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In South Korea and Finland, it’s not about finding the “right” school.
Fifty years ago, both South Korea and Finland had terrible education systems. Finland was at risk of becoming the economic stepchild of Europe. South Korea was ravaged by civil war. Yet over the past half century, both South Korea and Finland have turned their schools around — and now both countries are hailed internationally for their extremely high educational outcomes. What can other countries learn from these two successful, but diametrically opposed, educational models? Here’s an overview of what South Korea and Finland are doing right.
The Korean model: Grit and hard, hard, hard work.
For millennia, in some parts of Asia, the only way to climb the socioeconomic ladder and find secure work was to take an examination — in which the proctor was a proxy for the emperor, says Marc Tucker, president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy. Those examinations required a thorough command of knowledge, and taking them was a grueling rite of passage. Today, many in the Confucian countries still respect the kind of educational achievement that is promoted by an exam culture.
The Koreans have achieved a remarkable feat: the country is 100 percent literate. But success comes with a price.
Among these countries, South Korea stands apart as the most extreme, and arguably, most successful. The Koreans have achieved a remarkable feat: the country is 100 percent literate, and at the forefront of international comparative tests of achievement, including tests of critical thinking and analysis. But this success comes with a price: Students are under enormous, unrelenting pressure to perform. Talent is not a consideration — because the culture believes in hard work and diligence above all, there is no excuse for failure. Children study year-round, both in-school and with tutors. If you study hard enough, you can be smart enough.
“Koreans basically believe that I have to get through this really tough period to have a great future,” says Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at PISA and special advisor on education policy at the OECD. “It’s a question of short-term unhappiness and long-term happiness.” It’s not just the parents pressuring their kids. Because this culture traditionally celebrates conformity and order, pressure from other students can also heighten performance expectations. This community attitude expresses itself even in early-childhood education, says Joe Tobin, professor of early childhood education at the University of Georgia who specializes in comparative international research. In Korea, as in other Asian countries, class sizes are very large — which would be extremely undesirable for, say, an American parent. But in Korea, the goal is for the teacher to lead the class as a community, and for peer relationships to develop. In American preschools, the focus for teachers is on developing individual relationships with students, and intervening regularly in peer relationships.
“I think it is clear there are better and worse way to educate our children,” says Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. “At the same time, if I had to choose between an average US education and an average Korean education for my own kid, I would choose, very reluctantly, the Korean model. The reality is, in the modern world the kid is going to have to know how to learn, how to work hard and how to persist after failure. The Korean model teaches that.”
The Finnish model: Extracurricular choice, intrinsic motivation.
In Finland, on the other hand, students are learning the benefits of both rigor and flexibility. The Finnish model, say educators, is utopia.
Finland has a short school day rich with school-sponsored extracurriculars, because Finns believe important learning happens outside the classroom.
In Finland, school is the center of the community, notes Schleicher. School provides not just educational services, but social services. Education is about creating identity.
Finnish culture values intrinsic motivation and the pursuit of personal interest. It has a relatively short school day rich with school-sponsored extracurriculars, because culturally, Finns believe important learning happens outside of the classroom. (An exception? Sports, which are not sponsored by schools, but by towns.) A third of the classes that students take in high school are electives, and they can even choose which matriculation exams they are going to take. It’s a low-stress culture, and it values a wide variety of learning experiences.
But that does not except it from academic rigor, motivated by the country’s history trapped between European superpowers, says Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish educator and author of Finnish Lessons: What the World Can Learn From Educational Change in Finland.
Teachers in Finland teach 600 hours a year, spending the rest of time in professional development. In the U.S., teachers are in the classroom 1,100 hours a year, with little time for feedback.
“A key to that is education. Finns do not really exist outside of Finland,” says Sahlberg. “This drives people to take education more seriously. For example, nobody speaks this funny language that we do. Finland is bilingual, and every student learns both Finnish and Swedish. And every Finn who wants to be successful has to master at least one other language, often English, but she also typically learns German, French, Russian and many others. Even the smallest children understand that nobody else speaks Finnish, and if they want to do anything else in life, they need to learn languages.”
