What The Martian Teaches Us About Scientific Literacy

The Martian

If you have watched the recent blockbuster ‘The Martian’ by Ridley Scott you will know what I mean when I say that interdisciplinary education is crucial. In the movie, the NASA astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) struggles to survive on Mars after having been unintentionally left behind by his crew. Mark has to figure out how to survive for the next years by growing his own food, producing water and protecting himself against the arid conditions on Mars until he can be rescued. I want to reflect on why an interdisciplinary education is important and how/why we should reform our school curriculum to emphasise the interconnectedness of disciplines instead of their distinctness.

In today’s world, the sciences are usually separated into biology, chemistry and physics. This division is a very reasonable one, given the vastness of our cumulative human knowledge, which has become unknowable for any human being over the last few hundred years. A student who wants to become a scientist doing cutting edge research will eventually have to narrow her focus, but that’s what university is for. In school, we want to teach students basic scientific literacy:

“Scientific literacy means that a person can ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences. It means that a person has the ability to describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena. Scientific literacy entails being able to read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions…” (Source)

I see scientific literacy as a set of basic rules about how the world works, a student can apply to a novel situation in order to derive insights, make predictions and better decisions. The ‘Martian’, although he had never grown potatoes before, now had to do so in an alien environment. His understanding of these basic rules (e.g. manure contains valuable nutrients, plants need earth-like atmospheric pressure, water can be extracted from the air) allowed him to plan his survival. Most of these basic rules are not confined to a single discipline, but span across.

15911816856_72ca90d313_kImagine teaching students about ‘balance’. In biology, you could talk about how prey and predators form a stable environment, how the extinction of a predator would lead to an overpopulation of prey animals and how that would throw the ecosystem off balance. You could also talk about homeostasis and how organisms keep their internal environment within certain parameters. In chemistry, students can learn about balancing chemical reactions and in physics about the balance of forces that keep the electrons in their orbits as well as earth around the sun. Many school already have such methods in place, but the concept of ‘balance’ could be extended to non-scientific fields as well – political balance between nuclear powers during the cold war, balance within a human relationship.

Restructuring the school curriculum to highlight basic rules is not necessarily more work for students, but initially more work for teachers. Instead of following the chapters in a book, teachers from the different sciences have to come together and discuss how they could coordinate their lessons around these concepts. Maybe even have a project week in which every school subject participates! Students would be able to see how the concept spans across the disciplines and get a deeper appreciation for the world they live in.

Summary
So, what’s the point I’m trying to make. Firstly, scientific literacy is hugely important for making better decisions in life. It involves tackling topics in an interdisciplinary way in order to extract generalised concepts. The student can gain a deeper understanding about how the world works and apply their knowledge to novel situations. Secondly, I want to stress the importance of building a deeper appreciation for what the sciences are. It’s not the working hours or the pay check that gets students motivated to become scientists, but the awe and wonder that science has to give.

How Germany Plans to Get 250,000 Syrian Refugees Into School

Introduction

As a German, I would like to share an inside perspective into how Germany plans to handle 250,000 new students coming mostly from Syria. The refugee crisis has pushed every other news topic aside over the last two weeks and I’d like to share these news – which have not been communicated in the English speaking world to such a degree – with you.

German Syrian Flag800,000 refugees are expected to seek asylum in Germany just this year (Source) and with a 42% (Source) of all requests being granted, Germany would expect 336,000 new inhabitants for 2015. According to the U.N. half of all refugees are under the age of 18 (Source). That would mean an additional 168,000 students that would need to go to school. Some estimates say Germany should prepare for 250,000 additional students (Source).

It’s the sheer volume of students arriving in such a short period of time that is starting to worry authorities. Apart from the current logistical challenges of registering and moving refugees across the country to their new homes, the schools will feel the pressure in the coming months when kids will start to join their German class mates. Many schools may actually benefit from the influx of refugee students because student numbers have been declining for years due to Germany’s shrinking population. 250,000 new students may save a number of schools from closure (Source). With currently 11 million children going to school an additional 250,000 would equal to an increase of just 2%. This may not seem like much, but it’s a gargantuan challenge for the educational system. Here are 4 key challenges and how Germany plans to tackle these:

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(1) Healing Psychological Wounds and Letting Refugees Feel Safe

