Time to re-think our ‘why’ in education?

A video illustrated above appeared in my inbox today, and made me think of the implications of the ‘seachange’ occurring globally for our education system here in NZ (and other parts of the world). The opening paragraph in the McKinsey article that accompanies the video reads:

For years, Western observers and media have been talking about the rise of Asia in terms of its massive future potential. But the time has come for the rest of the world to update its thinking—because the future arrived even faster than expected.

Mckinsey Global: Asia’s Future Now

Over the past few decades we have seen a steady growth in the interest in Asian language learning in many of our schools, and Asia studies have become a popular part of the senior school curriculum. In our everyday lives we have become all too familiar with the fact that many of the things we consume (clothing and electronics in particular) will have been sourced from somewhere in Asia. And in terms of our economy, we have seen a significant amount of our export earnings derived from trade with Asian countries.

Our desire to learn Asian languages often links with our desire to travel to some of the countries, or, more the point, to be able to accommodate the increasing numbers of Asian tourists that visit our country each year. Our lust for consumables makes Asian manufactured goods appealing as they can be landed in NZ for less than what it would take to manufacture them here. And with many of our traditional markets closing us out with restrictive tarrifs and trade agreements together with the cost of shipping to some of these places makes trade with the more populous and geographically closer Asian countries more attractive.

Yet McKinsey suggest we may have missed the point a bit. While our relationships with Asia have undoubtedly benefited us in a number of ways, we have failed to appreciate the fact that these countries are now set to overtake us in terms of their economies and standard of living – as highlighted in the McKinsey report. This won’t be a surprise to some – particularly those students of the shifts in global economies and the impact of globalisation. These shifts are well illustrated by Hans Rosling in his now popular demonstration of World Population Box by Box below:

The reason this makes me suggest it’s time to update our thinking regarding the ‘why’ of education is that this shift in the global economic power base poses a significant challenge to the very premise of our education system, why we have schools and what we believe should be taught in them.

It is commonly accepted that a major driver behind our current model of schooling was to adequately prepare our youth for the 20th century industrialized economy. As people moved from farms to factories, the analog factory-model classroom was adopted as the most sensible way to rapidly scale a system of schools. All of this is premised on the notion of growth – that a thriving economy requires growth to sustain itself, growth in the numbers of consumers which in turn drives demand for more goods to be produced – and so the cycle continues.

But what happens when that growth slows – as it is in many Western societies. Populations in many of these countries (including NZ) has slowed, with significantly fewer births as a percentage of population than even a decade ago. While the overall population figures do show signs of growth, most of that is now being attributed to people living longer – meaning the age-profile demographic is changing, which in turn means the demand for goods is changing, and so too is our capacity to produce goods for trade with others.

Why is this important to consider? Because the Cult of Growth (as David Pilling calls it in his book The Growth Delusion) exists as a key part of the ‘why’ in our existing schooling system, whether we realise it or not. Consider the things that we think of as being important for those who attend our schools. Getting good grades and exam results features high on the list. Why? In order to get a good job in order to earn good money and become a consumer. Once in the workforce we expect regular pay rises – why? In order to consume more, of course – and so the cycle continues.

Our curriculum too is impacted in this way. While we celebrate the fact that NZ has a competency-based curriculum that focuses (or is meant to focus) us on the development of qualities that will ensure our young people can navigate life through times of uncertainty and change, we too often see signs of the economic imperatives rear their head. The recent addition of the Digital Technologies Curriculum is a good example. A key driver here was the desire to see more NZ young people actively involved in the IT industry so that NZ is able to compete globally in this area of economic growth. I’m not arguing that this is necessarily a ‘wrong’ response to a changing global economy and NZ’s place it it – only that we need to ensure that we’re all comfortable with understanding what the drivers are and how these decisions reveal more about the ‘why’ of our schools than our vision or mission statements often do.

The all to familiar ‘what do you want to do when you grow up?’ question is asked of our young people from a very early age – combined with an enduring hierarchy of possible jobs that puts high status (and high earning) careers further up the list of what’s desirable as a response. All of this has contributed to a perception of some schools as being more desirable, based on the numbers of graduates who move on to obtain university degrees and careers in these high earning occupations.

Before I get caught in a tangent, let me circle back to where I started – with a reflection on the news that Asian countries may soon be the dominant economic and social ‘powerhouse’ of the world. Why is this important for us to consider in terms of education?

Firstly, as Rosling so ably explains, as some groups in our global village make their way ‘up’ the ladder of growth and prosperity, there will be others who move ‘down’, having to settle for a lesser quality of life than they have been used to. Secondly (and in my view, more importantly) economic growth is but one indicator of a nation’s prosperity. Economic growth indicators (Such as Gross Domestic Product or GDP) tell us little about the rising inequality we see within our communities nor about huge global imbalances – and we don’t have to look past the evening news to see evidence of this!

So – why re-think our ‘why’? As Pilling argues in his book, we need to begin measuring our notion of success and failure using different criteria. We need to learn what makes economies better – not bigger. So much of what is important to our well-being, from clean air to safe streets and from steady jobs to sound minds, lies outside the purview of our standard measures of success. We need to move from a belief in the economic imperative of education for all children and to embracing a desire to creating a tolerant, equitable and civilized society.

Rather than becoming unnecessarily alarmed by the revelation that our Asian neighbours are becoming an economic powerhouse that may threaten our position at the ‘top of the heap’, we need to be considering the ways in which we can value what we have as a people, as a society – our land, our culture, our heritage – and turn those things into the things we value most in terms of the decisions we make about our school goals, our curriculum and our graduate profiles.

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