Alfie Kohn, Stephanie Pace Marshall: Global Competitiveness

Here are some thoughts about Global Competitiveness from two of today's prominent education writers. The view they advocate is, from what I can see, not the mainstream norm.

from "Against ‘Competitiveness’
Why good teachers aren't thinking about the global economy."
By Alfie Kohn (edweek, 9-19-07)

"What if we just ignored the status of students in other countries? That wouldn’t be especially neighborly, but at least we wouldn’t be viewing the gains of children in other lands as a troubling development. Better yet, rather than defending whatever policies will ostensibly help our graduates 'compete,' we could make decisions on the basis of what will help them collaborate effectively. Educators, too, might think in terms of working with—and learning from—their counterparts in other countries.

Even beyond the moral justification for transcending reflexive rivalry, Janet Swenson at Michigan State University points out that 'we’ll all benefit from the best education we can provide to every child on the face of this planet.' She asks: 'Do you care if it’s a child in Africa who finds a cure for cancer rather than a child in your country?'

It took me a while to realize that at the core of the current 'tougher standards' movement is a worldview characterized by artificial scarcity—along with the assumption that schooling is ultimately about economic outcomes. A more reasonable and humane perspective is always hard to come by when we’re told that we’re in a race. The prospects for critical thought are particularly bleak if the race never ends.

Sadder still, the same competitive mind-set shows up as district is pitted against district, school against school, student against student. Several years ago, one superintendent in the Northeast vowed that his city’s test scores would “never be last again” in his state. Like so many others, he was confusing higher scores with better learning. But this appalling statement also implied that his students didn’t have to improve; as long as kids in another community fared even more poorly, he would be satisfied. Such a position is not only intellectually indefensible (because of its focus on relative performance) but also morally bankrupt (because of its indifference to the welfare of children in other places).

Almost any policy, it seems, no matter how harmful, can be rationalized in the name of 'competitiveness' by politicians and corporate executives, or by journalists whose imaginations are flatter than the world about which they write. But educators ought to aim higher. Our loyalty, after all, is not to corporations but to children. Our chief concern—our 'bottom line,' if you must—is not victory for some but learning for all." (Kohn, edweek, 9-19-07)
The whole article:

Here's Stephanie Pace Marshall (from Summer Online Educational Leadership, "Two Takes on Whole"):

"Reports are coming out now that focus on the need for students in science, technology, engineering, and math, but unfortunately the focus is on 'How can we make sure U.S. kids are as competitive as kids in India, China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, and Singapore?' These concerns are driven by competition. You don't hear a lot of conversations about what we're going to do in math and science so that our kids have the tools to advance the human condition. I would submit to you that the primary grounding should be advancing the human condition. When that's the focus of your scientific, mathematical, and technological work, you're going to have an economic driver because advancing the human condition takes an enormous amount of creativity, invention, and imagination.

What has turned off so many kids—especially girls—to science, engineering, and technology is that we've got to be competitive, we've got to make money. We had to beat the Russians during the Cold War. Now, we have to beat the Indians and the Chinese. We should step back and ask, Why are we trying to beat them?" ("Two Takes on Whole" by Amy M. Azzam, Summer Online Educational Leadership, now archived.)

How do people on CR2.0 feel about these perspectives?

Tags: Kohn, Marshall, collaboration, competition, global, standards

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Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing these viewpoints!

I'm very concerned about how the words "competitive" and "compete" have crept into educators' language.

Kohn and Marshall articulate a fear I've been struggling with: This community knows the read/write web's potential for stimulating innovation, collaboration, reflective thought, and other-centeredness, but it seems the only way we can garner "buy-in" from the broader educational community is to co-opt the language of big business and capitalism. Thus, you hear over and over again, "How will our students compete if they don't learn with x or y tool?"

I catch myself doing it. A little promise I've made to myself is to try to replace the word "compete" with the word "contribute" whenever this happens in my conversations with others. "Global community" is better than "global economy," too.
Really great resources and thinking out loud!

Competion is based on scarcity - the idea that if someone "wins" everyone else has to "lose". Education is a rising tide that lifts all boats.

What a beautiful way to say it. "Education is a rising tide that lifts all boats." What a great framework. That conveys an entirely different mindset about what our contributions can be, as educators. I feel good giving to a larger whole rather than trying to get my class, or even my school, "competitive." I'd be proud to say my class "gets along with the world" well, and is staying informed. I'd be proud to say my class is sending out messages and productions that reflect passionate searching for wisdom. I'd like my class to be developing strong problem-solving and collaboration-skills; this is good for the future of the world as a whole. I'll tell my students your phrase and get some reactions from them. They may come up with some more great analogies. Thanks!

