Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Socratic Design

by Humberto Schwab
Philosopher, Owner, Humberto Schwab Filosofia SL, Director, Club of Amsterdam

You can only design when you now from where, towards what and for what reasons.

Socratic Design is a radical way of changing our paradigms, the way we think and the way we live. We need a radical approach because the soft, step by step, way does not bring us further. We are still heading full speed towards different crises. At the same time there is a lot of innovative intelligence, why are we so powerless?
The simple answer is, because we are looking in the wrong corner and in the wrong way. It is not the world we have to change; we have to transform our way of thinking, acting and feeling. We are addicted to old ideas, old thoughts and old feelings. Our mind is not a free sweeping rational engine, nor is the world around us a fixed entity of stable facts. Both are deep fallacies. So if we innovate with our old mind still intact, we will just reproduce more of the same in a different format! You can dress it up but that does not change the content.

Socratic Design is a program of awareness and of an action transformation for business, organizations and individuals. It makes us aware that everything around us (all that is touched by men), is designed. The world is designed according to assumptions, a world view and paradigms. In the Socratic practice we identify these and analyze them with scrutiny. In Socratic philosophy we have the tools to execute this analysis consequently and consistently.

The objects, the buildings, and the very infrastructure of our society are based on assumptions. For example, the house is built on the assumption that we want to live privately, that we want to separate sleeping and eating, that we want to protect ourselves and our possessions with doors, locks, gates etc. Each of these assumptions leans on deeper assumptions. That we lock the doors, assumes that people will probably act as thieves, this assumes that people are selfish or ego oriented. The world around us is built on this assumption, all the design that surrounds us is suffused with this approach. All governmental programs will be based on the assumption that this is the true nature of man.
In Socratic practice we can de-construct even the most hidden assumptions. An example is the assumption that all that is abstract has more truth than what is concrete and personal. The more something is distanced from you, the more objective it is. What you experience is just your opinion - what really is true is the generalization, abstracted from personal experience.

Even small things like pencils, or chairs or clothes are designed and thus contain the same assumptions. Cultural fallacies (false assumptions) are stored away hidden in our things that surround us. But here comes the devil: the surroundings determine our inner way of thinking, conditioning our thoughts and our feelings. If you as a child, were to walk around in a school full of cameras, security doors, bullet proof glass and permanent monitoring, you would start to think, feel and act as a criminal.

If you enter a hotel where they offer free drinking from the minibar as much as you like, most of us (not all) will feel very responsible and act moderately. If I approach pupils as managers of their learning process, giving them all the responsibility, they will act accordingly.

So we are not independent, rational agents (cultural fallacy): we are dependent on the environment we design ourselves. How best then, to break out of this vicious circle of reproducing new thoughts that will only perpetuate old assumptions?

Even more disturbing is the fact that we think that we are thinking, but most of the time we are rehearsing the same thoughts over and over again. It would be better to use the word "thought" as the past tense of "to think" instead of the present tense, because that is what we mostly do!
The endorphin brain system gives us a release of nice "feeling", when we have these same old thoughts over and over again. Thanks to this reward we get the impression that we really are thinking while the thoughts "run us".

Socratic Design establishes a sensitive environment to engage in "deep listening" by Socratic dialog. These Socratic dialogs transform us from ego and ratio oriented atoms into a collective sensitive mind that is capable of "listening" to the deepest human values and needs. This method guarantees a higher level of thinking. It frees us from the old addictive neuron-circuits, because each individual mind is "forced" to leave that behind.

This sensitive collective organ is the producer of instantaneous wisdom, capable of creating genuinely real knowledge. This knowledge is concrete, personal and built on questions about our values, our authentic needs and on our vision of a good life.
It is astonishing how many great minds, CEOs, leaders and politicians decrease their thinking quality-once they've reached their chosen field: they just retreat in to rehearsing admittedly very clever thoughts that got them there in the first place.
It is not their fault; the top has to broadcast messages that fit in the paradigm of the organization. So we absorb, like the kid in the school, the narrative of the company, and begin to live in it in a subconscious way.

The exciting thing about Socratic dialog is that we have to create knowledge each time again from scratch. Knowledge is the way we create the world around us every second. There are no facts; you see what you are focused on. So if we could start really thinking with these clever minds we would really be free of old "coal and steel" thoughts and get into "grafeen design"!

Real thinking is the state-of-the-art creative process. As such, we should only design things and practices when we are at our sharpest that means when we are in this super collaborative state of practical wisdom.

Socratic Design uses the deepest thoughts of the participants; they bear a lot of tacit knowledge, by making this explicit to the group, we leave procedures knowledge (which often does not match reality) behind and show what we really do; the teacher telling what teaching really is about, instead of using a didactic model, the furniture maker showing how to use the tools. Tacit knowledge contains values, practices, feelings that cannot be gathered by abstract information management or so called knowledge management!

Socratic Design does two things: It gets people in a listening mode out of their own circular thoughts by strong moderation AND creates knowledge which starts from universal basic questions. At the end of the day everything boils down to the question "How do we want to live?" or "What is a good life?"

A product, a service or an application is always related to this question (Undoubtedly, kids would answer the question about a good life: with the Lego game).
For a company to create good stuff, the leader has to be a multiplier in creative thinking, enabling communication and freeing the company from bigotry and fear of leaving the comfort zone. We rigorously analyze the assumptions and narratives of a person or organization, we bring out tacit knowledge, and we create a landscape of values. Within this moral and aesthetic landscape, we design and fashion new assumptions and best practices into a new paradigm. Thanks to Socratic dialog, we can leave old assumptions and thoughts behind. This paradigm contains designed narratives about human beings and their lives. The vision or paradigms include new forms of language (words create our factual world), good organization based on narratives, strong procedures and continuous organized intelligence through dialog.

We ourselves can design our lives ourselves towards our biggest goals from deepest human values.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

The Ukrainian Dilemma and the Bigger Picture

Hardy F. Schloer

Owner, Schloer Consulting Group - SCG
Advisory Board of the Club of Amsterdam

Being in the business of advising countries or their leaders in different places of the world, with often very different belief systems and cultural backgrounds, requires to be as neutral as possible; otherwise, such advising work would no longer provide an impartial and useful view of the world and its many problems.

