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Building Critical Thinking in ASEAN Classrooms

Rattana Lao

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U.S. ambassador to Thailand, Glyn T. Davies

Traditional classrooms in ASEAN countries are exceptional for turning out high-performing students, well-skilled in memorization, recitation, and deference to seniority, an approach some say doesn’t equip students for a dynamic, entrepreneurial, and rapidly changing world. According to the World Economic Forum, young people will best succeed in the knowledge economy when equipped with problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.

In response, there is a new push to equip students with these highly coveted skills, to prepare them to compete for the best jobs, and to ensure that national workforces and economies can keep pace with global change. The Thammasat University School of Global Studies, the Thailand Development Research Institute, The Asia Foundation, and the U.S. Department of State recently conducted a workshop in Bangkok, called Critical Thinking in Classrooms, that brought together 60 exceptional young leaders from across ASEAN through the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI).

The U.S. ambassador to Thailand, Glyn T. Davies, opened the workshop by challenging participants to question their assumptions and to use their new-found training to turn their ideas into innovation and action. “The goal of the workshop is to inspire you so you can apply your newly acquired skills and undertake projects that lead to real-world impact.”

The growing need for critical thinking in the schools parallels the region’s changing dynamics and can best be understood within the social and political context of ASEAN. ASEAN countries are going through an intense socioeconomic transformation. Half are trapped in the “middle-income paradox,” where growth rates decline and economic development stalls. Many aspire to upgrade their industries to “catch up” with the rest of the world.

Critical thinking is the foundational skill for innovation—the secret recipe for economic progress. Wilson Yeo, a lecturer at Singapore Polytechnic and a YSEALI participant, encapsulated the complex relationship between a changing economy and the need for critical thinking. “In Singapore, the focus of education has always been to help students to find a place in the economic engine that powers Singapore’s economy. It’s a fair goal. But because Singapore has gone very quickly from a manufacturing hub to a knowledge economy, the education system has not kept pace in some ways with the change.”

YSEALI critical thinking participants

In addition to economic change, current trends in governance and democracy underscore the need for critical thinking in ASEAN. The recent electoral victory of Malaysia’s opposition party is a case in point. After a decade of intractable corruption and increasingly partisan politics, the Malaysian electorate voted for change. Growing political awareness across Malaysian society—especially among the young, who accounted for 41 percent of all voters—played a crucial role in bringing about this change.

“Finally, for the first time in history, change can happen if we are critical with our voice,” said Suet Li Liew, a consultant to the Ministry of Education and a YSEALI participant from Malaysia. “Now there is investigation into corruption cases, cronyism, and misconduct, something we could not imagine before.”

PiiArporniem, a YSEALI participant from Thailand, connected critical thinking to informed citizenship. As Thailand approaches elections in 2019, he argued, citizens must learn to distinguish fact from fiction and to weigh the merits of opposing opinions. ASEAN has been shaken by distorted news that feeds divisive politics. Critical thinking is the vital antidote to disinformation and “fake news” that, at the extremes, can breed ultra nationalism.

Acknowledging its importance, where should we begin to instill critical thinking?

First, teaching critical thinking must start in preschool. It must be a part of the educational foundation of every classroom.

Second, pedagogical methods that promote critical thinking, such as debate and dialogue, must be integrated into all subjects. Teaching critical thinking as a separate discipline discourages a holistic approach to higher-order thinking.

Third, critical thinking must be taught together with creative thinking, communication, and collaboration skills. Students must learn to express their thoughts in a constructive and effective way.

While these young leaders embraced the importance of critical thinking, not all were optimistic. Critical thinking is best situated in an environment that accepts open-mindedness, equality, and freedom. Resistance to outspoken and open-minded people still exists throughout ASEAN, rooted in Asian traditions that prioritize seniority and authority, and ASEAN’s young people still struggle to think in new ways and to voice their thoughts effectively.

ASEAN’s youth are ready for the dawn of the new era. Will everyone else be ready?

This article was first published in InAsia.

Rattana Lao holds a doctorate in Comparative and International Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and writes on education and development. She is based in Bangkok, Thailand.

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New Social Compact

Africa Loses Billions of Dollars Due to Child Marriage

MD Staff

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Child marriage will cost African countries tens of billions of dollars in lost earnings and human capital, says a new World Bank report launched ahead of the African Union Commission’s second African Girls Summit on Ending Child Marriage taking place in Ghana this week.

According to Educating Girls and Ending Child Marriage: A Priority for Africa report, more than three million (or one third of) girls in Sub-Saharan Africa marry before their 18th birthday each year. Today, the region has the highest prevalence of child marriage in the world. Child brides are much more likely to drop out of school and complete fewer years of education than their peers who marry later. They are also more likely to have children at a young age, which affects their health as well as the education and health of their children.

