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by Yong Zhao
Table of Contents
In a 21st-century world where jobs can be shipped wherever there's an Internet connection, where a child born in Dallas is now competing with a child in New Delhi, where your best job qualification is not what you do, but what you know—education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity and success, it's a prerequisite for success.
—Barack Obama, 2009
We need to move into niche areas where they will not be able to completely replace us for quite some time.
—Lee Kuan Yew, 2007
At many highway exits leading to major cities in China, one can spot groups of individuals holding cardboard signs with two Chinese characters, dai lu, which literally means "road guide." As soon as a vehicle approaches, they quickly swarm around it and tell the driver how much the city has changed, how complex the roads are in the city, and then offer to guide him to wherever he wants to go, for a small fee. They are professional road guides—basically, local residents with knowledge of the city who have decided to make a living by helping drivers navigate through it.
With increased ownership of cars and newly built highways in China, many Chinese have begun to experience the joy of driving. As a result, there is a surge in the number of new drivers traveling to different cities in their own cars. Increased economic activity has also increased the volume of truck transportation in the country. At the same time, almost all cities in China have been going through a construction boom, resulting in dramatic changes in roads and streets. Many cities change so quickly that they are unable to update their maps or put up road signs fast enough to guide out-of-town drivers. Additionally, as many cities in China are adapting to an automobile culture, they enact strict traffic laws, which are even more strictly enforced. Afraid of getting lost or violating traffic laws, many out-of-town drivers appreciate the service of these "road guides."
The road guides are controversial in China. They are certainly a traffic hazard and can pose potential dangers to drivers because they are not regulated or screened. There is also no standard rate for the fees they charge, which basically end up being whatever is agreed upon between the guide and the driver. Thus in some cities they are more welcome than in others, where their profession is considered illegal. However they are viewed, these road guides have found economic value in their knowledge of their city.
Although technology has increased the economic value of knowledge of a city in China, it is threatening the economic value of the same knowledge in London, where black cabs have earned a world-renowned reputation. For more than a century, the black cabs have offered professional, safe, and efficient transportation services in London. But what has truly made the black cabs famous is the cab drivers' knowledge of the city.
In perhaps the most strictly regulated taxi service in the world, licensed taxi drivers must pass a rigorous exam that is simply called "the knowledge." Aspiring drivers must study 320 routes and public buildings, parks, theaters, restaurants, and hotels. According to a report from the Transport Committee of the London Assembly (2005), it takes an average of three years to complete the exam. As a result, every licensed taxi driver in London has a complete mental map of the city. In fact, the London taxi drivers' mastery of the topography and traffic of the city is so amazing that some have concluded that the drivers' brains may be different from other people's. This suspicion was confirmed by a number of scientific studies. For example, the BBC reported in 2008 that "scientists have uncovered evidence for an inbuilt 'sat-nav' system in the brains of London taxi drivers" (Mitchell, 2008). An earlier study using brain scans found that they have "a larger hippocampus compared with other people. This is a part of the brain associated with navigation in birds and animals" (BBC, 2000).
This hard-to-acquire knowledge has made driving a London black cab a very special and exclusive trade, guaranteeing a respected lifelong career for those who possess it. But in recent years, the advent of global positioning systems (GPS) or satellite navigation systems (commonly known as sat-nav in the United Kingdom) has begun to challenge its worth. In 2007, the BBC pitted the new technology against a taxi driver in a real-life race. Acting on behalf of technology, BBC reporter Spencer Kelly used the latest sat-nav device to guide his driving, and cabbie Andy navigated using only his own brain. The race route included traveling through "extremely busy parts of London." And the result? The cab driver beat the sat-nav device by 27 minutes (Kelly, 2007).
The victory of cabbie Andy in this race does not guarantee the future of "the knowledge." There is no question that the technology will get better, and even if it didn't, knowledge that can be acquired instantly for a few hundred dollars is perhaps preferable to knowledge that takes three years to acquire, even though it is not as efficient. In fact, the London Transport Committee's report has already recommended reconsidering "the knowledge" in light of the development of sat-nav, although it still considers "the knowledge" necessary.
These two stories illustrate one obvious truth: useful knowledge changes as societies change. What used to be valuable can become irrelevant today. What is considered necessary in one society may be useless in another. At one time, physical strength may have been the greatest asset for an individual. Knowledge of domesticating and taking care of water buffalos may be essential for a rice farming community, but it is useless in a nomadic one. At one time, the ability to learn Latin or Greek was viewed as necessary for the nobility in England, but it has become much less important today. The invention and spread of the printing press made literacy a necessary skill for anyone who wanted to live successfully in the modern world. The ability to use the Internet was not even heard of 20 years ago, but today it is considered an essential skill for most people.
The massive changes brought about by globalization and technology discussed in Chapters 5 and 6 undoubtedly render some knowledge, skills, and talents less valuable while increasing the value of others. As a summary of the discussions in the previous two chapters, I use eBay to illustrate the potential effects of globalization and technology on the value of knowledge, skills, and talents.