You can’t just empty a busload of refugees at a local school and expect them to magically adapt to their new environment. Many kids will arrive terribly scared and confused from their journey, away from home and surrounded by a completely different culture (Source). The cold winters will also pose a challenge to Syrians. The Social Pediatrics Department of the Technical University Munich estimates that 22.3% of refugee children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The Family Ministry expects 110,000 refugee children under the age of six to live in Germany by the end of this year (Source). This would imply 25,000 cases of PTSD. Michael Deckert who manages Caritas daycare centers in Würzburg recalls: “All kids are happily playing in the garden when suddenly a rescue helicopter flies over the compound towards the university hospital. The German kids look up, laugh and wave – the Syrian kids hide and run screaming into the house filled with fear” (Source). PTSD can easily take years of psychological care to treat, which would be a significant cost factor for the public health care system.

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(2) Adapt to the Language and Culture8154287681_f58e5c8dee_k

The German language is not your Sunday ice cream in the park. The pronunciation as well as the grammar can cause some serious headaches. Since 2005, the Federal Ministry for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) has been offering “Integration Courses” for newcomers. These courses are comprised of 600 hours of German lessons and 60 hours of lessons on the German state and society. The BAMF will be spending an additional €25 million (£18 million, $28 million) this year alone and expects the costs to be much higher in 2016 (Source). This will require a joint effort of community colleges, private language schools and church institutions to find more German teachers and increase their course offers.

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(3) Varying Levels of School Performance

Many of the kids will not have gone to school for months if not years. A Bavarian teacher said: “Student ability ranges from true illiterates who have never gone to school, who have tended sheep or who have worked in some other way – to students who are able to attend Gymnasium [UK Sixth Form, US High School] and who can speak two, three languages, but not German” (Source). This situation requires individual support in order to ensure that each child can develop properly at the right pace. In Germany, the yearly average cost for public school education per child is about €6,500 (£4,775, $7,367), but this figure will be far higher for refugees as they need extra classes and tutoring to get to the same level of ability as their German class mates.

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(4) Intercultural Education and Professional Networks for Teachers

Norbert Hocke from the Education and Science Workers’ Union (GEW) says: “We need intercultural competence from educators as well as trauma specialists” (Source). Cities and municipals are calling for expert-networks that serve educators with advice and consultancies. A model project at ten daycare centers in Saxony has is already offering intercultural training to primary school teachers. It is expected that kids will learn German faster and their parents parents can connect with other parents and find more time for their German courses.

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Why Helping Syrians is the Right Thing to Do

15307288216_9e2816f682_kYes, the challenges are massive. Yes, it will demand a lot of time, effort and money to get the job done. Whether Germany will financially benefit in the long run is unclear, but also completely beside the point. It is vital that young Syrians everywhere are properly educated. I really hope that they’ll one day be able to return home. And when they do, they should be equipped with all the tools they need to rebuild and develop a prosperous nation that can feel safe and help maintain peace.

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As for Germany

9680885082_733815fbb5_kThere have been more than a dozen attacks on refugee accommodations (Source) across the country, but a resounding 93% of Germans say that Germany should host refugees (Source). Why Germans are so willing to help refugees is debatable. However, support for refugees is very likely take a dip in the following months and years. Good societal integration is very difficult and problems will surely arise. German political leaders will have to tread very carefully when justifying the billions of Euros spent on refugees rather than increasing government spending for the education system, which has been stagnating for years. Proper integration takes years of hard work and Germany is just at the beginning of things. Just 75 years ago, the Nazis moved millions of Jews via trains to concentration camps. Today, those same trains move refugees into German communities. A remarkable transformation.

Transforming a Phone Booth Into a Library

IMG_20150825_183722BERLIN – Germany

A few days ago I came across a phone booth in Berlin that was re-purposed into a mini library. It is freely accessible to anybody at any hour of the day and contains books on all imaginable topics. From asian cuisine to neurobionics – you’ll never know what might await you! The idea is that you can take a book home to read, but you should also leave one for others to find. You want a nice novel for your evening armchair session or a new bed time story for your kids? How about something to entertain you on your way to work? Chances are that you might just find what you’re looking for!

