Preparing Students for a Twenty-first Century World with a Global Perspective

Conference Address

First Nashan Dialogue: Sino-Foreign Excellent Principals Forum

Shenzhen, China

June 17, 2011

My American colleagues and I are thrilled and honored to be with you today to have dialogue among educators who are committed to helping students achieve a global perspective.

Our delegation is made up of administrators from independent schools located in the southeastern part of the United States, schools that are members of the Southern Association of Independent Schools.

The Southern Association of Independent Schools is the largest association of its type in the United States; serving over 350 outstanding American schools.  The partnerships that are being established today between SAIS schools and Chinese educators will only serve to strengthen the schools that are collaborating and the students that have the opportunity for a greater understanding of the world that they will be charged with leading.

This is my third consecutive year to visit your great nation of China.  I must say that during these past three years I have fallen in love with your culture.  For over 4,000 years China has been a great civilization and every time I visit I am reminded of this history and the greatness of its people.

Who does not marvel at the Great Wall, an architectural feat built, rebuilt and maintained over a period of 2100 years?  My first opportunity to visit the wall was last summer and I can tell you that the pictures from that visit are the most often shared photos that I have taken.  I have read of the Forbidden City and the Terra Cotta Warriors.  A visit to both sites, along with a ride on the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, is on my “bucket list.” A bucket list is what we Americans identify as things we want to see or do before we die; or what is commonly referred to as “kick the bucket.”

As China has built the world’s largest network of high-speed rail lines and constructed the world’s largest hydroelectric dam (Three Gorges Dam) it has provided a model for other nations to emulate as we attempt to be more efficient while preserving our natural resources.

And of course I would be remiss if I did not point out that the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games were, by virtually any measure, the finest of all time.  I clearly remember the way that my family and I were mesmerized by the unforgettable opening ceremony.  As an avid fan of the Olympic Games, I am certain that there will be few, if any, future games that will match the skill and grace with which the Chinese people welcomed the world to share in their celebration.

All great civilizations have understood that the education of youth is the surest path to sustaining and furthering its greatness.  Without a doubt China has placed great value on education.  Throughout history, the inventive and creative genius of the Chinese people have given the world such important inventions as paper, gun powder, the compass, and block printing.  The words of Confucius still inform the education of Chinese youth some 2 ½ millennia after his life.  No doubt China has remained great largely because of the education of its youth.

Additionally, education has been a cornerstone of the American civilization.  Although a civilization only a fraction as old as China, there has never been a time in American history that children were not encouraged to learn to read and write.  The successes that America has been fortunate to achieve over the past 250 years, from the mass production of the automobile to space travel, have all been accomplished by hard working educated persons.  Today the American higher education system stands as a shining star of America’s continued commitment to educational excellence.

Both of our nations can look to the education of our youth as a reason that we are today leading nations on earth.  Both nations owe our past successes to an educated citizenry and both nations stake our future sustainability on our commitment to schools.

In 2011 two of the world’s most economically and intellectually powerful nations, The Peoples Republic of China and the United States of America, have an opportunity to work together to ensure that Chinese and American students join forces to provide solutions for a world that has many challenges.

A civilization or society has always counted on the education of the young to ensure its sustainability.  I suggest that in the same way, the future sustainability of our world is largely dependent on the education of our youth; an education that recognizes and respects cultural differences while ensuring that the collaboration between students not be restricted by national boundaries.

As Chinese and American students study together they will better understand solutions to scientific and social problems that mutually threatens our existence;  as Chinese and American students work together they will provide an energy capable of guiding the world into a positive and sustainable future;  as Chinese and American students live together they will better understand how the joys, fears, and motivations of the other has been arrived at through traveling different paths that are no less significant than their own.

The English word empathy identifies an attitude of understanding that attempts to view another person’s perspective; to see the world through another person’s eyes.  An empathic world view will allow one to accept cultural differences as an alternative way of viewing the world rather than from an ethnocentrism that views only one acceptable cultural norm.

I suggest that educational partnerships, such as we are discussing in this conference, allows students to understand and appreciate the different cultural values and different modes of solving problems.  The more that students engage in cross-cultural interactions, the greater the chance that they will be culturally empathetic as adults.

Cultural empathy in turn creates a condition of what the Czech psychologist Max Wertheimer referred to as “Gestalt” or as I understand that is referred to in Chinese as Tuan jie jiu shi li liang Unity is strength; the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  It is my opinion that this is essential for our twenty-first century world.