Finns share one thing with South Koreans: a deep respect for teachers and their academic accomplishments. In Finland, only one in ten applicants to teaching programs is admitted. After a mass closure of 80 percent of teacher colleges in the 1970s, only the best university training programs remained, elevating the status of educators in the country. Teachers in Finland teach 600 hours a year, spending the rest of time in professional development, meeting with colleagues, students and families. In the U.S., teachers are in the classroom 1,100 hours a year, with little time for collaboration, feedback or professional development.
How Americans can change education culture
As TED speaker Sir Ken Robinson noted in his 2013 talk (How to escape education’s death valley), when it comes to current American education woes “the dropout crisis is just the tip of an iceberg. What it doesn’t count are all the kids who are in school but being disengaged from it, who don’t enjoy it, who don’t get any real benefit from it.” But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Notes Amanda Ripley, “culture is a thing that changes. It’s more malleable than we think. Culture is like this ether that has all kinds of things swirling around in it, some of which are activated and some of which are latent. Given an economic imperative or change in leadership or accident of history, those things get activated.” The good news is, “We Americans have a lot of things in our culture which would support a very strong education system, such as a longstanding rhetoric about the equality of opportunity and a strong and legitimate meritocracy,” says Ripley.
One reason we haven’t made much progress academically over the past 50 years is because it hasn’t been economically crucial for American kids to master sophisticated problem-solving and critical-thinking skills in order to survive. But that’s not true anymore. “There’s a lag for cultures to catch up with economic realities, and right now we’re living in that lag,” says Ripley. “So our kids aren’t growing up with the kind of skills or grit to make it in the global economy.”
“We are prisoners of the pictures and experiences of education that we had,” says Tony Wagner, expert-in-residence at Harvard’s educational innovation center and author of The Global Achievement Gap. “We want schools for our kids that mirror our own experience, or what we thought we wanted. That severely limits our ability to think creatively of a different kind of education. But there’s no way that tweaking that assembly line will meet the 21st-century world. We need a major overhaul.”
Indeed. Today, the American culture of choice puts the onus on parents to find the “right” schools for our kids, rather than trusting that all schools are capable of preparing our children for adulthood. Our obsession with talent puts the onus on students to be “smart,” rather than on adults’ ability to teach them. And our antiquated system for funding schools makes property values the arbiter of spending per student, not actual values.
But what will American education culture look like tomorrow? In the most successful education cultures in the world, it is the system that is responsible for the success of the student, says Schleicher — not solely the parent, not solely the student, not solely the teacher. The culture creates the system. The hope is that Americans can find the grit and will to change their own culture — one parent, student and teacher at a time.
Featured image via iStock.
When Salman Khan shared his vision for “a free world-class education for anyone anywhere” at TED2011, he turned the education world on its head. As he introduced Khan Academy — a virtual classroom that uses video lessons to create an individualized, self-paced learning experience — his alternative model fueled the nascent dialogue about online education. The conversation only exploded from there.
In the three years since his talk, Khan has doubled down on his efforts to cultivate Khan Academy into the education model of the future. The site now has more than 10 million unique users per month, with five million exercises completed daily. The lessons are available in 29 languages, and are hosted on five fully translated sites. Through collaborations with MIT, the Getty Museum and the MOMA, Khan Academy is focusing its efforts on expanding and deepening its content offerings. It has even partnered with LeBron James, to up its cool factor.
Khan himself has been busy reimagining the education experience. After his talk ignited impassioned dialogue, he wrote a book that digs deeper into his idea – a landscape where teachers work in tandem with technology to foster the best learning environment for each student.
We spoke with Khan about the academy’s incredible growth, and what’s on the horizon for classrooms both physical and virtual. Below, an edited transcript of that conversation.
Khan Academy has seen incredible growth since you spoke in 2011. Where are you focusing your efforts as you expand?
Content coverage is a big thing. We’re making sure that, by next school year, our math experience is a very strong implementation of the Common Core, the math standards adopted by 46 states. Relative to where we were in 2011 when the TED Talk happened, back then we already had reasonable coverage — a scaffold of K-12 math and beyond — but now we’re serious about absolute full coverage of all of the major concepts that one would need to know for the K-12 Common Core, as well as AP Calculus. We’re doing a partnership with the AP tests to make sure that our AP Calculus is fully comprehensive. Since the talk, we’ve dramatically increased our coverage of physics and chemistry, math and history, and we brought on some art historians. Our broader video content has broadened dramatically.