Garage sales and eBay serve basically the same function: a platform to turn one person's trash into another's treasure, or to turn something of little or no value into something valuable. But they have one fundamental difference: eBay is global and garage sales are local. This difference means that with eBay you have more people working at making the connection between trash and treasure. Consequently, eBay is a much more effective platform for the trash owner and the treasure seeker to realize their goals.
You may be able to sell used books, clothes, cooking pots, golf clubs, or old bicycles in your front yard, but what about your used dentures or wisdom teeth? That can be tough, right? But people sold these items on eBay, according to an ABC News report (Wolf, 2002). You may be able to buy a deck of cards, a painting, or a pair of shoes at a bargain price at your neighbor's garage sale, but what if you want to buy a ghost, some "genuine" dinosaur poop, or two "rare" mutant M&M's joined like Siamese twins? I doubt these items appear very often in your neighborhood, but you can find them on eBay (Walker, 2003; Wolf, 2002).
The magic of eBay lies in its capacity to reduce the distance between trash owners and treasure hunters, resulting in a market visited by a large number of people from very distant places. This capacity does three things. First, it enlarges the number of prospective and real buyers, and thus one can sell to more people. However, by the same token, it enlarges the number of items for sale, and thus one can compare prices for the same objects. Second, it significantly increases the probability of turning one person's trash into another's treasure because the fundamental difference between trash and treasure is a difference in need and taste. People who visit garage sales are often from the same community (it's rare to see people driving more than 50 miles to go to garage sales), which means they are more likely to have the same needs and share similar tastes than people who live in another state or country. In other words, it is more likely that the people who can physically visit your garage sale have the same junk you do, and that makes it difficult to sell to them. Third, a large group of people increases the likelihood of finding those with unique or weird tastes or needs.
Applying the eBay example to human talent, we find that globalization—the death of distance—has done exactly the same thing. First, it has enlarged the market for certain talents and increased the value of some previously "worthless" talents because they did not have many customers in one local community. Take Madonna, Miley Cyrus, and other contemporary singers as an example. If they lived in a time without modern recording or broadcasting technologies that enable their performances to reach a large audience, their singing talent would at best be rewarded with some applause and perhaps a few free beers in the village bar (if there was one) instead of the millions of dollars they make today. The same goes for Yao Ming, the Chinese basketball player who has a $75 million contract with the Houston Rockets. I don't know what his 7-foot-6-inch body would get him if there were no television screens allowing a large number of people to watch 10 people fighting over a ball. Granted, music and sports have existed throughout human history; but until mass communication technologies made it possible to bring them to many people across huge geographical areas, it was difficult for many people to make a living in these fields—at least not as good a living as today.
Soccer is a telling example. A century ago, it would have been hard to believe that the ability to kick a ball would become a multibillion-dollar business. Today, soccer is played by more than 17 million people in the United States, and the World Cup tournament in 2006 raised several billion dollars. The reason: technology erases geographical distances and brings millions of people together. Of course, it took about 80 years to get to this point. The first FIFA soccer World Cup was held in 1930 in Uruguay, with only 13 nations participating in the event. Many countries did not participate because to do so would require a long and costly trip across the oceans. The final game was watched by 93,000 people in Montevideo, Uruguay. In 2006, the World Cup was hosted in Germany, and a total of 198 nations worldwide attempted to qualify for the tournament. Germany experienced economic growth of 0.3 percent and had an additional 2 million visitors from abroad as a result of hosting the event. Retail sales increased by 2 billion euros, with overnight stays rising by 31 percent (Hweshe, 2008). For the 2006 tournament, FIFA raised 1.9 billion euros in marketing revenue and 700 million euros from sponsorship (Telegraph, 2006). The 2006 World Cup had a cumulative TV audience of 26.29 billion, and the final match was watched by a global cumulative audience of 715.1 million viewers (FIFA, 2007).
An expanded market also means more value for the same products. An invention that used to be consumed in one country can now be sold globally. Moviegoers in foreign countries now contribute more to Hollywood products than their U.S. counterparts. For example, the gross earnings of the all-time number-one box-office hit Titanic were $600,779,824 in the United States, only half of what it earned outside the country. For another hit, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, non-U.S. markets earned almost twice as much as the U.S. market ($742,083,616 versus $377,027,325). J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series has been translated into 67 languages and sold more than 400 million copies worldwide since the publication of the first book in 1997. The final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was released simultaneously worldwide in July 2007. Its first U.S. edition had a print run of 12 million copies, and its Japanese edition had a first print run of 2 million copies (Dammann, 2008). These astonishing figures would have been impossible to reach when the world was more separated.
But eBay also has expanded the pool of sellers. When two objects of the same quality are offered on eBay, the one with the lower price sells faster. Or in cases when there are hundreds of the same object, the lower-priced ones sell and the higher-priced ones may not sell at all. This situation is what has happened in the market for global talent. As discussed in Chapter 5, when India can provide computer programmers who are as good as those in the United States but cost only a fraction as much to employ, programming jobs are sent to India. The same is true for low-skill jobs in the toy and other labor-intensive industries. When millions of Chinese who are willing to work for one tenth of what an American worker earns for the same job become available on the global market, China becomes the world's factory.