Nevertheless, certain events of late make me break with tradition of neutrality and raise my voice in protest against dire collective human failure to recognize that the 18th and 19th century and its many misconceptions are over and that we need to do things very differently in the 21st century, if our global society entertains any hope of moving even beyond this current generation without destroying itself.

The events I am talking about are those in the Ukraine, specifically those of February and March 2014. In short, a portion of the Ukrainian people protested against their former president’s behavior and actions. Some sources even claimed, that these protests been initiated or escalated by some western involvement in Ukrainian affairs. We may only learn in the future, what the exact background to these protests have been; nevertheless, a significant number of them lost their lives because of this protest—a fact entirely inadmissible in a democratic society. In the end, their leader fled to Russia. Russia quickly took advantage of the confusion and moved to annex the Russian-speaking parts of the Ukraine, starting with Crimea. It was done quickly, smoothly and with great resolve. A true “masterpiece a la Putin.” One must respect his artful style. Indeed, this was great fencing or brilliant chess-play-- I’ll let you choose your metaphor. The west was totally caught off guard.

As these events unfolded in the Ukraine, they quickly involved the entire western world, and it is interesting to see who else will now look for some political or financial advantage to support one group or another, involved in this surreal political theater show.

One the one side, there is Russia, which seemingly sees a golden opportunity to expand its homeland and, under the pretext of protecting people’s culture, to regain strategic positions lost during the break-up of the Soviet Union. On the other side, there are the so called Western Powers that have set their greedy, investment-banking, eyes on the Ukraine and its business potential, in addition to strategic expansion of its financially and militarily controlled area of influence. Bankers and business leaders can’t wait to feast on the eastern expansion of Europe, having gotten plenty of appetite from Poland, Romania and the like, stepping therefore on the toes of Mr. Putin, who is not at all amused. Clearly, he has learned a very appetizing formula from the west long ago: Influence over Territory = Sales of Weapons + Financial Services + Energy Resources = Money + More Power = More Influence over Territory… and so on. I am sure you get the simple math.

It’s interesting to see how even former Soviet officials became, in the end, true believers and dedicated connoisseurs of real Capitalism, in its most hypocritical and most predatory form. Well done, all of you brilliant teachers from Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, and wherever else you are in this world.  You taught Moscow well. Now you need to choke on your own lessons, masterfully served by a truly excellent tactician: Mr. Putin himself. If this situation would not be so sad, it would actually be very amusing.

But, I guess, these pious lessons in Capitalist Greed have sparked some real competition. All of the countries involved now have their Presidents and Ministers for Foreign Affairs sitting like nasty children in a big sandbox, throwing stones at each other, in the hope of destroying each other’s sand castles. The only problem is that the sandbox in question is a country with real people, who are already suffering from horrific corruption, dire poverty, and near economic bankruptcy. Now lives have also been lost, and that in a struggle that is totally senseless, to say the least.

There are no good or bad parties here. All are equally wrong. All are equally guilty. They are guilty of failing to understand that 19th century worldviews have no business in the 21st century.  If anything, this entirely man-made crisis exposes the fundamental weaknesses in how we govern the world today. We have made great advances in scientific discovery and technology, but we have so far completely failed to advance in the art of managing society to the benefit of all humans on this planet. In my line of work, I have seen levels of poverty and corruption so deep that it can never be imagined by most of those who can read this article on a computer today.

There is human suffering in every corner of this planet, and in a depth that surpasses the worst Kafkaesque nightmare. Yet, few people seem to think that there is anything wrong with this. In fact, most people believe that these problems are a natural part of human evolution.  Well, all I can say is that we better start evolving right now, and a lot faster, because what we are doing now is not only unsustainable with 7 billion people on the planet, but cannot continue without our technological reach outpacing our ethical constraints, and without harming each other on a totally new scale, which will usher in the proverbial Doomsday.

In the 21st century we need to begin to embrace something that was known in former ages as Utopia. But, let’s remember that Utopia is always one step beyond what we can do today, but may well be able to do tomorrow. Before the first airplane managed to rise into the air, Utopia meant being able to fly. As soon as that was archived, Utopia became manned space flight.

To get to a political Utopia here on this planet, we need to begin by asking some extremely provocative questions:

Do we really need the concept of nations in the 21st century?

Do we really need bordered up countries, passports, visas, flags, and national anthems, which foster nothing, but buy more hypocritical, rampant nationalism? Why is it so great to belong to one nation, and not to another, or any nation at all? Can we even afford to continue along these lines on a planet that will soon house 14+ billion people, who need to live in intelligent cooperation with each other?

The short answer is absolutely NO!

One of the most compelling reasons comes directly from the US, which seemingly believes that Americans are much better people, with much more valuable lives than those of any other people in the world; and that, therefore, they deserve preferential treatment, or in some military cases, even special immunity above all others; except, ironically, when they are in their own country, where they are treated mostly as a cheap, mass-resource for the commercial and economic objectives of major multinational corporations, investment banks and the other ruling elites of the country. One may think I am embracing here some old ideas of Marxist communism, but nothing could be further from the truth, because communism is just as dysfunctional as capitalism, or any other dogmatic “ism.”

American policy makers often proclaim that their largely hypocritical and valueless values are much superior to those of any other population on the planet, and that they must, therefore, export these values to every other nation in the world, by force if necessary, in order to glorify Americanism in its most extreme form. This is not too different from the conviction-driven expansion of communism under Lenin, Stalin and their followers, not too long ago. Unfortunately, it is not the proclamation of independence or the beautiful bill of rights that the US leaders try nowadays to export to the rest of the world. It is cynical double standards, greed and uninvited control of economic and territorial assets. It’s all about Money and Power at any cost. Moreover, as they attack Russia on their illegal invasion of Crimea, they have forgotten their own illegal armed attacks on foreign soil, in Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan to name just a very few, without any U.N. security council authorization.

Yet, this same country that breaks international laws to export its so-called humanitarian values abroad has, at home, the highest prison population of the entire world; the greatest level of poverty; the most public and domestic violence, homelessness, and hunger, and, lest we forget, the most undereducated children amongst all the so-called developed nations. Today’s America is a total departure from the great ideas and principles once proclaimed in its founding and truly glories moments of 1776.  All that is gone, and this nation has turned into an international predator by nearly any standard.

