Content - the once and future king

I spent the past week in Seoul, South Korea, watching a colleague as he delivered a Project Based Learning (PBL) workshop at the Korea International School (KIS).

The plan was for me to attend meetings, cultivate new partnerships, and watch our Director of National Faculty, Rody Boonchouy, facilitate the workshop. I hoped to gain insight into what PBL could look like in Asia. What I ended up seeing was two very different visions of education.

South Korea, like many other high-achieving Asian countries, is noted for an educational culture focused on testing. There are many reasons for this culture, some stretching back more than a thousand years. Saturday, Oct. 5, provided a snapshot of what a highly developed testing culture looks like.

Saturday was Scholastic Aptitude Test day. The nation comes to a halt while its children take a test that determines their future.

A city of 24 million becomes remarkably quiet. Cars are routed away from the testing sites. Loud music is deeply discouraged. Airlines and airports reschedule flights. Adults working at the test sites are directed away from hallways where the exam is in progress. Nothing must break the sacred silence that surrounds the test.

There is legal power behind these traditions – South Korean police are likely to issue a citation if you make too much noise.

This is a vision of education when testing culture is taken to its extreme.

A very different vision emerged during a lunch I shared with the team from the International School of Beijing (ISB), one of the finest independent schools in Asia. The nature of their vision clashed loudly with the silent hallways around us.

The staff of ISB is intently focused on PBL. This is not a rare sentiment in the thriving private school world of Asia. Just that morning I had engaged the leadership of the Singapore American School (SAS) in a long conversation about its expansive implementation of PBL. These two conversations occurred at KIS, where BIE was delivering a PBL workshop to a yet another full room of enthusiastic practitioners.

Why would three of the most highly respected private schools in the hyper-competitive market of Asia be so interested in PBL?

One of the Beijing teachers may have unwittingly provided the answer. He told me that the ISB staff had been encouraged to believe that content no longer mattered.

What? Content no longer mattered? That didn’t make sense. Content is one of the essential elements of good PBL. Of course content matters. Content especially matters in Asia, where most parents see an acceptance letter from Harvard as the ultimate achievement in K-12 education.

Or maybe it didn’t matter in this alternative vision.

The average SAT score in these three schools floats well above 2,000. The students are, generally, from the upper social class. Beyond that, nearly every student attends an after-hours cram school (called hagwans in Korea), where they spend 3-4 hours memorizing content and repeating mathematical drills.

These kids go to two schools. Their day school is free to focus on developing communicative, collaborative, creative and critical thinking skills while the students engage in personally meaningful inquiries. Their night school is bound by the sausage making of learning facts and manipulating figures.

These alternative visions provoke differing emotions.

I fear the U.S., despite the performance assessments promised by the Common Core, will enshrine standardized testing and one day we too will have a national SAT day that requires us to wear soft-soled shoes and turn down the volume on our TVs.

But I wonder about this other vision. Losing the focus on content worries me. After all, students need to think critically about something. They need to collaborate on something. They need to communicate about something. That something should be significant content.

Do we need two schools, or just one good one, doing good PBL?