Newsletter #28     International Visitors

WARNING: This is probably not going to cohere. There is an unfortunate correlation between the time it takes for the intellect to digest information and the time it takes for the memory to leak it, and in this case the day was just too rich in wonderful details for me to risk losing any more than I already have.

For a start, the context: today, the Math Department had the extraordinary privilege of having as our guests Deborah Hughes-Hallett from Harvard and the four mathematicians she (with NSF support) has brought to Seattle for the AAAS meetings now getting under way at the Convention Center. After successfully negotiating the Metro system, they arrived on campus in time to give us one of the most fascinating and well-attended Brown Bags since the Brown Bags first began. First each one spent a few minutes describing the education system in their country, then they all responded to the wonderful variety of questions that the gathered multitudes came up with. Then, after an afternoon that involved lunch, the Bookstore and the Burke, they provided the focus for a dinner at the Faculty Club. We couldn't exactly match the geographical spread of South Africa to China via Turkey and Germany, but we did go all the way from Shoreline C.C. to Seattle U. via Seattle Central C.C. In fact, that produced a cultural spread that took an appreciable time over a Boiserie latte to prepare them for--the concept of a Community College is not one that slots naturally into any of their schemes of things (No entrance requirements? Students may well have full time jobs?? Student ages up to HOW OLD DID YOU SAY???) At any rate, we wound up dining in groups of five, each group including one of the international crew. I wouldn't have missed the conversation at my table for the world, but if ever there was a time when I would have liked to be four places simultaneously, that was it!

So who were these splendid folks, and what did they have to say? I can't possibly do them justice, but here goes a try:

Jan Persens is from the University of Capetown , in South Africa. It is what in this country would be termed a Historically Black Institution, and in a country in economic turmoil it is having exactly the difficulties you would expect. The government allocated a dramatic hunk of money to such institutions recently, but since it simultaneously cut their budgets in other ways, the net impact was not too helpful. The curriculum is set by tradition and available texts and is highly intense, to the point where faculty members sometimes question whether they are not making intellectual demands that simply cannot be met. But if the curriculum is intense, so is the level at which the students are willing to work--if their circumstances permit. I missed some details, but if I reconstructed the tale properly, a colleague of Jan's decided to address directly the non-academic issues with which his students were dealing--mostly variations on the theme of fierce economic hardship--and succeeded in dramatically increasing the ratio of success to attrition.

Two of Jan's replies to questions stick in my mind. One was in response to a query about the impact of Apartheid's having ended. "Oh, but it hasn't ended", he said. "You can talk about the differences between before 1994 and after 1994--and there are some differences--but we are still living with Apartheid." Later someone asked all of them about issues of student discipline. Jan brought up a number of things they are dealing with in a period of increasing democratization and personal rights. One is simply that corporal punishment, which used to be widespread and totally accepted, is now neither. But perhaps more serious is the fact that, as he put it, South Africa is not a nation. It is a collection of different peoples, with different cultures and different values. How do you construct an educational structure within that? What a challenge!

Wolfgang Henn also talked about non-uniformity issues in his country, but it had more to do with the fact that different areas of Germany have different educational systems than it did with culture. He's from the University of Karlsruhe (German page), south of Frankfurt, so to whatever degree I succeed in describing a system, that's the one. At the high school level, there are three types of school: Gymnasium, Hauptschule and something in between. The former is for the university-bound, and the latter two are respectively vocational and very vocational. The division is made by examination, only more and more parents are getting feisty and seeing to it that their kids get into Gymnasium. This means that classes in the Gymnasium are getting progressively more mixed in level and correspondingly harder to do justice to. Beyond Gymnasium comes the first level of University, in which (I think I've got this right) they specialize in two or perhaps three fields. After graduating from that they choose between a program leading to industry and one leading to high school teaching (and in retrospect I clearly gleeped over something, because there most assuredly is also a program leading to becoming a university faculty member and doing research and all that.) Up until a few years ago, jobs in industry were readily available and well paid, and the students who turned up at the secondary teaching college, where Wolfgang teaches, were definitely not in general the cream of the crop. Recently, however, the industrial job market has plummeted, thereby making high school teaching look a lot more attractive than it used to.

One place where the image conjured up definitely does not match reality is that of the teacher preparation college. Since the students entering it have already had vastly more mathematics than we ever require of our future teachers, and since the entire distinction from the alternative institutions is that they are being prepared for the classroom, it is not a place where one would expect the faculty members to be active research mathematicians with a university faculty background, but that in fact is what Wolfgang is, and it is clearly a natural state of affairs. Going along with that is the striking degree to which the issues he brought up at the dinner table were those that have haunted the Brown Bags--fostering students' intellectual autonomy, and engaging their minds rather than just their pencils, and helping teachers deal with the discomfort of abandoning the nice, predictable, controllable lecture system for the uncertainties of more student-centered teaching methods. And, of course, computers and calculators. Also the Internet--Bill Gates would not have approved of our conclusions on that one.

Huriye Arikan teaches in a Technical University in Turkey, in fact as I understand it, the most top flight (top-flightest?) of them. I was so intrigued with her personal history that I failed to pick up much about the Turkish system. One thing I did pick up is that the language of instruction at University level is English. I failed to ask why, but I assume it means that there is no single Turkish language and something uniformizing has got to be done. At any rate, the reason the fact sticks in my mind is her comment on the errors which students predictably make in their calculus course, and which the faculty attribute to their difficulties in dealing with a foreign language. Huriye went right along with that attribution until she spent a year teaching Calculus at the University of New Hampshire. Yup--same errors. I hope I can find out what some of them are before she disappears from town!

One comment that Huriye made in reply to a question strikes me as superb fodder for a sociology thesis or the like. There she is, a woman in a scientific field. Among her colleagues in Turkey, is she an isolated event? No indeed. In fact, there are more women than men at most levels, including her fellow faculty members. It might, she reported cheerily, be attributable to the fact that the positions are terribly paid, so men generally really don't want them. I find that an absolutely fascinating combination of chunks of information!

Our other guest was Xu Shudao, from China. Now there's a really different set of circumstances for you. Shudao started off commenting on the degree to which Freshmen do not work hard. But then he explained it, accompanied by the gentle patter of dropping jaws. In order to get into the university, students must be among the top 10% or less on a nationwide examination. Success in college means a good life, with a job just about guaranteed and a respectable income to go with it. On the other hand, if you don't get into college, then forever and irrevocably you are shut off from all of those jobs, and a huge slice of life to go with it. Children begin studying for that exam roughly in kindergarten, and continue ever more intensively for the next 13 years. They have no time for TV. Or for soccer or for music or for... They have school on Saturdays and they have school all summer and they have many hours of homework every single night.

Thirteen years of school with every minute directed to a single exam. They must have to re-define their entire notion of education when they find themselves in another class that comes after the exam. What a shock!

Another interesting aspect of the system has to do with the politico-financial scene at the university. Apparently the department is paid on a pretty direct number-of-students to number-of-dollars [that phrase would be classier if I remembered the proper unit of money!] scale. On the other hand, the department has the option of beefing up their head count by taking in students from other departments. Net result is that quality of a dean seems to be judged entirely on the basis of entrepreneurial skills.

Shudao also produced a conundrum that occupied us all for a considerable time and wound up thoroughly unresolved. The educational establishment, or at least a portion of it, has adopted a slogan along the lines of "From mathematics for examination to mathematics for X" X seems to include conceptual understanding, connection to context, communication, problem-solving and a number of other highly desirable elements. This they manage to say in Chinese in a single word--just three syllables worth of word. Now that is a powerful language!