When the job market is global, employers can theoretically find the talent they need anywhere, by either moving their businesses where the talent is found and outsourcing to operations that have the talent or directly moving the talent to wherever they need it. In a strictly business sense, businesses use two criteria to decide whom to employ: costs and quality, all other things being equal. To maximize profit, all businesses would like to pay as little as possible for their workforce provided that the workforce has adequate knowledge and skills for the tasks. Thus the first thing that matters on the global job market is cost or salaries and benefits from the employees' perspective.
Cheap labor is responsible for many of the job losses and factory closures mentioned in Chapter 5. Although many business leaders routinely use the lack of qualified workers in the United States as a reason to justify their outsourcing efforts and as evidence of the "poor quality" of American schools, the real reason is cost. The auto industry is a good example. While General Motors and Ford are closing factories and exporting jobs to foreign countries, Toyota has been expanding its operations in the United States, adding many more plants (Ohnsman, 2005) and tech centers (Krisher, 2008). How could Toyota find enough qualified workers in the United States if the assertion of poor-quality schools were true? Another example is the toy industry. According to a recent New York Times article, some of the best-known European toy makers such as Playmobil of Germany and Lego of Denmark resisted the pressure to move to China because "it is clear that Europeans trust Chinese contractors less than their own employees." They believe that "outstanding quality can only be reached when production is carried out under one's own eyes, by people who have developed brand awareness over a long time, and learned to produce the highest quality" (Landler & Ekman, 2007). They cannot find employees of the same quality at lower cost in China, so they kept their jobs at home.
The ability to speak English is nothing special in most American communities, so in most cases it is difficult to turn it into a valuable commodity. But if you travel to Japan, Korea, or China, you can turn this ability into a commodity by being an English teacher. This illustrates the second aspect of the eBay phenomenon. When distances disappear, people from traditionally isolated communities can benefit by offering what may be common and ordinary in their own communities but is of value in others.
Just as different geographical locations are better suited for cultivating different agricultural products, so have different communities developed specialties in human talents. China, for example, has exported many Ping-Pong coaches and players to other countries. Ireland used to export Catholic priests around the world. And recently Kyodo News International (2006) reported that Singapore imported Japanese toilet cleaners to help train Singaporean toilet cleaners.
The other thing eBay illustrates is the "long tail" phenomenon explored by Chris Anderson (2006) in his New York Times bestseller, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. Traditional stores such as Wal-Mart, Best Buy, or Barnes & Noble have to consider carefully what items to put on the shelf based on their potential appeal to local customers. Movie theaters, radio stations, and video rental stores also have to play to their local customer base. These businesses count on "hits"—items that appeal to a large group of local customers. As a result, only a limited number of products make it to the market. But online stores like Amazon, NetFlix, and Rhapsody do not have to follow this approach. They are able to benefit from selling "misses"—items that may appeal to only a small number of people. Given the large number of people they can reach globally, they can always find somebody who is interested in something, however odd it may be. This phenomenon has been proven true by a number of online businesses. Anderson (2004) illustrates the long tail phenomenon with the example of Rhapsody, a subscription-based online music service that offers millions of songs:
Chart Rhapsody's monthly statistics and you get a "power law" demand curve that looks much like any record store's. … But a really interesting thing happens once you dig below the top 40,000 tracks. … Here, the Wal-Marts of the world go to zero—either they don't carry any more CDs, or the few potential local takers for such fringy fare never find it or never even enter the store. The Rhapsody demand, however, keeps going. Not only is every one of Rhapsody's top 100,000 tracks streamed at least once each month, the same is true for its top 200,000, top 300,000, and top 400,000. As fast as Rhapsody adds tracks to its library, those songs find an audience, even if it's just a few people a month, somewhere in the country. This is the Long Tail.
The same thing can happen and has happened in the realm of human talent. Certain talents or skills may be needed by only a few people. Constrained by geographical distances, there may not be enough of those "few people" in one location to make the talent or skill a viable business, or there may not be anyone in a local community who needs the available talent or skill. Thus these rare talents are in essence "useless." However, when made available on a global scale, the number of people who may need or appreciate this unique talent or skill can become large enough to make it economically viable. Take the Matt Harding dancing described in Chapter 6 as an example. The majority of people may find the dancing simply silly. But enough people found it interesting and Stride Gum found it so valuable that it sponsored his efforts to do more of his "silly dance" around the globe. The same can be said of the Chinese Back Dorm Boys and Anshe Chung, also described in Chapter 6.
