“I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”–Stephen Jay Gould
Idea Source was a unique School project in Sihanoukville Cambodia – the project ran for 3 years before being handed over to a local entrepreneur.
The original aim of the school was to set up provision for the education of local and expat children compatible with that offered by bone fide international schools operating in capital cities worldwide. It is important to say straight off the bat that this was also a project that had to be self-supporting financially. There would be no assistance from the Cambodian government, World Bank, NGOs, or any charitable donations (i.e. Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, faith based charities such as World Vision, etc. etc.). It was not in a bubble, and therefore would not suddenly close as other schools have, when funding was allocated elsewhere.
By saying this we are not commenting upon the work of those who are genuine and sincere in their mission to improve the lives of the less fortunate, but rather that this was not the mission of this school situated in one of the most deprived nations on earth. The benefits of this are that we don’t have to spend most of our working week appeasing investors and trying to track down sources for subsequent rounds of investment. This can be a major distraction. It was also concordant with our original vision to shift the view of education as a charity case, or even as the French attempted in their mission civilisatrice (in English “civilizing mission“) during colonisation.
No our views was based upon a vision we had for a kind of ‘co-op’ university – where staff, management and students, and other stakeholders in the local community would own, benefit from and help run the school as a democratic exercise. The school viewed as a service providing education to customers – i.e. parents and/or children – is perhaps the wrong model for something which should be natural and human. Parents may not have the inclination or patience nor time or interest in knowledge to teach their children. Children may not have the faculties left entirely on their own to make sense and make connections between all that they see, what is possible and how they can manipulate and change things for the better. They may not see past the ‘echo chamber’ of their favorite cartoon characters or video game to discover the vast repository of recorded knowledge on the web. They may not see or feel the benefits of working with other people and so forth. Teachers may perform as authority figures perhaps in the manner that they themselves were taught and managed. They may see teaching as simply as a means to an end, i.e. a monthly salary, or perhaps a chance to experience an exotic location for their university gap year, and so forth. Administrators and business owners may see the school as a lucrative cash cow given that parents need babysitters worldwide see education as intrinsically a ‘good thing’.
The school must also have a wider remit to educate not only children but the whole community. Of course there will be conservative elements where fixed ideas or misunderstandings happen (consider if you were in a place where the parents and teachers considered corporal punishment and children glued to their seats silently listening to their ‘boss’ as good for learning?). But it is not to be pushed in a radical manner, but eased into its roles, curriculum, and teaching practices by everyone parents, teachers, administration and of course the kids, understanding the contexts and reasons why.
The school if it had value at all needed organisation. It was held under a practical idea and practice that children have something to teach adults, that they inherently know many things and qualities in the world already, and that contemporary ideas on the post-industrial nations future under ‘late capitalism’ includes an interest in sustainable lifestyles. You just have to ask the question ‘Why?’ and get them to critique and accept positive criticism from each other. Why would we consider lives supported by green technology, returning to key features of how we lived practically in the past. This can be threatening to those who consider that they have just came out of the mire. But think of western local efforts to reinstall micro-breweries and local food provision through allotments in cities etc. Of course we would not prevent in anyway our kids becoming the next emperor of search engines, e-commerce, and social networks. We are Montessori inspired and this style is said to have inspired the founders of Google and Amazon. Sundar Pichai the current CEO of Google was raised in a two apartment house in Chennai, India.
Also when it is education, certain ideologies or path-dependencies set in, which may not be in the interests of the kinds of things, subjects, skills that the students are likely to need to improve their chances as citizens, business people and employees in the future. we are non-political, although we may teach aspects and organisation of political things, and we are non-denominational, we study culture and emphasis comparisons in the way faiths view the world. It is a matter for the children and their families to decide upon. Most of them will need the freedom to make decisions quickly and easily to adapt to an ever-changing marketplace that they should learn more and more about each day. Cambodia, like many other developing countries has gone under rapid change and faced unique challenges, and this is likely to continue for some time.
In cambodia corruption is deep-rooted and this is often learned at school. Especially in the state system underpaid and apathetic teachers accept bribes for examination passes. More than this being a morally reprehensible state of affairs, it is so engirned so as to become ‘normal’. With this in mind it is unsurprising that corrupt practices are wide reaching, and surprising to those coming from countries where it is not so noticable.
Also most of the workforce are still employed in subsistence farming or service jobs. A charity school may indeed take those children from the fields where they are tending the family cattle. If they do not do it, then who does? School learning and teachers are admired and respected in Cambodian culture, however being non-productive, it can be seen as a luxury to many Cambodians. For others, it is an empty ritual, accepted as a kind of ‘club’ or ‘rites of passage’ where you dress in a uniform, you carry books and the trappings of ‘going to school’. However, when you get there very little is taught or learned. Those that can afford to be taught English in a school by a native speaker, will often open their own school where ‘trickle-down’ they teach others with lesser funds for learning.
There is a certain emptiness to the whole offering, the whole system, tokenism replaces substance, attendance and money buy a worthless piece of paper which in the absence of all else can still win you a clerk’s position. The question ‘does your child go to school’ can have quite different interpretations here. It can mean something more akin to the question ‘do you have the means [and therefore societal position] to send you children to school’ or ‘do you take part in the social convention [what children are ‘supposed’ to do] of attending school’. Very rarely are their more deeper questions such as ‘what are you learning there?’ or ‘what does you teacher see this subject or knowledge relevant for?’