But let’s not stop at America. Look at Europe! It is just as guilty! Just as bad. Just as hypocritical. Just as obsessed with hard money and cold power.

After some 2000 years of barbaric mutual slaughtering, finally Europe had an unusually long 75-year period of peace. However, by trying to make Europe a continent-wide success of collaboration, European leaders only wanted to rival the US in its ability to export its own form of economic control and power. As a result, what we find of late is that cynical nationalism and poisoning xenophobia within individual nations are fully on the rise, creating the danger of returning once again to the old fragmented Europe; many are even calling for the dismantling of the historic Schengen agreement, to accommodate these nationalistic agendas of separation and cultural isolation. Strangely enough, it is these European nations, known for liberal agendas just a few years ago, that are now pushing in the opposite direction: Holland, Denmark and Spain, to name just a few examples. I guess both Russia and America welcome this agenda, as they never wanted to see a strong, free and emancipated Europe anyway. That way they can play one country against the other, which is so consistent with the old European tradition anyway.

Europe’s form of imposing on each other and the rest of the world is perhaps more elegant in style and articulation than that of the US today, but in principle it is just as hypocritical and as predatory.  European investment bankers and major corporations are happily feasting at the rich dinner table they have been sharing with their US counterparts since WWII.

Now Russia is falling right into the same pattern, very artfully, too. Its organizational support of nationalism is rivaling that of the US, Holland or the UK. Now Russia is on a pious mission of bringing “home” (to the Russian empire) every Russian-speaking enclave in this world, by whatever means necessary. Mr. Putin claims to love his Russian people, but fails to see that most of them live in shocking poverty; that the average Russian life expectancy has fallen from 74 years during the days of the Soviet Union down to 57, due to the impossibly dire living conditions outside of Moscow. Mr. Putin even learned from the conservatives in America how to utilize and integrate the power of the Russian Church into his agenda. Just as the neocons in America embraced the zealous forms of Protestant Christianity as excuse for everything they did, Mr. Putin turned to the Christian Orthodox Church to create a very elegant and believable religious pretext of using military power in order to bring the proverbial “sheep” back to the “Church flock,” as a good shepherd is expected to do.

It took Mr. Putin a bit of time to get over the problems of a disintegrating Soviet Empire and the horrific economic legacy that Mr. Yeltsin left behind him, but make no mistake: when Mr. Putin understood and fully learned the game the west was playing, he graduated quickly, and started to play masterfully the territorial game of political monopoly, perfectly integrating into the web of global power and money. Now he appears better at it than his American and European counterparts.

Today, Mr. Putin uses the US and Europe as convenient banking centers and shopping malls for him and his rich, post-Yeltsin era, friends and corporations. Both Europe and America are eagerly providing very accommodating banking services for Russia’s many interests. Finally, Europe and the US have become one shadowy hedge-fund environment for dirty Russian money, serving Putin’s and his friends’ financial interests, the greedy bonus coffers of corrupt European and US investment bankers, and whoever else has his fingers in the pot.

Now we’ve just got one big happy family around the proverbial ‘G8 Dinner Table’, squabbling publicly over how the Ukrainian territory should be controlled and who should be profiteering from it, for how long and how much.  Perhaps my sarcasm is not even reaching the depth of the real truth of things, because the reality is likely even much darker than this.

Meanwhile the suffering goes on.  The people of the Ukraine, Russia and partly also of America are still starving, are still suffering from organizational corruption, are still running after the dream of being successful one day while treading day in and day out on the economic hamster wheel, searching for pennies to survive.

What we must do in the 21st century is to embrace people and culture; all cultures; all differences, and learn how to appreciate them, as they are an interesting diversification of our entire global species. We don't need borders, nations, visas, aggressive armies and any form of weapons to enjoy our global human species.  We need a common way to govern ourselves by means of science, responsible technologies and peaceful human cooperation; by sharing our resources and technologies across all cultures and people, and by letting anyone live where they want, work where they want.  We must think more in terms what we can do to make life better for all, rather then turning the world into 1000 ghettos, so that a few can live in disgustingly ostentatious wealth, while others can’t even provide milk for their babies.

In my life I’ve been fortunate to accumulate many American, Western European, Russian and Asian friends and partners in business and scientific research. When I travel to Russia, or Russian speaking countries, I feel very welcomed there by the people I encounter, and I truly appreciate their culture and customs.  I never want to miss them. Equally, I have many American friends and collaborators who have, in some cases, been with me for decades. I would never want to miss them either. The same goes for all the wonderful people I worked with in Europe and Asia. I have built the most successful teams of people from all these nations. I worked with mathematicians from different places from Moscow to Siberia, computer programmers from the Ukraine and other Eastern European countries, scientists from all over the Americas, Asia, Europe and elsewhere. I can assure you, these have been the best times of my life. Mixing cultures and human experiences in an open, unrestricted and non-hostile environment has been a truly amazing enrichment of my life, not a burden or threat to my existence.

Keeping us humans apart and hating each other, or building borders and weapons and armies to kill each other, serves only the few who make money on this: the bankers, the weapon manufactures, and those who profit from the limitation of freedom, travel, self-determination and financial resources--all the results of the national ghettos that they are trying to perpetuate.

"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" This was the urgent call by US President Ronald Reagan in a speech at the Brandenburg Gate near the Berlin Wall on June 12, 1987, commemorating the 750th anniversary of Berlin. Reagan challenged Mikhail Gorbachev, who was then the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, to tear the wall down as a symbolic gesture of the Soviet leader’s desire to increase political freedom in the Eastern Bloc through glasnost and perestroika.

Today, this challenge must be renewed and urgently expanded:

“Mr. Putin, Mr. Obama, and all you leaders of the western world: begin to tear down all the walls and boarders between us! Lay down all your weapons and release all armies! Let us all come together as one free people of this planet. Let us work together for the prosperity of everyone. Let there be nobody going hungry to bed at night! You know very well we have the resources to do this. Put freedom and cooperation amongst people before profits and exploitation! End the dark sarcasm of your greedy financial systems and institutions. And most of all, stop feeding tension and hatred amongst our brothers and sisters across all nations and cultures. Let us love each other, work and play together, and become ‘one people’ — the beautiful human race!”