In my TED Talk, I didn’t talk a lot about the use of data and analytics to fine-tune the experience — and that’s something we’re kind of doing all-out as we speak. We probably have 20 experiments on the site about retention, learning, engagement — whatever you want to call it. We have postdocs from Stanford and other places to actually do tests in cognitive science and learning science. That’s a big part of what we’re doing now. We’re also strengthening the personalization piece — we’re using very sophisticated machine learning in the background system to understand what the student likely knows and doesn’t know, and to give recommendations based on that. At the time of the TED Talk, we were going in that direction but it was a much simpler and more basic system. Now it’s really cutting edge.
The other big thing that’s happening is internationalization. It’s something that we’ve been working on for about a year and a half now, but we’ve just launched Spanish Khan Academy, and Brazilian Portuguese Khan Academy, Turkish and French and all the world’s major languages. This is not just redoing or translating the videos, it’s the whole experience — the software, the dashboard.
How have you seen the thinking about education shift since you gave your TED Talk?
The conversation around the classroom of the future really took off. A lot more people are talking about what a classroom should be like. I don’t want to make too much of that — I think people have always been talking about that, and I don’t think it’s the TED talk alone that did it — but I do think it did help catalyze more conversation around what a school should look like, and what its credentials should be.
Since the talk, I published my book, The One World Schoolhouse. I hadn’t even agreed to write a book at the time of the TED Talk, and I think the talk catalyzed what people were interested in and helped it get published. The book pushes the TED talk to a deeper level –it’s also talking about credentialing and higher education.
An interesting element to this conversation is the rise of MOOCS. Where do you see Khan Academy in relation to online university courses?
I think we share a common lineage. I wouldn’t claim that Khan Academy was the first — we kind of grew out of MIT open courseware. But Sebastian Thrun was the first to launch a MOOC — he was apparently in the audience at my TED Talk and he was thinking, “Well, I’m a Stanford professor, I should be able to do this too!” He went off that very next fall and launched the first MOOC. And of course that was followed by Coursera and edX. I think we’re all focused on a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere. So I think in that way we are completely aligned.
The difference is the implementation approach. I think MOOCS are trying to take a traditional university course model: start on a certain day, have problem sets due, everyone goes together in a synchronous way — it’s a virtual experience of a classroom. You register for a MOOC and you get a credential at the end of it. At Khan Academy, we’ve been trying to go a little more clean slate: if this is someone’s goal, how can they go at their own pace, how can we use exercises and analytics and dashboards to rethink the classroom? So a MOOC is: you’re going to take a course. Khan Academy is anywhere between, “I have a test tomorrow on L’Hôpital’s rule, so let me go get some practice on it,” all the way to, “I am running a calculus class and I want all my students to learn at their own pace with me as their teacher to see where they are so I can see who’s ready for a project or a conversation and if someone’s falling behind I can pair students together.” Khan Academy and MOOCS are taking different approaches to helping people learn.
There has been a lot of debate about the limits of online education. What content do you think works best online and what’s better left to a real-life setting?
I think the ideal is to have both.
Anything that lasts more than 30 seconds — or any explanation — makes sense to have in a video form. Or it could be in a text form and video form, so that students can get it whenever they want and they don’t have to feel judged. They can pause and repeat. Practice and feedback for a large set of classes — especially math and science — can be done really well online. I think it hasn’t been done really well, but it can be done well online if you have large item banks. Before the computer was invented, there was a multibillion-dollar industry of people writing algorithm problems. Why wasn’t there just a shared bank for these things? Now that we have the Internet, you can have these shared banks and you can also have a common way to interface with them and give the teachers analytics and feedback that is really good through software tools.
