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Good Ideas Travel

I just returned from a globe-spanning trip, but I won't tell you about my travels. I want to tell you about how ideas travel. Good ideas about education and educational policy spread throughout the world, and have for a long time.

In every country in the world, and in every city, the purpose of education is the same. It is to develop within children the knowledge, capacities, and dispositions that will enable them to live, work, and contribute to society.

In the past, that society may have been a relatively small circle of people who had scarce contact with other societies and cultures. Our world today, and the world our children are entering, is vastly different from that. It is an interconnected world where the range of people one can interact with is almost unlimited, and the opportunities to live, work, and contribute are truly global.

The changes that have occurred in the world are compelling education systems throughout the world to rethink what knowledge, what capacities, and what dispositions children need in a global economic and civic environment. The education that may have been good enough in the past, or good enough for a few, will not be good enough in the future.

Historically, many education systems have been built by looking outside their borders for good ideas and practices. The U.S. education system was built, in part, by utilizing the best ideas from abroad, mainly from Germany and Scotland. It became the leading education system in the world. The United States was also the first to achieve mass secondary education, as well as the first to promote higher education broadly. Being the best, we stopped looking abroad for new ways to improve.

It is only recently that the United States again looked to other countries to learn how we might improve academic achievement and outcomes for students. Just five years ago, when the 2006 PISA scores were released, the U.S. Department of Education made virtually no effort to publicize scores or learn from other countries that outperformed American students. In contrast, since the release of the 2009 PISA results, the U.S. Department of Education, plus a wide variety of education organizations within federal, state, and local government, as well as in the non-governmental sector, have studied and engaged in forums to learn more from high-performing countries.

On the other hand, education systems elsewhere in the world, especially in the Asia Pacific region, have consistently looked outside their borders for proven and promising practices that could be adapted for use in their own systems. And they have been extremely successful in doing so. We know, for example, that averaging across math, reading and science scores, eight of the top ten jurisdictions on the 2009 PISA were from the Asia Pacific region.

We know good ideas can travel. Good ideas—proven through research, or in practice, or both—can be adapted despite significant cultural differences or other distinct characteristics that separate borrower from borrowee. Seoul is not Chicago, but children learn similarly in both of these places. Toronto is not Shanghai, but the ability of all students to learn at high levels is the same in these two places, whether those children are from the city, rural areas, or immigrants from other regions. There are systemic differences between education systems, but children's learning is ultimately more alike than different.

That means if an education system is truly aligned to the nature of children's leaning, educators around the world can learn an enormous amount from each other and adapt best practices to their own context.

How do we do it?

To be continued.

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