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The impact of culture on education

Huib Wursten, Senior Partner, itim International
Carel Jacobs is senior consultant/trainer for itim in The Netherlands, he is also Certification Agent for the Educational Sector of the Hofstede Centre.

Can we introduce best practices in education across countries?
As a result of globalization, many people are becoming interested in ranking systems which show how their own countries compare with others on a variety of measures. The World Economic Forum publishes an annual ranking of countries on economic competitiveness; the United Nations a ranking on human development; the OECD publishes comparisons on the quality of healthcare systems. Even a ranking system for “happiness” can be found.
In this paper we will explore the outcome of ranking countries on the quality of education.  In particular we will focus on a recent report “The Learning Curve” (2013) published by The Economist Magazine’s Intelligence Unit. In this report an attempt was made to look for “best practices” – approaches that systematically lead to higher quality education thereby enabling policy makers and practitioners in other countries to simply “copy and paste” and work towards educational reforms that have proven effective in raising educational achievement in some countries. The surprising conclusion from this report, however, is that almost no practices were found that could be implemented globally. The authors explain that while the inputs to education – like money, school choice, years in school, and teacher-pupil ratio’s – can be identified; and outputs can be compared looking at ranking systems on measures of literacy, numeracy, and educational attainment; what happens between input and output is very much a local issue. They describe this country-specific process as a “black box”, implying that there is no systematic way to describe how the differences in the teaching/learning process transforms inputs into outputs.
We will show that well-researched systematic differences in value preferences across countries are vital for understanding the way teaching/learning processes are handled. Using the seminal work of Geert Hofstede on cultural differences, we will show that the five culture dimensions he found provides an analytical tool for understanding the local differences in educational policy and teaching methods in school systems. Based on this cross-cultural framework, we ask a fundamental question: is it possible to find best practices that work worldwide in spite of these value differences?
In short this article attempts to:
Summarize recent rankings of educational performance across countries and the influence of culture on these ranking systems.
  •  Describe what culture is and how it influences the way we educate and learn.
  •  Analyze “best practices", i.e. can we export practices across cultures. Can we learn from each other while being so different?
  •  Enlarge the discussion of some key issues in education by incorporating a cultural perspective.

I. Ranking educational systems worldwide
In the field of education there are several systems used to compare educational quality across countries, including: Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS); Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS); and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).(*1) These approaches focus on benchmarking the factors leading to achievement and, more specifically, trying to identify what specific factors differentiate the highest achievers. As professor Schleicher (OECD) (*2) says: “education debates are no longer about the improvement by national standards. Best performing countries now set the tone”.

Recently the Economist Intelligence Unit of the Economist Magazine published a new ranking system: the Learning Curve Data Bank LCDB: country performance in education.(*3) This report outlines the main findings from a large body of internationally comparable education data. In the report they provide an overall ranking (column 1) by comparing cognitive skills attainment (column 2) which combines the results from the PIRLS, TIMMS and Pisa systems, and scores of countries on the highest degree of education individuals complete: “educational attainment” (column 3)  (*4).

The top 20 countries are shown below:

                                                Overall ScoreCognitive SkillsEducational Attainment
  Finland[Rank 1] 1.26[Rank 1] 1.50[Rank 3] 0.79
  South Korea[Rank 2] 1.23[Rank 4] 1.24[Rank 1] 1.21
  Hong Kong-China[Rank 3] 0.90[Rank 3] 1.26[Rank 17] 0.20*
  Japan[Rank 4] 0.89[Rank 5] 1.04[Rank 8] 0.59
  Singapore[Rank 5] 0.84[Rank 2] 1.39[Rank 33] -0.26*
  United Kingdom[Rank 6] 0.60[Rank 12] 0.50[Rank 2] 0.81
  Netherlands[Rank 7] 0.59[Rank 7] 0.72[Rank 11] 0.32*
  New Zealand[Rank 8] 0.56[Rank 9] 0.61[Rank 9] 0.47*
  Switzerland[Rank 9] 0.55[Rank 8] 0.71[Rank 13] 0.22
  Canada[Rank 10] 0.54[Rank 6] 0.72[Rank 20] 0.18
  Ireland[Rank 11] 0.53[Rank 16] 0.42[Rank 5] 0.74
  Denmark[Rank 12] 0.50[Rank 17] 0.41[Rank 6] 0.68
  Australia[Rank 13] 0.46[Rank 11] 0.54[Rank 12] 0.31
  Poland[Rank 14] 0.43[Rank 20] 0.26[Rank 4] 0.77
  Germany[Rank 15] 0.41[Rank 10] 0.56[Rank 23] 0.12
  Belgium[Rank 16] 0.35[Rank 15] 0.43[Rank 17] 0.20*
  United States[Rank 17] 0.35[Rank 14] 0.44[Rank 21] 0.16
  Hungary[Rank 18] 0.33[Rank 13] 0.46[Rank 25] 0.07
  Slovakia[Rank 19] 0.32[Rank 25] 0.16[Rank 7] 0.65
  Russia[Rank 20] 0.26[Rank 19] 0.29[Rank 19] 0.20*

The most interesting result of the analyses, as summarized in this report, is “how few correlations there are”.  In order to explain this result, one observation is that in any number of surveys researchers measure what is measurable. Usually inputs are identified more than outputs because they are simpler and easier to measure. However, the “softer” inputs of education tend to be left out. The authors conclude: “These inputs, however can be crucial, such as the cultural context in which education occurs.” The difficulty the writers admit is: “how do you disentangle deeply embedded cultural values from social and educational policies?” The quality and approach of teachers plays a big role in this. Teachers are key transmitters of cultural values. Much research has focused on: “what education systems can do to ensure that they find teachers who add value”.  But even here the report concludes that “the rules tend to be country specific.”

The how and what of education is very much connected to the culture of the country at hand. A lot of different ideas exist about the role and position of the teacher as well as expectations around the “right” behavior of students. These key elements again are highly linked to cultural values. In the Economist report culture is discussed only in a very generic way.  Education remains, in the words of The Economist, “a black box (*5)  in which inputs are turned into outputs in ways that are difficult to predict or quantify consistently.

