It seems to me that if we want to fix our broken educational system we need to study the educational systems and ways of life of other cultures. This is why I’m going to teach abroad in Thailand next year.
I’ve been warned against going. Some people say that the education system is in dire straits here in America, so why would I go and help a people that isn’t even my own? The regionalism and close-mindedness of this statement is hard to dispute. I don’t know how to fix America’s education system and Americans are a lot of the reasons Thailand has so many difficulties.
But it has so many other things going for it. And ignorant people will never see these things because they can’t see past their own noses. I am motivated to teach in Thailand to experience a culture that may view what it means to be "successful" differently than it is commonly viewed in the United States. A personal goal of mine is to explore aspects of Southeast Asia’s culture to see ow my life expectations are influenced by western points-of-view of value and success. I find the definition of success in America limiting, and exploring another country’s value system would help me in re-evaluating and critiquing my worldview.
As an aspiring future educator, I want to explore Thai methods of education and knowledge-expansion to see how elements of this type of education could be applied in American and western learning systems. I also want to explore a culture and education system completely different from the one I’ve known in America.
I worry that so many people think we have the medication to fix the problem; we just have to go out there and do it. We do not know what other countries need. Rather than prescribing what the students should need from me from my perspective, I want to meet the needs of students with whom I work on their own terms. I don’t know what my community will need and, because Thailand is one of the most romanticized places in the western imagination, I won’t know how best to serve them until I arrive. I know I need to keep an open-mind and experience Thailand on its own terms, rather than through an American lens.
Salon.com yesterday, contributor David Sirota interviews Tony Wagner, Harvard professor and filmmaker of a new documentary on the astounding success of Finland's education system, "The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World's Most Surprising School System." Wagner's documentary shows an educational system the de-emphasizes standardized accountability testing, and heavily criticizes the current political debates about educational reform in the U.S. The audio excerpt of Sirota's entire interview is available here from his radio show in Denver, CO.
Wagner describes a school system which, in the 1970's was one of the most under-performing in the world, the product of a poor agricultural economy that was quickly running out of its chief export: trees. The nation implemented a new initiative to improve its schools, thereby become a more knowledge-based and competitive economy. He describes an educational system in which teacher preparation is rigorous, with only about 1 in 10 actually completing and getting their certification. As a result teachers are one of the most highly esteemed professions in the country. They're not paid significantly more than teachers in the U.S., but they benefit from a culture of support and adoration; much the same way athletes and doctors are appreciated here.
The Finnish education system also doesn't emphasize rigorous, high-stakes testing of kids to prove classroom effectiveness. They have a "quiet auditing system" which goes form school to school to measure performance among minority subgroups only. The results are not for public consumption, are not thrown on the table in support of any political agendas, and do not have penalties attached to them. In fact, Finland has no standardized tests between districts, or even between individual schools. Among international comparison tests, however, they rank #1 in creativity, entrepreneurship, innovation, as well as academics. Wagner attributes much of this to the high degree of professionalism among their teachers; with such a rigorous preparation program they have created a trust and a pride in high expectations. "Trust Through professionalism", he calls it.
recent study shows it does almost nothing.
Due to a new piece of legislation in the state, students in Rhode Island may be forced to attend public school until the age of 18, rather than the current mandatory age limit of 16. Students would be able to get around the law only if they are homeschooled, or obtain a waiver for an apprenticeship, independent study, or internship.
For many people, this is a load of crap, considering that many of them leave to start their own careers or support their families by age 16. My own husband knows he would have done better to simply begin working at age 16 than remain in school for two more years learning nothing he needs in his career—and I agree with him. He’d be able to get more opportunities in the field he’s in since most employers demand more experience, rather than more education, in what he does.
In what sounds like a sort of bizarre move on their part, the Indiana school system has recently decided to not enforce cursive writing in their curriculum any longer. While individual districts are welcome to continue teaching script writing, none will be required to do so since such writing is being deemed outdated. The powers that be are now maintaining that teaching computer and typing skills are much more important.
I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, they’re completely right. Cursive writing is becoming obsolete, and it doesn’t actually have a place in our society today other than, say, check-writing. I still write in cursive a lot, especially when I journal, and I know plenty of other people who do as well; my mother, for example, only writes in cursive if she can help it. So it’s a skill that’s needed for reading some writing, but perhaps not for writing itself any longer.