Friday, September 18, 2009

Input-Driven Education Systems (IDES)

It was just two weeks ago that I was mulling over the following oft-quoted passage from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. The Family capo who sat with me was chortling over some curious similarities that he, a venerable and powerful individual, saw between the eponymous leader and a certain local educator. Let me supply the quotation first, before I tell you the rest. This is from Act I, Scene II.

Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue, shriller than all the music,
Cry 'Caesar!' Speak; Caesar is turn'd to hear.

Beware the ides of March.

What man is that?

A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.

I pointed out to my associate that it was I who should have feared the ides of March, a year and a half gone. He shook his head. He said, "Well, you weren't assassinated. And besides, I think you should be in another play!" To which I replied, "No Prince Hamlet, I."

The conversation moved on. But I was made to recall how, in a fit of blatant stupidity, some people had actually been confused about the Church/State dichotomy expressed in the quotation, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." (See Matthew 22:15-22.) I was told that by quoting this line, I was making reference to that same local educator and calling him Caesar. Haha, it was one of the most Kafkaesque moments of my life!

But the way that this conversation turned towards that same man was rather instructive. Several episodes were quoted about how this person was running an institution without adequate spirit, innovation, intelligence, or attention to educational principles. It was pointed out that the only reason good results were still being produced was that the students were being culled early and often, so that only the best students were being allowed to take key examinations.

Alternatively, internally-moderated assessments were rigged to allow for better results to be posted; an assessment designed to be given once was thus carried out a second time for students who were deemed not to have met the minimum grade desired. This was defended as 'being good for the students', which of course was true in a grade-oriented sense but certainly was not something done in a spirit of fairness. Students were therefore graded not on the strength of their natural performances, but on the strength of the performances that the executives decided they should be producing.

The last episode quoted to me was one in which the CEO told students that if they did not meet the equivalent of a Cambridge admission grade in the middle of the second year of their secondary education, they would be dropped from the programme. This bar was raised even higher for the final examination.

What to make of such stories? I've seen these things happen for years, throughout the system, in isolated hotspots of chicanery. To my everlasting shame, I suppose I have been part of such things, though on the periphery, without making sufficient noise, letting off steam, or blowing whistles. A misplaced sense of loyalty can be a terrible thing.

Yet there are important lessons to be drawn from this kind of episode. The learning points become more obvious by analogy especially when looking back at economic situations like the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 (now more than a decade ago), and the more recent events of the year just past.

In the former situation, economic results were boosted by the extreme ratio of input-driven vs productivity-driven processes. Essentially, throwing effort into making more and more things, rather than making better things, or making things better, screwed up the system and brought about a crash. In the latter situation, borrowing based on imaginary money (well, more imaginary than usual, that is) eventually led to attenuation of belief, a crisis of disbelief, a failure of suspension of disbelief, and a hefty and terrible dose of consequent reality therapy.

I've seen both of these things developing for a while now. He who has ears, let him hear.

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