Input ---->


----> Output

Spending per pupil




Black Box

of Education is



class size


start age


school choice

Graduation rates

years in school

Literacy, employment, etc.

Looking at the black box above, we believe that it can be opened. We will outline  how culture can be used as the key. Culture, however, is a vague term and is used in very different ways.

 II. What is culture? How does culture influence the learning process?
 a. About culture: the research of Geert Hofstede

We will first delve a little bit deeper in this notion of “culture”. As a starting point we take the results of the scientific research by professor Geert Hofstede.  Hofstede is widely recognized as the one who did the most fundamental research on cultural differences(*6,7,8,9). He defines culture as “the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others”. Hofstede carried out fundamental research into the dominant values of countries and the way in which they influence behavior in organizations. Original data were based on an extensive IBM database for which 116,000 questionnaires were used in 72 countries and in 20 languages.

The results of his research were validated against about 40 cross-cultural studies from a variety of disciplines. Analyzing his data, Hofstede found five value clusters (or “dimensions”) being the most fundamental in understanding and explaining the differences in answers to the single questions in his questionnaires. He measured the differences and calculated scores for 56 countries on these 5 dimensions. Later research, partly done by others have extended this to about a 100 countries. The combined scores for each country explain variations in behavior of people and organizations. The scores indicate the relative differences between cultures.

The five dimensions of national culture identified by Hofstede are:
  •  Power Distance Index (PDI)
  •  Individualism vs. collectivism (IDV)
  •  Masculinity vs. femininity (MAS)
  •  Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI)
  •  Long Term Orientation (LTO)
      Country scores on each dimension are ranked from low to high, i.e. from 0 to 100.
Please note that the score of a country is not meant to imply that everyone in a particular society is programmed in exactly the same way. There are considerable individual differences. But when fundamental values of various societies are compared, ‘majority preferences’ are found to exist, which occur again and again as a result of the way children are brought up by their parents and the educational system. And when we examine how societies organize themselves, these majority preferences turn out to have a modifying influence at all levels. They have an influence on the ways teacher and students are expected to behave. Even the ideas of the objectives of education are stated in different ways. For example in some countries the objective of education is: to develop a critical mind, which in other cultures is viewed as absurd. In these countries students are supposed to try to learn as much as possible from the older generation and only when you are fully initiated you may communicate to have ideas of yourself.

 III. The five dimensions and their influence on Education
 a. Power Distance Index (PDI)

Power distance is the extent to which less powerful members of a society accept that power is distributed unequally. In high power-distance cultures everybody has his/her rightful place in society. Old age is respected, and status is important. In low power-distance cultures people try to look younger and powerful people try to look less powerful. People in countries like the US, Canada, the UK , all Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands score low on the power-distance index and are more likely to accept ideas like empowerment, matrix management and flat organizations.  Business schools around the world tend to base their teachings on low power-distance values.  Yet, most countries in the world have a high power-distance index.


Implications of Power Distance on Teaching



Student centered. Premium on initiative

Teacher centered. Premium on order

Teacher expects student to initiate communication

Student expects teacher to initiate communication

Teacher expects students to find own paths

Student expects teacher to outline paths

Students allowed to contradict & criticize

Teacher never contradicted nor criticized

Effectiveness of learning is a function the amount of two-way communication

Effectiveness of learning is a function of the excellence of teachers

 b. Individualism vs. Collectivism (IDV)
In individualistic cultures, like almost all the rich Western countries, people look after themselves and their immediate family only; in collectivist cultures like Asia and Africa people belong to "in-groups" who look after them in exchange for loyalty. In individualist cultures, values are in the person, whereas in collectivist cultures, identity is based on the social network to which one belongs. In individualist cultures there is more explicit, verbal communication. In collectivist cultures communication is more implicit. 

Implications of Collectivism vs. Individualism on Teaching
Students only speak up when called on by the teacher
Students speak up in response to general invitation by the teacher
Individuals only speak up in small groups
Individuals will speak up in large groups
Formal harmony in learning situations should be maintained at all times
Confrontation and challenge in learning situations can be brought into the open
Neither teacher nor student should ever be made to lose face
“Face consciousness” is weak
Teachers expected to give preferential treatment to some, e.g. based on ethnic affiliation or recommendation
Teachers expected to be strictly impartial

 c. Masculinity vs. Femininity (MAS)
In masculine cultures like USA, UK, Germany, Japan and Italy the dominant values are achievement and success. The dominant values in feminine cultures are consensus seeking, caring for others and quality of life. Sympathy is for the underdog. People try to avoid situations distinguishing clear winners and losers.  In masculine cultures performance and achievement are important. The sympathy is for the winners. Status is important to show success. Feminine cultures like the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands have a people orientation. Small is beautiful and status is not so important.

Implications of Femininity vs. Masculinity on Teaching
Teachers use average students as norm
Teachers use best students as norm
System rewards students’ social adaptation
System rewards academic performance
Student’s failure in school a relatively minor accident
Student’s failure in school a severe blow to student self image
students try to behave modestly
students try to make themselves visible
Students choose subjects out of interest
Students choose subjects for career reasons
 d. Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI)

Uncertainty avoidance (or uncertainty control) stands for the extent to which people feel threatened by uncertainty and ambiguity. In cultures with strong uncertainty avoidance, people have a strong emotional need for rules and formality to structure life. The way people think and learn is influenced by this value. In High UAI countries like Korea, Germany, Russia, France, Iran and Brasil, the need is to know about what people in the past and present already said about a certain subject. It is a pre-requisite for “competence.” This results in high status of experts, as opposed to weak uncertainty-avoidance cultures, like the UK, the USA, and Denmark  in which the views of practitioners are more highly respected.

Implications of Uncertainty Avoidance on Teaching
Students comfortable in Un structured learning situations:
      Broad assignments
      No timetables
Students comfortable in structured learning situations:
      Precise instructions
      Detailed assignments
      Strict timetables
Teachers allowed to say “I don’t know”
Teachers expected to have all the answers
Good teachers use plain language
Good teachers use academic language
Students rewarded for innovative approaches
Students rewarded for accuracy
Teachers view intellectual disagreement as stimulating
Teachers view intellectual disagreement as personal disloyalty

 e. Long Term Orientation (LTO)
The last element of culture is the Long Term Orientation which is the extent to which a society exhibits a future-orientated perspective rather than a near term point of view.  Low scoring countries like the USA and West European countries are usually those under the influence of monotheistic religious systems, such as the Christian, Islamic or Jewish systems. People in these countries believe there is an absolute and indivisible truth. In high scoring countries such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, for example those practicing Buddhism, Shintoism or Hinduism,  people believe truth depends on time, context and situation.

