What Price Mastery? The Place of Culture in Education

Thoughts - both random and variable...

Much has been written recently, both about mastery and the way in which it is interpreted in different cultures. I have been fortunate enough to be able to travel widely both in the UK and abroad, and rarely miss an opportunity to learn about education wherever I go.

While usually my trips are predominantly to international schools specialising in Western curricula and models, I make a point of talking with people whose experience is more indigenous, and visiting local schools where possible.

For example, let me tell you about someone I met in Asia earlier this year. Billy is a charming young man, in his early twenties, and his English is flawless. He also speaks Thai but is actually Filipino. Already multi-lingual, and fresh out of Manila Central University, Billy is working on the front-desk of an apartment block doing relatively simple security and housekeeping work. I asked him how he spoke such good English. “Everyone speaks English in Manila” he explained. “Everyone – even the bystanders.” I thought ‘bystanders’ was an interesting choice of word, but something else occurred to me. It simply wouldn’t occur to anyone that they would NOT learn English, such was the importance of the language ingrained into their educational culture.

I think Mastery has a lot to do with culture. High expectations for all has worked in this case – indeed, when I visited Manila a few years ago, it was a very easy place for an Englishman to travel around due to the willingness of everyone to help, and yes, to speak my language far better than I could hope to speak theirs. It is simply unthinkable for anyone to leave school in Manila without speaking English. No excuses.

It is possible of course that Billy will not work on a reception desk forever, yet for someone so erudite he seemed remarkably incurious abut the world. I know this because of a simple sentence: “I was named after Billy Joel, but I have never heard any of his songs.”

Billy’s education, though academically rigorous, did not equip him for a life of growth and discovery. He told me that typically school started at 7am for him and continued until around 6pm. He was spending almost half his day at school. And I find myself wondering why, exactly?

Fast forward a few days to Singapore, much-heralded around the world for their academic excellence. Everywhere I travel in Singapore there are signs reminding anyone who will listen that ‘Nobody Owes Singapore a Living’. This is one of the country’s six big education messages, and behind it is the implication that only the best survive. Translating this into exam grades seems an inevitable consequence.

But what we don’t hear so much about is the revolution currently taking place in the Singaporean education system. Towards the end of the last century, the Ministry of Education undertook a multi- billion dollar investment in transforming the way their children are educated. In the words of former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, “We must get away from the idea that it is only the people at the top who should be thinking and the job of everyone else is to do as they are told.”

The high-stakes PSLE (Primary School Leaving Exam) is a national obsession. While the government try to broaden children’s experiences with a richer diet of creativity, PE, dance, art and so on, parents remain a tougher nut to crack. They were brought up on the idea that academic grades are everything and that book learning is all. Given the huge competition for places in Higher Education (Singapore has just three universities) the change will not be overnight.

There is a caveat to all of this. I think we must beware blindly following successful jurisdictions who appear to have ‘mastered’ teaching and learning without first considering closely the culture in which they operate. For example, a delegation from Cambridge were recently invited to China to advise THEM on the power of reasoning in mathematics; the Chinese too are beginning to realise the dangers of thinking too narrowly about mathematics and, by implication, about education in general.

The Red Dress Fallacy: I once thought about writing to Michael Gove, then the Education Secretary, about my wife’s red dress, in which she looks stunning (just my opinion, of course) and suggesting that because it made her look awesome, perhaps we should all wear one? The thought, probably wisely, remained just an idea, but I still recall the occasional temptation to actually write it, as I thought about the current  keenness to get us all looking exclusively to the Far East for our inspiration.

While we are right to look at and learn from just what it is that other countries do well, we are foolish to rush headlong into assuming that we can think about education without considering culture. If we do, we may be surprised as we see passing Singapore and China travelling in the other direction.

We have a rich and diverse education system. It is not perfect, but we do have a balance between academic rigour and extraordinary creativity. The new world economy values most highly those people who can think, not just regurgitate. And for all my travels, I do not think there are many places better in the world that the UK for that.

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