 

IMG_20150825_183808The project is based on communal trust and so far it has worked great. The library is much more than a free library. The movement of books in and out of the phone booth makes it much more exciting to visit, but it also tells a lot about your neighbours. Every book in that library was bought because somebody was interested in it. The library is a reflection of the community; a very private and intimate view into the lives of others and at the same time accessible to the public.When dropping off a book, a person might think: “This book is important to me and I want to share it with others” or “I had fun cooking Asian. Maybe someone will explore the cuisine as well”.  Wouldn’t it be great if we started converting all the unused phone booths around the world into libraries? Imagine how that would change our relationship to books. Phone booth libraries have been spreading to the UK (Source) as well as the US (Source).

 

 

 

 

Foreign Language Education (Part 2 of 3) – English Proficiency Around the World

Why English is the undisputed world language

4759535950_3da0ea181e_oIf you ask yourself whether Chinese is going to become the new world language, you just have to look at the graph below. The graph shows the most used languages world wide, but distinguishes between native speakers (dark-blue) and non-native speakers (light-blue). Although Chinese Mandarin has by far the most native speakers (1.1 billion), it “only” attracts 118 million non-native speakers. In contrast, there are only one-third so many English native speakers (375 million), but 1.1 billion additional non-native speakers. English is adopted like no other foreign language and that makes it the most spoken language in the world. Obviously, not all of those 1.1 billion non-native English speakers will be perfectly fluent, but you’ll always have a range of abilities in all languages. The underlying point here is that English is the undisputed world language.

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The benefits of learning English

In the professional world, English has firmly established itself as the common communication denominator. “You don’t speak German? Well, I don’t speak Japanese. Why don’t we just meet in the middle?” English is like the neutral ground among English non-native speakers.
Access to information is tremendous when it comes to English. Currently, Wikipedia lists 4,922,000 English articles, while German (1,836,000) and Spanish (1,187,000) are come in at second and third place, but well beaten by English. I visit the English Wikipedia pages first and then try to find the same page in German or Spanish – if necessary.

Better English skills have been associated with (1) higher quality of life (Source), (2) income (Source) and (3) greater economic competitiveness (Source). Although just a correlation, it makes a lot of sense why English would be so beneficial. It gives job seekers access to a global job market and countries can attract international companies with a good English-speaking work force.

English and SchoolingThe English proficiency of a country also correlates with the number of years of formal English education (see Graph). That means if (a) higher English proficiency correlates with higher quality of life, income and economic competitiveness and (b) English proficiency increases with the number of years of English education in school, then (c) students should start learning English early and continue with it throughout secondary education. This would increase their chances of experiencing these positive outcomes with which English has been associated with. “Even in full immersion environments, children need 4-7 years to gain native-level English skills”(Source). That’s a very considerable amount of exposure!
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How do four world regions compare in their English proficiency?

The EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI) (Source) has a wonderful website that showcases the different levels of English proficiency by country. Over the last 7 years about 5 million people have taken part in their surveys, making it the largest assessment of English proficiency in the world. Countries can be listed as having (1) very high, (2) high, (3) moderate, (4) low or (5) very low English proficiency. Native English speaking countries are not part of this assessment as well as sub-saharan Africa.
The highest English proficiency can currently be found in Europe. All of the seven countries listed in the “very high” English proficiency category are from Europe. Asia still has a long way to go, but is catching up rapidly. South America is even further behind and struggling harder than Asia. Finally, Middle East and North Africa (MENA) forms the tail light with most of the countries in the “very low” English proficiency category.

English Proficiency World Wide2

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If we look at the CHANGES in English proficiency over the last seven years we can see English proficiency rising in general. Apart from MENA countries, which have worsened, the rest of the world is getting better. Regional averagesEurope and Asia show very similar improvements. Asia is trying to catch up, but Europe is running ahead at the same speed, meaning their relative proficiency hasn’t changed. Both regions exhibit the greatest improvements. Latin America is improving a little slower.
Among the MENA countries only the United Arab Emirates made it into the “low proficiency” category.

