SOME OF THE MOST IMPORTANT EDUCATIONAL REFORMS WILL BE COGNITIVESteve DeAngelis
had a post today on the attempt to revive world class higher education in globalizing India
( most non-Western universities, even national flagship institutions like the cited Tokyo University, compare unfavorably with well-funded "Big State" public universities in the U.S. such as the University of Illinois, much less Harvard or MIT). DeAngelis was calling attention to the NYT op-ed by Yale's Jeffrey Garten
, "Really Old School
" on a proposal to revive the ancient, polycultural, Indian university of Nalanda
. This is the functional equivalent of the EU deciding to rebuild Aristotle's Lyceum.
Steve quite sensibly opined:"Garten is right about the importance of "global connectedness," even in education. It is an important part of the movement of people necessary to make globalization work. For Asia, a world class university that can rank among the world's top institutions would foster cultural pride as well as new knowledge. Among the billions living in Asia, there are undoubtedly new Pasteurs and Einsteins waiting to have their intellects unlocked.
(I also recommend an earlier, related, post by Steve -"Raising the Educational Bar
" and today's NYT article "Expert Panel Proposes Far-Reaching Redesign of the American Education System
Which brings us to the point that world class universities are about something far more critical than possessing awe-inspiring endowments and first-rate brick and mortar facilities; it is about building resilient"cognitive cultures" that emphasize intellectual curiousity, resolutely defend free inquiry and reward creativity. None of which Asian educational systems are fostering at present, by the admission of the high education officials from these nations themselves ( arguably, you could make a case that, despite ostensibly having these values as a raison d'etre, American universities aren't doing as good a job at these things either. Or at least a universally good job. It's just that we are relatively better at it than is the rest of the world).
In early 2006, Dr. Von
related his experience consulting with educational officials from Singapore
"I know from personal experience Singapore is serious about trying to change their system to some degree to begin to mimic aspects of the American education system. Last spring I was asked to meet with a group of educators from one of Singapore's top science and math high schools. They were here observing both successful high school and university programs, and I met with them at Northwestern University. They picked my brain about how to get beyond student memorization of facts and more into developing creative solutions and higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills, which are much more important in the long run than memorizing a few facts (that can be easily forgotten after a test). It is one thing to remember a solution to a particular type of problem and repeat the solution on a test, and something entirely different to truly learn an important principle or concept, and then having your brain take it and use it to create a new/original idea, discover a new principle, or expand on someone else's idea.
Part of the process is to get kids thinking about how the material applies to their lives, and allowing them to discuss that and put it into their own words. The guests from Singapore had not really thought that something like this should be a priority. Zakaria's article brought this back into my mind because he mentions that a friend of his from Singapore recently moved back from America and put his kids into one of the top Singapore high schools. He described the difference, that "In American schools, when my son would speak up, he was applauded and encouraged. In Singapore, he is seen as being pushy and weird." This is a vital observation and feature of our schools, and we should continue to pursue and push for it. Our children must continue to be encouraged to think and contribute, and not just sit there and memorize test strategies and facts that are gong to be on the next standardized test.
The culture of expectations shapes not only academic performance but cognition as well.
You can very easily vertically educate the creativity out of anyone and, to a large extent, with our k-12 public education system, we do. Our school system is regimented by the clock, institutional legacies, non-academic socialization priorities and frequently defective teacher education programs to produce an atmosphere that mitigates against students practicing valuable cognitive behaviors
in favor of memorization and practicing basic skills.
The difference with Asian school systems is that the wider American culture and economy contradicts rather than heavily reinforcing the habits of mind inculcated by formal schooling. Our relatively egalitarian higher education system also provides the broadband access for late bloomers to rise.
My advice, were it to be heard by the governments behind the Nalanda project, would be not to simply look backward to ancient Buddhist India. Or even to make a carbon-copy of a top tier American university as a regional center ( though that would be a major accomplishment in itself). The monks of Nalanda did not build their innovative university by retreating into the distant past but by creating something new. Instead they should think systemically and create boldly.
The 21st century will not belong to those who can best ape the old forms but to those who can usher in the new.
1. "Newsweek (Jan. 9, 2006; page 37)