

In contrast, Asian parents place an extremely high value on external indicators - grades, test scores, and most importantly, admission to prestigious universities. Excessive or exclusive focus on external indicators of success such as grades and test scores can pressure children, sending the message that academic success is important, not for personal reasons, but to please others. A broader definition of success and the emphasis on internal standards of success may not lead to high test scores but definitely helps to preserve and protect individuality and creativity.

Lastly, a standardized and centralized curriculum, another feature of Asian education systems that often is praised by American reformers, serves to further squeeze opportunities for individual differences. Teaching the same sequence at the same pace using the same textbook for all students leaves little room for exploring individual interests and accommodating different learning styles.
Creativity cannot be taught, but it can be killed. It is clear how Asian education systems kill creativity more effectively than the American system. The creativity gap exists between Americans and Asians not because American schools teach creativity more or better than their Asian counterparts. They just do not kill it as much as the Asians.

Global Workers

Another consequence of globalization is increased intensity and frequency of cross-cultural communications. As businesses become global and multinational, so do their workforces. Today, communication within a company often occurs across many countries and cultures on a daily basis. External communications with customers, suppliers and government agencies are similarly international. Even small businesses need talents that can help them navigate the cultural and linguistic differences when they enter the global economy.

In addition, as more and more people move across national borders, communities are becoming increasingly diverse culturally and racially. Communities need to provide services that are culturally sensitive and linguistically competent to new immigrants, to attract international investments and tourists, and to get on the global stage. Therefore the ability to interact effectively with people who speak different languages, believe in different religions and hold different values has become essential for all workers. That is, what used to be required of a small group of individuals - diplomats, translators, cross-cultural communication consultants or international tour guides - has become necessary for all professions.

The essential ingredients of global knowledge and skills include foreign language proficiency and a deep understanding of other cultures. American schools are notorious for not preparing students to cultivate such knowledge and skills. A report released by the Committee for Economic Development, a Washington D.C.-based organization, stated in February 2006: "Many American students lack sufficient knowledge about other world regions, languages and cultures, and as a result are likely to be unprepared to compete and lead in a global work environment." Most American schools do not offer foreign languages until high school. Although foreign language teaching starting from high school is too little too late, not all high school students are required take a foreign language, especially a non-Western language.

By contrast, in China English is a required course beginning in 3rd grade, and many schools in the urban areas start to offer English in 1st grade. Many parents send their children to English language programs before they even start formal schooling. The same is true in South Korea, Taiwan and other nations. England recently began to require all primary schools to offer foreign languages, including Chinese, as part of their core curriculum.

Global Citizenship

As economic globalization sweeps contemporary society, it brings both positive and negative impacts to different societies and different sectors of a given society. While it may help spread democracy and lift people out of poverty, it has the potential to lead to more cultural clashes and conflicts, destroy local cultures, breed hostility, create new pockets of poverty and ruin the environment.

Furthermore, what happens in distant places affects communities worldwide. Terrorism, environmental destruction, disease and political unrest have all acquired a global nature. To ensure a better society for all, actually to ensure the very survival and continuity of the human civilization, requires us to prepare our students to become global citizens.

As such, students need to be aware of the global nature of societal issues, to care about people in distant places, to understand the nature of global economic integration, to appreciate the interconnectedness and interdependence of peoples, to respect and protect cultural diversity, to fight for social justice for all and to protect planet Earth, home for all human beings.

This is a difficult assignment for American educators. No Child Left Behind already has squeezed out any room for subjects other than what is being tested. The frightening description of job losses due to offshoring, trade deficit, foreign terrorists, the rise of developing countries and how children in other countries will "eat the lunch" of American children adds to the challenge for educators to convince a very America-centric public that helping our children develop a sense of global citizenship is actually a good thing.

In reality, it is not only a good thing, but also a necessary and urgent need simply because our well-being is forever connected to that of people in other countries. Our prosperity cannot be sustained in isolation from other countries any longer.

Final Thoughts

We know test scores don't predict the future of either individuals or nations. About 10 years ago, author Daniel Goleman wrote the following in his classic book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ: "One of psychology's open secrets is the relative inability of grades, IQ or SAT scores, despite their popular mystique, to predict unerringly who will succeed in life. ... At best, IQ contributes about 20 percent to the factors that determine life success, which leaves 80 percent to other forces."

Writing in the October 2007 issue of Kappan, Keith Baker, a retired bilingual education authority with the U.S. Department of Education, pointed to the inability of international tests to predict a country's future.

Performance on the First International Mathematics Study, a study of 13-year-olds in 11 countries conducted in 1964 (in which the United States finished second to last), was found to have either insignificant or negative correlation with a nation's economic growth, productivity, democracy, livability or creativity - what really matters - 40 years later. "In short, the higher a nation's test score 40 years ago, the worse its economic performance," writes Baker.

Clearly what will help our children live a successful life in the future will not come from holding schools accountable for adequate yearly progress in test scores. On the contrary, AYP and similar measures have the greatest potential to destroy students' chances of success by forcing schools to narrow their curriculum, teachers to teach to the test and the public to adopt a single criterion to measure the success of students, teachers and schools. It aims to equip our children with knowledge that can be easily found at much lower cost in other countries, while squelching creativity and talents that are truly valuable.

Instead of becoming more like others who are eager to be more like Americans, American education needs to be more American - to preserve flexibility, protect individuality and promote multiple intelligences. American education also needs to become more global - adopt a global perspective, add foreign languages and cultures and advocate global citizenship.
Yong Zhao is director of the U.S.- China Center for Research on Educational Excellence at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich. E-mail: zhaoyo@msu.edu

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