Most would agree that student success is largely dependent on subject area knowledge; students must learn mathematical formulas and scientific process.  This is the content knowledge that will be meaningful as scientists identify cures for human disease or engineers build devices that are yet unimagined.  This subject area knowledge is essential.

However, in the Western world we believe that there is another aspect to the preparation of our youth.  American scholars and education leaders are engaged in an ongoing discussion of the “skills” that will be necessary for our students to realize success in the 21st Century.  What these scholars and independent school leaders suggest is that the next layer of educating young people is assisting them in the development of the ‘skills’ necessary to apply their subject knowledge in meaningful ways.  They argue that it is when knowledge is applied with the proper skill set that optimum effect occurs.

Tony Wagner, from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, suggests there are seven skills that are necessary for students to survive in college, careers, and as citizens.  These seven skills were consistently identified in a study in which he interviewed over 600 CEOs asking them the question, “Which qualities will our graduates need in the 21st Century for success in college, careers, and citizenship.”

I do not suggest that his methodology is indisputable nor do I suggest that these ‘student qualities’ are all applicable and transferable across cultures.  What I do suggest, however, is that it is important for us to consider the ‘skills’ that will be necessary for our youth to be successful in sustaining our future.   I also suggest that it is important that our education processes incorporate skill development into the curriculum so that the subject knowledge and skill development grow together in a synergistic way.

The necessary skills for 21st Century success identified by Wagner’s research are:

  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving;
  • Collaboration Across Networks and Leading by Influence;
  • Agility and Adaptability;
  • Initiative and Entrepreneurship;
  • Effective Oral and Written Communication;
  • Accessing and Analyzing Information;
  • Curiosity and Imagination.

Others have also contributed research to the topic of 21st Century skills, not the least of which is Daniel Goleman in his work on Emotional and Social Intelligence.  Goleman, yet another Harvard scholar, has explored the theoretical construct of Emotional Intelligence as a furthering of the theories of multiple intelligences and the notion that there is more than one area in which a person needs to achieve proficiency.  In running the risk of providing an overly simplistic explanation of Emotional Intelligence, let me say that it is best understood by the degree to which one can negotiate their environment and those who co-exist within their environment.

Another Harvard professor, Howard Gardner, poses an additional perspective in his book Five Minds of the Future.  Gardner’s research is also a part of the multiple intelligence construct from which many of our futuristic thinkers work.  Gardner postulates the notion that there are five minds that must be cultivated for success in the twenty-first century.  His list includes:

  • The disciplined mind
  • The synthesizing mind
  • The creating mind
  • The respectful mind
  • The ethical mind

Gardner believes that the cultivation of the five minds is, not only essential, but possible in our education system; a belief that I believe we educators must consider when developing our curriculum and school programs.

We believe that when students are allowed to develop appropriate skills and cultivate appropriate minds, as they acquire subject knowledge, it will prepare them better to solve problems and negotiate the future that lies before them.

Not only should our schools focus on this skill development in students, I believe that the development of these important skills is enhanced when students communicate and collaborate across geographic boundaries.  A new perspective is gained when students apply their knowledge and skills across cultures.  This important process should result in a better understanding of issues from a global perspective; an understanding that is essential to a 21st century world.

Technological advances have provided teachers and students tools that assist our education process.  In 2011 it is more possible than ever to network, collaborate, share knowledge, and retrieve information.  I believe that technology is only a tool to be used in assisting the educational process.  However, in spite of being only a tool, it does make the world appear smaller.

Today, school children in Atlanta Georgia can work more closely with students in Shenzhen China than could school children in neighboring villages a mere 50 years past.  With this in mind and with the ability to interact in ‘real time’ across the globe, I hope all that are here can agree with me that an education process in the 21st century can be so much more effective with a global perspective.

In closing let me suggest that history is a marvelous teacher yet a burdensome master.  As educators we can learn from our past successes and failures, so that we might maintain that which is valuable and discard that which is not.  However, we should not allow the way we have conducted school in the past to burden our efforts as we pursue a twenty-first century model of education.  No longer can education of students be narrowly focused on math, science, and language.  We must develop in our students the skills necessary to succeed in the future and the ability to apply those skills with a global perspective.

This dialogue today is a beginning of an important effort; the work of the Foundations such as the Ameson Foundation is central to this effort; the willingness of my Chinese and American colleagues in this room is a testament to the effort.

I am deeply honored to be with all of you distinguished educational leaders.  For the work you do in preparing our youth, I commend and thank you.  You are involved in the most noble enterprise on earth; the future of our world is counting on your success.

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