I recently heard that a recent survey of students in China found a common complaint that the teachers did not teach students to “think” as teachers in the USA do.  The Chinese students urged their teachers to follow the US model that develops thinking, more than recording. 

This reminded me of the operative word guiding myself and my fellow Peace Corps teachers in Ethiopia 50 years ago.  That word was “think” (thank you IBM).  No matter what subject we taught, we tried to get our students to think about what they were learning and not simply commit it to memory. 

The system we found in place when we arrived in Ethiopia was the classic rote memorization approach loosely based on the English school system.  The process was to learn a given body of knowledge or facts and regurgitate the information on tests that determined one’s progress up the education ladder.  The problem was that, while in England the material may have been digested before being regurgitated, in Ethiopia it was spit up almost intact. 

We PC teachers worked to get our students to not only remember, but also reflect, on the information they were acquiring.  Not an easy task since the standard tests were geared more toward reiteration than toward critical thinking.

And of course this debate permeates education throughout the world.  We see American students judged against those of other countries by test results.  While most of these tests require calculations, the backbone of them remains understanding of a core block of facts - the periodic table, names of plants, animals, countries, towns, historic names and places, and such - that one should have at his/her command at a given stage in the education process. 

I like to believe that our Peace Corps group and those that followed made an important difference in the education of Ethiopian students.  Indeed, one interesting fact that I discovered during our recent 50th Anniversary “Return to Ethiopia” trip last September was that there exists a sharp difference between the capacity of those who were students during the period the Peace Corps was in the country from 1962 to 1975, when the Peace Corps was kicked out by the Communist military regime, and those educated until the Peace Corps returned in 1995.  The ability of the latter group is remarkably lower than the former group.  While it would require vast amounts of field research and study to actually prove this point, it shows up clearly in worker on the job performance.  Employers prefer to hire those who were educated during the Peace Corps era to those educated during the Communist era.

And now I hear that Chinese students want this same concept, to think, used in their schools.  IBM should be proud.