Implications of Long Term Orientation on Teaching
Focus on asking “Why”?
Focus on asking “How”?
Students want to find the one and only solution
Different answers possible. “Many thruths”
Strong emphasis on education as obligation to parents and society
Stability rated as the most important virtue
Perseverance rated as the most important virtue

Implications of Long Term Orientation on Teaching
Low High
Focus on asking “Why”? Focus on asking “How”?
Students want to find the one and only solution Different answers possible. “Many thruths”
 Strong emphasis on education as obligation to parents and society
Stability rated as the most important virtue Perseverance rated as the most important virtue

IV.  Best practices: can we learn from each other?

 a. Best practices

In analyzing the results of educational measures, a term being used frequently in the last few years is “best practices”. As can now be understood from the framework just explained, even this term and approach for country comparison is culturally bound. Focus on "best practices" is a very Anglo-Saxon approach. All Anglo Saxon cultures score low on Uncertainty Avoidance. This means that the focus is not on theoretical approaches and expert knowledge but on practices and the experience of practitioners, and the thinking style is inductive. As a consequence handbooks on all subjects in these cultures begin with a description of cases taken from practice. These cases are analyzed and lead to a statement about best practices. This approach values practical application over "academic" research.

This Anglo Saxon brand of inductive reasoning can be further understood by adding the influence of a high score on MAS: strong action- and achievement orientation. This way of thinking is called pragmatism. Pragmatists are unwilling to be involved in too much speculation on what is going on in the minds of people. Abstract argumentation is something for “academics.” What counts is whether specific actions lead to desired observable behavior: “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”  ‘If we can work out what’s in the box – fine. It may help. If not – we’ll just do what seems to work. Even if we do work out what’s in the box and it doesn’t work – we’ll do something else.’ 

In contrast, deductive thinking is the norm in high UAI cultures. These cultures try first to get an understanding of what is known about a subject. The first step is always to look into what others, especially experts from the past and the present, have already said on a subject. Then a philosophy or “the principles of…” (management, leadership, marketing, education) can be formulated. The last step is application. In this approach philosophy and thinking is more highly regarded than the actions of practitioners that follow. As a result, people of these cultures experience “best practices” as “superficial.” They are more interested in the thinking that led to successful approaches.

 b. Can we learn from another culture?

In the Economist report professor Stecher was quoted: “Schools are both recipients and creators of cultural patterns: over the long term they help to shape norms for the next generation”. (2) Yes, they are recipients, but are also creators. And the question is if it is possible to create a "culture free" best school system which other countries can simply "copy and paste" what has been successful in another country?

The answer is that cultural values are deeply rooted and are very consistent over time. The ‘collective programming of the mind’ starts from the moment children are born. They learn from their parents to obey absolutely or to speak up. This programming continues at school as was described above how the five dimensions apply to learning situations. Are students expected to find their own path and are they allowed to contradict the teacher? Are they expected to compete with each other in class? This all depends on the country culture. It is this “context” that needs to be taken into account when looking at what has been successful in one country and whether or how those approaches can be applied to another country. It is shortsighted to expect countries to be effective in introducing new ideas if these ideas are not likely to fit in the context of their values.

These comments are not suggesting that we cannot learn from others. Of course we should keep an open mind about what is happening elsewhere. But it is naïve to think that a best practices in a certain specific culture can be automatically copied and pasted in another culture with different basic preferences. What is needed is a way to  “translate” from one value system to another to make it work. Professionals working in an international environment should understand the different expectations of colleagues and students in the teaching-learning process. They should be trained to understand and to apply the different “rules of the game” according to the different norms of the society at hand.

V     Analyzing some key issues in education, within a cultural framework

The conclusion of “The learning curve” is that two issues were globally recognized as the core of understanding educational quality:
 a. a supportive culture for education and
 b. the need for a high status of teachers.
These two features of education are highly influenced by culture and therefore implemented in different ways in different countries. Some examples are provided below.

 a. Supportive culture for education

In explaining the success of Korea and Finland, The Economist concludes that in both these countries there is a supportive culture for education. However, what translates as "support" is very different in these two situations. In the first instance, Korea is a high power distance country, where people accept top down policy decisions by a government. In fact it is seen as the task and privilege of a government. For example, South Korea made a "top-down" decision dating back 30 years to make the country more competitive in the global market. To do so they focused on the education of the future workforce. A lot of resources were allocated to make use of the full available potential. By comparison, low power distance cultures such as Finland, have a different approach to education policy. Because of the low PDI rating, power is decentralized in these cultures, so it is a necessity to involve all the stakeholders and to approach influencing from the bottom up..

 b. High status of teachers
Another area where culture plays an essential role in defining the how and what of "status." For instance, in Finland a critical moment in education policy occurred when the Government decided that teachers should only be recruited from Universities to give the profession "high status." In other cultures an academic credential is not as highly valued. For example, in a May 2013 speech by the education secretary in the UK, Mr. Gove told his audience that he wants ”…to sweep away the whole structure that has underpinned schools since the war. Schools themselves should conduct research into what produces great teaching and learning, rather than leaving such studies to universities, which he believes have offered little of practical value in terms of improving schools. Leaders should be trained within schools rather than being sent away to acquire abstract diplomas. Teachers should equally be trained within the schools themselves, rather than learning how to teach in university education departments. “(*10)  Here we see credibility and status of academics conferred very differently between Finland, a country scoring 59 on UAI, and the UK, which scores 35.

