Here is a thought experiment that can inform the leading education question of our time. Take a random group of students from three countries: China, the U.S., and the Philippines. All three groups spend long hours in school and take objective exams which will, to a large extent, determine their access to higher education. Replay the classic Apollo 13 scene at NASA Control: for each group dump a bunch of stuff on the table and tell them to solve a problem with what they have at hand. Who will win the challenge? The Chinese students, who sit in class ten or twelve hours a day with massive amounts of STEM instruction? The U.S. students, braced by Common Core-based critical thinking standards? Or the Filipinos, where schools may not have a chalkboard and the textbooks would be familiar to the students’ parents or grandparents?
My money, hands down, is on the Filipinos, and here is why. They can’t afford the cost of guaranteeing success. What does that mean?
Designing failure out of a system is expensive. The primary advance of the industrial age, and in particular the assembly line model, was to minimize failure, to increase the likelihood of a repeatedly successful outcome of production. That takes time, research, communication, and sustained investment in human and material capital. The result is fewer failures, an ever-increasing rate of consistent success, every nut and bolt that is identical to every other nut and bolt, cars with doors that close with a satisfying sound.
People in the developing world don’t have access to the capital to create flawless production. They make do with what they have because they don’t have other options. From a very young age they learn to tinker and try, not because they want to, but out of necessity. They would rather go to a big auto parts store and buy the correct replacement part to fix their motorcycle, but they can’t, just like the NASA engineers tasked to bring the Apollo 13 astronauts home would have rather gone up to the spaceship with a load of air the right air filters. But the couldn’t. So they made do with what they had; they tinkered, because that ability was in their DNA. They had the right stuff, just like the astronauts had the right stuff.
Our hosts at Silliman University here in the central Philippines drive us around the city in a bus that was donated to them, used, after WW II. It clanks and bangs, but it runs just fine. Do you think they can still buy spare parts for it? No; they make them. My colleague, Kris Stone, grew up with a father who built things, tinkered, and invented. After watching local children and adults patch tires and fix bikes, and invent games out of string, leaves, and sticks, she said “if I had a couple of days warning that the nukes were going to fly, right here is where I would want to be; these are the folks who will survive the end of civilization, not us. They know how to do things that keep you alive.”
The last generation of Filipinos is good at fixing motorbikes and building block walls and repairing blown tires because that is what they needed to do. They don’t all do it the same way; resources in one village may be different than those in another requiring the creation of a different process that grew out of trial and failure. The new generation of Filipinos is good at using cell phones, social media, and tablet computers. They don’t learn these in schools. They teach each other in dark, cacophonous Internet cafes and on the street. They pirate and share downloads. They create online companies by the thousands, most of which fail. The write business plans on chalkboards. In the last few years, as smart phones have revolutionized how American children play games, cheap cell phones without apps or color or video have changed the entire social and commercial fabric of the Philippines.
People here try stuff and see if it works because they can’t afford to pay someone else to try stuff to see if it works. They try and fail and try again because they have cultural creativity DNA. It is a collective consciousness that they are only beginning to leverage. It may make them the next Asian Tiger as it has the countries that held that title before them. Will they preserve their old educational model, as have the Chinese to a large extent, and cram their students into more classrooms full of more content? Or will they reform their schools and leverage their cultural creativity? Will school innovation both mirror and lead social and economic innovation, or will it stay bound by traditions that are vanishingly relevant? I don’t know; inertia here is as powerful as anywhere and change is uncomfortable. But there is a young generation of natural tinkerers who may not wait around to find out. Multiply that times all of the other tinkerers in all the rest of the developing world and it is at least the same challenge and opportunity as that presented by the Chinese monolith.