Letters & Opinion

Lost In Transition

By Clement Wulf-Soulage
By Clement Wulf-Soulage

FOR years, Finland has been the by-word for a successful and transformative education system – recognized around the world for its innovation and pioneering approach to pedagogy and educational governance. The educational productivity and developmental performance of this small European country springs directly from the education policies which have, over the years, been introduced both in a radical and incremental manner. The British Independent daily newspaper has reported that “politicians and education experts from around the world – including the UK – have made pilgrimages to Helsinki (Finland’s capital) in the hope of identifying and replicating the secret of its success.”

Anchored in the belief that transformative education has in large part driven economic growth and development in industrialized and emerging economies, I was somewhat heartened to hear the idea – something very close to my heart – trumpeted at the recently held Sir Arthur Lewis Memorial Lecture organized as part of Nobel Laureate Week, under the theme “Celebrating Excellence: Transforming Lives.” Both the guest speaker, economist Dr.Hyginus Leon as well as the new principal of the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College, Dr. Olivia Saunders, championed the idea of transformative education and the role it can play in transitioning and building sustainable societies as well as fostering economic development, in the absence of natural and mineral resources.

On account of greater international competition and the need for economic efficiency, it has become quite clear that a generic education will not suffice in producing the economic prosperity which we all aspire to. Instead, in the process of transforming our own system, we’ll need to adopt an education and growth strategy – similar to that of the emerging economies in Asia – and adapt it to our own political, social and economic circumstances. This will mean developing an education system which should get more people innovating and collaborating in industries such as tourism, the cultural arts, manufacturing and agriculture – and also geared towards meeting the general demands of a new knowledge and services-based economy. As the Princeton economist, Alan Blinder perceptively notes: “It is clear that nations will have to transform their education system so as to produce workers for the jobs that will actually exist in their societies…. In the future, how we educate our children may prove to be more important than how much we educate them.”

In our own developmental context – since tourism is our economic backbone, we’ll need to develop and introduce courses such as tourism management, food and beverage management and restaurant management at the secondary school level, which can better meet the needs of the industry. I am really quite astonished that progressive ideas such as developing intercultural competencies and introducing foreign languages early in the system have been given scant attention. How can we really become competitive in tourism when we refuse to prioritize foreign language skills – something many of our tourism competitors around the world are already doing with much success? Besides, we are depriving our kids of an opportunity to compete globally.

Until now, why has it been so difficult to transform and transition our education system into one that is able to support our economic aspirations? Why haven’t we translated the positive experiences of the industrialized world into our own socio-economic success? In a fast-paced digital world, we still seem to be stuck between one developmental phase in education and the next.

With all the discussion about globalization, most people forget that globalization is also a competition between one country’s education system and another’s. Unfortunately, too often we are focussed on the doors that globalization have closed, instead of looking at the opportunities ICT and other technologies offer to leapfrog our way forward. Of course, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but instead look around the globe to see how other successful countries have used transformative education to fuel growth and prosperity. As the Asian nations have consistently demonstrated, it’s possible to leap right into new technologies without having to worry about all the sunken costs of old systems.

So what can we really learn from the so-called First World? Finland has shown us that the basis for any success in transforming education is the setting of rigid standards guided by quality assurance, fostering a culture of educational governance, and remodelling assessment mechanisms. The German model teaches us that a vocational and apprenticeship training system that is in sync with the needs of the economy and has a primary focus on entrepreneurship, manufacturing sciences and innovation is indispensable. Australia’s successful economy is driven by international education, knowledge services and skilled workers rather than resources. All these examples are based on educational models that have been tried and tested, and the results and outcomes available for assessment and application. According to an OECD source: “In all of these nations, there is a wide consensus on increasing technology, environmental sciences and entrepreneurship education – all of which seem to contribute positively to economic development and growth.”

By the way, the Finns have recently introduced something quite unconventional in their education system – and the change has been hailed as one of the most radical undertaken by a nation state – scrapping the traditional “teaching by subject” in favour of “teaching by topic”. Meanwhile, the country’s authorities have reported that “the pre-school sector is also embracing change through an innovative project, the Playful Learning Centre, which is engaged in discussions with the computer games industry about how it could help introduce a more “playful” learning approach to younger children.”

Closer to home, perhaps the most important element of educational transformation is the idea of teaching our kids to think for themselves rather than simply memorizing and absorbing someone else’s ideas. As the pioneers of innovation and creativity will attest, one of the most important competencies for social and economic development is the ability to view old problems in new ways and to rethink ideas that had not been questioned before. I have made the point in a previous article on education that our children need to engage in complex interactions that require a high level of judgment – which can help them, among other things, navigate the world to filter and sort out truth from fiction.

Even civil society must be encouraged to approach economic and social ideas critically – the idea being to nurture a culture which, according to internationally renowned journalist, Thomas L. Friedman, “thinks forward and outward instead of inward and backward”. Further, let me support the Indian entrepreneur and politician, NandanNilekani, in his belief that “a society which has the least resistance to the uninterrupted flow of ideas, diversity, concepts and competitive signals wins, and a society that has the efficiencies to translate whatever can be done quickly – from idea to market – also wins.”

Finally, as a progressive, I would like to end by asking the obvious: Why haven’t we taken a closer look at the conditions and factors which have contributed to the success of the aforementioned countries? The point is: we need to adopt and adapt developmental ideas from the global village, which can help breathe economic life into our towns and villages. Perhaps we should do like the British and send our politicians and policymakers on pilgrimages to Finland, Germany and Australia to discover some of the educational ideas that can potentially translate (or transition) into economic success.

For comments, write to [email protected] – Clement Wulf-Soulage is a Management Economist, Published Author and Former University Lecturer.

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