Sunday, May 30, 2010

Competing in a Global Society - Change the Educational Model

Are U.S. schools preparing our students to compete in a global society? According to Tony Wagner, co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and someone I had the privilege to hear speak a few weeks ago, even the most elite of our K-12 educational institutions are not teaching our kids how to succeed in today’s world. His interviews with corporate executives and firsthand observations in classrooms at some of the country’s most prestigious high schools led Dr. Wagner to conclude that the U.S. suffers from The Global Achievement Gap. This also happens to be the title of his most recent book. The way our students are taught in school leaves them ill-prepared to succeed in today’s workplace.

One of Wagner’s more profound influences was journalist Thomas Friedman, and specifically his book The World Is Flat. Friedman’s premise struck a chord with Wagner: any job that is routine will eventually become obsolete either due to outsourcing and/or technology. Haven’t we already experienced this phenomenon and seen some dramatic changes in the labor landscape during the past few years? Though partly accelerated by the recession, job loss has also been a function of more fundamental changes in our work environment. Those who succeed are nimble and creative thinkers, i.e., adaptable, entrepreneurial and embracers of change.

What does that imply for the way we should be teaching our kids? Success is no longer about what we know; it’s about how we think. Yet the focus in the classroom is still about test taking. Students are not encouraged to ask questions for which there may be no clear answer. They are evaluated on right answers, rather than creativity and inquisitive thought. Until we shift the focus, we will fall further behind other countries in productivity and innovation.

Such profound change rarely comes easy, but Dr. Wagner proposes 7 key survival skills for careers, college and citizenship which he asserts are imperative if we are to begin to reverse the U.S.’s slide vis-à-vis our foreign competitors. In a nutshell, students today need to learn how to think critically and problem solve, work collaboratively across networks, be agile and adaptable, take initiative and be entrepreneurial, communicate effectively, know how to access and analyze information and lastly, have curiosity and imagination. Though you may think much of this sounds familiar, we still fail to properly teach these skills, in school, leaving our kids ill-equipped when they enter the workplace.

Critical thinking is really about asking good questions, evaluating different points of view, and seeing the connections of cause and effect. It is not about knowing the answers. The shortcomings of AP exams are a case in point. There are no essay questions on these exams. The test is graded (one to five) on the accuracy of the regurgitation. As Dr. Wagner points out, the tendency is to teach content, not competencies.

Successful people are those who embrace Wagner’s 3 C’s: Critical Thinking, Communication and Collaboration. They are also willing to push boundaries. Creative risk taking leads to innovation, which is increasingly important as change comes faster and faster. Did you know that Google gives and expects every employee to spend 20% of his or her time just messing around, free thinking while not working on any specific project? What Google has discovered is that this is how its most innovative ideas are developed. Imagine such an approach in our schools!

How should we adjust our thinking as parents? How we hold ourselves and our institutions accountable must shift to outcomes. The measure of accomplishment for our schools should no longer be making the grade by sending more students to highly selective colleges. Seeing more students graduate and with the tools that they need to succeed is the more meaningful yardstick. No one says it will be easy to make such wholesale changes to our educational institutions. However, recognizing that we are not adequately preparing young people for today's world is certainly a start.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Canadian Universities - A Great Find North of the Border

Nearly a year ago I posted a piece about the benefits of going to college in Canada. I cited reasonable cost and proximity to the U.S. (at least the northern states), as well as the opportunity to experience a truly international academic environment. My comments on the great value of Canadian universities were based on what I had learned, yet not firsthand knowledge. Last week I had the opportunity to test the accuracy of my impressions; I spent 3 days touring 7 universities in the province of Ontario. I came away even more convinced that Canadian universities provide a high quality and affordable option to students who are motivated, directed and those who desire the international diversity that such an experience offers.

My Canada excursion began on a Sunday which also happened to be Mother’s Day (it was not my preference to be away from my family, but college tour buses do not wait!). First point of note: it is so easy to get to Toronto! Just one hour flying time from the New York City airports and a 20 minute drive into the city made the outbound travel experience far easier than even going to the Midwest. For full disclosure I must note that long U.S. Customs lines in Toronto on the return were aggravating, however a frequent Canada-U.S. traveler standing behind me provided assurance that this was unusual.

