Learning to learn from Asia

Last week I was invited to the Symposium of the AMITI, which stands for Mexican Association of the Information Technology Industry. The keynote speaker was Professor Josep Rota, from the University of Ohio.

During his talk, Professor Rota was merciless pointing out the areas in which Mexico is falling short from bridging the digital divide. He showed all sorts of polls, rankings and indicators in which Mexico compares unfavorably to many of its peers in Latin America, and most notably to emerging Asian countries. 

During his well articulated, and perfectly sustained keynote, he dedicated a good amount of time to share his experience and learnings working in Asia. One particular story that struk me was his recount of how a politician in Malaysia was punished, and demoted from Minister of Education to Minister of Defense. "A country that ranks the Minister of Education higher than the Minister of Defense, is a country I like", he said.

Earlier this week I read a column by Andres Oppenheimer in the Miami Herald, describing the learnings he hoped the presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, would have taken from South Korea during their participation in the G-20 meeting.

Oppenheimer describes that "Only five decades ago, South Korea had a per capita income of $900 a year, a small fraction of Argentina's per capita income of $5,000 a year, Mexico's $2,000, and Brazil's $1,200. Today, South Korea has a per capita income of $28,000 a year, more than twice as high as Argentina's $13,400 a year, Mexico's $13,200 and Brazil's $10,100".

The secret? South Korea's obsession with education. A long-term visionary and well-executed plan to invest in education as the vehicle for prosperity. As evidence of its success, one can see the results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), conducted by the OECD. The program measures 15-year-old school pupils' scholastic performance. In the last three tests South Korea ranks consistently in the top 10: In the year 2000 the country ranked #6 in reading; in 2003 it ranked #2 in math; and in 2006 it ranked #7 in science. In the same tests Mexico ranked at the bottom of the table: 27, 29 and 30 respectibly.

What struk me most, about Oppenheimer's article was to learn that South Korea spends less in education than Mexico, Argentina and Brazil as a percentage of its overall economy. It's a system that relies on the family as the main support of a well-rounded education, more and longer school days, and setting the bar really high for school teachers, only the top 5% students, according to the article.

Certainly, we all have a lot to learn about learning from Asia. And I mean ALL. The US scored on those tests? #15 in 2000, #24 in 2003 and #25 in 2006.