While many African countries have achieved gender parity in primary education, the report notes that girls lag behind boys at the secondary level. In Sub-Saharan Africa, seven out of 10 girls complete primary education, but only four out of 10 complete lower secondary school.

On average, women who have a secondary education are more likely to work and they earn twice as much as those with no education. Estimates for 12 countries—which account for half of the African continent’s population—suggest that through its impact on girls’ education, child marriage is costing these countries $63 billion in lost earnings and human capital wealth.

“Primary education for girls is simply not sufficient. Girls reap the biggest benefits of education when they are able to complete secondary school, but we know that girls very often don’t stay in school if they marry early,” said Quentin Wodon, Lead Economist at the World Bank and principal author of the report.

Child marriage also leads to high fertility rates and population growth, the report notes. If child marriage were ended today, lower population growth would lead to higher standards of living, especially for the poorest.

The report confirms that keeping girls in school is one of the best ways to avoid child marriage. Each year of secondary education reduces the likelihood of marrying as a child before the age of 18 by five percentage points or more.

The report also documents the impact of child marriage and girls’ education on more than three dozen other development outcomes. For example, child marriage leads to higher risk of intimate partner violence, and lower decision-making in the household. Child marriage also affects the well-being of the children of young mothers, including higher risks of mortality and stunting (malnutrition) for children below the age of five.

Educating girls and promoting gender equality is part of a holistic effort at the World Bank, which includes financing and analytical work to keep girls in school, prevent child marriage, improve access to reproductive health services, and strengthen skills and job opportunities for adolescent girls and young women.

The report was published with support from the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation and the Global Partnership for Education.

* Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Zambia.

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New Social Compact

Why Education? How education changed my life

Shariful Islam

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I have a story to tell the world about the importance of education. I was born in a remote village in Madhupurupazilla, under Tangail district, Bangladesh. My parents were illiterate. Unfortunately due to some maternal related complexities, my mother died in 1988 when I was one and half or two hears old. I don’t know exactly. Even, I don’t know my actual birth of date and year. And that’s a common picture for us who born in an illiterate family. Since my mother died at an early age, I had to see the pains of hunger, poverty, malnutrition, health challenges and so forth. I still remember that almost every night, I had to sleep without any food. Sometimes, whole day, I had no food. I still remember that, one day, I and my sister were begging for some food to eat in 1993 or 94. So, that was my life story.

I had no shelter to go except my grandmother’s house. And they were also poor. So, it was really a tragic life for me. I never thought that I will ever have the privilege to have access to education. Who even do not know about from where his next meal will come, where he will go for shelter, access to education is really a dream to him. So, education was a luxury to me. After moving here and there for food and shelter almost five or six years, at last, my grandmother’s house became my shelter. I started to going to school. My life started changing because of the touch of education. I started to teach when I was in Grade five student. My first salary was BDT 20. I continued teaching as house tutor till 2012.

In October 2000, another tragic incident happened in my life. My father committed suicide. I became a full orphan. I was in Grade IX then, was studying in science group at Pakutia Public High School, Ghatail. My father’s suicide shocked me very much. I did not continue study that year. Then, I dropped one year. Next year, in 2001, I changed my school, and got admitted in Class Nine at Madhupur Shahid Smrity High School to have better education. Since the school was far away from my grandmother’s house, I had to shift to Madhupur. But where will I go? Fortunately, I got a lodging opportunity there. I had to teach two children of my lodging master, I had to go for bazar regularly, and to do other household chores on a regular basis. In return, they provided me a room to stay and three time meals. In addition, to pay my tuition fees, I had to go for other tuitions. Life goes on.

In fact, at any cost, I wanted to continue study. But, I don’t know, why? Indeed, I had no guardian who can realize me the importance of education. From my inner side, education touched me and I wanted to study at anyhow. Sometimes, I worked as a day labourer to continue my studies. Even, I remember, in 2004, after appearing my S.S.C. exam, I went to pull rickshaw in Dhaka city because I had extreme zeal to continue my education. And for the grace of Almighty ALLAH, I continued my studies.

In 2006, after appearing HSC exam, I came Dhaka with BDT 1000. When, I was not able to pay my food charge at mess, I decided to sell one of my kidneys. Then, I found tuition at Shahbagh. I was residing in Dhaka Sukrabad. Very often, I went for tuition by walking since I had no bus fare. I still remember those days.