The net result is that poor and middle classes are equally deprived of learning, the only difference being whether they ‘go’ and ‘congregate’ with others who have dressed up and come together in the building. Operationally this is tantamount to banishing them to perpetual pre-enlightenment ‘dark ages’, where superstitions and folktales and beliefs will persist over reason. When they come of age and finish school, it is to this same, self environment to which they must return. Those that tended cattle return to tend those same cattle [although a little older], although now with rudimentary knowledge of maths and English, which the cattle can not use anymore than their owners can. Or they return to the family business, itself rocked in the face of global changes, and the influx of outsiders, ideas, investments and threats to Khmer conservatism. in such a climate it is perhaps more relevant to learn of superstitions and rumours, and myths and held beliefs, certainly of this is the collateral which drives the social reality of adulthood.
What social structures Cambodians rescued from the rebooting of their culture after ‘year zero’ , one of the most radical revolutions in modern history, is a fragmentary assemblage of French bourgeois attitudes and snobbery, communism, raw free market cut-throat economics, survivalism and buddhist ritual. These influences sit uncomfortably together, and often result in conflictual decision and seemingly irrational decision making. Gaffer Peang-Meth a Cambodian academic has spoken about the schisms in the Khmer psyche which arise not only from post Khmer Rouge trauma, but goes much deeper into its socio-cultural past where the incompatibilities of Brahmanism – which is actively fiercely warlike in defence of , and loyalty towards the King who is seen as a god – and Buddhism, which is passive, non-violent and aimed at community service.
As in the more developed nations which have also faced something of an educational crisis there is justifiable arguments regarding why we place formalised, school-based education on an elevated platform at all. Is it not better to learn practical skills than theory? Especially as the middle-class hollows out. This is an age-old debate which rears its ugly head again in the wake of deskilling, but it has never left the rural Cambodian parents mind,l when they need real help in keeping themselves and their families fed.
There is also the inevitable post-colonial cross-cultural card. There is a positive and negative side to the view that all that is western and coming from the so-called developed world is good, right and fit for other places. The history of education in any country, after all, is also the history of nation building, cultural identity, and transmission of cultural values – hand on the heart whilst looking at flags, singing national anthems etc. – as well as all the more subtle influences and ‘ways of seeing’. To teach children in a language that their parents may barely speak, if at all, takes them out of any home based education quality control process. even in the schools, the business owners have often never been to school at all, let alone speak English and able to do maths beyond grade 2. Even though, again, culturally it may be the norm that you divest all authority regarding learning to the teacher.
Certainly getting to grips with the fundamental human problems that people face, all those everyday, primal issues low down in the Maslow heirarchy. finding water, shelter, food all on a sustainable level are prima facie ‘good’ things, for others, necessary things to tackle, source, think about, design for, and understand. Under the headline of ‘Students changing the lives of the world’s poor’ and a mission of “To treat the poor as customers, not as charity recipients,” Standford’s design school runs a course where students are posed with ‘real world’ problems where they come up with affordable solutions to the everyday problems of basic needs and poverty. I think simply by reading this remit we can get a feel of how disassociated such ventures are. In an age of increased ‘social consciousness’, others follow in the wake including individuals who aim to attract crowdfunding to get loaded up with innoculations and spend 10 days rapid prototyping towards ‘making a difference’ and at the same time meet the requirements of Australian university engineering courses that are accredited by outside bodies. Perhaps it is not a far cry from ‘The race to rescue Cambodian children from orphanages exploiting them for profit‘ – While no one is doubting the sincerity in the intentions, but in their efforts those from the more advanced economies are “often propping up Asian orphanages that separate children from families.” That is, unbeknown to them, they are the cause rather than the solution of the problem. In a neoliberal consumer age, everything is up for grabs to the highest bidder.
Whether they are using technology and the ‘image, representation or concept of the poor ‘ as means to forward their own ends and ambitions, or are they truly being altruistic and socially aware? Do they see how our only competitive advantage over and above our extreme energy use and exuberant standards of living, is our scientific and technical knowledge?
If you follow genuine educational innovators, such as Maria Montessori, Alexander Sutherland Neill, John Dewey, Ivan Illich, John Holt and perhaps the most influential thinker about education in the late twentieth century, Paulo Freire, you begin to realise that there are no quick fixes for education in its aim of bringing about authentic positive societal change. These educationalists saw change as a slow nuanced, inexact human process, quite difficult to tie down scientifically, but best handled democratically and with an open heart and mind. Even one of the most cited parents of the modern university system Cardinal John Newman, saw the ideal institution as a community of thinkers, engaging in intellectual pursuits not for any external purpose, but as an end in itself. He put forward the need for a broad, liberal education, which teaches students “to think and to reason and to compare and to discriminate and to analyse”the other major figure supporting this was Wilhelm von Humboldt who believed that education in general should enable students to become autonomous individuals and world citizens by developing their own reasoning powers in who along with an environment of academic freedoms. They were believers in a distinct place for intellectualism. I hold that these virtues are the stuff that provides us resilience and the ability to reinvent ourselves as and when our lives demand.
