I was recently invited to speak at an education conference in Kuala Lumpur, and while there I attended a panel on ‘world class’ education systems.
The first speaker was a Finnish diplomat, and in a brief presentation he explained what made Finland’s schools the envy of the world: The professional training and stature of Finnish teachers, the Lutheran culture of hard work, the pervasiveness of a reading culture, and a social commitment to leaving no child behind. The diplomat emphasized that Finland’s school system operated on the principles of flexibility and diversity: There was no one formula for successful schools, he said, and Finland trusts its teachers to know what’s best for their students.
Speaking next was a McKinsey consultant who, armed with data and graphs, insisted there was in fact one formula for successful schools: recruit top-performing students as teachers, improve instruction through collaboration among teachers, insist that every child succeeds, and bring in experienced visionaries with strong management skills to lead the schools.
The entire ballroom of Malaysian educators and policy makers sat entranced; the Finnish diplomat sank into his seat.
I was as concerned as the Finnish diplomat because I thought the idea of seeing schools as factories was wrong. Essentially, the theme of the two-day conference was how to create a top-down school system that would manufacture corporate drones to make Malaysia competitive in the global economy.
And such a mentality isn’t just taking shape in the authoritarian nation states of Southeast Asia, but also in the liberal enclaves of New York. In his New York Times magazine article ‘What if the Secret to Success is Failure?’ education writer Paul Tough looks at the movement in education to distil ‘character’ into its constituent parts, just like how scientists have been trying to locate, distil, and bottle the medicinal qualities of red wine and tomatoes.
Paul Tough looks at Dave Levin, co-founder of the Knowledge is Power Programme (KIPP) schools, who applies McKinsey scientific management to the problem of inner city schooling. KIPP’s focus on discipline and self-control has gotten its poor minority students college scholarships, but only a third of them have graduated with a college degree. Dave Levin has discovered that character – persistence and resilience – were even more important than academic preparedness for success in college. So, with encouragement from positive psychology guru Martin Seligman, Dave Levin has devised a Character Point Average (CPA), which measures things such as zest, grit, gratitude, optimism, curiosity, and other stuff that’s supposed to turn KIPP students into future Dave Levins and Martin Seligmans.
This movement to locate, distil, and bottle the characteristics of success would be funny and silly, if it weren’t for the mentality behind it: That schools could be turned into McDonald’s, that each and every student could be standardized and manufactured for success, that each and every student ought to pass through an assembly line in which highly-credentialed and well-meaning teachers could stamp labels on the child.
Also profiled in Paul Tough’s New York Times article is Dominic Randolph, the 49-year-old headmaster of the posh Brooklyn private school Riverdale:
‘(Dominic Randolph felt lost at Harvard and) out of step with the power-tie careerism of the Reagan ’80s…After college, he moved for a couple of years to Italy, where he worked odd jobs and studied opera. It was an uncertain and unsettled time in his life, filled with plenty of failed experiments and setbacks and struggles. Looking back on his life, though, Randolph says that the character strengths that enabled him to achieve the success that he has…came out of those years of trial and error, of taking chances and living without a safety net.’
Randolph’s life reminds me of my own. I did well at Yale, but was so disillusioned with the United States’ crass materialism that I decided to make a career in China (yes, how ironic is that). What followed was a decade of wandering around pointlessly and anxiously, but I am now wiser and stronger because of it; I agree with Randolph that the school of hard knocks provides a far better education than the Ivy League.
But, unlike Randolph, the experience has left me with a deep suspicion of success and the material world that we live in. Yes, I hope that my students become successful one day, but it’s more important to me that they discover themselves as individuals.
And that doesn’t mean devising a curriculum to teach individuality. It means you let your students make their own mistakes and suffer the consequences; let them discover their own values but, as teachers, set a strong moral example for them to emulate; and above all let them define for themselves what success is and how to best achieve it.
But, as the Finnish diplomat discovered in Kuala Lumpur, this is becoming an increasingly obsolete message in our world because McKinsey can’t design a PowerPoint presentation around it, and because we can’t bottle and sell it.