Then, for the grace of ALLAH, I got admitted in Dhaka University in International Relations Department in 2006-2007 academic sessions. Since it’s a public university, I had to pay very poor fees to continue my studies at University. I passed honour’s in 2011 and Masters in 2012 in International Relations from the University of Dhaka. I am sincerely grateful to the people of my country who bearded my all educational expenses. I am deeply thankful to all of my teachers who taught me to shape myself. Especially, I am sincerely grateful to Professor Dr.Delwar Hossain at the Department of International Relations at Dhaka University who extended his generous hand during my difficulties, who showed me new ways to life, facilitated to increase my thirst for knowledge through showing the path of knowledge.

After appearing my Masters exam, I secured the first position from Bangladesh in the MA admission entrance test examination of South Asian University, New Delhi in 2012. Then, I moved to Delhi in 14 August in 2012 to pursue my second Master’s in International Relations at South Asian University. I continued my search for knowledge. The SAARC-India Silver Jubilee Scholarship was imperative to continue my education at SAU. My teachers at SAU helped me to create a new horizon of knowledge. After successfully completing second Masters in 2014, I joined at the University of Rajshahi in 30 November, 2014 as a founder lecturer in International Relations. That opened a new chapter in my life. I learned lots of things from the founder chairman of the Department, Professor Dr. Md. Abul Kashem and from my colleagues and students.

During teaching at Rajshahi University, I was selected as one of the 18 scholars around the world at Study of the US Institute for Scholars on US Foreign Policy Program, funded by the US State Department, hosted by the Bard College, New York for 44 days. It was a great learning opportunity for me. It provided me an international exposure and opened my eyes for the vast world of knowledge.

I continued to read, teach, and write. I even taught 8 courses at undergraduate level in 2017. Then, I moved to Delhi again at SAU, my intellectual home to pursue PhD in International Relations in July 2018. Since my childhood, I just wanted to study irrespective of challenges, and my ALLAH has fulfilled my dream. Now, I am a doctoral student. Sometimes, I even, cannot believe myself that I am a PhD scholar today.

Why am I telling all of these? The point is that it’s all about education. Education changed my life. But still coming in this 21st century, tens of thousands are out of access to education. It is quite ironic that the states of the world spend billions of dollars or armaments than education. This world politics do not work for the tens of thousands voiceless, marginal people in the world. Thus, it’s time to change the world politics for the benefits of people in the world than the state.

In fact, to change the world, we need education. To interpret the world, we need education. So, access to education is a basic human right which needs to be ensured. In this case, only our state cannot do that. Today, non-state actors’ play important role in every dimension in our society from politics to economics. Thus, alongside the government, individuals, groups, academics, scholars, writers, organizations, all need to come forward to ensure access to quality education to everyone to make a better, peaceful world. Can’t we make it?

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New Social Compact

Hunger and obesity in Latin America and the Caribbean compounded by inequality

MD Staff

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For the third consecutive year, the number of those chronically hungry has increased in Latin America and the Caribbean, while 250 million – 60 percent of the regional population – are obese or overweight, representing the biggest  threat to nutritional health, said the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on Wednesday.

Speaking at the launch of the 2018  Panorama of Food and Nutrition Security report in Santiago, Chile, FAO’s Regional Representative, Julio Berdegue said it was an “appalling” threat to health overall, affecting women and indigenous groups the most.

The Panorama, published annually by FAO, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the World Food Programme (WFP), explores strategies to halt the health threats posed by hunger and malnutrition in Latin America and the Caribbean.

According to the report, hunger, malnutrition, lack of micronutrients, and obesity largely affect lower income families, women, indigenous communities, Afro-descendants and rural families.

Principle causes of malnutrition amongst the most vulnerable, can be traced back to changes the food systems have experienced in the region, from production to consumption. With a greater strain on the demand for nutrient-rich food like milk and meats, many resort to less costly options which are often higher in fat, sugar and salt.

“Obesity is growing uncontrollably,” Mr. Berdegue said.

Maria Cristina Perceval, who serves at the regional director for UNICEF in the region, said stunting correlates closely to inequality and poverty levels, and being chronically overweight “is also increasingly affecting the poorest children,” highlighting that lower income families have unequal access to healthy diets.

Obesity has become the greatest threat to Latin America and the Caribbean when it comes to nutritional health conditions. Nearly one in four adults are obese and more than seven percent of children below the age of five are overweight—higher than the global average of 5.6 percent.

To address the exacerbation of hunger and obesity, a “multispectoral approach is needed,” Director of PAHO/WHO, Carissa Etienne said, adding that the solution requires addressing social factors just as well as water quality and access to health services.

In response to growing malnutrition, partner authors on the report call on countries to implement public policies that combat inequality while promoting health and sustainable food systems.

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