It is incredibly difficult to ‘prove’ over longitudinal studies, where a definition of ‘success’ would be difficult if not impossible, as the efficacy of any education is surely not only to be judged by exam results, but on the betterment in lifestyle, living conditions, health, career, etc. of the student. Simply everything else changing, economy, technology, cultural values, politics, etc., and the ability of that student to change and adapt through life, would have more impact than that picked up in a ‘safe learning environment’ or even in a computer. Thus the need to develop powers of the mind, emotion, and reason that will suit us over the course of life. These habits are probably worth learning early.
This ethical dilemma also glossed over the One Laptop per Child initiative where we can question whether the exercise is/was fundamentally about how western ingenuity and technology, can and will, improve the lot of the global poor, and even get them on board to improve the global economy. If you are reading this then you will likely think, as I do, that we have something to share with our less fortunate brothers and sisters. But was it not only that, but also a drive to get everyone connected and a potential shopper or a budding terrorist that can be logged, registered and tracked and duly bombed on demand more easily from the comfort of an arm chair somewhere in that same developed world? “25 million laptops later One Laptop Per Child doesn’t increase test scores.” “Error Message,” reads the headlines from Mashable and The Economist: “A disappointing return from an investment in computing.” In 2002 Nicholas Negroponte, the director of M.I.T’s elite Media lab provided 20 children in a small, remote Cambodian village with connected laptops; for their individual use at school, at home, and in the community. He added 20 more the following year. The Cambodian village was a petri dish, introduce the agent – the connected laptop, shake the test tube and sit back and watch everyone develop. It was claimed that the children and their families quickly innovated multiple uses for the machines and easily teached themselves to navigate the Internet. Negroponte’s message to those considering it as a gift that year? “Don’t hesitate. Don’t buy it because it is an inexpensive laptop,” he told CNN. “Buy it to join a movement to change the world.” In realistic terms a number of key issues have been raised regarding the uptake of the OLPC programme not least the undue focus upon the ‘success of the technology’ The machine over all the ingredients social, cultural, infrastructural, motivational that would make such deployments work:
The focus of One Laptop Per Child has been completely on the technology with the goal that a new technology will change how we educate children. This is like evaluating the quality of our education based on the type of glue that is used to bind textbooks or the images on the cover pages. There is a lack of focus on education and improved learning. People dismiss the importance of teachers suggesting that comptuers and self directed learning will be a suitable replacement. Teachers, be they your peers, parents, or trained individuals are a crucial part of feedback system of learning.
Arnold Pacey has written about the role of ideas and ideals in the creation of technology, about the global history of technology and about how the complex interaction of political, cultural, economic and scientific influences determine the course of technological practice. In The Culture of Technology (1983) he shares with us the story of the deployments of a much simpler and necessary technology into rural life in India. A communal water pump. During large scale droughts in the 1960s a scheme was initiated. Some 150,000 bore holes were made and water pumps deployed. Many failed within only three to four weeks. Only some of this was due to design and mechanical issues. The rest was social and managerial.
“A breakthrough only came when all aspects of the administration, maintenance and technical design were thought out in relation to one another. What at first held up a solution of the problem was a view that began and ended with the machine – a view which, in a similar context, has been referred to as tunnel vision in engineering.” (p.9-10)
Taking this as the basis for the design of our school we would spend as much time considering admin, maintenance, as well as curriculum and teaching apparatus and resources (our technology). It would also be socially aware without privileging any of the constituent social groups, administrators and managers, parents, teachers and students.
In a purely instrumental sense Ideasource school meant an exercise exploring whether modern methods and approaches, based upon research, bound to the best resources we could muster, could leverage an affordable curriculum taking the children through an entire 12 years of primary and secondary schooling.
The aim was to provide for the possibility that our students could sit exams, internally, in the school, or externally, in another school even in another country such as Singapore. These would most likely include the International General Certificate of Education (IGSCE), or for those wishing to attend university in the U.S., it could include the SAT exam.This meant creating a pathway to internationally recognised qualifications and educational compatibility at an international level. In order to do this we needed to make ourselves familiar with just what ‘educational compatibility’ would entail in terms of knowledge, mindset and skills, and just what ‘international level’ entailed. We then had also to consider the more immediate needs of the locale we were situated in, as well how this may change in terms of social, political, economic and technical futures. We also had a remit to listen to and discuss with parents and children what their educational and vocational aspirations were.
The economic and societal importance of such projects
Our work was important. According to some views millions of Cambodian unskilled laborers will be impacted after ASEAN integration comes into effect in 2015, essentially creating an Asian version of the European Union. And ASEAN is marked, like the European Union, by being an association of unequal partners when it comes to economic prosperity and performance. The drive nevertheless is to create a region which is the seventh-largest economic power in the world, the world’s third largest consumer market.
within ASEAN Singapore tops the table when it comes to competitiveness, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2014-2015 It is globally ranked at number 1 in the entire world. The five largest ASEAN economies: Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, have all been improving fast and feature in the top half of the field. But only Malaysia joins Singapore in the world top 20.
While the ASEAN collective as a whole will gain, there will be those that gain more than others. For instance without skills, Cambodian, Laotian and Burmese youth are likely to face difficulties finding careers and places in this new order. Jobs for them will be aimed at the unskilled, they will be low paid and likely entail high working hazard – not that different to the current state of affairs where 700,000 young women work in the factories of the globe in poor conditions.