But enough about the travel; more importantly, how do Canadian universities compare to U.S. colleges and what type of student would thrive at a school north of the U.S. border? Canadian universities share some common characteristics with each other: they are predominantly public, large by our standards (25,000 is an average size university), research oriented, big on pre-professional programs, and many have co-op learning options (students incorporate and get academic credit for paid work experiences in their course of study). What we label academic departments or programs, the Canadians call “faculties.” Much like in the U.S., students choose a university based upon fit, both academic and social.

For example, the University of Waterloo is well known for its engineering (13 separate disciplines) and math faculties, though the arts (more or less the equivalent of our liberal arts) still draw the largest number of students. The university appeals to students who are innovative, unconventional, and seeking ways to find connections to the world. Did you know that the Blackberry was invented at Waterloo? With greater insight into Waterloo’s academic approach, this no longer comes as a surprise. The university is also proud to tell visitors that all intellectual property belongs to the student, not the school. It’s no wonder Mike Lazaridis, Blackberry’s inventor, gives back generously in time and funding to his alma mater.

If artistry is your thing, Canada’s oldest art school, Ontario College of Art & Design, is an exciting learning environment in the heart of the vibrant city of Toronto. The school is not focused on job training for careers in the arts, but rather educating young people to develop their thought processes, be problem solvers as well as socially responsible citizens, using art and design as the medium; I would call it a cerebral approach to teaching fine and visual arts. Those who thrive at OCAD are artistic, curious, involved in their communities and enjoy the challenge of looking at the creative process from a more intellectual perspective.

I was also pleasantly surprised by Ryerson University in downtown Toronto, a school of 25,000 primarily catering to undergraduates. Talk about diversity: there are 142 countries represented among the students! With a strong pre-professional focus, Ryerson notes that faculty members work in their fields; they do not just teach. There are numerous strong programs, too many to list here, but it is probably fair to describe the university’s vision as discovering ways to marry innovation with the business of whatever discipline one chooses to study. Communications and media are big. If what you want is a focused, pre-professional education, this might be an excellent option.

For those who want the feel of a prestigious UK institution, yet prefer easy access from the States and a more likely chance of admission, the University of Toronto might be just the ticket. Stepping onto the St. George campus with its ivy covered buildings is like being transported to Oxford or Cambridge. It is big (50,000 undergrads, 20,000 grad students on two campuses), but the residential college system, similar to that of Yale and those hallowed institutions across the pond, allows students to feel connected to a community, even in a very large university. Students choose the University of Toronto for its 14 professional faculties (especially strong in engineering and music, but others are equally renowned) and its excellent research opportunities. I am personally indebted to this top notch research institution, for it is here that insulin was invented. This academic powerhouse is part of a cosmopolitan city rich in culture and diversity, with fabulous eclectic cuisine, and sports and athletic venues. Who thrives here? Students at U of T are mature, independent, and want the diversity and vibrancy of a city school community. As with many of the Canadian universities, classes, especially for introductory courses, are very large. Motivation and self-discipline are critical factors for a student’s success.

It would be a serious oversight if I didn’t comment on one of the best things about Canadian universities for foreign students: the cost! Most programs are less than $30,000 a year, and that includes the full cost of attendance. Furthermore, U.S. students attending many Canadian universities can take advantage of the U.S. federal student aid loan programs, as well as federal tax credits. Many of these universities also offer merit aid to academically deserving students.

For those of us raised in the U.S., we too often associate scholarship with the Ivy League and other prestigious American colleges and universities. My recent trip to Canada confirmed my hunch that we should consider looking beyond our borders to discover academic gems. The scholarly environments offered by many Canadian universities make them a very appealing option for students in search of a major research university where a top notch education can be had for a relative bargain.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Picking a College - One Student's Approach

When Kira, a National Honors Society student and gifted athlete was thinking about college, she decided to take a less traditional route than that followed by many of her fellow schoolmates who dreamed of admission to highly selective New England colleges. As a junior living in Westchester County, NY, Kira knew she was ready to broaden her horizons and to meet people outside the northeast who had different life experiences. She also engaged in early conversations with her parents about affordability, right fit (academically, socially and financially) and family values. While Kira’s parents let her know that the choice was ultimately hers, they openly spoke about cost and value, sharing their thoughts on strategies to find schools that matched on all fronts, including financial.