Plenty of tips are available for successful garage sales and sales on eBay. A review of these tips suggests that success with eBay requires a different set of skills and knowledge than what is required for a successful garage sale. For example, Mark Styranka, owner of Bargain Deals (http://bargaindealsmart.com), a Web site that provides tips for stay-at-home businesses, suggests 10 "simple steps" for effective eBay sales: (1) post a low opening bid; (2) provide accurate shipping and handling costs; (3) offer a simple payment method such as Paypal; (4) use keywords in the title; (5) write a concise item description; (6) use clear photos; (7) provide solid customer communication via e-mail; (8) offer free shipping materials; (9) advertise your expertise; and (10) sell for a cause. Compare these to a list of tips for successful garage sales offered on frugalvillage.com, a Web site that offers tips for "frugal living": (1) choose a day and time to start your garage sale; (2) choose what you want to sell; (3) display your items properly; (4) advertise your sale (5) have lots of change and don't accept any checks; (6) be sure to have an electrical source; (7) be prepared to haggle, so set your prices accordingly; (8) plan some activities such as playing background music; (9) consider selling some refreshments; (10) be sure to have a notice that all sales are final; and (11) do not have your pet with you during your sale. The differences are quite obvious. Effective sales on eBay require more skills and knowledge that support activities in the virtual world, and successful garage sales require skills that are associated more with interactions in the physical world.
Although eBay has not replaced all garage sales or rendered skills for running successful garage sales obsolete, technology has significantly reduced the number of jobs in certain sectors. In fact, "during the seven-year period 1995 to 2002, 22 million global factory jobs disappeared—not due to offshoring but due to increased productivity" (Collins & Ryan, 2007).
Technology, like globalization, also creates new jobs. For example, eBay has led to the emergence of professional sellers—that is, people who make a living by selling on eBay. Often these are "powersellers," a label eBay gives to those who maintain certain levels of sales during a certain period of time and have sustained positive feedback from customers. There is even a trade association reserved only for powersellers on eBay: the Professional eBay Sellers Alliance (PeSA), founded in 2003. According to the organization's Web site, PeSA members "sell over $400 million each year on eBay" (PeSA, 2008). A Forbes magazine article reports that "more than 724,000 Americans say eBay is their primary or secondary source of income. Millions more sell stuff there from time to time" (Crane, 2006).
What eBay and other technologies have enabled is the growth of individual entrepreneurs who may not work for a big corporation because they now have direct access to their end clients. Writers do not necessarily have to use a publisher to sell their books. Musicians do not have to have a record company. Independent photographers (including amateurs) can sell their photos on Flickr.com. Web designers can independently sell their services online. The result has been a sharp rise in self-employment in the United States and other developed nations. The U.S. Census Bureau (2007) reported that every day an average of more than 2,000 people went into business for themselves in 2005, when individual businesses (without a payroll) reached more than 20 million, making up about 78 percent of all firms in the United States. These self-employment or nonemployer businesses had receipts of $951 billion in 2005. The fastest-growing industries are Web search portals, Internet service providers, nail salons, electronic shopping and mail-order houses, recreational vehicle dealers, and landscaping services. Notice that technology-related industries—Web portals, Internet service providers, and electronic shopping—account for three out of six of the categories of fastest-growing industries.
Starting up and running one's own business requires a different set of skills and knowledge than those needed to be an employee of a large corporation. What helps one succeed as an independent entrepreneur is certainly different from what makes one succeed in climbing up corporate ladders or working on an assembly line. Skills and knowledge that help people successfully operate their own businesses are gaining value.
If you are new to eBay and want to quickly sell your junk but are not sure what to do, hire an "eBay-certified consultant." In 2004, eBay began to certify independent individuals who offer advice to eBay buyers and sellers. An examination is required for obtaining the certification to ensure that the certified consultant understands all the features of eBay. In addition to certified consultants, eBay offers a program to certify "eBay education specialists" who can train eBay users.
Technology, while reducing the number of certain types of jobs, creates new jobs and thus increases the value of certain kinds of knowledge. Like eBay's creation of certified consultants as a profession, the advent of Web search engines has created a new profession called "search engine optimization consultants"—people who specialize in helping businesses or individuals attract more visits to their Web sites. Second Life has led to the growth of individuals and companies who design virtual objects for others. Globalization has similarly stimulated the growth of demand for certain types of knowledge and talents. For example, translators and interpreters—specialists who can bridge language and cultural gaps—are in high demand. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (2007d) has projected that employment of interpreters and translators will grow 24 percent between 2006 and 2016, "much faster than the average for all occupations," as a result of increased immigration, national security concerns, and broadening international ties.
In July 1859, the British philosopher Herbert Spencer published an essay titled "What Knowledge Is of Most Worth?" in the Westminster Review. In this essay, Spencer set out to "determine the relative value of knowledge" so as to determine "the great thing which education has to teach" (1911). At the time, the world was going through significant transformations brought about by advances in science and technology. In his home country, industrialization was transforming England from a rural society into an urban society. Steam-driven machines not only revolutionized the production of cotton and wool, but also shortened the distances in England through expanded networks of canals and railways. While the society was entering an industrial age, most of the schools at that time were in poor condition and were teaching subjects of no practical use, according to Spencer. He used many examples to show that subjects such as Latin and Greek were prized at the expense of more useful ones. Students were drilled in these subjects only to show that they had received the education of a gentleman—a badge indicating a certain social position that commanded respect. But what was of most worth was science, according to Spencer.
