Global Competitiveness Reinterpreted: Homogenization vs. Diversification
Last week, I attended the National Conference of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust in Birmingham England. This year, the conference theme is globalization. Thomas Friedman (author of The World Is Flat), Robert Compton (producer of Two Million Minutes), and myself were asked to address the topic in separate plenary sessions and breakfast sessions. Thomas Friedman appeared via video conferencing because he had to stay in DC for the Whitehouse state dinner President Obama hosted for the visiting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
I have been very annoyed by the notion of “global competitiveness” and how it has been used by some to drive education reforms that feature standards, standardization, accountability, testing. I have also been very frustrated by the utter distortion and misunderstanding of education in other countries, particularly those portrayed as “global competitors” to the U.S., UK, and other developed nations. So my presentations focused on interpreting the implications of globalization for education.
I wrote a piece for the Sec Ed magazine before the conference. The article summarizes my points and appeared in the magazine. For your convenience, I reproduce the article here. Of course, you can read it on the Sec Ed website.
As educators, we bear the responsibility to help prepare our children for a successful life in the future. And this future, by all accounts, is being drastically altered by something generically referred to as “globalisation”.
In a technical sense, globalisation is the result of shrunk physical distances and decreased artificial barriers that used to separate human communities. Advances in information and transportation technologies have significantly shortened the distance between different parts of the world, enabling fast movement of goods, information, and people across vast distances.
olitical changes have achieved similar outcomes, making it possible for interaction to exist between human societies that used to be closed to each other.
Businesses are among the first to take advantage of globalisation. They now have access to a global market: they can now segment their business process and locate each part of the production process anywhere on the globe as if they were all located in the same place, and they can now find employees from, and locate them to, anywhere in the world.
But business is not the only sector that has been globalised. Public services, education, religion, entertainment, and almost all other aspects of our society are now conducted on a global scale.
The consequences of this process are widespread and far-reaching, causing all sorts of ambivalent feelings in different parts of the world. For example, while the developed nations enjoy cheap products and cheap labour from developing countries, they are not happy about jobs being sent to other places. The developing countries, while happy about the economic opportunities, are worried about being westernised culturally and taken advantage of by foreign corporations.
Education systems around the globe have begun to interpret the implications of globalisation and form strategies. But unfortunately, so far, the prominent message has been disappointing, disturbing, and distracting.
The essence of the message is that education systems in the West must prepare their students to compete with students in the developing nations.
This message stirs up unnecessary negative emotions toward children in other countries by projecting them as “job robbers”. While it is true that the millions of Chinese, Indian and people in other developing countries have and will continue to “take jobs away” from developed nations, there are two questions to ask.
The first is a moral one: do they, as human beings, have the right to desire better? The second, a practical one: should we blame others for outsourcing, which in my view is a natural process of economic development?
The message is based on an erroneous assumption that the number of jobs is finite. Thus as the millions of people in developing nations enter the global labour force, jobs in the world will be taken away, leaving nothing for those in the developed nations. This is simply not true. Human history clearly shows that every society goes through different stages, when certain industries disappear and new ones emerge. As a result, certain jobs cease to exist and new ones are created.
The digital revolution, for example, has led to the creation of millions of new jobs that did not exist even 30 years ago. In addition, globalisation has created the need for many new jobs in the areas of cross-cultural consulting, translation and interpreting, international law, global supply chain management, and many others related to global business and migration.
Furthermore, the message sends education down the wrong path. The underlying competitive and “us versus them” mentality turns education into a business that trains economic beings, providing only the skills deemed useful to out-compete others so as to hold on to existing jobs, as if we are training a national army of soldiers to defend the national economy.
Schools in a nation are viewed as factories of one national industry that produces the product to compete with that of other nations’ education systems, and henceforth should be held to the same standards and produce the same values.
Further, schools are considered as businesses and test scores on a few subjects represent their profit margin – the bottom line to judge their performance. As a result, it narrows the curriculum to a few subjects considered essential for competing with others.
Globalisation certainly brings challenges, but the rise of some nations does not necessarily spell the demise of others. One country’s gain does not have to be another’s loss.
Thus, a more productive interpretation would be that instead of treating others as enemies, we should consider them as partners to address common problems, collaborators in business endeavours, and customers of products and services.
Following this interpretation, education systems should work on helping students to develop different talents and skills instead of the same.
Rather than having everyone competing for the same job, we should help our students develop the talents and skills to create new jobs and enter new professions.
Moreover, workers in developed nations cost more than those in developing ones, thus they should offer different talents and skills to deserve the higher salaries.
Furthermore, schools in the developed nations have more resources, thus they have the responsibility to teach the students something more than what can be learned in sometimes very impoverished settings.
In the globalised world, as new technologies and industries emerge constantly, we cannot predict where our children will live and work, and for whom, when they grow up.
But we know that they will be highly mobile – either through physical travels or telecommuting – and they will certainly be working with people from other cultures.
And so it is of paramount significance that they know how to interact with those who are different from them. It is also of great significance that they develop a global perspective so they can successfully view other lands and other people as their potential markets, customers, resources and partners.
In conclusion, the globalised world is essentially an expanded space for action with a lot more players. It is quite similar to the case when a mountain between two villages is removed. The villagers can now reach each other very easily. They can decide to stay closed to each other, attack each other, or interact with each other.
To interact with each other, which seems more desirable, the villagers need to learn how to do so and have different things to offer instead of competing for the same resources with the same skills. _