Lessons From the Near East: How America Can Learn From Educators on the Other Side of the World

Employers reported that the largest skill gap is in soft skills, such as language, communication, problem solving and interpersonal skills. The NESA conference explored the rich global spectrum of the student experience with these questions.
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Two weeks ago I spoke in Bangkok at the Near East South Asia Council of Overseas Schools (NESA) Conference. Educators and school leaders from around the world attended, ranging from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Israel, Nepal, Greece, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand and Bangladesh to name a few.Some of the teachers were originally from countries in Asia like the Philippines, but have relocated to places like Dubai for better job opportunities in order to support themselves and their families back home.

This single conference housed a tremendous amount of economic, educational, and situational diversity. Some schools struggle with limited resources to bring their students a world-class education in places like Bangladesh and Pakistan and the provinces of the Philippines, where even a private school education is in competition for resources. Conversely, educators in oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia are challenged to inspire their privileged students to see their unique gifts and talents, not just those bestowed on them from their parents, royalty, or any other outside force.

Graduate unemployment rates in the Middle East and North Africa region are as high as 30 percent in some countries. Much of the blame goes to a widening skill gap between new grads and the demands of the new job market, with one study finding 65-80 percent of employers believe that graduates are not work ready. Though new grads in the East and the West face different obstacles, similarly to prospective employers in the United States, employers in the MENA region reported that the largest skill gap is in soft skills, such as language, communication, problem solving and interpersonal skills.

The NESA conference explored the rich global spectrum of the student experience with these questions:

What is the role of technology in the classroom, media and interconnected world? In her session, Dr. Heidi Hayes Jacobs addressed how educators can harness technology to more effectively help students, while exploring their own edge of discomfort. Using a class web page, educators can create a shared visual space and a shared virtual space. Allowing students the opportunity to learn with these fluid on-ramps engages their ability to self-direct, create, and use their out-of-class time to effectively prepare for working in a team and at their own pace when in class.

Using the website TodaysMeet, a Twitter-inspired website that allows for 140 character exchanges in a private room, Dr. Jacobs showed how educators can integrate technology in the classroom for enhanced classroom discussion. When we consider how digitally literate our students need to be, Dr. Jacobs urged that educators set a high bar for digital literacy and collaboration through social networks, app-created or selected conduits, and student web pages to express their own learning and aspirations.

Media, which mediates experience, is a great way to foster receptive capabilities and generative capabilities through assignments like recognizing bias in imagery, text and audio. Students can write, perform skits, use video, create films and analyze TV and movies while applying the knowledge they bring outside of class into the class. Harnessing these technological resources -- digital, media, global -- brings the world to students in ways that will ignite the best within them -- their imagination and capacity to learn, discover and grow.

How do we balance the emphasis on tests and grades with the simplicity and judgment that we know students need to value themselves, take risks in the world and grow to fulfill their potential? Dr. Kathy Collins, a reading expert with Teacher's College, asked if we've gone too far with technology, tests and grades. She asked what we are risking with the simple things in life like allowing a student to fail and being there as a parent without intervening and rescuing. What are the pros and cons of the way we've begun to experience modern learning? How many students feel safe, inspired, capable? How many students feel defeated, depleted, unseen and misunderstood? How can we be more real with students we teach so that they can be real with themselves -- as humans with strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures? How can we as teachers be more real with students and their parents who may be well intentioned, but misguided in micro-managing the learning and lessons of their child's life?

How can we promote, at a time of global aging and high youth unemployment rate in many parts of the world, the habits of mind that graduates need to navigate any situation? Karen Boyes a leading Australasian speaker from New Zealand asked the attendees to reflect on whether they and their students are living their lives below the line in blame, excuses, and denial, or if they are able to consistently be above the line in ownership, accountability, and responsibility. Faculty members role model these choices for students. Boyes says, empower students, but never work harder than your students. For students and graduates to be self-directed and self-motivated, faculty need to have high expectations and foster an environment that allows for experience, mistakes, deep learning, and other habits of mind.

How can we use technology to connect versus disconnect?
Dr. Alec Couros, Professor of Educational Technology and Media at the Faculty of Education, University of Regina, Canada, shared his passion for the capacity of technology to connect us to each other through the power of our own hearts. He shared how technology advanced his capacity for compassion and understanding from maintaining his father's Facebook page after dealing with his death, to watching his nine-year-old daughter instantly answer the question about which way bananas grow on trees -- up or down? For anyone skeptical about technology and the chance to make us callous, Dr. Couros showed the wide and deep ways in which we can better come to know ourselves, honor those we love and be inspired by people we've never met through our online interactions.

How can teaching for creativity, risk, and innovation prepare students for success in and out of the class?
In my sessions on promoting creativity, risk and imagination, I hope that educators learned to put students in as many different situations as possible, connect learning in school to many practical and professional situations they anticipate or actually experience, and develop a capacity for healthy risk-taking and initiative which will serve them through all uncertainty in their lives outside of school.

It was an absolute pleasure to work with educators from around the world, to understand what is similar to our issues in the United States, as well as what is different and how we can benefit from connecting with teachers from halfway around the world. That global perspective will only improve what we do here and to help us understand that despite distance, language and cultural barriers, we still have much more in common with each other than not, as we collaborate to bring the best opportunities to teachers and students anywhere in the world.

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