We are in the midst of another revolution that at least rivals the Industrial Revolution. This revolution, as already discussed, is significantly changing our society and thus the value of knowledge and talents. We must then ask the same question: What should schools teach in order to prepare our children for the global and digital economy?
And indeed, this question has been asked and answers have been offered by many organizations and individuals. In the next sections I summarize some of the more influential efforts to define worthwhile knowledge in the new economy.
The phrase "21st century skills" has become popular. Policymakers and education leaders all like to talk about "21st century skills" for a 21st century society shaped by globalization and technology. A few organizations have developed frameworks to describe the details of what they view as essential skills for successful living in the 21st century. The most widely disseminated framework is from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, an organization founded in 2002 with members from national education organizations, major businesses, and education institutions. The organization believes that "every child in America needs 21st century knowledge and skills to succeed as effective citizens, workers and leaders in the 21st century" (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2008). According to its framework (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2007), "the skills, knowledge and expertise students should master to succeed in work and life in the 21st century" are the following:
A similar framework was developed by the Metiri Group, a consulting firm based in California, for the North Central Regional Education Lab in 2003. This framework, as its title, enGauge 21st Century Skills: Literacy in the Digital Age, suggests, is more oriented to a future that is altered by technology. According to the authors, the framework was based on two years of research and "represent[s] the fresh, serious, new perspective required in light of recent historical events, globalization, and the idiosyncrasies of the Digital Age" (Lemke, Coughlin, Thadani, & Martin, 2003, p. 9). In this framework, the skills needed for the 21st century are the following:
The authors suggest that these skills should be "considered within the context of rigorous academic standards" (p. 9). Two different diagrams have been used to represent this framework, one with academic achievement surrounding the skills (Metiri Group, 2003) and the other with academic achievement sitting at the center, connecting the skills (Metiri Group, 2008). Both, I imagine, are intended to communicate the sense that academic achievement is the context in which the 21st century skills can be developed, although there was no specific discussion about what constitutes academic achievement.
The United States is not the only country that has realized the need to rethink what future citizens will need to know. The European Union has engaged in similar efforts, although the phrase "21st century skills" is not used. The European Parliament and the Council of the European Union, the highest-level governing bodies of the European Union, have worked to "identify and define the key competences necessary for personal fulfillment, active citizenship, social cohesion and employability in a knowledge society." (The European documents refer to competences rather than competencies.) Their efforts resulted in eight key competences that all European citizens are believed to need in order to "adapt flexibly to a rapidly changing and highly interconnected world" (Recommendation of the European Parliament and of the Council of the European Union, 2006, p. 13). Competences are "a combination of knowledge, skills, and attitudes appropriate to the context" (p. 13). The eight key competences are the following:
All eight key competences are equally important, "because each of them can contribute to a successful life in a knowledge society" (p. 13). In addition, "critical thinking, creativity, initiative, problem solving, risk assessment, decision taking, and constructive management of feelings" (p. 14) are considered important across all eight key competences.
Although not specifically developed for schools, the American writer Daniel Pink's book A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age (2005a) is extremely relevant and has been embraced by many educators. Pink puts skills in two different categories: L-directed thinking and R-directed thinking. The L-directed (left brain–directed) thinking skills are sequential, literal, functional, textual, and analytic—typically functions believed to be performed by the left hemisphere of the human brain. The R-directed (right brain–directed) thinking skills are characterized as simultaneous, metaphorical, aesthetic, contextual, and synthetic—typically functions assigned to the right hemisphere of the brain. In terms more familiar to educators, Pink's L-directed skills are similar to the linguistic and logic intelligences within Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences framework; or, in terms of school subjects, are associated with math, language arts, and science. Some of his R-directed skills are the other talents proposed by Gardner: kinesthetic, musical, visual/spatial, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligences.
Pink suggests that we have entered a new age in which R-directed thinking skills are becoming more important than L-directed thinking skills because of the three As: Asia, automation, and abundance. "Asia" is shorthand for outsourcing or offshoring. As a result of globalization, Asia has become the destination of outsourcing. Many jobs that require L-directed skills have been outsourced to Asia. Technological advancement has led to the automation or computerization of many jobs that require the L-directed thinking skills as well. And abundance, the result of general economic development in the developed nations, has led people to desire more "conceptual" products and services that are beyond simply functional. To illustrate the influence of globalization, technology, and economic development on what is needed in the new age, Pink suggests that all individuals and organizations ask the following three questions to determine if they can survive in the new age:
"If your answer to question 1 or 2 is yes, or if your answer to question 3 is no, you are in deep trouble," says Pink, because "[m]ere survival today depends on being able to do something that overseas knowledge workers cannot do cheaper, that powerful computers can't do faster, and that satisfies the nonmaterial, transcendent desires of an abundant age" (2005a, p. 51). And the ability to do something that cannot be outsourced or computerized or satisfies the desires of the abundant age, according to Pink, is the capability of the right brain.
