Fashioning an ideal education in this day and age

It seems to me there are so many parallels between Japanese educational system and US educational system right now — the same criticisms about low state of literacy and educational skills, both at the bottom of the international rankings in math and science tests, deplorable state of basic skills of college entrants, policy directions, teachers’ skills, global competitiveness of their respective college graduates.

I am pondering why?

It also seems to me the there is now a great split in educational policy thinking in the industrialized world … over what constitutes an ideal education and over educational standards.

I have here a few links and quotes to show the split in educational directions … incidentally, I feel this split keenly myself for my kids in wanting an ideal education for my kids while meeting the challenges of the juku-exam-war-and-college-entrance-competition realm (i.e. national competitiveness).

The first position could be encapsulated by this quote:
It was described well recently by the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, Chester E. Finn Jr., a longtime public school critic, and initially a supporter of the No Child Left Behind law. “It’s increasingly clear,” he said recently in an online newsletter, “that making schools and teachers focus narrowly on test results, especially in basic skills, squeezes a lot of the juice out of the curriculum and out of the educational experience itself. … America’s true competitive edge doesn’t come from producing more engineers than India. It arises from the creativity, rebelliousness, and drive that result from a broad liberal education and the values and convictions that accompany such teaching and learning.”
Kids facing an infinite series of phonics exercises are not enjoying that broad liberal education. They’re not growing butterflies or watching whales. If the reading and math scores in the drilled schools rise, some people will claim success. Others will say, “At least they’re getting more of an education than they used to.” Somehow, I don’t think so.

Source: Growing an Achievement Gap by Gerald W. Bracey

And the second view is best captured by the following quotes:

As the job market goes global, propelling more young people to higher levels of educational attainment is now being seen as an economic necessity.
Educating young people to high levels is a moral imperative, but statistics suggest it’s also an economic one—for individuals and for society.
Says Richard E. Cavanagh, the president and chief executive officer of the Conference Board. “Less-than-intense preparation in critical skills can lead to unsuccessful futures for America’s youth, as well as a less competitive U.S. workforce.”
Twenty-one states have defined workforce readiness, according to the policy survey of 50 states and the District of Columbia for Quality Counts 2007. Thirty-five states give students the option of earning a standard high school diploma with a concentration or specialization in a career-technical field.
Inadequate workforce readiness has implications far beyond states’ own borders. “The fact is that a school in Ohio is not competing against a school in Michigan,” says James E. Whaley, the president of the Iselin, N.J.-based Siemens Foundation. “It’s competing against a school in Shanghai. Companies are looking for the best talent all over the world, and if they find it, they’re going to move there.”
Linking Learning to Earning By Lynn Olson (Edweek Vol. 26, Issue 17, Pages 66-68)

The picture it is not hard to see is that while educators of the western industrialized world place great store by a so-called western liberal education which is thought to encourage more critical thinking and room for exploration of ideas, the emerging developed world comes from the opposite end, by focusing narrowly on critical skills for employment and attaining higher standards in these.

Everytime I return to my home country Singapore I hear of how mainland Chinese children have bagged the top positions in all the country’s best schools, and often not just in math and science but in English as well, despite many of them being newly arrived. The new Indian immigrants are not far behind. The situation is not unique to Singapore, but is seen repeatedly in many other countries, with university institutions and exams dominated by stellar performances of such students.

Very often I hear snide remarks about how narrow or uncreative these students from the post-Cold war countries or less developed nations, and by implication that we don’t have anything to learn from them…aren’t they coming to our colleges and university institutions by the droves?

But I think we could take a leaf or two out of the statistics and learn a few lessons from these students … their tremendous motivation and drive … it is their great urge for survival that drives them for success, the students are constantly aware of the sacrifices their parents have made and are afraid of the humiliation of failure…even if scientists tell us fear is not a good motivation for learning, it is a powerful long term motivator. We think of these students as overly competitive, lacking in social skills, as the quintessential rotelearners mugging away facts late into the night, but surely we should not fault them for that drive, they do not have the luxury of chasing after creative and fun avenues of learning nor of out-of-pocket expenses for social dates.

By contrast, I do think it is also often the affluent lifestyles of industrialized countries US, Japan, UK and even my native Singapore in recent decades, that have made our children “fat and lazy” (and parents too) in the lack in drive and motivation to learn, and that the educational systems and teachers are not entirely to blame.

I think what we need to evaluate is: while many studies indicate that fun and exploratory modes of teaching greatly aid learning of children, fun is as fun does..when you can have it, what do we do when kids need to learn stuff that isn’t fun? Where will the innate motivation for learning come from? Or don’t we need to teach kids any more about the virtues of hard work and diligence in this day and age, and to understand the payoffs that come with hard work and the mastery of skills?

If we as parents here and now have the choice and the means to fashion the kind of education we want for our kids, this then is the dilemma that what we now face in a globally competitive world — should we always cut out a fun and creative educational environment for our kids where according to educators they learn much better and naturally and achieve self-actualization and their potential or is it so wrong to expose them and push them up the path of competition and hard work…and perhaps prepare them for the real world?

In any event, in fashioning the perfect education for our kids, be it in the classroom or at home, is it so black and white, must we always come from opposing directions?

Digitally yours,


Other articles touching upon what’s missing from mainstream education:

More Class Hours Not the Answer

Losing global ground

Virtual or online schooling issues

Raising Children With A Wild Streak

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