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Is a hole in the head an effective means of knowledge transfer for today's children?

Everything that we at Manage With Knowledge stand for has to do with making information consumable so the #knowledge thus created can drive good decision making.

This implies that information processing requires thought and not merely storage in memory for later on-demand retrieval.

We have long known that in South Korea, private expenditure on education has been high. Data from 2011 showed that among the economies that made up the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), South Koreans spent more than twice the OECD average on private education as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This is the highest such expenditure among OECD economies. According to The Economist, South Koreans spent more than USD15 billion last year on private tuition for their children. This does not even include expenditure on tertiary education. Finland on the extreme has parents who spend nothing.

The ability to process information is more helpful at creating knowledge than the mere ability to remember information and data. In this context, the cramming techniques employed by the hagwon, or South Korean cramming schools, remind us of medieval torture techniques. They come across as being just about as effective at expanding the mind as drilling holes in the skulls of children and pouring hot lead over their still-living brains.

Imagine our surprise, then, when we read that the next thing big thing in South Korean education are sekki hagwon, or the cramming schools that “help” children pass the entrance exams for the nation’s elite cramming schools that in turn help them potentially pass the country’s eight-hour multiple choice university entrance exam. It was at this stage when the hole-in-the-head metaphor began to appear too kind to be used in this context.

This week we were attending the Educon Asia 2015 conference in Singapore. The opening session saw a variety of educators speak boldly about changing trends in education. Technology was changing the way knowledge was being transferred into young minds. Blended learning was helping teachers “flip” classrooms. Research into ergonomics was helping some schools transform classrooms into creative spaces akin to workspaces at Google where collaboration flourishes.

All true, but in our view not reflective of reality for the majority of children in Asia. All these observations were being presented through the lens of the wealthy -- and progressive and inclusive -- international school. It wasn’t even reflective of the majority of international schools, where such progressive thinking might, just might, be too radical and affect negatively the grades that would allow such schools to be as profitable as they are.

Instead, the majority of students across Asia are taught much more like their South Korean counterparts than, say, their Finnish friends. It is sadly the teaching technique that fretful parents believe is effective and for which they are prepared to pay vast amounts of money.

In our research into this article, we came across two interesting statements published by the OECD.

The first stated that blue collar jobs still accounted for the majority of employment among low- to middle-income countries. It added that this was also true in the case of “several developed OECD countries despite talk of the digital revolution and knowledge-based economy”.

The second stated: “In most developed countries, going to university pays with years of education reducing the likelihood of unemployment and improving employment prospects. However, this is not the case in low-income countries where tertiary graduates are more likely to be unemployed than their less educated counterparts.”

Sad, but apparently true, seemingly making the case for getting into university by any means necessary if one was growing up in a high-income Asian location such as South Korea, Singapore or Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong, just as in South Korea, this means parents ploughing entire life savings into hole-in-the-head tuition processes that only guarantee one thing in reality … the increasing wealth of the individuals or businesses running such tuition enterprises.

A case in point emerged over the past weekend. Hong Kong “super tutor” Lam Yat-yan was made an open and public offer of HKD85 million (USD11 million) a year in salary by publicly listed Modern Education to move from his current employer, Beacon College, which is about to go public. Lam has apparently declined this massive increase to his current salary, which he feels is enough to support his family. His current salary is reportedly HKD35 million (USD4.5 million) a year.

Should he accept Modern Education’s kind offer, Lam would be paid almost as much as HSBC CEO Stuart Gulliver. The latter has led a global bank with some 250,000 employees through a period of significant crises, while the latter offers classroom and pre-recorded math courses to about 20,000 students in Hong Kong. Both admirable callings.

At 28, Lam is referred to as a “god” by many of these students. He is said to form an emotional connection with his students, making it easy for them to absorb the knowledge he imparts to them, even over the ether.

A stark contrast, perhaps, to the cramming techniques of South Korea’s hagwon or sekki hagwon, but nonetheless not the type of teaching that speakers at Educon Asia 2015 were touting as the future of teacher-to-student knowledge transfer.

It is, though, clearly big business if a maths tutor can command as much as the head of a global bank. More power to him, and more fool the parents who must feel that he can somehow make their children grow up to be as employable as he.

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