Recently I attended a fascinating lecture by Dr. Yong Zhao, Associate Dean for Global Education at the University of Oregon. For those who are not familiar with his work and research, Dr. Zhao is one of a growing number of scholars who challenge the notion that the United States educational system is woefully inadequate when compared to the hard charging, intensely rote schooling systems found in China, India, Korea and other emerging nations. Dr. Zhao’s most recent book Catching Up or Leading the Way
is a fascinating account of the past 50 years in America, beginning with the Sputnik incident which convinced us all that our educational system, especially in math and science, was lagging way behind the Soviet Union. Indeed, if you look back in publications (or do a Google Image search), you will see a 1958 Life Magazine
cover showing a Russian student and an American student side by side with the headline “Crisis in Education.”
Dr. Zhao traces this theme of our supposed failing educational approach from Sputnik to current day. In the early 1960s, the United States placed second to dead last on an international math competition among industrialized nations. In the 1980s, A Nation At Risk
was published which declared that “our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry science and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.” In 1995, the United States scored a resounding Average among other industrialized nations on a TIMSS Grade 8 Mathematics Test. And today, we’ve been swamped with more of the same. 2 Million Minutes
was an interesting documentary covering students from the United States, China, and India during their respective 2 million minutes of high school, demonstrating how many more courses the Chinese and Indian students take throughout the entire day and into the evening while the American student enjoyed more creative extracurricular outlets such as athletics and student leadership. 50 years of failing schools. 50 years of headlines, 50 years of other nations forcing their kids to do more math, more science, more memorization of facts, etc.
So here’s Dr. Zhao’s question – one which I believe is worth considering. If our nation has been working in such a flawed manner for half a century, if we have been so misguided in our approach to K-12 curricula by not forcing our students to take more, more, more - then why do we continue to have the world’s most sought after and wealthiest colleges and research universities? And why does the United States continue to generate the most business ideas and have the most patents filed per year (by far) than any other nation in the world? The United States has the most robust and prosperous economy ever, and our economy continues to grow at the same rate as these other rapidly growing economies (as a reference point, the U.S. GDP grew from about $3 trillion to $15 trillion from 1980 to 2010. China’s economy has grown from very little GDP to just over $9 trillion in the same time period).
Dr. Zhao’s research digs much further into what really matters in education – beyond standardized test scores and ever accelerated course offerings. The most current research in linking learning to actual workplace productivity and leadership suggests that what matters most is an educational environment that on the one hand, provides a rigorous and challenging academic experience, and on the other, offers students the chance to own their experiences (as academic entrepreneurs), to have hands-on learning opportunities, and to be immersed in projects that are truly relevant, and require creativity, innovation, critical thinking skills, and an ability to communicate well, both traditionally and technologically.
In 2002, China attempted to reform its educational system in terms of developing more electives, integrated studies, and reducing the excessive coursework burden on students in favor of social integration and creativity. Japan made the same attempts in developing a more well-rounded education with its Education Plan for the 21st Century. Singapore launched its Nurturing Every Child: Flexibility and Diversity in its schools in 2005. And in 2000, Korea applied the Revised 7th National Curriculum with an ultimate goal of “cultivating creative, autonomous and self-driven human resources who will lead the era’s development in information, knowledge and globalization.”
When I think of Webb, I think of not only our current students, but also our graduates – students who have gone on in disproportionate numbers to do truly creative work in industry. Our school, in a sense, is way ahead of its time. It is a true global village which fosters this critical balance of a strong academic program with these other essential experiences and skill sets.
Look at the Alf Museum and the Summer Peccary Trips run by Dr. Lofgren and Dr. Farke. Webb students have the opportunity to conduct paleontological exploration and actual field work for four weeks during their summer break. These experiences are given context when students are encouraged to do original research, and just this past year five Webbies travelled to Philadelphia and presented their research at an international conference.
We also offer robust service learning opportunities for students
. Students can volunteer their afternoon activity period and help tutor elementary school children, work at a local animal rescue shelter, or even go on an international service trip. Just this past weekend, the Vanguard Club teamed up with students volunteering with Habitat for Humanity and played music and raised money during the weekly farmer’s market in Claremont
At the conclusion of the lecture, I exchanged cards with Dr. Zhao, and later I followed up with him. After I described our community, he said “wow, this sounds like a place I need to visit, it sounds like you have not just a school, but a global enterprise.” I couldn’t agree more and look forward to hearing from you about how we can do even more to become not just a great school, but a global enterprise for our future world leaders. Please leave me a comment in the section below and I’ll be sure to respond.