VI    Some other issues discussed  in “The Learning Curve”

 a. Autonomy of schools, testing and accountability

One of the important issues discussed in “The learning curve” is about giving schools autonomy in the teaching process while also making them more accountable for achieving results. ”Give the schools back to the professional” is the slogan. The secretary of education in the UK,  Mr Gove in his May 2013 speech was promoting his idea. As one newspaper wrote: “No education secretary in the modern era has matched his vision of a largely autonomous education system in which individual schools, heads and teachers are given back their independence and creativity. Only by releasing dynamism in this way does he believe that British schools will be able to compete with the best in Shanghai, Singapore and Scandinavia” (*10).  The autonomy he believes should be accompanied by accountability. To be able to hold teachers accountable there is a need for testing to see if the students are getting the quality they deserve.

In some countries the authorities try to establish and administer standardized test to all students. In the US as a result of the Bush initiative “no one left behind” in school year2013/14 more than one million students in 22 states are expected to take the tests, in an effort to help develop a national exam modeled on the new standards, known as the Common Core.  The big concern with this approach is whether this leads to “teaching to the test”.  In other words, does the pressure coming from showing improvements through these tests cause teachers and students to  discuss and study what is necessary to pass these tests? There are already warnings about this. In June 2013 the “Humanities Committee” a group of concerned educators in the USA sounded an alarm. .“We are preparing students to be employable,” said Eduardo J. Padrón, a commission member. But without the humanities and social sciences, he added, “they are missing something important.” "People talk about the humanities and social sciences as if they are a waste of time,” said Richard H. Brodhead, the president of Duke University and a co-chairman of the commission. “But this facile negativism forgets that many of the country’s most successful and creative people had exactly this kind of education." (*11)

It is not surprising that this "reductionist" approach is common in masculine countries where the motivation to compete and to achieve is high. In more feminine countries, however, the focus on "quality of life" prevents schools from only offering subjects that are directly related to measurable results that lead to employability.  These countries retain an emphasis on a broader curriculum, that retains the humanities, arts and social sciences as essential elements of education and preparation for adult life.

Again: autonomy and testing are very much cultural issues. Autonomy, the bottom up approach, is acceptable only in Low Power Distance cultures. Like empowerment in management theories it implies that authorities/managers dare to give the power to the lowest possible level without too many instructions and structural limits, also implies a low score for UAI. This combination, low PDI and low UAI, is in principle only found in the Anglo-Saxon countries, in Scandinavia and the Netherlands. This educational strategy can be adapted to fit other countries like Germany, Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic, by adding more explicit rules and procedures when the autonomy is given. In High power distance cultures, empowerment and autonomy is not impossible, but it must take the form of clearly-defined delegation. The level of autonomy would be clearly defined and limited within a very strict set of mandates. If things happen that are not foreseen by their mandate, schools would not be allowed to act independently to respond to the new situation. They would be required to go back up the chain of authority and ask for instructions first.

Standardized tests and quantifiable objectives with consequences for pass/fail decisions and visible ranking is an approach suited to cultures with the masculine thinking style. In other cultures people are more hesitant to focus so heavily on achieving top scores and comparing students and schools on standardized tests. Finland, for example, with the top ranking in TLC, is a highly feminine country and does not use this kind of highly competitive orientation. Pasi Sahlberg, director general of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation (CIMO) in Finland has strong opinions on why Finland stands out in comparison with countries like the USA: “It [the education system] is run like a marketplace rather than a professional place,” Sahlberg says that five aspects of the Finnish system sets it apart. At the forefront, the Finnish system was built without trying to be number one. He emphasized that competition was never part of the system. Instead the focus has aimed at creating good schools for all children. Sahlberg points out that Finland’s approach is emphasizing collaboration instead of competition. The impact of competition has resulted in standardization and created immense expectations including that “everyone learn the same and in the same way.” Instead, Finland has stressed personalization of education – where every school sets its own standards based on a national framework. He said this approach created a system where a student’s only competitor is him or herself. A direct result of standards in tests in countries like America is increased focus on accountability, particularly teachers. “Accountability is what’s left when responsibility is taken away,” he said. In Finland, the teaching profession operates as a trust-based responsibility.(*12)

Beyond the lack of emphasis on competition, Finland also has a culture that truly values education. The Finnish also trust public education. It is the second most trusted institutions in the country, next to police, earning 89 percent. This is in stark contrast to the United States, Sahlberg asserts, where only 29 percent trust the public education system. A fairly equal wealth distribution within Finland also impacts the education system. As a result, Finland continues to do well in many areas beyond education, like women’s empowerment, technological advances, child well-being, and prosperity.

Conclusion: the discussions on autonomy of schools, testing, and accountability is very much “loaded” with culture. What is seen as desirable in one culture is seen as unwanted in another.

b. Performance levels in East Asian countries. Strengths and weaknesses

Another interesting result to analyze from a cultural perspective is the successful performance of students in East Asian countries. The cultural side of this result can be understood by the 5th  Dimension of culture LTO:: the strong emphasis on education as obligation to parents and society.:

 Analysis of their education systems has pointed out however  that these are steeped in discipline, rote learning and obsessive test preparation. Many educators say however that this strength is in education is also a weakness. In their opinion the education system is too test-oriented, schools stifle creativity and parental pressures often deprive children of the joys of childhood.

Jiang Xueqin, a deputy principal at Peking University High School in Beijing said in The Wall Street Journal shortly after test results were announced: “Chinese schools emphasized testing too much, and produced students who lacked curiosity and the ability to think critically or independently”. (13)

As a result critics like Jiang Xueqin feel that “Chinese schools are very good at preparing their students for standardized tests. But for the same reason they fail to prepare them for higher education and the knowledge economy.”

One more issue of concern is that the stress to succeed makes that suicide rates among students are very high in countries like South Korea, China and Japan.

Mr. Zhang Chun from the Nanjing Suicide Rescue Hotline said: "Children nowadays are under too much pressure from middle school to high school. They don't have much time to go out and experience being in society. They have no other way of learning, and have no way of blowing off steam”. (14)

In South Korea the most common cause of youth suicide is pressure related to the College Scholastic Ability Test. 

VII Conclusion

We have shown that well researched systematic differences in value preferences per country are fundamental in understanding the way the teaching learning processes are handled. The 5 culture dimensions found by Geert Hofstede provide an analytical tool for understanding the local differences in the educational policy and school systems.