Changing technology could also fundamentally disrupt the pattern of traditional economic path in developing countries. Automation particularly threatens low-skilled forms of work. U.S. President Barack Obama warned in early March 2016 that robots are going to begin taking over jobs that pay less than $20 an hour, placing 62% of American jobs at risk. Automation already threatens 69% of the jobs in India and 77% in China, according to a new World Bank report which indicates developing countries are most at risk for job automation. Researchers at Cornell University have recently developed algorithms that can learn by merely observing human behavior. Computers are even beginning to perform legal discovery, making medical diagnoses and even evaluating creative work such as music and screenplays. Computers are learning many of the same things that people do, except they never get tired or sick, never ask for a raise and when too old to function effectively, their hardware can be replaced and updated and upgraded.
Asean integration will allow skilled workers in member countries to work legally in other member states. But these workers will be engineers, architects, doctors, lawyers and accountants – they will be educated professionals. They will diffuse from neighbouring ASEAN countries, those with more equitable, higher quality, higher performing education systems such as Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, to perform their jobs across ASEAN where they are most needed.
Singapore’s public education system is rated as one of the best in the world. Singapore and interestingly, Vietnam, far outrank the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
The PISA scores, as they are known, measure how a half-million students from randomly selected schools answered written and multiple-choice questions in a two-hour test. Mathematics is the primary focus, but students were also evaluated on reading, science and problem-solving.
Global education reform
Idea Source, while focused upon the international exams, was not in the business of simply ‘teaching to the test‘ . For starters, we recognised that public education is under reform everywhere in the world, even in the so-called developed countries due to these developments in technology and design-led and informed business opportunity.
Most enlightened systems are shifting to engender a style of learning which reflects the transformative changes happening in the wider world of work, industry and business which have long been treated as separate from schooling, training and education. But to be more entrepreneurial, more innovative and inventive, to be more design led and orientated has been pressured by increasing globalisation and advancing, ever cheaper technology, digital networks and automation. What this means is that there is a qualitatively different notion of what constitutes ‘being smart’ today than 20 years ago.
This is no matter where you live. The central economic competitiveness issue for the Obama administration was to create an aligned, 21st century public education system that prepares students, workers and citizens to participate and compete in the global skills race. The options are to Program or be programmed as Douglas Rushkoff told us. Do we direct technology, or do we let ourselves be directed by it and those who master and control it? Do we manage and lead or are we to be led and managed?
Like. Share. Comment. Subscribe. Embed. Upload. Check in. The commands of the modern online world relentlessly prompt participation and encourage collaboration, connecting people in ways not possible even five years ago. Perpetual connectedness gives us endless opportunities to be part of the give-and-take of networking. The computerization of the economy and everyday life and practices has transformed the division of labour between humans and machines, shifting many people into work that is hidden, poorly compensated, or accepted as part of being a “user” of digital technology. Recognizing patterns is one thing, understanding meaning is quite another, making patterns, again, something else.
Today there are arguments about the importance of creativity being able to be built on the foundations of culture that already exists, a pathway open a shared, free commons is actively promoted and created. This is an argument that the natural way humans interact with content is to remix it, as we are used to doing with words and language. Social learning, creating workgroups and communities of practice, developing networks, bringing together teams of people to realise projects, this is also the future of how things can and will be done as will be projects which have a social consciousness, a compassionate and caring attitude which is concordant with the Cambodian and Buddhist way of living anyway.
Education is a complex system
Educational development, however, is a complex issue, especially so when it is developed with the ultimate objective of contributing to the overall economic development of a country.
Complex issues arise when it aims to create the most amount of possible career choices for the largest recipients of learning. Education, is like the world at large, complex, and affected by exigencies and unforeseen circumstances. The best we can do regarding the orientation of the education, is to respond as intelligently as possible to what is happening, right now, whilst keeping an eye on what could happen in the future, based upon history and current trends.
In short what most of we parents learned when we were at school, even the reasons why we learned it, and even the manner in which we learned it, will fail children who must now participate in and know how to navigate in this fluid new world of technology and commerce.
Much of what we learned and how we learned it will not equip our kids in Sihanoukville or come to that, New York, for what they need to know in the future. Yes, they need to be literate in language and numerically astute, but they also need to be digitally literate, scientifically literate, financially literate, and creatively literate. This is whether they remain in Cambodia or choose or they possess the option to move on to elsewhere as they grow. For instance in order to make a new service or provide a quality service how much of the larger world of their customers do they need to be able to relate to beyond being simply polite?
A major challenge in this particular operating environment for a school is that education and the process of educating is extremely conservative and old fashioned. It harks back to what most westerners from their parents time. The school system is somewhat based upon the outdated colonial system, itself based upon an outmoded version of the mother country’s education system. Not only is it beset with dated teaching practices and philosophies, and to make matters worse, it is grossly inefficient and corrupt. Teacher training is very poor, and typical salaries for teacher make it not only unattractive as a career, but untenable financially. It typically draws young women who must stay in their family homes.
At the time of instituting Idea Source there were already many ‘international schools’ in Cambodia [count them on the way in or out of Phnom Penh on the main road). However if you lifted the bonnet on these classrooms you would see that the only truly ‘international’ element was likely limited to the use of photocopied English language instruction books, and very occasionally, a teacher with a ‘teaching english as a foreign language’ qualification [i.e.potentially a month’s course in Chiang Mai], or a Filipino teacher not licensed to teach in their own country. This does not prevent the moniker ‘international’ being used very liberally, and even sanctioned by the loose licensing offered [at a price] by the government departments.
