This morning I read a very interesting newspaper article about educational performance of different nations. Its focus was on the recent high performance of Asian nations - namely Korea, Singapore and China and looks at their rise to the top of the international student rankings. It states, however, that this rise hasn't come without a cost.
These three nations, among others, have regularly topped these sorts of ranking tables in recent years. As a result, education reformers in search of similar results look to these countries' curricula for inspiration on how to enhance their own programs. However, according to Dr. Yong Zhao, from the University of Oregon, more attention needs to be paid to the other results that these systems yield.
The article highlights three key educational points:
(i) The development of the whole child - Dr. Zhao highlights the existence, in these systems, of high levels of psychological stress, the strong directional focus from the teacher to the student, and a lack of social experiences, which can lead to poor emotional development in a child. He also mentions the children's lack of confidence, for example, creativity, entrepreneurial spirit and imagination. To claim that an over-reliance on purely an academic focus - however that may be defined - is detrimental to a student's development is not ground breaking news. However, what still astounds me is some people's (and I include teachers, parents, students and policy makers in this group) fascination with academic scores and results. People talk about the importance of developing the 'whole child' but I sometimes get the impression that few truly believe it and even less actually act on it.
(ii) The over-reliance on standardised testing results - Dr. Zhao states that standardised test scores are ''easily manipulated if you pay for college prep schools''. Long used to measure student achievement or academic ability (and more recently for other means), there is regular discussion about the methods and uses of standardised testing in many different settings. The use of standardised testing results to allocate funding, student class or level placement, and teacher performance has wreaked havoc among several countries with one of the most notable examples being the No Child Left Behind Act in the United States. Despite all this, Government representatives still seem to view this as the most effective way of evaluating many parts of a school's teaching and learning. And to be perfectly honest, it's hard to blame them. Many elementary school teachers advocate the end of standardised testing, citing student rates of development, over-reliance on factual knowledge over deeper understanding, and multiple intelligences as key arguments against the use of these assessment methods. But many Universities still base their student admission criteria on these sorts of tests. So, inevitably, as the student progresses through their schooling years, they need to learn how to perform on such assessments. It pleased me to read the section in the article that mentioned how some Universities are changing their selection process and criteria to not only rely on academic performance. They are doing this because students are performing well on standardised tests to enter their universities, only to find themselves being 'dragged back into the pack' once they're in. It is a small start, but these realisations need to come from the top (ie. universities and colleges) in order for the changes to fully filter through the complete educational life of a child.
(iii) The importance of collaborative working skills - The article also states that many of the students that enter 'top' universities are leaving without jobs in any of the Fortune 500 companies that they expect to gain. 'People talk about how they lack confidence, how they lack entrepreneurial skills, how they lack the ability to work with a group'. These skills need to be fostered and a focus on 'skill and drill' style learning experiences does little to enhance them. This loops back to the first point of developing the whole child but highlights that fact that it doesn't simply stop after elementary school. These skills need to be developed throughout a child's entire education.
It is sometimes difficult to have the vision and courage to change the ways of the past, especially when they are still used in many circumstances or if the reasons for the change are not completely understood. Fast disappearing are the days where mastering one discipline in one way would be enough to guarantee the successful completion of a task - or even a career. Today's workforce favours employees who boast a skill set consisting of creative thinking, the ability to collaborate, and the capacity to synthesise and transfer knowledge to new and related fields. It is the students that possess these skills that are the real miracles of education.