This brings us to conclude that:

  •  A truly international approach to ranking countries on education should take cultural differences into account before ”benchmarking” and describing the characteristics of good school systems and good teachers.
  • We can and should learn from each other. But we should also understand that to make a “best practice” work requires translation to  a different culture / value system. Example: Finland is seen by some American educationalists as the example of how to improve the educational system. Analyzing the differences Pahlberg (12) concluded that the big difference is that in the USA the driving factor is competition while in Finland it is cooperation. This is not a coincidence, something that can be changed easily. No it is a basic cultural difference  between Masculine cultures and Feminine cultures. To be effective in looking for improvement this difference should be a leading element in the planning of change. (see 16)
    The same applies to the discussion on the autonomy of schools. In high power distance countries (by far the majority of countries in the world) Autonomy will only be possible in a clearly defined and limited mandate that is given by the central power holders. It should be defined top down.
  • The 5 dimensions of culture provide a guideline for the translation
  • The quality of teachers is related to how country cultures are defining the role of teachers in the education process. It is a matter of effectiveness to accept this and to understand that results can be obtained in different ways. Look at the  differences between the first two countries in the ranking system Finland and South Korea.:

South Korea
Student centered education
Teacher centered education
Effectiveness of learning related to amount of two-way communication
Effectiveness of learning related to excellence of teacher
Teacher expects students take initiative
Students expect initiative from teacher
Teacher expects students find their own path
Students expect teacher to outline paths
A good teacher uses plain language
A good teacher uses academic language
Teachers interpret intellectual disagreement as stimulating
Teachers interpret intellectual disagreement as personal disloyalty
Face consciousness weak
Neither teacher nor student should ever be made to lose face

  • Planning and implementation of change in the educational field should take the country culture into account. For instance in high PDI countries it should be done top down, committing first the top of the educational field. In low PDI countries with a high score on UAI it is a must to commit first the recognized experts in the field, while in countries with low PDI and Feminity all stake holders must be involved from scratch .

About the authors (*17)
Huib Wursten ( huib at itim.org )
Until 2007 Huib was co-owner and MD of the Institute for Training in Intercultural management ITIM. He is experienced in translating international and global strategies and policies into practical consequences for management. He has been working in this field since 1989 with Fortune 1000 companies, as well as with public and political organizations in 85 countries in all continents.

Carel Jacobs (carel at itim.org)
Carel is senior consultant/trainer for ITIM in The Netherlands and is Certification Agent for the Educational sector of the Hofstede Centre. After a career as MD of an international learning company and project manager in international business projects he concentrated on intercultural management in both the public and private sector in the area of education, organization development and management of change.

1.The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) is an international study of reading achievement in fourth graders. It is conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA). "It is designed to measure children’s reading literacy achievement, to provide a baseline for future studies of trends in achievement, and to gather information about children’s home and school experiences in learning to read."
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a worldwide study by the OECD  in member and non-member nations of 15-year-old school pupils' scholastic performance on mathematics, science, and reading. It was first performed in 2000 and then repeated every three years. It is done with view to improving education policies and outcomes. The data has increasingly been used both to assess the impact of education quality on incomes and growth and for understanding what causes differences in achievement across nations.
The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is an international assessment of the mathematics and science knowledge of 4th and 8th grader students around the world. TIMSS was developed by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) to allow participating nations to compare students' educational achievement across borders.
2. As quoted in the LCDB. See 3.
3.The Learning Curve Data Bank (LCDB) – created by the Economist Intelligence Unit as part of the broader Learning Curve programme – is an effort to advance study in this area. It is purpose-built, substantial collection of data which includes more than 60 comparative indicators gathered from over 50 countries. Many of these indicators in turn rely on multiple pieces of information, so that, even with some inevitable gaps, the LCDB encompasses over 2,000 individual data points. These go well beyond traditional education metrics, such as teacher-student ratios and various spending metrics, to cover a broad range of educational inputs and possible outputs, from the degree to which parents demand good results of schools to the proportion of adults who end up in jail.
4.Educational attainment is a term commonly used by statisticians to refer to the highest degree of education an individual has completed

5.Black box:
In philosophy and psychology, the school of behaviorism sees the human mind as a black box. The mind cannot be opened to "look inside" and see how it works. What is possible is to guess how it works based on what happens when something is done to it (input), and what occurs as a result of that (output). The black box theory of consciousness, states that the mind is fully understood once the inputs and outputs are well defined and generally couples this with a radical skepticism regarding the possibility of ever successfully describing the underlying structure, mechanism, and dynamics of the mind
6. Geert Hofstede, (2 October 1928) is an influential Dutch researcher in the field of organizational studies. He played a major role in developing a systematic framework for assessing and differentiating national cultures and organizational cultures. His studies demonstrated that there are national values that influence behavior of societies and organizations.
He is considered to be one of the 20 most influential business thinkers. See below
7. Hofstede, G., Culture’s Consequences Sage, London. 1980
8. Hofstede, G. (1980a) Culture’s consequences: International differences in work related values. (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage).
9. Hofstede, Geert H. (2001) Culture’s Consequences. Comparing values, behaviors, institutions and organizations across nations (Sage publications)
10. The Telegraph. Monday 24 June 2013. Michael Gove is winning the hearts of state heads. By Anthony Seldon
11.Humanities Committee Sounds an Alarm.  Editorial in The New York Times. By Jennifer Schuessler. Published: June 18, 2013

12.Askwith Forum on April 23 ,2013. Pasi Sahlberg, director general of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation (CIMO) in Finland. 5. http://www.gse.harvard.edu/news-impact/2013/04/sahlberg-advocates-for-finnish-way-at-askwith-forum/#ixzz2RjorW06m
13.The Test Chinese Schools Still Fail. High scores for Shanghai's 15-year-olds are actually a sign of weakness. The Wall Street Journal   8 dec. 2010         
14. 6 sep. 2012 motion in life www.dailymotion.com/.../xtcgvr_china-s-student-suici.
15. Education for all. The quality Imperative. EFA Global Monitoring Report 2005 Published in 2004 by the United Nations Educational,
Scientific and Cultural Organization
7, Place de Fontenoy, 75352 Paris 07 SP
16. Huib Wursten. Culture and Change management;
www.itim.org/articleon changemanagement.pdf
17. We are grateful for the editing suggestions of Ze’eva Cohen, Dinah Nieburg and Tom Fadrhonc