From ‘me’ to ‘we’

The American education system. 98,000 public schools. 50.1 million students strong. $12,000 spent per student per year. 3 million teachers. 99% literacy rate.

Those are some pretty damn impressive statistics. Considering the colossal amount of resources the US pours into its public schools and the sheer number of opportunities for graduates, many would list the US as one of the top educational systems in the world.

Far from it. The US is 14th best in the world in education.

Across generations, the system has slowly (but steadily) been improving. Yet, students trail behind their international peers on various performance metrics. 17th in reading. 20th in science. 27th in math.

Despite these disappointing ratings, the American education system is still heralded across the world for its ability to build learners and creative thinkers. Although there are multiple external players (like one’s home life, motivation levels of students, school funding, etc), a teacher’s teaching style is often the single most influential factor in determining a student’s success, growth, attainment levels, and character development.

In this piece, I hope to take you on a journey — looking at how teaching styles are influenced by the societies they live in, how that society affects students, and how we may need a fundamental shift in how teachers run their classrooms.

Teaching Styles & Society

Teaching styles can broadly be divided into teacher-centric or student centric. A teacher centric model stresses the teacher’s role as the main authority figure. Students must learn through direct instruction, listen to lectures, and take exams. The teacher should lead by example and is the expert on the subject.

By contrast, a student centric model stresses the student’s ‘activeness’ in the learning process. Teachers are there to guide students as they explore topics on their own and work cooperatively in small groups. Students are encouraged to be autonomous and experiment with new ideas. The onus is placed on the student and teachers are a resource that students are expected to utilize to their fullest extent.

Individualistic society

Countries like the United States, UK, and Germany classify as strong examples of individualistic societies. Students are encouraged to speak up and share feelings, disagreements, and concerns. Teaching is centered around learning how to learn and teachers employ a student centric approach most of the time. From an early age, students are expected to be self-reliant, competitive, and pursue personal goals. And with students being responsible for their own exploration and achievements, they’re also expected to shoulder the weight of their mistakes.

Most Latin American and Asian countries can be described as collectivist societies. Students in this type of learning environment are taught ‘how to do’ and uphold long standing customs. Teachers are the final authority and are responsible for teaching the student how to behave in a group, get along with peers, and promote collective harmony. The emphasis is put on working interdependently as opposed to working independently.

Individual (left) vs Collectivist (right)

Every society strikes a balance between these two models, but identifies closer to one. And both systems have their advantages and disadvantages. For example, in individualistic societies, the loss of independence is a major weakness and in collectivist societies, the interdependence relies on a suppression of individual expression.

In a micro-environment like a school, especially K-12, diverse groups of students from all walks of life are learning and growing up together. Understanding the subtle differences in how to treat and interact with students often lays the basis for how successful a teacher is.

5 Dimensions of Culture

No discussion on culture and its impact on the workforce or education would be complete without Hofstede.

Geert Hofstede

Geert Hofstede is a Dutch professor and social psychologist who pioneered one of the most comprehensive studies on how work and school values are influenced by culture. In his research, he pinpointed 5 main ‘clusters’ or dimensions of culture — Power Distance Index, Individualism vs Collectivism, Masculinity vs Femininity, Uncertainty Avoidance Index, and Long Term Orientation. Yes, these 5 dimensions are all interrelated but each zeroes in on a unique societal value. In the following discussion on a few of those dimensions, I’ll report on the numbers of 3 countries (USA, Denmark, and China).

Power Distance Index

Power Distance refers to the extent to which less powerful people in society are accepting of the unequal distribution of power. In societies with a high power distance index, status is respected and old age is revered. In a school, this would mean that education is teacher centered, the teacher is never wrong and never questioned, and students expect that teachers guide them on their path. In Hofstede’s research, on a scale of 0 to 100, Denmark scored 18, USA scored 40, and China was a 93.

Individualism vs Collectivism

On a scale of 0 to 100, where lower is more collectivist, China scored 20, USA scored 91, and Denmark scored 74.

Masculinity vs Femininity

A masculine culture can be defined as one that places emphasis on achievement and success, while feminist cultures are more focused on group harmony and quality of life. In a school environment, this might mean that in feminine societies, the average students are used as examples, students choose classes out of interest and behave modestly. In a masculine environment, the best students are used as examples, classes are chosen for career reasons, and students try to make themselves as visible as possible. On a scale of 0 to 100, where 0 is most feminine, Denmark scored 16, USA scored 62, and China scored 66.

Cool numbers, but so what?

Compared to countries across the world, the USA employs a more individualistic and student centric approach to teaching (as seen in the discussion above).

Continual improvement, candid feedback, focus on pragmatism, and inductive thinking are hallmarks of our education system. As a result, students who go through K-12 in America tend to be more focused on learning how to learn, being flexible, resourceful and thinking ‘out of the box’ than their international peers.

While high achieving individuals contribute heavily to the advancement of society, it can be argued that it all comes at a cost of weaker interpersonal relationships and absence of strong social glue. People can be self-absorbed and not aware of pressing problems that the society they live in facing. Worse yet, they may refuse do their part in helping better the lives of those around them.

At this turning point in our history, we’ve seen the havoc that a lack of unity and selflessness can bring about. To close this chasm separating our country, politician and community leaders are preaching open-mindedness, a willingness to listen and understand, and above all, a sense of companionship with those around us. Without building that communal and collective mindset, our nation’s future is at jeopardy.

Well, how do we build that?

Simple. In our classrooms.

The school system grooms the future leaders, engineers, doctors, lawyers, countrymen and women of America for over 12 years, teaching them foundational skills and behaviors to become successful members of society. If not there, where else?

With teachers focusing more on inclusion of students, encouraging diversity in every room, reiterating the importance of family and community, and nurturing the instinct to help a neighbor, students can steadily build strong collectivist habits. Going back to Hofstede’s study, emphasizing the ‘feminine’ values that he noticed in some cultures and focusing on reducing the perceived power distance between individuals will lead to more tolerant and satisfied people.

Teachers aren’t the only one in the equation, however. Families and parents need to play an equally important role in fostering this unifying mindset.

The current system does a phenomenal job at churning out high aspiring, high achieving individuals. In the last 30 years, those were the most required skills of our society and they’ve served us extremely well, catapulting America and the world into a new era.

But now is the time to take a step back and think collectively about our families, our neighbors, and our communities at large. And I believe we can achieve that one child at a time.

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