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Regional Information

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EUROPE

Map EuropeNative English speaking countries such as the US and the UK always had a strong influence on Europe. Many Europeans still today study, spend their vacations and also live in the UK and the US. There is also a much stronger feeling of common culture, which naturally brings these parts of the world together. I initially thought that east European countries might show worse English proficiency than their western counterparts due to (a) their often times Slavic-based languages, which means less of an overlap with English and (b) the iron curtain, which made learning English very difficult between 1945 and 1991. The reality is that Poland and Romania (among others) have a higher English proficiency than Switzerland, Italy or Spain. The economic incentive of the west is probably reflected in their performance.Europe trending

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ASIA

Map AsiaIf you are looking for the largest improvements in English proficiency you have to look at Asia. Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam are catching up really fast with 7+ points improvement over the last seven years. Indonesia now speaks better English than Hong Kong!
On the other hand, many Asian countries are stagnating as well, especially the wealthy parts. In Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong, English proficiency actually got worse over the last seven years. Asia’s improvement by 3.52 points is tremendous if you consider that about 4.4 billion people live there! In absolute numbers, I have no doubt that Asia would be the world’s top English student!

Asia Trending

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Latin America

Map South AmericaLatin American countries improved on average by 2.16 points, which is good, but the continent continues to show poor English proficiency. Only Argentina made it into the “high proficiency” category. Ecuador, Peru and the Dominican Republic have achieved the greatest improvements across time. Most of the continent speaks Spanish, which is also a very widespread language, especially in the US and Spain (duh!). I could imagine this being a hindrance in adopting English as well as the slower economic development relative to Asia. Along those lines, Argentina is one of the stronger economic countries in South America and it performed the best in English. I speculate that there is a very strong correlation between the economic power of a country, which requires a larger English speaking work force and the actual English proficiency performance.

Latin Trending

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Middle Eastern and North Africa (MENA)

Map AfricaNot only are MENA countries performing the worst, they are also worsening in their English proficiency. On average, the region dropped by -2.66 points. Iran dipped by -11 points over the last 7 years. In fact, the only two countries that improved were Jordan (1.38 points) and the United Arab Emirates (1.43 points). The United Arab Emirates was the only country that made it into the “low proficiency” category. The Arab spring and Irans isolation from the rest of the world come to mind. The EF EPI website raises an interesting argument to explain the dip in performance. Currently, MENA’s internet penetration is growing rapidly, which means that the test takers have become more representative of the average actual English proficiency. Seven years ago, only wealthier people had access and they were surely more likely to speak English well (Source).

Mena Trending

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In Summary

  • English is the undisputed international language because of its high adoption rate
  • English proficiency correlates with higher income, better life quality and higher economic competitiveness. Kids need to get at least 4-7 years of English exposure in school to master it.
  • The world is getting better at English. Europe is still leading the charts and Asia is rapidly raising its average.. Latin America is advancing as well, but slower. MENA is falling behind, but that might be due to the higher internet penetration today compared to seven years ago.

Subscribe for Part 3:
How Countries Compare in their Foreign Language Education

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Why Schools Should Teach Meaning and Purpose

A few weeks ago I went to south London to visit one of the best public schools in the UK. As I sat in Biology class I compared my own school days to the ones of the students sitting around me. I wanted to find out what made this school so special. I noticed that students and teachers were much more structured and disciplined compared to my school days. The desire to be successful was very present in everybody’s minds and there was a sense of pride in being part of this school. Students and teachers seemed to be pulling on the same rope, but I noticed that it meant giving up something as well.

46 - Corporate CultureI spoke for an hour to two 9th grades who wished that their teachers would involve them more in designing the classes, but their teachers were not actively seeking student collaboration. I believe that the structure and discipline that is required to be as successful as this school comes at the price of student exploration, which is a relatively time consuming and inefficient activity if ones goal is to maximise student success. Efficiency means not looking to the left and right, it means making no mistakes and it also means not to question.

97 - OceanMy own school experience felt like chasing the horizon. I was given a set of tasks that I had to work on and if I was successful in the exams I could advance to the next higher grade. The problem is not that the horizon cannot be reached or that the goals were not worth pursuing. It’s actually quite the contrary. Graduating from school with honors is not an easy task and it should be celebrated if you can pull if off. But you should also ask yourself why you are pursuing good grades. If the answer to that question is ‘to have good grades’ you have identified the real problem in our education system.

Rewarding a 3rd grader with ice cream for his school work is all good and fine, because a 3rd grader hasn’t fully developed the ability to form his opinions and define his goals. But a high school student should have learned to do this; to set his own goals, to act based on a set of beliefs or convictions. There will always be people who know what they want and they will try to convince you of working for them. They may incentivize you with a title, a salary and a career, but it will be their goal, not yours. Students should learn to develop themselves in order to make decisions based on their own set of beliefs. Then they can decide to work with others who follow the same goals or act out of the same conviction.