‘Proper’ international schools can chiefly be identified by offering curricula which carries some form of international accreditation from organisations such as International baccalaureate or Council of International Schools or the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. In order to offer these programmes the schools, the management and teaching staff and processes are rigorously assessed to ensure the school is continually improving and keeping in par with the best international education standards commensurate with good schools in the developed nations.
However, joining such programmes requires significant parent investment which ultimately drives up student fees to levels to levels unaffordable for many people. The two proper international schools of note in Cambodia, both based in the capital Phnom Pehn, are the International school of Phnom Pehn (ISPP) and The School at Northbridge (NISC). Fees and other costs can be anywhere up to $20000 a year per child and so it is unsurprising that the origin of these schools lay with foreign staff who were NGO and Embassy recipients of foreign salary packages, often including a stipend for their children’s schooling.
This is not the case for many expats who for a variety of reasons relocate to Cambodia with the children, and who may operate local businesses say in the tourism and hospitality industry, or may have children with local partners, they may even be retired persons, or may even be local residents who understand the value of educating their children with a more global perspective. These groups are price sensitive, but keen to send their children to somewhere that they trust that they are not only learning, but moreover learning worthwhile things preparing them for the challenges lying ahead.
Growth rather than fixed mindsets in children
Enlightened parents will value not only what their children learn, but also the manner in which they learn. Engendering keen, active, inquisitive minds – growth mindsets – ensures the development of good learning habits that prepare young people for lifelong learning and the ability to continuously pick up new information and skills. It will make them strong and deliberate decision makers in the course of their lives.
Technology and the ability to learn almost anything through Khan academy and Youtube, the internet, smart phones, pads, have only underscored the need for persistent and positive learning attitudes. Learning to learn now trumps any command and memorisation of subject knowledge. The motivations and ability to find things out for yourself, when and where you need it – learning to learn – how to find and apply knowledge, how to enjoy and encourage committing to projects in the real world about us, working in small group contexts, is the nature of living today and most likely tomorrow. A non-exhaustive list of the values we held would include:
- The meaning of a communication is the response you get.
- The map is not the territory.
- Language is a secondary representation of experience.
- Mind and body are parts of the same cybernetic system and affect each other.
- The law of requisite variety (also known as the first law of cybernetics – cybernetics is the science of systems and controls in animals, including humans, and machines) states that in any cybernetic system the element or person in the system with the widest range of behaviours or variability of choice will control the system.
- Behaviour is geared towards adaptation.
- Present behaviour represents the very best choice available to a person.
- ‘Possible in the world’ or ‘possible for me’ is only a matter of how.
- It is useful to make a distinction between behaviour and self. A person is not their behaviour.
- There is no such thing as failure; there is only feedback.
- Ecology within a system or person is a prerequisite for elegant and lasting change. This considers the consequences, results or impact of any change that occurs on the wider system in multiple contexts.
Generally, modern teaching has the following presuppositions
- Listening is more important than talking
- What motivates people must be understood
- Everyone is capable of achieving more
- A person’s past is no indication of their future
- People’s beliefs about what is possible for themselves are their only limits
- A teacher must always provide full support
- Teachers don’t provide the answers
- Teaching does not include criticising or scolding people
- All teaching must be is completely natural
- Some people’s needs cannot be met by teaching, and good teachers recognize students with these needs.
The two imperatives of the Idea Source project – quality and cost
So the two imperatives beyond working on provision of a style of teaching which promotes ‘persistent and positive learn attitudes’ was to get parents and community involved with its promotion. The other aspect was working on a model of delivery which was affordable to many more people than those who were fortunate enough to be drawing western salaries. The question remained: How could we deliver an education for $270 a month which was compatible with the $1200+ a month asked by the accredited international schools?
One way was to use research – incorporate the latest thinking on what works and what doesn’t. Second we need to understand and leverage technology to our aid and careful judicious selection from the infinitude of quality internet resources and apps. Last but not least, by having a permissive student and staff centered management style where the teaching and learning draws all the attention and focus. Teaching and learning is a human and natural venture, not just something that happens in schools, although that is where focus and study skills can be sharpened. All this takes time, a bit of money and patience in trying and getting it right. Given the considerable successes in language and maths learning the outlook for the school after 3 years is good. The kids are learning.
At the time of writing (July, 2016 one year after the British academic founder and director of curriculum left) Ideasource appears to be still operating. However,having no contact with the school and its present overseers, we cannot currently endorse the school with respect to the quality of the teaching, teachers, policies, admin staff, curriculum, management and governance under which it now operates (for further information see here).
As such this report should be read as a historical account of practices between 2011-2015.
Its a school let’s start with a bunch of questions
Our original project in instituting Idea Source School began with questions. What is the state of education in cambodia today, what is the aspirations of our students, how can we provide international quality at an affordable price, which is the best way to integrate the opportunities presented by technology and the world about us to educate, research and explore?
Idea Source raised fundamental questions about the universal necessity and veracity of different forms of schooling. Which formats and techniques of schooling have come to stand for the educational experience today both in the western the so-called modern and developed economies such as the U.S., Europe, and Australia/N.Z. – but what is the experience in economies which are very much still industrialising like Cambodia? What does ‘worldview’ mean to, and be of value to, parents and children raised here? How does a ‘global perspective’ regarding education matter to those being raised in Cambodia?