What that means for the teacher is a much higher value task of mentoring students, motivating students, having conversations with students. To a large degree, this is what’s always been true in humanities class. In a seminar, the professor doesn’t read the textbook or the novel to the students — they do that on their own — and then class time is much more valuable for richer experiences. We’d like to push that one step further with math or science material and allow students to move at their own pace. Because even if I didn’t read the last book in my literature class, I can engage in the next book. But, if I didn’t understand the last three chapters of math, I’m not going to be able to engage on the next one.
What are some surprising ways people are using Khan Academy?
The two that jump out at me: One example is a school in Oakland — Oakland Unity School — which is a charter school that takes students who are several grade levels behind coming out of Oakland City public schools. They’ve achieved dramatic results. The year before they were using Khan Academy, they were in the 50th percentile in California, and then using Khan Academy, they’re approaching the 98th percentile. I can’t imply that’s purely due to Khan Academy because it’s just one of many things they’re doing, but it’s incredible. And what’s so surprising about that is there’s a teacher there and he’s very adamant about using Khan Academy to teach math, but he’s also using math as a pretext for a tool around changing his students’ mindset about having a more active role — to have them take more ownership over their learning. He sees his role as: change their mindset. Once you change their mindset, they become really good students.
The Innova Schools in Peru, which are low-cost private schools for the Peruvian middle class, use Khan Academy as a core part of their math curriculum. And it was surprising because, when they launched, we didn’t even have Spanish Khan Academy but they were using it with students who for the most part did not know English. We started seeing some interesting learning gain. I visited last spring and was wondering how are they doing it, and they just use Google Translate to copy and paste the text and read the subtitles. That was enough to get by. That was a surprisingly good implementation of Khan Academy.
While we’re talking about Khan Academy in other countries, tell me more about the translation effort.
When I gave the talk, we had a very nascent translation effort, and that’s accelerated dramatically. It’s mainly around finding really good partners in different geographies, and the partners do everything from provide funding to the work of the translation, to the vetting to actually implementing it. We’re trying to understand how it can be used in the region’s schools. In Spanish, our main partner is the Carlos Slim Foundation and they do most of the on-the-ground work. In Brazil it’s been the Lemon Foundation that’s been doing most of everything. Our goal is to find groups like that in every major geography.
Are you tailoring content, like history lessons, to specific regions?
Not yet — most of the interest has been around the math content and the science content.
Do you see English lessons as a potential language-learning tool for someone who might want to learn math and English at the same time?
We’ve heard some things like that, but it isn’t really our focus at the moment. An incredible example is a letter I got from this young girl in Mongolia. She has a video that she uses through Khan Academy. I assumed she was middle- or upper-class but turned out that there was a group of engineers from Silicon Valley using their vacation time setting up computer labs in orphanages in Mongolia and she was one of the orphan girls. It was cool by itself that she was using Khan Academy. What’s even cooler is she’s gone off to be one of our main contributors to the Mongolian language of videos so we do have some one-off examples of surprising use case with surprising results who are also helping to translate.
You have a number of exciting partnerships — MIT, the Getty, the MOMA — and LeBron James. How did that one come about?
Yes, MIT, the MOMA and LeBron James. It was one of those strange things where someone emailed us and said, “I work with LeBron James and we’re interested in learning what you’re doing. LeBron wants to help with education and your nonprofit and he wants to do something that really matters.” So we were like, “Yeah, sure.” We met with LeBron and he’s obviously busy, so we tried to come up with something to leverage him but not take up his time. He watched the video about the scale of the sun and was fascinated. And that’s cool — if more kids knew that LeBron was fascinated by it, they would be too. We had a back and forth where LeBron asked a question about science, and then I or someone else tried to answer the question.
Where do you see Khan Academy evolving in the next 2-5 years? What’s the next big step?
The Common Core is a big thing — it’s about Khan Academy trying to fully empower teachers. What we’re doing with the common core is we want this to be a really useful tool that can really help teachers and that they’re really getting the common core materials and having time to work on other things. Hopefully in the next few years, we can really validate the utility of the Khan Academy in all types of classrooms.
I think internationalization may be three to five years out. I imagine that Spanish and Portuguese and Urdu and Hindi and Arabic could be useful for Khan Academy. We haven’t found the right partners for Japanese and Korean yet.