98 - BlackboardThe structure and discipline that I witnessed at that school in south London is in itself nothing bad, but it comes at a high price. These students may be able to enter top universities and land well paying jobs, but they may one day wake up and ask themselves what it was all for. I belief it is the responsibility of a school to help students develop their personality, but this is not possible when a school tries to be efficient. You need ‘pointless’ and ‘ineffective’ student activities that don’t lead to better grades if you want them to live a life of meaning and purpose. Sacrifice a bit of your academic excellence and make room for personal development. The system won’t thank you for it, but the students will – by living a more fulfilled life.

Foreign Language Education (Part 1 of 2)

The Benefits of Learning Foreign Languages

I grew up trilingual. At home, my mom taught me Spanish and my father German. I began learning English in 4th grade, took 5 years of French in school and picked up a little Chinese when living in Beijing. I enrolled at the international Jacobs University Bremen in Germany, where 75% of the students come from foreign countries. In my first year we had students from 111 different nations studying on campus. Speaking multiple languages was not common, but the norm. Some students were able to speak 5+ languages fluently. That blew my mind.

I don’t know who I would be today if I had grown up speaking only one language, but from my personal experience the benefits of speaking multiple languages are tremendous. There is no question that I would raise my children to speak more than one and I would advice anybody to do the same.

1. Speaking the local language earns you respect 

test.001So true. Last year I traveled with my girlfriend through South America and experienced so many locals that were delighted to tell their story. Speaking somebody else’s language not only removes communication barriers, but also makes you less of a stranger to them. Speaking another person’s language is a strong form of respect. It tells others that you are interested in who they are as a culture – something most people are really proud of. It removes those barriers that you sometimes feel as a tourist – of “us” and “them”. Just knowing “thank you” and “please” will get you much further. Such effort is always very appreciated.

2. You learn much more about other cultures

test.002We learned so much about cultures through real stories from real people. A Bolivian miner told us very openly about the terrible working conditions inside the Potisi mines. A jungle villager in Rurrenabaque told us how his village had to go from hunting to tourism because their living area was official proclaimed a national park in which hunting is illegal. No film documentary or news article can communicate the nuances of such stories as they are being told to you in person – in their language.

3. Learn about yourself through another language

test.003You might notice that when you speak another language your gestures, your general behavior and eventually your thinking patterns change. You start noticing how you become a slightly different person and that allows you to reflect upon your original self. Where there was only one way of saying things, now there are two. Maybe you even learn a word that expresses a meaning that has no equivalent in your original language – like the Japanese concept of “amae” (the feeling of pleasurable dependence on another people) or the German word “Fernweh” (longing to travel).
I learned that much of the way I think is inherently dependent on the words and their meaning that my language has to offer. It has allowed me to expand on my ability to express my thoughts in finer detail.

4. Many more opportunities to work abroad

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And finally, languages are often a must if you want to work abroad. There are so many companies operating inter-nationally and which are struggling with finding talented people. But all the talent in the world is not enough if you are unable to speak with the customer on site. Although English is the global business language, not everybody speaks it. And even if they do, being able to speak their language communicates respect and trust and simply makes business easier.


Subscribe for Part 2 of this series:

How language education differs between countries
Scientific findings on how how learning a language is beneficial.

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Assessment ‘As’ Learning through Project Based Learning

Blended Educator

In putting together the program for our Professional Learning Teams focus on assessment I was thinking about how little we tend to focus on Assessment ‘as’ Learning. The past couple of decades has rightly seen the focus of assessment shifted clearly from solely valuing Assessment ‘of’ Learning, or summative assessment to acknowledging the important place of formative assessment in the learning cycle.

Work from influential learning theorists like Dylan Wiliam has seen a Assessment ‘for’ Learning, or formative assessment, recognised as one of the most important measures of student learning and achievement in our classes.

Despite even this new focus on Assessment for Learning, a quick Google search reveals where the majority of the attention is given:

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Lorna Earl‘s 2003 work, Assessment for Learning: Using Classroom assessment to maximise student learning, presented the assessment pyramid as we traditionally identify it:

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However, she suggests that this pyramid…

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