From the capabilities of the right brain, Pink distills six new essential "high-concept, high-touch senses." They are (1) design, the ability to "create something physically beautiful and emotionally transcendent"; (2) story, the ability to "fashion a compelling narrative"; (3) symphony, the ability to see "the big picture and be able to combine disparate pieces into an arresting new whole"; (4) empathy, the ability to "understand what makes their fellow woman or man tick, to forge relationships, and to care for others"; (5) play, the ability to laugh and bring laughter to others; and (6) meaning, the ability to "pursue more significant desires: purpose, transcendence, and spiritual fulfillment" (pp. 65–67).
Although Pink does not explicitly discount the value of the L-directed thinking skills in his book, his belief that the R-directed skills are becoming much more important is apparent in many statements in the book, such as the following:
Today, the defining skills of the previous era—the "left brain" capabilities that powered the Information Age—are necessary but no longer sufficient. And the capabilities we once disdained or thought frivolous—the "right brain" qualities of inventiveness, empathy, joyfulness, and meaning—increasingly will determine who flourishes and who flounders. (2005a, p. 3)
Taken together, these proposals present a fairly promising picture of the knowledge and skills needed to live successfully in the global and digital economy. The proposed valuable knowledge and skills are indeed desirable responses to the challenges posed by globalization and technology, as illustrated by the eBay example and discussed in Chapters 5 and 6. Underlying these proposals is the recognition of a number of core assumptions, which can be used to guide our decision about what schools should teach.
Assumption #1: We must cultivate skills and knowledge that are not available at a cheaper price in other countries or that cannot be rendered useless by machines. This is mainly Pink's argument but is shared by others such as the New Commission on Skills of the American Workforce and Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, both professors of economics at Harvard University. In The Race Between Education and Technology, they write:
Today, skills, no matter how complex, that can be exported through outsourcing or offshoring are vulnerable. Even some highly skilled jobs that can be outsourced, such as reading radiographs, may be in danger of having stable or declining demand. Skills for which a computer program can substitute are also in danger. But skills for non-routine employments and jobs with in-person skills are less susceptible. (Goldin & Katz, 2008, p. 352)
Assumption #2: Creativity, interpreted as both ability and passion to make new things and adapt to new situations, is essential. All the proposals discussed include creativity as a must for successful living in the new age. "Human creativity is the ultimate source of economic resource," writes economist Richard Florida (2002, p. xiii). "The ability to come up with new ideas and better ways of doing things is ultimately what raises productivity and thus living standards."
Assumption #3: New skills and knowledge are needed for living in the global world and the virtual world. All the proposals discussed (except Pink's) include global competencies such as foreign languages, global awareness, and multicultural literacy as essential skills and knowledge to cope with the global world and digital or technology literacy for the virtual world.
Assumption #4: Cognitive skills such as problem solving and critical thinking are more important than memorization of knowledge. Although the two American proposals organized around 21st century skills include academic content knowledge in core subjects, what is common across all is an emphasis on high-level cognitive skills.
Assumption #5: Emotional intelligence—the ability and capacity to understand and manage emotions of self and others—is important. These proposals all include, to varying degrees, the ability to interact with others, understand others, communicate with others, and manage one's own feelings.
Together these proposals include a broad range of skills and talents that are indeed necessary or essential for living in an age transformed by globalization and technology. Even Pink, although heavily promoting the R-directed skills, does not want to throw out the L-directed skills. But is it truly possible for every student to develop all these skills and acquire the necessary knowledge? I raise this question not only because each individual has only a limited amount of time to devote to full-time studying before entering the "real world," but also because of the vast individual differences among human beings due to both nature and nurture.
We are not born a "blank slate" waiting to be scripted, as the MIT cognitive scientist Steven Pinker convincingly argues in his 2003 book,
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Evolution has granted all members of Homo sapiens some common capacities, and that certainly includes the potential to learn all the suggested knowledge and develop the R-directed skills. Thus Daniel Pink is correct to assert that "the abilities you'll need—Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning—are fundamentally human attributes. They reside in all of us, and need only be nurtured into being" (2005a, p. 234).
However, for some reason, we are not all born the same. We may have the same set of innate abilities, but the strengths of these abilities are variable. Some are born extremely skilled in music, others in math, still others in making things. These are the people we call geniuses or child prodigies. Mozart was a genius in music, Gauss in mathematics, and Picasso in art. Most of us are not geniuses, but we do have areas in which we are strong. The flip side of this coin is weakness. We are not equally strong in all domains. One person may be great with words but not as good at painting. Another may be talented in dancing but have great difficulty with numbers. We also differ in the affective domain. Some are more adventurous, willing to take risks, and tolerant of uncertainty; some seem to be more cautious and risk-averse.
Nature is only half of the story. Nurture plays an equally if not more important role in the development of an individual. Although nature provides the potential, the environment affects what potentials are realized and to what degree, as well as what talents are suppressed and thus not fully developed. Families, friends, and schools all affect how one turns out to be. A person may have a strong inclination for music, but without the opportunity to learn or if music is forbidden, her musical talent will not be developed. Similarly, a child born with a more adventurous nature can be taught to be timid and cautious. Consequently, depending on the environment (country, neighborhood, schools, and families) one grows up in, innate propensities can be amplified or suppressed.