We have a core math experience that’s really interactive and exercise driven, and then there’s our tutorial experience, which includes a curated set of videos and exercises that you might find useful — so that’s our art history experience, our history experience. Hopefully in the next three, four, five years, we can get other areas like physics and chemistry as rich as our core math experience, maybe other things as well — art history, history. And we can leverage the community to do things like writing, and computer science. That’s a big thing that’s happened since the talk was the computer science platform launching — it’s different than the traditional Khan Academy. It’s very hands on and you share what you’ve made and it’s active. Those are the big things. And in terms of reach, who knows where we might get to.
Elizabeth Jacobs is an editorial freelancer at TED.
Whenever something is declared the subject of “the year of,” you know that subject is ripe for a big fat backlash. So, when The New York Times declared 2012 “the year of the MOOC,” it thus came to pass that massive open online courses should next become the subject of massive, open, often online criticism, as critics gathered to air both their disappointment that said courses had not in fact proven the savior of a broken education system — and almost transparent delight and glee at same.
That’s not to say that the MOOC bubble couldn’t stand to lose some of its air. Maybe it’s no bad thing that some of that shiny techno-utopian language got buffed from the courses’ gilded surfaces. The reality is that those responsible for MOOCs are still figuring out how to make them work, and they’re experimenting and adjusting as they go.
Case in point: Anant Agarwal, who spoke at TED Global in Edinburgh in June 2013. Agarwal is president of edX, the nonprofit “online learning destination” founded by Harvard and MIT. We caught up with him on the phone to find out what he makes of the anti-MOOC rhetoric — and why he thinks a “blended learning” model of education that includes online and offline resources might just prove the real key to a vibrant education system of the future. An edited version of our conversation follows.
So let’s start with the question on everyone’s lips: what do you make of the backlash against MOOCs?
Initially there was a lot of talk about MOOCs being the solution to all of the world’s problems. And clearly they’re important; they can increase access to students who don’t have access to good quality education. But even when we started edX, we talked about MOOCs and the blended model on campus and of campus education as being a key part of the whole equation. So for us it comes as no surprise that a pure MOOC model, a completely online model, will not work so well on campus. There, a blended model can be even better than a purely online model. The backlash you’re seeing was more a backlash to the statement that MOOCs can cure the world of all educational ills. The answer is no. MOOCs have a very important place in increasing access to a large community of students. At the same time, if you take MOOC technology and blend it with in-person class help, we can achieve the blended model, which is even better and can improve campus education.
In your talk, you describe the idea that the education system has to be rethought from the ground up. But what I’m hearing is that actually this isn’t revolution; it’s evolution. This is bringing technology in where appropriate, not imagining that technology can cure everything. Is that accurate?
I guess what I’m saying is we really have to reimagine education as we know it. We won’t solve it just by tweaking one aspect of it. We don’t have a clear answer yet but as an example, we need to change everything on campus. We need to move from students coming to lectures and sitting around for an hour to their watching video and doing interactive exercises at their own pace. We need to change our spaces from large lecture halls to small learning spaces. We need to think about unbundling content, where previously the professor would produce everything, but instead now the content may come from online sources and the professor. Instead of imagining a full year of university, what about a different program where students take half the courses as MOOCs, and half on campus as blended courses? I do hold to the view we have to rethink all aspects of education from the ground up and that a little tweak here or there is not going to be the answer.
Do you see this happening? Are you heartened by the discussion or are you finding there’s a kneejerk defensive stance from university leaders to this kind of thinking?
I think the kneejerk reaction and negativity you see is in the press, but I’m actually very heartened. A number of universities are moving in the direction and experimenting with the blended model. I see that as the next step, the evolutionary way for heading towards the right answer in 20 or 30 years down the road. We don’t know what the right answer is but the blended model is an evolutionary step in path, and we’re seeing more and more of that.
At MIT, for example, over 2,000 of the 4,500 undergraduates are accessing the edX platform and online content in some form or the other already. It’s just 1.5 years since we began and now we have nearly 100 blended courses happening around the world.
Unlike some of the other MOOC providers, edX is a non-profit. Obviously the initiative also needs to sustain itself – where are you with the business model currently?