This was the intellectual challenge to the project, and there were many others not least the financial challenge [Idea Source was privately funded not a concept piece courtesy of the coffers of the European Union, US Aid, the World Bank or Microsoft Corporation, education was viewed as a $30 a month cost], and cultural challenge [to the accepted manner of what passes for education in Cambodia]. There was also a political challenge. People remember were used to poor schooling in Cambodia, not only used to it, it was in fact ‘normal’, that is totally accepted. To do things ‘right’or ‘differently’ – to employ standards, to implement new techniques such as valuing student input instead of disciplining them threatened the status quo, and was seen as a threat by some. Conservative feelings in Cambodia is most probably not simply based upon nationalistic such as a ‘return to core values’ or even nostalgia for ‘golden ages’, rather it is hewn from a very real and tangible fear of societal breakdown and genocide, and a distrust for any sort of questioning.
In setting up Idea Source we were not out to improve the education of the poor. That is provide the panacea of sending the kids to read and write English and to count without any regard of what they will do with these skills (work as a motorbike taxi driver, a factory or in the hospitality or even in the sex industry) but to create a functioning alternative, using technology and advanced proven teaching techniques and philosophies more commensurate to the prohibitively expensive international education. Others have made it their remit to improve the lot of poor people through the unquestioned virtue of learning English language.
All education systems are modern, but have legacies
In the developed nations (U.S., Europe, Australia/N.Z.) the debate regarding schooling centers around whether an industrial model of educating children and young adults is the right approach for today’s society and economy which is post-industrial and based largely upon services rather than manufacturing. This true today even in cambodia and other developing economies. It is worth remembering that the school is a relatively modern invention with its underlying public model beginning with the onset of the industrial revolution in the 19th century and the need to educate people coming to towns and cities ‘raw’ from the countryside.
The aim was always to integrate them in a productive manner into the more regulated and controlled environment of the metropolitan life and the factory. Rural people were used to living and working in conjunction with the cycles of nature. They rose and went to sleep by the sun and the manner and intensity of their work were often fashioned by the seasons. This was contrasted by the city factory workers, who, under artificial light sources, worked by, and around, the clock and had to abide by the rules and demands, some of them written, provided by bosses, upline managers, or indirectly by customers and shareholders.
That children attend school during working hours (say 9am to 5pm), and they moved forward in batches (through the yearly grade or primary levels) towards a finished product (a graduated student), how the teacher is the ‘boss’ or ‘supervisor’of the class, how the children sit in lines, is a striking commentary on how school prepares youngsters for the office, factory or workshop. Education systems were shaped by, and also shaped how society functioned and how the day reformed in terms of time. This prevails even in the developed economies which still maintain something of these modes and values, and the questions that arise is regarding their relevancy to today’s information and service based economy, and the kinds of work place flexibility, individual and group working and project based work, and creativity, which typifies the modern work experience. A modern response would emphasise the 21st century learning skills which have been cited by industry leaders, and education experts.
This debate in the developing world regarding the ‘formatting’ of students for an industrial workplace, remains the same, but has additional, even more alarming concerns. When the nation in question has a colonial history, such as Cambodia [French] and Lesotho [British], they often maintain to varying degrees and proficiencies a legacy education system largely based upon their colonial heritage. The great public education systems of the west are a major part of a broader process of social reproduction: schooling activities correspond to existing echelons of social hierarchy and opportunity, preparing students for positions within that hierarchy. Colonial education followed suit, those aligning with the values of the mother culture were those afforded status and position within the colonial administration. Schooling does not lead to opportunity in the sense that it creates opportunity; it simply prepares students to exist (or not exist) within the opportunity structure that the government and economy create. Here it was the same under-girding drive to civilize the noble savages of the rural countryside, making them more poised to serve the empire and interests of imperialism and imperialist capitalism. It was to make also make them French or British, all be it to also recognise their place in the pecking order. It is noticeable even with respect to bourgeois values and concerns or just plain snobbery.
These colonial systems however, come to be further plagued by gross inefficiencies, corruption, lack of financing and largely, apathy on behalf of disempowered and poorly paid administrators and teachers who feel neglected and atomized in their work and relationship with their students. what students were learning when they were taken from their fields and cattle raising came under question from parents who realised that sons and daughters returned after schooling to the mire, with only some lucky individuals managing to leave the farm.
You can teach people to be smart, intelligent, active and decisive or stupid, ignorant, and passive
As stated earlier an enduring and endemic attitude towards education in Cambodia made it little more than a posturing game played by all involved, with students ‘acting’ as students, teachers ‘pretending’ to teach, buildings that ‘look like’ schools and universities, exams which sought to ‘challenge’ students, and invigilators who provided answers and cheat sheets for a fee. Exams here test not what students know, nor what they could do, what we consider the very basis of tests and exams, but rather tests their ingenuity, their conformity, complicity or even ability to pay for results, or for attendances missed, or for cheat sheets during exams. The result of such inauthenticity is a redundant education experience which doesn’t really develop, but moreover, normalises corrupt practices, makes them not only usual and accepted, but the only way the real way, business is – and worse still, should be – conducted in everyday life.
This is the way it is done in Cambodia. It becomes the Cambodian way, and, to a great extent, an ersatz part of the cultural heritage. Only recently, and no doubt under foreign duress, the government have cracked down on cheating. But this crack down has only highlighted the gross inefficiencies in the entire Cambodian education system in its efforts to do its job. the net result is that if you come with an alternative, one which stresses authenticity, you run the risk of being rejected, or even a threat.