The dynamics between nature and nurture also play a significant role in what a person ultimately can be or can do. Early experiences may accelerate or slow down the development of certain innate abilities. At the same time, those accelerated abilities gain more attention and change the environment in their favor, which will then further support their development and suppress the less developed ones. This is the "Matthew effect" at work in psychological development: the rich get richer and the poor poorer, just like the Lord said: "For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath" (Matthew 25:29).
Tremendous disagreement divides scientists and educators as to which factor determines or plays a more significant role in the development of human abilities. Some tend to attribute more to nature, others more to nurture. Still others point to something else. For example, Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin (2001) writes, "The organism is determined neither by its genes nor by its environment nor even by the interaction between them, but bears a significant mark of random process" (p. 38).
Whatever the determinant, we all agree that human beings are different. We have different strengths and weaknesses. We have different wishes and desires. Thus, although Pink may be right in asserting that the R-directed skills "reside in all of us," it is not true that we are all equally strong. Nor is it correct to assume that we all can or want to develop R-directed skills at the same rate or to the same extent. No matter how hard I try, there is no way I can become another Michael Phelps, the American swimmer who won eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Even if I had started painting when I was 3 and had been taught by a great master, I doubt I could become another Picasso. However, I must reiterate that we all, barring some extreme cases, can do the basics. I have learned to swim, and I am certain that I can learn to create decent images.
Similarly, although we all can learn a foreign language, not all of us can learn at the same rate and truly become fluent speakers of the target language. The same is true for the ability to use computers or work on math problems.
It is too bad that we cannot expect each and every one of our children to swim as well as Michael Phelps, paint as well as Picasso, write as well as J.K. Rowling, and solve math problems as well as Gauss—all at the same time. But the good news is that they all have strengths, albeit in different areas. And even better, globalization and technological changes have created a world where all talents, even those "once disdained or thought frivolous" (Pink, 2005a, p. 3) have become very valuable.
In this light, the broad range of skills and knowledge discussed earlier in this chapter should be interpreted in two different ways as an answer to the question "What knowledge is of most worth?" First, they can be considered as skills and knowledge that all students should master and hence schools should teach. Second, they can be considered as a menu of skills and knowledge from which students can choose what to specialize in. What schools should do is to provide opportunities and resources to support students' development in their chosen areas.
The first interpretation is necessary because as members of a common society we should all develop a set of common skills and knowledge. Moreover, this approach also provides opportunities for students to experience and find out where their strengths lie and which areas they wish to specialize in. It is also desirable because, as discussed earlier, all human beings, except for a few extreme cases, have the capacity to develop basic competencies in all domains. So there is no question that all schools should provide opportunities for students to acquire the basics of all the proposed skills and knowledge. The question is, how much is desirable and possible? For example, we all agree that all students should know some mathematics, but does that mean all children should study advanced calculus or algebra? Likewise, all students should study at least one foreign language, but is it necessary for all students to acquire near-native proficiency?
None of the proposals discussed earlier in this chapter specifies to what degree each of the content and skill areas should be mastered. And there is plenty of disagreement even among experts with regard to the amount of content in each subject area or the level of skills in each domain. I know I cannot settle the "how much" question here or anywhere, but I am convinced that no one subject or skill, regardless of its perceived importance, should be elevated to a level that excludes other subjects or skills in the school curriculum, nor should it be allowed to kill children's creativity and drain their curiosity for learning. This is, I believe, also the spirit behind the 21st Century Skills Partnership framework and the European Union's eight essential competences.
In this spirit, schools should offer a comprehensive, balanced curriculum that includes opportunities for students to explore and develop both R-directed thinking and L-directed thinking; to learn math, science, technology, history, economics, geography, government, reading, literature, music, foreign languages, and art; to develop global awareness and appreciation for differences; to develop understanding of and ability to interact within the digital virtual world; and to develop a healthy body and mind.
The second interpretation treats the proposed skills and knowledge as possible areas in which students can develop true expertise. As Chapters 5 and 6 (as well as the eBay example in this chapter) illustrate, globalization and technology have opened up new possibilities that increase the value of traditionally "worthless" skills, knowledge, and talents. We have entered a new age in which industries have become more diversified to meet increasingly diverse human needs. In this age, the job market is also global, which makes it possible to turn knowledge and talents that are of little or no value in one local community into something with great worth in other communities. In this age, with the inclusion of many more workers from different countries and rapid changes in technology, it also is increasingly difficult to predict what new businesses will emerge and what will become obsolete. Thus what becomes highly valuable are unique talents, knowledge, and skills, the ability to adapt to changes, and creativity, all of which call for a school culture that respects and cultivates expertise in a diversity of talents and skills and a curriculum that enables individuals to pursue their strengths.
Educator Jenifer Fox's book Your Child's Strengths: Discover Them, Develop Them, Use Them (2008) provides an excellent answer to the question of what knowledge is of most worth. It is what the children are interested in and good at. It is their strengths. It is not a government mandate or what is being tested. And here is an account of a personal experience that illustrates the value of unique talents.