Certainly we have a lot more understanding of that now than when I gave the talk. We are getting revenues as we speak. One model is that we open-sourced the platform. That means it can be used by anyone to host and offer courses. We’ve seen huge interest in this: the Chinese education ministry and Tsinghua university created a consortium of universities in China to offer a platform they call XeutangX. France launched France Universite Numerique; in the Middle East, the Queen Rania Foundation launched Edraak, an Arabic language platform. All of these national platforms use the open edX code and that creates a revenue model, in that they look for support from edX, and they’re interested in licensing courses from edX partner universities for a fee, translating them and offering these courses to their own populations.
We also have a “business to consumer” model where students pay a fee for identity verified certificates. That’s going quite well. We currently have 12 courses offering certificates.
So you’re at MIT, you’re working with Harvard and Berkeley and so on. These are well-funded well-established institutions; they attract students without difficulty and those students pay a lot of money to go there. How does this framework exist on top of that university-funded model without being, well, parasitic on that existing infrastructure? How do MOOCs benefit the professors and colleges themselves?
I see MOOCs as being completely synergistic with the traditional university model. As professors and universities produce MOOCs and run MOOCs on the edX platform, we also make the platform available to universities to use on campus for blended education. For example, Professor Armando Fox teaches a MOOC on edX on software as a service, and he uses the same content in his own class at UC Berkeley, where he teaches a blended class.
Then there’s what I call the unbundling of time. Today, universities have a four-year program. I see a time in the future where rather than students coming in for four years to do a bachelor’s degree, they’ll come in having taken their first year of courses as MOOCs. Then they’ll spend two years on campus, spend the final year getting a job and continuing to take MOOCs and becoming lifelong continuous learners. That might be another way in which the MOOC education might become a continuous blend into campus education over time.
I confess, I am not an engineer. I studied English and Latin at university and I’m curious about how you’re managing humanities within the edX platform. You tell a great story in your talk about a guy who really missed the green check mark that shows he answered a question correctly. How does that check mark apply when it comes to something like English literature?
We do have a large number of humanities courses on our platform. “Was Alexander Great?” is from Wellesley College. There’s a course on Chinese history from Harvard, one on globalization from Georgetown. You could hardly call these technical courses, and we have various technologies to work with humanities courses.
First of all, many humanities courses use discussion forums liberally. Students have discussions on forums about concepts in the class. The second approach is we are able to create cohorts, which are smaller group discussions within a larger discussion forum. Third is that we have a number of technologies to grade humanities courses. One is self-assessment, where the students grade themselves. Next is peer assessment, where students grade each other’s work. And third is AI assessment, where we have a machine learning computer program grade student essays. There are multiple ways to grade essays. But we know in reality these are still in experimental form and our hope is over time we will keep improving these technologies to best serve the humanities.
I do wonder how kindly my peers would have graded my papers. I’m not sure they’d have been all that generous.
Absolutely. Grading humanities is always challenging. Particularly because, unlike in some of the sciences, in humanities, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. From my own experience, rarely have I submitted an essay where I have been happy with the grade or thought it was consistent with what I thought the grade should have been. With science there tends to be more consistency, humanities less so. The qualitative aspect certainly makes things more challenging.
There’s a lot going on at edX. You just launched Forum Academy, a new platform offering professional leadership courses presented in collaboration with the World Economic Forum. Meanwhile, 150,000 students signed up almost instantly for a Harvard computer programming course taught by David Malan. That’s pretty crazy growth… so what keeps you up at night?
Oh, that’s an endless list. We are doing something here, trying to improve something that is so fundamental and so important to everybody. The stakes are really high. We have to do it right. We have to improve quality of education and we also have to increase access to education. We really need to do a good job, and the task is really daunting, but our team is up to it.
What should we do with the quiet kids? A conversation with Susan Cain on the future of classroom education.
“What an extroverted act it is in the first place to go to school. All day long, you are in a classroom full of people with constant stimulation.”
“The classroom is crying out for a solution that is less one-size-fits-all.”
“We should be getting away from school design that has students jostling together in one gigantic mass of humanity.”