Jennifer, I know what you mean about getting "buy in" for computer usage: "Will this accelerate achievement of the standards, will our kids be better, faster, stronger, more accomplished, more competitive through use of the techno-tools?" I think the answer needs to help people along in switching mindsets: "They'll be better learners, better seekers of knowledge, better contributors. They'll be way beyond the standards,"

I'm hoping that as the public becomes more aware of The Flat World and the essential nature of "thinking globally, acting locally (and globally)" we'll be adding into the rising tide that Sylvia is talking about. I may be naive in thinking this awareness is coming (I'm an eternal optimist) but I do see signs all over the place. Maybe one thing we can do is keep getting superb examples out there, so people see how the contributions of young people can be so far beyond anything that's testable with pencil and paper, so people may appreciate how the testing-standards-benchmarks movement has taken up too much of our precious learning time. Let's get on with powerful learning for deep understanding, for making a difference...

some examples:

edutopia's project-based learning:

"'iCan' --a short film festival produced by students from San Fernando, CA, USA. Movies are projects for school assignments as well as projects for community building.":
What a wonderful conversation!
Skip's summary of Jennifer's point:
...framing the discussion of education reform in terms of "contribution" and "community" rather than "competition" and "economy"...
resonates deeply with me. So does Connie's idea:
"I would submit to you that the primary grounding should be advancing the human condition."

Where and when is the concept of empathy 'formally' taught or prioritized in schools?

But, more and more, I have been questioning our ability as teachers to teach meaningfully from within the rigor of standardized testing.

Pete writes in The Wolves of Learning.

Our natural curiosity is like a wild animal; it hunts where it needs to in order to satisfy its deep hunger. As children, we awaken each day with an insatiable appetite to learn. It is in our early years that we are “wolves of learning”. There is a deep, DNA-based, natural connection between learning and survival; call it the burning relevance of the empty stomach.

Pete states that institutionalized learning has tamed, "The wildness of our natural curiosity..." and concludes very powerfully,

Let us find ways to give our children back their birthright, their natural curiosity and facility to learn. There have to be ways that we can organize our learning institutions to accommodate individual curiosity and the standardized curriculum. I believe that thoughtful educators can create environments that are less restrictive and provide much more natural habitat for learning. Let us find ways to foster the wildness and thrill of learning again. Let us answer the “Call of the Wild”.

Furthermore, from a post I wrote last Christmas, which turned into a bit of a tribute to Wesley Freyer, I offer this quote from his podcast ‘Reject Rigor: Embrace Differentiation, Flexibility, and High Expect...’.
“High expectations are important and needed, but not within a rigorous environment that does not encourage differentiation and flexibility within classrooms. Learning is inherently a dynamical process, not isolated events that can be entirely centrally planned, and our educational language as well as policies should recognize this. We need to embrace differentiation, flexibility and high expectations for all students.”

In that post I stated: 'But there is a dichotomy here: Our ‘educational language’ around standardization and accountability juxtaposed with differentiation and flexibility… we seem to have two mutually exclusive camps, yet there seems to be a move to embrace both. To embrace both is to accomplish neither.'

So now I will go back to the first quote at the beginning of this reply, and pose a question to you...
How do we frame 'the discussion of education reform in terms of "contribution" and "community" rather than "competition" and "economy"', when we are stuck in a paradigm that measures us competitively and economically?

Thanks you as always for waking me up.....I, like so many others get so involved with the trees; the lesson plans, the runny noses, the meetings, the course outlines, the handouts -- we don't see the forest; the cultural blinders we have stiched on, the language and framework we just blankly plod on through/with....

I hear all the voices who've added their two cents worth. I guess we are the choir. But we still need to say it loud and clear.....

For me, though I will never divorce myself from the "education" industry, I do think at its base, it is corrupt, false and muddy. Why? Well it all starts not just with competitiveness but with testing. From day one we are tested and compared to some standards that are not standards. We teachers knowing the truth, just continue with the pattern. Labeling/testing. It all starts there and from there and those younger years, it balloons into really farcical standards that also allow the poor to be pressed down and the rich to bubble up.....(and no I'm no flaming communist and also believe fervently in freedom but I won't turn away from the notion that we don't "educate" but rather "categorize". ).

We should see that we are part of system that doesn't value, uniqueness (and thus is very communist). It values the productivity of a person as a consumer and not a creator. It values a person that "knows' and has distane for the real educated that "understand". It values competitiveness and by extension violence, fear and tribalism.

What to do? I "cultivate my own garden", as all educators should. Do what you can. But in reference to the first article, I must say that we have nobody to compete against and real education happens when the individual begins to compete against themself. We are our only measure or as Stephen Gould would say, "we are an experiment of one".

Here is a video that I find, sets our some issues regarding testing rather well. Henri Giroux. Yes, what a lovely way of saying it, "education, a rising tide that lifts up all boats." Though we must be vigilant and all tides also recede..... I'm going to listen to that podcast.....

Thanks for sharing thoughts by Kohn and Marshall. The concept of collaboration, rather than competition, has been at the core of our network, iEARN (International Education and Resource Network), since it was founded in 1988. Over the past 19 years, we have observed that students can both learn better when working together on collaborative project-based learning, but also grow up to be global citizens, realizing that the way to affect change on global issues is to work together. One of our network's founders reminded us constantly that "No one knows so much that s/he cannot learn from the other and no one knows so little that s/he cannot teach the other."

Ed Gragert, iEARN-USA
Please join the "Global Lean"

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