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A Center for Asia Leadership Initiatives

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“Even the smartest kids lack a foundation of skills and experiences which we can tap into immediately…”

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by John Lim

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Many people have asked Samuel and myself about how we started the Center for Asia Leadership. They also ask us about how some of our workshops such as, “21st Century Skills” or “Building Core Competencies” evolved. I would like to share one of the stories that we have documented from the annals.

In March 2012, Samuel Kim, then Harvard Kennedy School MPA student, embarked on a “trek”, which is Harvard Kennedy School parlance for a student-led political and economic tour of a country or region. At a meeting on this trek to South Korea, he engaged in a pivotal encounter at a company that sparked many initiatives to come.

After introducing the 32 students representing twelve different countries from Harvard Kennedy School to a group of executives and administrators, Samuel as the representative from Korea, engaged in a deeper conversation with the hosts.

“The public is always blaming us companies for not hiring enough new graduates,” an executive complained. “We are always facing these kinds of pressures from the government. But their argument is too simplistic. Of course, we want to hire as many as we can, but we cannot hire individuals who are not prepared. Even the smartest kids lack a foundation of skills and experiences which we can tap into immediately. We have to train them for at least two and a half years before they can even create a net value for our company. The sad fact is that the Korean school system just does not prepare them for the 21st century.”

“How are these students not ready for the 21st century?” Samuel asked. “When you say, ‘foundation of skills,’ what kind of skills are you actually talking about?”“

I mean skills that require something far beyond just memorizing. As you well know, Korean students excel at copying notes and regurgitating facts. They have not been trained to work in groups, be expressive of their ideas and articulate what they want to convey, skills that you actually need in the workplace. Companies are also good at copying the best models, but not at creating new innovations. As a nation, we’re at a point where, if we want to take the next step, we have to be the ones to lead in creating new things.”

In a nutshell, the executives were addressing a critical need for a new model of teaching and learning in the 21st century.

This problem is not unique to Korea. Despite high levels of educational achievement in Korea as well as A advanced economies, students are ill prepared to take on the challenges of the 21st century. As we saw firsthand when we embarked on a seven-country trek across Southeast Asia shortly after the Korea Trek—education is bringing many parts of Asia out of poverty, just as it did for Korea.

But education is also seen as the culprit for holding nations back once they reach the status of a post-industrial society. It is no surprise that the debate over this dilemma is loudest in Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore – advanced economies that credit education as the savior of their past but the bane of their future.

Despite high levels of educational achievement in Korea as well as Asia’s advanced economies, students are ill prepared to take on the challenges of the 21st century. These countries are moving past the Information Age towards what many are calling the Conceptual Age, one where you do not only need to “know” but also create and lead. Considering that we live in a world of constant change, individuals need to be in educational environments where they learn how to take an active role in their own learning.

The Framework for 21st Century Learning defines 21st century learning as learning of the “skills and knowledge students need to succeed in work, life, and citizenship.” The outcome of this kind of teaching and learning style is not only a deep understanding and proficiency of subject content but transferable 21st century skills and attributes – critical thinking, creativity, communication, collaboration, empathy, reflection-in-action, citizenship, and adaptation—which are applicable to any setting.

As the primary task of leadership is to make progress on the challenges that we face – one of the goals of the Center for Asia Leadership is to develop a structured template for leadership training in 21st century Asia. At the same time our Center offers members of the Harvard community the opportunity to learn, connect, and serve in Asia in unique ways, we offer communities in Asia platforms for meaningful training, instruction, and discussion. The birth of the Center was therefore sparked by the hope of connecting the vast educational resources at Harvard with individuals and organizations in Asia who are working to address the core challenges of the 21st century. Implementing change is not a task that can be accomplished easily. There are systemic and individual challenges such as policy reform, cultural barriers, and teachers’ and students’ beliefs about learning, to name a few. But when you surround yourself with highly-skilled, like-minded people, organizations who are engaged in inspiring work who are on your side, as well as a little luck and the blessing of the Divine – we are surely confident that we can make a difference.

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