Tuesday, 2 April 2013

A Knowledge-Based Economy is not a Grades-Based Economy

For a knowledge-based economy to thrive, it needs knowledge workers. However, the knowledge that commands a sustainable premium in the economy cannot be fully taught in schools. The knowledge that schools impart represents basic knowledge that allows a person to learn further, beyond examinations, to acquire new knowledge that gives him an edge. This new knowledge can also be about knowing what, where, when and how to apply in real-life situations, which can never be fully replicated in a school or examination environment. Any knowledge that is available in a textbook, is commoditised and taught to millions of students over the world. If a person does not keep on learning, he can only compete on price alone and is vulnerable to younger graduates and foreign workers who can do the same work at a lower price. Salaries stagnate, while the cost of living continues to go up. The good life “promised” by a good education then becomes a rat race.

Big emerging countries produce graduates by the millions. A sizable number of them are unemployed and are hungry to jump at any job opportunities that come along. By this, I do not mean them coming to Singapore to compete for jobs, I mean them competing for jobs to go to their countries rather than to Singapore.

Fortunately, the way to acquire new knowledge is not difficult. Through learning by doing, a person can discover for himself the conditions that textbook knowledge works or does not work and the improvements required to overcome the challenge. An inquisitive mind to understand beyond what is needed to complete the job will also create new knowledge. Some of these knowledge are already institutionalized in companies. What is required to acquire niche knowledge is to continually learn, either by doing or by learning from the experience of others. For this reason, fresh graduates should work from the ground up rather than step into management positions immediately. Similarly, local companies should in-source rather than out-source the part of work that presents opportunities to create new knowledge and value.

Since niche knowledge cannot be fully taught in school, the over-emphasis on grades then becomes misplaced. While a student with good grades might also make a good knowledge worker, we should not emphasize grades over knowledge and the need to continually learn. Besides parents, educators and students, we should also call upon employers not to place too much emphasis on the grades of job applicants. Rather, assess a job applicant based on his knowledge and his desire to learn. Do not mistake a grades-based economy for a knowledge-based one. Grades should just be an objective assessment of how much knowledge the student has learnt. And schools should be a place where not only knowledge is taught, but life-long learning is also cultivated.

The fixation on grades also comes from the allocation of school places to students. It is difficult to find an alternative set of objective criteria that can completely replaces grades. However, if the outcome of a person in life depends more on what he knows rather than which school he comes from, then the emphasis on grades could be lessened. We should strive to create the same conducive environment for learning in all schools.

From another perspective, I think schools can play a major role in forging a common identity in the community. There should be efforts to create a greater sense of belonging between schools and the community they are in, much like what Nantah University was to the people, which went beyond school-parent relationship. When this happens, parents would think first about sending their children to their community schools rather than to some faraway schools. 

It is the wish of every parent and educator for a child to have a good future. Do not let this turn into a rat race. The fixation on grades must end.

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