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Preparation versus Exploration

September, 2008
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preparation-vs-explorationShould your child focus on learning the right answer or how to solve problems?

Parents have a difficult time understanding what is happening in schools today. When they sat in the desks things were so different. You took out your book, listened to the teacher, copied down from the board and tried to remember it all for the test. Now many schools don’t have textbooks, the students are in front of the class talking to other students and tests have been suplemented by student-produced videos, projects and posters. Homework is done in groups on shared websites, and report cards give flattering generalities about social adaptation and intellectual progress.

For parents accustomed to more liberal systems such as in North America, the adaptation to education in the information age is relatively painless. They are used to everything being “reinvented”. Rapid change is part of the culture. They are glad to see their children experiment and try things out and even fail occasionally. It is the process of learning how to get it right that they value. In the West, after the basic skills of self-discipline and the three “R’s” (reading, [w]riting and [a]rithmatic) are aquired, the next important step comes in college when the student finally decides what s/he wants to do.

Asian and many European parents are used to more rigid systems with prescribed content and heavy homework loads. They are keenly aware that their child’s future will be determined by a content-based national exam that will determine to which university their child will go. A diploma from a prestigious university puts the student on a priviledged fast track to upper eschelons of their professional and social worlds. Many of these parents’ willingness to send their child to an international school is a leap of faith in the hopes that at least their children will become fluent in English and comfortable in an international environment.

A Western belief that it is the process that is improtant contrasts sharply with parents who value content. They can be mutually exclusive. When a student is asked to demonstrate that they learned about the second World War, does this mean they should be able to tell where and when it happened or that they should be able to explain the causes and effects or that they can put together a fantastic PowerPoint of information collected from the internet? While Asian students are comfortable with a clearly defined task say, “Which countries were involved in WWII”, western students would complain “Why do I have to memorize all this stuff?. Let us make up a rap song about it.”

Asian students are used to being graded on their ability to follow prescriptive instructions. Western students want to take the instruction, modify them to fit themselves and then produce something that interests them. Asian students accept the task set by the authority. Western students want to buck it until they can see some personal interest relevant to them.

preparation-vs-exploration-1 How do international schools meet these contrasting expectations of parents and the learning styles of students?

Some schools use a national curriculum such as the British system and have little leeway in the content or amount of time in which it is covered. Courses such as history and geography will naturally be heavily Anglo-centric. After following the system, the student with some assiduity should be prepared to achieve a score high enough on the national exam to allow him/her to enter a British national university. A similar situation exists in any school which follows the German, French, Japanese or Korean national programs. Success on the national exams grants university access to students who have similar knowledge and respond to questions within excepted standards. The higher the score the more exclusive the school. This is why the governments of these countries are so dominated by alumni from the same few schools and that “group think” is a danger for national interests.

There is no such thing as a “North American” or even an “American” or “Canadian” curriculum as each state or province may have many different curriculia depending on the nature of the school, i.e., public, private, religious, Montessori, home schooling, etc. The S .A. T. exams are a common tool used by institutions of higher learning to measure students’ preparedness for college, but North American universities also consider other types of achievements of students as well as academic success. They aim for a diversified student body that can exchange ideas and contribute to a vibrant, cosmopolitan community. However, the quasi-monopoly of American Ivy League school graduates in the halls of power in Washington and in the boardrooms of New York is a tribute to the tenacity of tradition and reflects poorly on the ideal of American equalitarianism. In all fairness, it must be said that with the Ivy League endowments in the billions of U. S. dollars, this is changing.

International schools that do not follow a national curriculum may creat their own or adopt a line of studies not sanctioned by a particular country. The International Bacaluareat Diploma Program, Middle Years Program and Primary Years Program, developped by the International Bacalaureat Organisation (I.B.O.) is an example of this. The I.B.O., with its central offices in Geneva and the majority of its operations in Cardiff, U.K., developed an academic program that stresses process and guidelines for content but leaves the actual planning and execution to those who implement the program in an I.B. school. Content covered in one school in the same course may be widely different from another I.B. school. Time frames are also much more flexible.

The difficulty for international schools to meet expectations of parents focused on national exams and parents of students who don’t have this difficult challenge on the horizon is evident. Asian parent are particularly aware of this. In response, they send their children to tutors after school where the “real learning” takes place. Here, the students are drilled in the home country language, history, quick tricks for solving math problems, memorization training, etc. İn addition to the obligatory dance and piano for the girls and violin and martial arts for the boys. Not much time to hang out at Mr. Pizza or play sports! This continues on Saturday as the father is probably working anyway so no reason for the child to “waste” his time playing at home. This represents thousands of hours of additional training by the time these students finish high school. It is not surprising Asian students have such a dominate presence on the campuses of the world’s best universities.

Preparatory education and exploratory education are rooted in very different philosophies and will have very different outcomes. Twelve years in a system will “bend the tree” for life. It is a difficult for parents to decide to what measure the natural growth of their child should be controlled for the sake of bureaucratic expediency. Should their children be trained to answer exam questions in order to favor their chances for their adult life or should children be allowed to have a childhood of play and exploration?

By Patrick Donahue

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