On a sunny spring day in 2008, I was sitting at Eudora, a bar in Beijing's Lido Plaza, with Jean, Hans, and Anna. We had just finished shooting a video interview in a nearby international school. Jean was the producer and director, head of this makeshift team. Son of Vietnamese immigrants, Jean grew up in America's Deep South and went to college in California. In his early 30s at the time of our meeting, Jean had been living in Beijing for about six years, working as a freelance video producer and independent business consultant. Hans, our cameraman, was a German in his late 20s. Hans had been studying filmmaking in China's Central Drama Academy and Beijing Film Academy for about four years and was working as a freelance videographer. Anna, our makeup specialist, came from England and had been living in China for only about two years. After graduating from a college in Wales with a degree in anthropology, she came to China to first study Chinese and then began teaching English.
I had not planned to invite them for a drink; the decision came in the middle of the shooting. I was there to conduct an interview of a successful Hong Kong entrepreneur and philanthropist who had donated a substantial amount of his money to promoting globalization of education; an international school called 3e International Kindergarten was the first fruit of his generosity and vision. I was going to bring my own crew from the United States but was convinced by the head of the school, who was born in Hong Kong, educated in the United States, and was now working in Beijing, that he could find excellent talent in China for the project. I was quite surprised when I arrived at the scene. I had assumed that the crew was all Chinese and that Jean was a Chinese girl with excellent English abilities. As a researcher, I am always curious about unusual things. So I asked them why they were there and found that they all had extremely interesting stories to tell.
Over beer, I learned that they all loved living in Beijing. They were making good money, perhaps even better than their friends back home. They were fulfilling their dreams—making movies, staying away from their parents, and chasing new opportunities, which are abundant in China. "But my question is, why do companies hire you instead of the locals, who are apparently much cheaper? There are plenty of people who have learned how to shoot videos here, right?" I asked. As someone who was born and raised in China and now lives in the United States, I had always heard that the Chinese were taking over the world with cheap labor and there were millions of unemployed Chinese college graduates. Just a few miles away from Eudora was a village where thousands of college graduates live on less than a dollar a day, looking for jobs. But here were three foreigners who were happily self-employed and earning an income many times higher than the average Chinese college graduate.
"We have something they don't have" summarizes the essence of their answers. And this "something" is "a better sense of the composition of images," according to Hans; "attention to details because we are passionate about what we do," according to Jean; and "more experiences with moving images as we grew up," according to Anna.
This "something" they (the Chinese) don't have has given Jean, Hans, and Anna the relative advantage that enables them to live comfortably and happily in China, a nation that has often been said to have taken jobs away from the developed countries. What is worth noting is that Jean, Hans, and Anna had not necessarily received a formal education that prepared them for their adventure in China. Judging from what they told me, their talents and pursuits were tolerated at home and in schools. Although that tolerance is critical, of course, a more active celebration and explicit support would be even better.
In the story of Jean, Hans, and Anna lies the simple yet very important answer to one of the greatest challenges to education brought about by globalization; and that is, in the increasingly globalized world, what is needed is a diversity of talents rather than individuals with the same competencies. If we adopt a global mindset, rather than a local, nationalist one, we will find that historical, cultural, and political factors have resulted in a variety of educational systems that have developed varying practices to cultivate talents valued in different societies. These talents are different, but from a global market perspective they can complement one another, commented Sim Wong Hoo, founder and CEO of Singapore-based Creative Technology. When asked in an interview with Newsweek about the advantages and disadvantages of having his company based in Singapore, Sim answered, "[T]he advantage is we come from a very conscientious culture. You tell our people what to do, they'll follow the rules, they'll do it. The downside is they are not as creative. We fixed that by having a U.S.-based R&D team that's doing more advanced research" (Levy, 2005).
A truly global mindset about education suggests that we seriously examine our traditions and identify our strengths in relation to others—not only other countries, but also other communities in our own society. This requires us to move away from not only adopting international standards but also national standards and testing. Each local community may have something special, something unique to offer on the global market. An international uniform curriculum or national curriculum can only serve to destroy local traditions and strengths.
A truly global mindset about education also suggests that we seriously consider the effect of "the death of distance." Our children will become more mobile globally—their talents globally traded. Like Jean, Hans, and Anna, our children can find employment in foreign countries, as long as they have the needed skills and knowledge.
A truly global mindset about education further suggests that developed nations must take responsibility for deliberately cultivating new talents because they are endowed with more resources. They must not fall back to compete with developing nations in the same domains, for both their own sake and the benefit of the world.
Finally, a truly global mindset about education suggests that tolerance for multiple perspectives, different talents, and a respect for diversity are key to a brighter future for all. As we enter a new era of human history, we cannot be certain of what specific talents, knowledge, and skills will be of value, and globalization has expanded the market; therefore, we must accept the idea that all talents, all individuals are worthwhile. Education is thus intended to help every child realize his or her potential. Every child counts!
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