Opportunity, Collaboration & Discovery

What world am living in . . . what should I learn?

CJ Westerberg, October 30, 2012 5:36 PM


A classic from The Daily Riff

" . . . explained Tan Kong Yam, an economist. 'We feel every change in the wind or the temperature and have to adapt. You Americans are still living in a brick house with central heating and don't have to be so responsive.' And we have not been."
-Tom Friedman

The Lesson Singapore Can Teach America: 
 How Do We Adapt to Thrive

NY Times columnist, Tom Friedman, writes from Singapore, and begins his column with a trip to a Singaporean public school - specifically a fifth grade class:

I am in the Gan Eng Seng Primary School in a middle-class neighborhood of Singapore, and the principal, A. W. Ai Ling, has me visiting a fifth-grade science class. All the 11-year-old boys and girls are wearing junior white lab coats with their names on them. Outside in the hall, yellow police tape has blocked off a "crime scene" and lying on a floor, bloodied, is a fake body that has been murdered. The class is learning about DNA through the use of fingerprints, and their science teacher has turned the students into little C.S.I. detectives. They have to collect fingerprints from the scene and then break them down.

I missed that DNA lesson when I was in fifth grade. When I asked the principal whether this was part of the national curriculum, she said no. She just had a great science teacher, she said, and was aware that Singapore was making a big push to expand its biotech industries and thought it would be good to push her students in the same direction early. A couple of them checked my fingerprints. I was innocent - but impressed.

This was just an average public school, but the principal had made her own connections between "what world am I living in," "where is my country trying to go in that world" and, therefore, "what should I teach in fifth-grade science."

I don't even remember what I was taught in fifth-grade science.  If I was "playing" CSI detective, I might have remembered the body parts that I had to memorize for my seventh grade science class.  Plus, don't we imagine every non-Western student chained to a desk

Friedman continues with a lesson he applies to politics, but certainly applies to our education system:

If Singapore has one thing to teach America, it is about taking governing seriously, relentlessly asking: What world are we living in and how do we adapt to thrive. "We're like someone living in a hut without any insulation," explained Tan Kong Yam, an economist. "We feel every change in the wind or the temperature and have to adapt. You Americans are still living in a brick house with central heating and don't have to be so responsive." And we have not been.

Complacency, entrenched special interests, and fear of change could be America's Achilles'
heel in education.  This is not about competition - this is about relevance.  Are we adapting fast enough to what students need to be relevant, and to become a contributor to our new world society?

Friedman continues with defining the Singaporean "appoach" through two "isms":  pragmatism vs. the abstract, and eclecticism, the ability to adapt locally to best practices globally.

Interesting read.   Continue to  article:  "Serious in Singapore"

                                                                                                     -- CJW
Post previously published 2011

Related posts The Daily Riff:

Am I preparing students for my age or theirs?  by C.J. Westerberg

Singapore:  Five Surprises in Education  by Bill Jackson

Science Education:  Missing a Larger Point  by Joe Ganem, Ph.D.

Would you Hire Your Own Kids?  7 Skills We Should Be Teaching Them  by Tony Wagner

  • CJ Westerberg

    Good point. Going to change the headline now - works for me.

  • Ken

    I propose that the title of the blog actually changed from "what do I teach?" to "what do I want to learn?". As the light of Education reform is shining our systems in North America I believe its an opportunity for for teachers to assert their professionalism. This principal and teacher made a professional decision to include something outside the curriculum in their science class. They based their decision on the context of their country, the skill set of the teacher and the learners in the classroom. As professional teachers should demand the same liberty but it must be based on the context of our world of rapid change. The professional choice of what to learn with students accompanies the professional responsibility to demonstrate its relevance.

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