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  • Keeping the conversation on education going

    By Neni Sta. Romana Cruz
    Saturday, April 12th, 2014
    Philippine Daily Inquirer

    “Education that teaches people to ask questions” was how Drew Gilpin Hurst, the 28th and the first woman president of the 375-year-old Harvard University, described the kind of education that matters in a recent television interview.

    A major delight in being in the US West Coast is catching the daily Charlie Rose interviews held at his signature oak table at a decent hour, rather than close to midnight in Manila. How timely that one day last month, Women’s Month, the guest was Drew Hurst.

    It is an interesting time, with all the transformation around us, the digital revolution and the globalization of higher education, Hurst said. She expressed concern that in examining the role of the university while still reeling from the financial crisis, it may be focusing too much on preparing students for their first job and not for decades after graduation as global citizens, and for jobs that have not been invented yet. (A history professor and author before her appointment, she considers her credentials an excellent preparation because, after all, both history and leadership are about change.)

    When asked what makes a good university, Hurst emphasized two qualities of students: curious and imaginative, coming from the breadth of knowledge that the liberal arts offer, rather than the limiting specialized knowledge of a discipline.

    Hurst’s comments brought to mind the keynote address of New York Times columnist and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Friedman at the Teach for All conference in Yunnan, China. He declared the death of the average and routine work, for what matters is not knowledge but what one’s creativity can yield. He described how times have changed in the job market—“I had to find jobs; my kids have to invent or coengineer their jobs”—and also how rapidly the changes are taking place. He pointed out that as recently as 2004, there was no Facebook, Twitter was a sound, Skype was a typo, and Cloud was just in the sky.

    And who’s afraid of online education? Not Friedman, who said that his most influential teacher was not from a computer, but his Grade 10 journalism teacher, Hattie Steinberg, who taught him all he needed to know about journalism.
    Not Hurst, who said that the computer can never replace having people together, having extraordinary encounters, and electricity in the classrooms. In the same breath, she acknowledged the wonders of online education in terms of reach and access.

    Dr. Andreas Schleicher, special advisor on education policy to the secretary general and deputy director for education of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), has been conducting research on excellent school systems. Perhaps not surprisingly, his comments echo those of Hurst and Friedman.
    Schleicher has been dubbed the “Pisa delivery man,” a reference to the Programme for International Student Assessment—the international testing of 15-year-olds in the fields of reading, math, science that he invented and runs. The Pisa results are more anxiously awaited by countries’ education ministers rather than by the students and their parents.

    One finding that surprised the audience at the Teach for All conference in Yunnan was that class size does not make a significant impact on successful teaching and learning, and that teacher quality is more important.
    There is much importance placed on teachers and, rightly, their professional development, too. Teachers need to have a wide repertoire of teaching resources, and a deep understanding of how students learn.
    As in the Shanghai model, teachers need time to reflect on their teaching and to make collaborative relationships. Teachers need the space and the time to design, look, and manage and plan learning environments in collaboration with their peers. If teacher training initiatives are not set right, one can get 40 years of bad teaching.

    There are reminders for teachers regarding their role. All students need to learn at a high level. High expectations need to be set for students, and the level of student engagement must be monitored and assessed regularly. Teachers need to provide connections across all subjects or disciplines.

    The skills easiest to teach and test, according to Schleicher, are also the ones easiest to digitize, automate, outsource. The implication is that in this era of change, education should nurture lifelong learners who can manage complex ways of thinking and working together. Also, that “the past was about delivered wisdom and the future is about user-generated wisdom.”

    A key point Schleicher stresses is that “the benchmark for educational success is no longer merely improvement by local or national standards, but the best-performing education systems internationally.”
    To address the issue of inequalities in education, school systems draw the most talented to the most challenging classrooms. Thus, all students, no matter the background, are challenged with high standards and an excellent education.

    Schleicher’s most important recommendation amidst the often discouraging discussion of school systems that work and those that don’t: Just keep the conversation on education going. That is an important initial step.
    That, and Friedman’s own reminder, “Schools that do not plan for the future are doomed,” leave us with much to work on. It is a challenge that the Philippines needs to confront head on.

    Erratum: Drew Gilpin Faust is the name of the first woman president of Harvard.

    Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ( nenisrcruz@gmail.com) is chair of the National Book Development Board, a trustee of Teach for the Philippines, and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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