Knowledge Economy — [Republica Repost]

No amount of money, my colleagues say, would motivate them as much as the desire to help the next generation catch up to the reality of our times

When he returned after the first day of teacher training, Gokul (pseudonym) told me proudly: “You see, I’ve earned my first fifty rupees today. And that’s all I am here for, young man, the allowances—for forty days of bhatta.” This was during the summer of 1993 and I was just beginning to dream of becoming a teacher. So I found it deeply offensive that someone entrusted to educate the community’s children would come all the way from a remote district to the regional teacher training center in the city, occupy a college student’s single-room apartment, and brag about his bhatta. This is challenge one, among many others, in Nepali education: monetary incentive has failed and nothing seems to improve professionalism among the vast majority of teachers.

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And then there is challenge two, which I believe is the underlying cause of most challenges, including the above: the failure of our view of education to catch up to the socioeconomic changes and realities. If we try to truly understand the seemingly petty mentality of teachers like Gokul, we will find that they have latched on to monetary incentive like that because they fundamentally misunderstand the economic basis of modern education.

If Gokul understood that in place of his parents’ farm and cattle he has an occupation where he sells knowledge, he would try to cultivate knowledge itself a bit better. Leaving his parents’ agricultural economy behind, he had jumped straight to the heart of the new knowledge economy as a public school teacher (without even going through the industrial and service economies). But he didn’t even realize that his teaching was his cash crop, that his continued learning was irrigation for it.

As such, Gokul’s story can be used for explaining why quality in education in the public sector has stagnated and lagged behind the demands of our times. Indeed, even in the private sector, where economic incentives are in place, we can see how the same problem has held quality back.

I brought up Gokul’s story in order to drive a point home recently among a group of professors in one of Nepal’s public universities, where I have been training teachers online. The group of professors are learning teaching skills and methods for switching to the “semester system” that the university has adopted. But, as the group knows, the challenge is not just to split the academic year into two halves, like one cucumber for two people, and continue with the same old teaching and learning practices.

The shift has to reflect and implement a new understanding of knowledge and education, an updated view of teaching and learning, and a focus on preparing students for their future professions in the knowledge economy.

In the last thirty or so years, members of the emerging workforce have faced the demand to develop new knowledge in order to create new services, products, and approaches for doing their work. From bankers to lawyers and engineers to veterinarians, workers have faced increasing demands for new ideas rather than just simply implementing existing ones.

But during college and university years, these professionals were not trained to view knowledge as something they can and should “create.” The education system did not help them develop and use knowledge as a tool set for getting things done and achieving success in the professions—beyond just finding a job and receiving salary and allowances.

The conceptual basis of what goes by the name of the “semester system” is that the university is a place where students go not to master content but instead to make sense of it, respond to it, and start developing their intellectual agendas and professional visions (backed up by skills and attitude for success). Students are intellectual agents who actively seek to generate new knowledge for the society and professions—or for academe, if they decide to stay in it. The teacher is no longer a big jug from which to pour information and knowledge into the small mugs called students.

With the redefinition of the university, students, and teachers, most other phenomena change function and meaning as well. Traditionally, the examination was primarily a tool for ensuring that the student has learned the content of a curriculum. That tool could test, for instance, if a future poultry farmer had understood common diseases and how to treat his chicken. But since the new system seeks more to prepare that poultry farmer to design and manage new farms in her unique context, it tends to take her out of the classroom. The exam is no longer enough to reinforce and assess her learning; new forms of assessment are necessary.

The same kind of shifts would need to happen in the understanding and practice of writing “papers” or doing “projects,” collaborating with peers and working with teachers and so on. In fact, even the seemingly mundane act of “reading” the textbook must change. Traditionally, students came to class for listening to the teacher explain what the textbook says. In the new knowledge economy, the student is required to have read it before coming to class, perhaps even to do some homework on it. In class, students are asked to contribute to the discussion in order to better understand and generate new ideas.

In the classroom, the role of students changes, and so does their relationship to the teacher and the experts who wrote the textbooks. Gaining the knowledge in the textbook is no longer the primary objective. Instead, students begin to view themselves as capable of analytically and critically responding to the author, connecting what they learn to their own lives and experiences, adapting and investing existing ideas to develop new ones.

I remembered Gokul’s story again because at the public university where I am training teachers, someone who is not in the training group had reportedly suggested that if an American professor is involved, the project has to involve dollars. Unfortunately, it is just me, with my personal laptop, sitting on my bed, with a formal shirt above and informal pants below, sharing what I know with fellow teachers in Nepal.

As I end the Google Hangout webinar sessions once every month, I am inspired by the ten colleagues in Nepal who are making great strides in their classrooms. Next week, they will also start training a few dozens of their colleagues toward updating teaching and learning at their university.

For me, nothing could be more satisfying than the ability to “visit” a Nepali town every month, without having to pay airfare, or even brave the snow. No amount of money, my colleagues say, would motivate them as powerfully as the desire to help the next generation catch up to the reality of our times.

We know that in the new knowledge economy, our bhatta is the gain in our knowledge, month by month. And we hope that there are increasing numbers of educators around the country who feel the same way.

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