KyivPost

Generation W stands for ‘wasted’

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Aug. 30, 2012, 10:36 p.m. | Op-ed — by Katya Gorchinskaya

A whole generation of Ukrainian children, roughly those between 5 and 16 years of age, is growing up in schools that are the opposite of what education stands for in the modern world: the ability to discover your personal talents and succeed in society with them.
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Katya Gorchinskaya

Katya Gorchinskaya has been the Kyiv Post's deputy chief editor since 2009 and is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal and other publications. Follow her on Twitter @kgorchinskaya.

 Imagine a black box with a living child’s hands and feet sticking out.

Imagine a place where those limbs get cut off to make sure the human fits the box. That is a rough analogy of a Ukrainian school and what it does to children. Conformity is welcome and essential. Deviation dooms the child to failure in this system.

A whole generation of Ukrainian children, roughly those between 5 and 16 years of age, is growing up in schools that are the opposite of what education stands for in the modern world: the ability to discover your personal talents and succeed in society with them. 

As a result, a whole generation of Ukraine’s schoolchildren is being wasted by the decaying and corrupt education system. In the long run, this means that the nation will become less competitive, innovative and less able to find its place in a complicated world. It will lack skills and knowledge. It will remain poor.

Ukraine’s problem is not unique, though. Many countries have faced similar challenges. What is scary here is that no solution is being offered, and the state often aggravates the problems through cultivating unwise, shortsighted policies and corruption, rather than takes its natural role of planning and executing the solution.

As a result, the nation spends 7 percent of its gross domestic product on education - more than the European Union countries on average, which spend less than 5 percent. But in terms of quality of math and science education – a key indicator -- the nation ranks 70th place in the global ranking of 142 countries - at the level of Zimbabwe, Benin and Kenya.

Ukraine should shift its attitude to education, and start by paying attention to some of the world’s greatest thinkers and experts in the sector, as well as nations that faced the challenges early, such as Finland.

Shift in paradigm

Sir Ken Robinson, an education expert, teacher and author of many books, says that reforming the education system makes sense for economic reasons. Every country around the globe is trying the answer the same question: how do we train the future generation to be able to meet the challenges of the economy many years from now, if we don’t even know what we’re up to a couple of weeks on. The second set of challenges is to preserve and pass on the cultural identity.

But the problem is, Robinson argues, that we’re trying to achieve the new goals with the old means, alienating many children in the process who do not see any point of going to school. It’s true enough for Ukraine: various studies show that fewer children enroll in the education system and receive a full secondary education. In some regions, such as Donetsk, this figure stands at 88 percent, according to a recent study conducted by the Foundation for Effective Governance. 

The current school system was designed for a different age: it was designed to suit the industrial revolution, in the interest of it and in the image of it.

Schools still have bells, like early day factories, children are educated by batches and sorted by year of production.

Yet the assumption that the most important kids have in common is how old they are is not at all true. Children of different ages might be equally good at certain disciplines. Some of them are better operating at certain parts of the day.  Some of them are better in smaller groups, others in larger groups or on their own.

Standardization (i.e. of curriculum, standardized testing, studies) is not good. Sir Robinson believes we have to go in the exact opposite direction and develop the multiple talents and multiple types of intelligence children are born with. 

Creativity, he says, in its multitude of forms, is as important as literacy, and needs to be fostered. Mistakes are the worst thing you can make in the current education system. And ability to risk doing something new, and make mistakes, is essential for remaining creative.

In one of his famous talks, Sir Robinson gave an example of a troubled child who did not do well at school. Her name was Gillian Barbara Pyrke, she was born in 1926. She was taken from one specialist to another to see what was wrong with her until somebody spotted it: she was a born dancer.  She needed to move to think. She was send to a dance school and eventually moved on to become one of the most successful dancers and producers in human history.

But to allow every child to make the most out of their talent in the same manner, a revolution in education is needed, Sir Robinson argues. Many people seem to agree: videos of his famous 2006 and 2010 TED conference talks have been seen by an estimated 200 million people in over 150 countries by now.

Finland’s success story

Finland took a liking to the idea of a revolution in the education sector early on, and is now considered to be one of the most compelling cases in the world. It has even become somewhat of a pilgrimage destination for those who want to repeat its success in the education sector.

Their story started several decades ago as the Finns realized that children in remote rural areas did not get the same level of education as the ones in the capital. In other words, they were not given equal opportunities to develop their talents.

Finland realized that to remain competitive in the world economy, it could not rely on natural resources, for example. It needed a knowledge-based economy. It needed all of its population prepared for such an economy, not just some individuals.

There were many skeptics that all those goals could be achieved, of course. But they have been, with some pleasant and surprising side effects.

So, in the 1970s the country embarked on a complex education reform, the goal of which was not academic success of individuals, but equality of chances for all children, regardless of their family background, income or location. The goal was to make all schools into nurturing, safe environments for children.

Schools started off with the basics: they gave children free meals, easy access to healthcare, and individual counseling, be it psychological or educational. Academic success was far from the top of the list of their priorities.

But then, quite out of the blue, the young Finns started scoring high on the Pisa test, an international assessment survey for 15-year-olds in maths, reading and science, conducted every three years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The Finns have been scoring very high ever since 2001, on the par with world super-achievers in education such as Singapore and South Korea, where education is often based on long hours and a lot of memorization. The Finns, in comparison, get next to no homework and a lot of creative play.

The test also shows that the main goal of education was achieved successfully: schools in Finland perform evenly. The Pisa test itself is set by a random sample of students of the same age. (More on test can be found here: http://www.oecd.org/pisa/ )

Amazingly, there are no private schools (or universities) in the country. Children would be happy to know that their Finnish counterparts have no testing whatsoever. The teachers are trained to assess knowledge individually, using their own scale for each student. In other words, as a student I am assessed on whether I made progress from yesterday, rather than how well I meet the system’s expectations.

Competition is not the basis of the Finnish education model at all. Bringing out individual talents of every student is.

Poland is taking a leap

Poland is an emerging education success story in this part of the world. The country accepted the formula of equality of opportunity for all children at the end of the 1990s, and is now starting to emerge as an education front-runner.

It ranked the 14th in reading in the latest Pisa test, ahead of the USA, France, United Kingdom and Germany, among other countries. But the remarkable thing is that it spends on education half of what USA or Norway spends, according to a recent report by BBC.

The key elements of Polish reform are the following:

Schools are given plenty of independence to decide what and how they teach.

The government intervenes in rural areas to ensure the same quality of education as in large cities – that's equality of opportunity in action.

The government also sets the standard test at the end of school.

Teacher training is also standardized and supervised by the state.

Unfortunately, Ukraine is not doing any of that, wasting a whole generation of pupils growing up in a corrupt academic environment that gives them little knowledge and skills that prepare them for the world out there, for the job market in Ukraine - not to mention the rest of the globe.

Unless changes come soon, it will end up with a whole Generation W. The W stands for “wasted.”

Kyiv Post editor Katya Gorchinskaya can be reached at gorchinskaya@kyivpost.com

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