This is where you begin with local children and their parents when they come to your new school.
As can be imagined this quite different attitude than that of ex-pat parents. Their perspective and expectations can vary considerably. Those at the top end would include those working for international companies and NGOs, and who by virtue of their own work, value a ‘transferable’ quality international education. Much of the values they have is with respect to what is exhaustively detailed in the Good Schools Guide above. These parents are likely derive income pegged to international salary levels, and may even have additional benefits such as financed education for their children as part of their overall package. Most of these parents will be located in the capital city where there are a number of high-end options to choose from [typical yearly fees are in the region of $15 – 20000 +]. These schools have built sustainable businesses from this clientele and many of the schools were started by groups of such parents.
The product of these schools and others like them internationally is an accredited IB curriculum aimed at safeguarding or at least bench marking the quality of the education against other international school of their like worldwide. For the parents this translates into the practicalities of being posted elsewhere, such as Timbuktu, and facing there the problem of their children’s schooling. However, they should be able to slot into the same groove attending another IB curriculum school in that country [i.e. Timbuktu International School].
Additionally, given that those parents will have likely been educated to at least university level in their home country (Europe, US, AUS/NZ) they will likely wish this for their children. Parents can at least expect that their children will have been educated to a degree commensurate with any good quality western education back home. They will be able to read and write, be numerate and converse about general abstract ideas such as politics and morals and ethics, and know something of the world and how it works. The IB course is recognised and accepted by most western universities for entry and indeed is sometimes taken as an option in places like the UK where it has even replaced the IGSCE.
But not everybody is at this level or require the same universality or transferability. Other ex-pat parents fall loosely into other categories and include western parents who may be living off of state or private pensions or independent wealth and investments, western parents in the hospitality business (restaurants, hotels and bars), and parents coming from places such as eastern Europe and the former Soviet block countries. Included here is local parents coming from the emerging middle-classes or have relatives overseas who realise that domestic state education does not provide a real solution. There are also those parents that even see the ostensive education of their children at more expensive schools a useful act of conspicuous consumption, basically like the big SUV car or mansion, as a means to showcase wealth and stature.
While each of these groups maintain their own distinctive differences in terms of values for, and motivations towards, education, in short what they want to realise is that their children grow and learn and develop. But even here this can mean many things. For the Cambodian it can mean that they comply and adhere to the existing power structures which have hardly ever been meritorious, that is, based upon ability rather than brute wealth and power. This is unshakably a conservative and patriarchal society, where men and women have very distinctive places and roles, as do those of wealth and ‘linage’to the ruling elites and those who do not.
Debate and criticism and other key ideas related to democracy come into question in many countries round the world [including of course, it should be said, in the so-called ‘western democrasies’]. The idea that one can be ‘individual’, form and express ‘one’s own opinions’ and be able to ask questions regarding the status quo are pivotal ideas which have given rise to any notion of progress in history. But on some places more than others, and at other period of history more than others. The famous educational philosopher John Dewey argued that democracy is a way of life and an experience built on faith in human nature, faith in human beings, and faith in working with others. “The task of democracy”, Dewey concludes, “is forever that of creation of a freer and more humane experience in which all share and to which all contribute.” Dewey argued for the democratic promise of education which holds the view that schools integrate youth into adult roles required by society. Schools give young people a chance to openly compete for existing positions and privileges, thereby equalizing inequality; and schools promote psychological and moral development. The integrative, egalitarian, and developmental roles schools play in society match the needs and context of democratic institutions. The promise of school in this case is that schooling should and will prepare students to participate in a democratic society, and that by extension it serves democratic purposes.
Such admirable notions do not hold sway in some countries, and school business owners, as well as parents and even students can feel uncomfortable if you challenge these ingrained and accepted ways of being. They are hardly democratic, on the contrary they tend towards social reproduction, typically of old power relations such as the aristocracy or even the snobbery and manners of the colonial masters.
Many if not most of these latter groups of parents would also find the fees for IB accredited schools untenable. In some cases school is viewed as a place basically where they can deposit their children while they go about the day-to-day running of their business. In some cases their own inability, or confidence, or drive, or interest contributing to their own children’s education is lacking. Simply by sending them to school they feel content that they are making a positive contribution to their development and well-being and quite happy to trust that the management and teaching staff, and the curriculum – and of course their children – are each doing their job and fulfilling their parental responsibilities. This is what they would do back home isn’t it? But in many cases those that they entrust with this are not in anyway qualified to either do the job or make any better contribution than the parents themselves even lacking confidence, drive etc. In other cases where parents do aspire to the kind of transfer ability, universality and quality of an international school experience such as that provided by an IB accredited institutions, with some even having designs to send their children overseas to complete their education, they will have great difficulties to do this.
Many international schools in Cambodia experience great problems going beyond a grade 2 level education, let alone provide the entire end-to-end 12 years of schooling (many local based teaching assistants have difficulties completing a grade 2 maths test in English even though they claim to possess bachelor degrees from local universities in english Language!). .
