The C’mon Academy

As it happens, just as the recent magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami hit the northeast coast of Japan, I was finishing Confucius Lives Next Door, T.R. Reid’s account of social harmony, clean schools, and no crime while living in Japan and traveling to the rest of east Asia. He finds that the Japanese characteristics of respect and group unity spring directly from the teachings of Confucius, the Chinese sage whose teachings made him famous in his lifetime. One of his sayings was, essentially, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

In Japan, the schools make the kids clean the classroom, and at mealtime, the kids serve lunch and clean up. This obviously makes them more aware of the labor that goes into those tasks. But they also learn shame if the job is not done well or if their school or group is not thought to be doing its best.

The kids get lots of homework and the parents follow up – otherwise they, too, feel shame. As a result, Japanese society has remarkable unity and order.

One of the Confucian ideals that struck me is the university exam, which is open to all (Confucianism, like our own traditions, is egalitarian). The kids are expected to study hard – but their success or failure reflects on them, not on their teacher. Virtually all households that can afford it send their kids to after-school study centers, adding almost another full school day to the schedule.

Maybe we should adopt some of these strategies. Maybe if we as a society supported education as a goal, we would not be so cross at our teachers and politicians because we are falling behind. As a matter of fact, last week on a cable business channel, I saw this thesis rather surprisingly advocated by Mike Milken, the junk bond innovator who now runs a respected and impartial education foundation. Milken quite boldly stated that we have lost our way in our love of luxury homes and cars, buying too much house and too many horsepower, but not investing in our kids. He actually contrasts the house buying of Americans with the tutorial-buying of Asians.

And there may be an innovation that can help, at least partly. That comes from a man named Sal Khan, who was temporarily a stay-at-home dad (albeit one with a raft of degrees from MIT and Harvard and a background in software development) who decided to make a math tutorial for his cousins. His Khan Academy has by now posted over 2,100 10-minute tutorials on mathematics (from simple addition through differential equations), economics, and history. I learned about Khan when my engineering student son sent me a link to his tutorial on linear algebra, saying, "This guy saved my butt."

The tutorials themselves are quite simple: a disembodied voice and a light pen go through the mathematical examples using a tone of voice that somehow both conveys intelligence and a certain sympathy with the student’s journey of understanding. No frills, no ads, no selling. If you have ever wanted to understand your own last semester of math just a little bit better, I suggest you invest 10 minutes in a test drive. It also has student and "coach" sign ups to see how you or your group are doing on self-paced exams.

It turns out these tutorials have been used in remote Africa as substitutes for high school teachers, and the Gates Foundation has recognized Khan as an educational innovator. Which brings me back to the Confucian principles that have helped the Japanese remake their country time after tragic time.

Maybe we can encourage our kids to study on their off time, using Khan or other innovators. Maybe we can reduce texting time and increase testing time. Maybe we can acknowledge that we as parents have more responsibility to the future of the kids than the teachers do. Maybe if we started to value real accomplishments in the student we would feel more real pride in them.

Maybe if we don’t change our ways we will feel an economic tsunami come washing over us. And maybe then we will feel shame.

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