In today’s tough economic times, many families are seeking ways to make the cost of college more manageable. Having the conversation with teenagers about college cost and affordability is usually not easy, especially when young people have their hearts set on an expensive and highly selective school that does not offer merit aid. Many families in affluent Westchester County do not qualify for need-based aid. However, that does not necessarily mean that the cost of college is something they can comfortably afford. Some will decide to take out substantial loans which may put serious pressure on future cash flow, both for the students and the parents.

Kira’s family took a different approach and one that I frequently advocate: have the conversation about affordability, perceived return on investment and family values early, know what the options are, understand what’s important to everyone involved, and know if and how you can afford to pay for it. When families talk through these issues early and develop a sound strategy, the outcome is more likely to be positive.

Kira’s experience is one example of how that approach successfully played out. She has just completed her freshman year at Washington College on the Chester River on the eastern shore of Maryland and is thrilled with the choice that she made. She attributes her success in finding the right fit to the methodical and thoughtful way she went about her search. Having made the decisions to look beyond her backyard and the northeast, Kira and her parents headed south, starting in New Jersey, and visited campuses of various sizes to get a sense for what felt comfortable. One thing Kira quickly realized, coming from a small high school, was that “small” by college standards could still feel large to her. A class of 400 to 500 students was still double or triple the size of her high school class. She also did her homework on colleges that offered merit aid and knew that as a strong student, she would be eligible to receive money from several schools. While she is a competitive soccer player, Kira was aware that the Division III schools on her list would not pay her to play in keeping with the NCAA rules.

Kira ultimately narrowed her list down to eight colleges, and included SUNY Binghamton so that she would have an in-state option. The cost of attendance at the SUNY schools is about one-third the cost of many private colleges and universities. In the end she was admitted to all eight: Loyola College in Maryland, Elon University, James Madison University, Wofford College, College of New Jersey, St Mary’s College of Maryland and Washington College. Three of the six private colleges (Elon, Wofford, and Washington) did indeed offer her money. Fortunately, those that gave merit aid included two of her top choices, Elon and Washington. While Wofford’s aid package was substantially higher (and in Kira’s words, “very tough to turn down,”) she knew that the money offered by Washington made this a better overall fit when considering all factors. As a member of her high school’s National Honors Society she received $10,000 per year from Washington, as well as a sizeable annually-renewable Hodson Trust-Beneficial Merit Scholarship. However, the big surprise was her selection for the recently established Presidential Fellow Program which put her together with a group of 30 other accomplished freshmen who share this distinction. The fellows in this program take advantage of specially organized and wide-ranging activities and events, which include dinner with the college president in his home, a behind-the-scenes tour of Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington and a trip to the Maryland State House for private meetings with legislators.

Kira’s satisfaction with her college choice is not just about the money and the fellowship honor. She is loving her experience at Washington College for all the right reasons: the fit could not be better. She relishes the camaraderie she has found with her soccer colleagues, the quality of the courses, the small class size (even for required freshman seminars) and support she gets from both professors and coaches, especially while she balances both academics and a sport, and the student diversity of experience and socio-economic background. One of the things that did surprise her about the college is the emphasis on writing, which Kira said is intensive and required for all classes, including math courses. Though she describes the writing requirements as demanding, she knows she is learning excellent skills and habits that are essential to whichever career and life path she chooses. Kira has so embraced the WAC experience, she is now also a tour guide for the Admissions office.

Kira’s strategy for her college search and her positive experience once on campus will hopefully inspire others to think out of the box when identifying and selecting a good college match. Finding the right college fit means focusing on many factors, and that means thinking broadly about identifying excellent financial options too.