It is misleading to call anything backward
Countries like Cambodia which can hardly be described as ‘post-industrial’. But it is also misleading or false to call these countries ‘behind’or ‘backward’. In Cambodia, like in other developing nations in the 21st century there is a sometimes uneasy mish-mash of the modern (i.e. designer coffee shops and the latest smart phones) with the ancient (agrarian life in the provinces). In reality this is also true for attitudes, beliefs and opinions, they vacillate from utter conservatism to unquestioned acceptance and adoption of new ideas drawn from the internet and global television. Can modern education approaches come to take their place like the ubiquitous mobile phone has within society? Schooling cannot control the number or kind of jobs available in an economy. Schools will largely reproduce the existing conditions of the economy, not serve as compensation for the economy’s faults.Schools don’t necessarily make a better society; they simply get people ready for the society that exists.
To begin to answer this question one has to review and reflect on several other key ideas. The attempt here was to get back to basics and construct an approach which went from the bottom up. Namely face the real problems then construct a curriculum, all be it one made of off-the-shelf parts, which could deliver an international level education at a price point which people could afford.
The main questions
What is so important to learn if you are a student in the countryside or the city? What would be advantageous to know or be able to do in Lesotho, or Cambodia or San Francisco or Vladivostok? What is important to learn if you are an ex-pat child of parents from the European Union, Australia, or America? And is this, should this, be different to those who are native and have status as middle-class, or upper-class or lower-class however these terms and distinctions are used and applied locally?
How these categories and distinctions are applied or do apply is important as it will likely define opportunities and aspirations for life beyond school, and thus should feature in some reasonable way in what is being taught. How much should these children be treated as ‘global citizens’ or citizens of a particular locale, region, or continent? What allowances will there be to participate and contribute in the future, their future? To what extent is knowledge and learning universal and to what extent is it localised and culturally specific? Those of us which struggle globally for environmental or social justice, or even stand-up for justice for indigenous peoples, too often feel that getting every child into school is a solution to the problems we face.
As already posited, maybe such an egalitarian view is not appreciated in this place, in fact it may be even frowned upon, as any notion taken for granted in more ‘democratic’ societies. Thus so many Samaritan projects, funded by foreign companies, the likes of the Asian Development Bank or the World Bank, or even by well meaning local ex-pats throwing money in a hat at the end of a boozy poker run are aimed at improving the lot of the local poor, only to fail due to lack of opportunities for anyone who does succeed in becoming educated. There has been something of the backlash of philanthropy lately.
Idea Source aimed to shatter the myth that we cannot learn from developing countries and that the western model of education is the best. It should also be viewed by decision makers in the developing world who think that everything ‘foreign’ is better. Before we even began the school we had to consider difficult reflexive questions and open vital lines of inquiry concerning the politics of cultural and developmental relations and the global implications of the capitalist-modernization project including the related education/schooling model (Education For All) being un-critically imported to these regions.
A few terms and the ideas lying behind them
However it has not prevented us from using recent ideas which have gathered momentum in alternatives to the factory-based model of education in the west. Deeper learning is associated with a growing movement in education that places special emphasis on the ability to apply knowledge to real-world circumstances and to solve novel problems. Other approaches and ideas include blended learning, gamification, and competency-based approaches. Following the UK’s Royal Academy of Art’s research in to area-based curricula it builds on a smart curriculum blueprint which totally roots to the local, and only then, the national, the regional, and the global. As such, learning is not based on any ‘western’ educational philosophy or content structure, or local or national ‘tradition’, but in the lived reality of the Cambodia of today, how it relates to a hyper-connected world of trade, arts and communications.
To strike the right balance between the interests, aptitudes and aspirations of the individual student, enabling them to serve the future needs, requirements and opportunities arising from change, culture, communities, nation, region and world. In short to be student centered, not teacher centered as in the past, or institution centered as much of even western education still is. Learning is in the world. In our interactions with and in the world. In the social world, in the economic world of business practice, in the world of making, producing and designing. Consumption should not be based upon vulgar displays but rather upon developing inspiration, tuning into consumer needs and requirements and thinking through how to make improvements beneficial for our own benefits, that of our community and families and the wider world to which we all belong.
The aim of the school is to provide a solid foundation of relevant skills, mastery and knowledge enabling students to understand and participate in a meaningful way in their changing worlds. While the internet has provided unparalleled access to knowledge and educational resources, the challenge is how to harness this so as to make it relevant for preparing the child’s future – one which will certainly be marked by events such as the economic integration of ASEAN in 2015. Simply giving a child a computer and internet access cannot and will not guarantee learning. By using advanced curriculum based on the latest blended learning approaches and pedagogy we work closely with individual students to identify and achieve the most positive learning outcomes.
At the time of the projects end in July 2015 – many of the aims and objectives of the project had reached fruition. Whereas no scientifically grounded study, or even the pretense of such a thing took place to verify the positive outcomes of the application of the approaches one could not mistake qualitatively that significant change had taken place. While it would be indeed pretentious to say the least that the results could in fact be measured, as the first question would focus surely upon which benchmarks were used and which particular tools were used. It is pointless to say that there ‘grade averages’ improved over the short duration. Rather I have included in this website a photo gallery and some examples of the curriculum and other materials and accounts which will give the reader some feel for what happened when you got the children learning by doing, using and integrating technology, places and geography, local environments and people, bringing cutting edge technology, and ultimately engaging them to develop a voice by really listening to them, exploring and interrogating and critiquing their work, and engaging in authentic discussion (not treating them as little cute adults) with them.
Dr. D. W. Nicoll Sihanoukville – Jan. 2013