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Meeting the Challenge of a Hyper-Connected World

Published: 5/24/2013



Student speaker Joyce Rafla, a graduate of the program in Cognitive Studies in Education.

(Photographer: Heather Van Uxem Lewis)

Saul Martinez

Student speaker Saul Martinez, a graduate in Counseling and Clinical Psychology

(Photographer: Heather Van Uxem Lewis)

Lee Sing Kong

Lee Sing Kong, Director of Singapore's National Institute of Education

Merryl Tisch

Merryl Tisch, Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, and TC Provost Thomas James.

(Photographer: Heather Van Uxem Lewis)

Thomas Friedman

Professor of Health Education and Deputy Provost, John Allegrante, and Author and New York Times Columnist, Thomas Friedman.

(Photographer: Heather Van Uxem Lewis)

Susan Fuhrman

Teachers College President Susan Fuhrman

Graduate 2013

2013 Graduates at Commencement.

(Photographer: Heather Van Uxem Lewis)

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More than a century ago, James Earl Russell wrote of the "the relations existing everywhere, in various fields of knowledge, even the unity of all knowledge." This past week, President Susan Fuhrman told the College's 2013 graduates that Russell's vision is "all the more relevant today, in a hyper-connected and turbo-charged world."

Connections, and more broadly, the dissolution of boundaries and the high-speed movement of people, goods, money and ideas, formed a thematic backdrop to the grand formalities of the College's Convocation ceremonies on May 21st and 22nd. The questions of how to improve and re-invent education and how to meet both the potential and the challenges of a fluid global landscape were urgent and recurrent themes at the two master's degree ceremonies and the doctoral hooding ceremony that together involved more than 1,900 graduates.

The exigencies of today, Fuhrman said, are strikingly similar those that inspired the College's founding and the ongoing record of firsts in research and policy that have made it "the blueprint for all subsequent schools of education."

In the late 19th century, the College's best minds set about reimagining education for a world of economic instability, fast industrial transformation, vast migration flows, and communities grappling with racial and cultural relations.

"Sound familiar?" asked Fuhrman, who over the course of the three ceremonies described six TC graduates whose stories are particularly relevant to the theme of hyperconnection.


Rewiring the World

But the speed and global reach of transformation today is without precedent, as Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist and author of the books From Beirut to Jerusalem and The World Is Flat, told graduates during the afternoon master's ceremony.

"Something really big happened to the world's wiring during the last decade," said Friedman, who received the College's distinguished service award. "The world went from connected to hyper-connected."

"Back in 2004, the cloud was still in the sky," Friedman said, enumerating technologies, companies, and conduits for information and knowledge that have become dominant seemingly out of nowhere. "Big Data was a rap star. Skype was a typo."

Since then, Friedman said, we have seen the transformation of the global economy, with machinery and computing power now "devouring not just blue-collar, but white-collar jobs," remaking every industry and challenging today's graduates to invent for themselves jobs that don't yet exist.

"The good news is that the tools you will need have also become much more available, often even for free," Friedman said. "It's easier to create a global platform, learn and make more than ever before."


Matching Tools to the Challenges

Matching the best tools to the toughest challenges is perhaps more crucial for education than for any other field, as fellow award recipient Merryl Tisch (Ed.D. '05), Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, said during the morning master's ceremony.

"We need to do better for today's students," Tisch said. "Too many are unready for college and for the skilled jobs that represent the greatest promise in this economy. Too many are not graduating at all."

Tisch pointed to America's persistent achievement gaps that entrench geographic and racial disparities in educational outcomes. "Education is traditionally the great equalizer," she said. But now, she said, educational attainment is "all too often the accident of birth."

Tisch expressed hope that the new Common Core State Standards could help change that picture.

"The effect of the Common Core is not to force teachers to teach to the test," she said. "In fact, it's the precise opposite: a focus on critical thinking, problem solving, and precise reading of texts. It will change the paradigm."


Sharing Best Practices

In a hyper-connected world, global exchange is critical to improving education. The nation of Singapore has emerged as a role model for education policy worldwide and indeed is  "virtually synonymous with educational effectiveness," as Celia Genishi, Professor of Education, said in introducing the third distinguished award recipient, Lee Sing Kong, Director of Singapore's National Institute of Education (NIE), during the doctoral ceremony.

The award celebrated the NIE's role in developing Singapore's "superb, highly respected teaching workforce." Singapore instills teachers with "unparalleled pedagogic skills and discipline-specific knowledge" but also maintains a focus on work-life balance. Along with shaping research and strategic planning for Singapore's education policy, the NIE shares expertise internationally.

Early this year, the new joint master's degree program launched by the NIE and TC's Department of Curriculum and Teaching enrolled its first cohort of students. Lee said the creation of this program showed the importance of vision and perseverance in the service of innovation in education for the new global economy.

"It is important that we educate a generation of good and responsible global citizens," Lee said. "In a fast changing world, every norm and assumption needs to be challenged and addressed." Developing a joint program with TC meant overcoming bureaucratic obstacles in both countries and getting beyond the narrow view that education is too context-specific to make deep international partnerships possible, Lee said.

In Singapore, the effort is under way to serve what Lee called the "epic learner" of the 21st century -- the learner unfettered by old boundaries. Classrooms empowered by technology, physical environments that breed collaboration, and "maximum opportunities for accompanying pedagogies" were all essential to meeting the challenge of the times, he added.

"Education for the 21st century is not a luxury but a necessity as we prepare young people for a fast-changing world," said Lee, who urged the TC graduates to dream big and to "be the change you want to see."


"Borderless Lessons"

Earlier, during the master's degree ceremonies, the two student speakers, Saul Martinez and Joyce Rafla, offered real-life testimony to big dreams and commitment to education to meet today's challenges.

Martinez, who earned his master's degree in Psychological Counseling, evoked his roots in the California farm worker community. His father, who later entered law enforcement and died while on duty, was at one time a collaborator of labor activist Cesar Chavez.

Those were the giants on whose shoulders Martinez said he stood -- but so too were the youth with whom he worked in shelters and gang prevention programs, who helped spur his vocation in counseling and gave him courage to apply to TC.

"In a world of stagnation, school shootings, bombings, families separated by deportation, conscious educators and mental health providers like us are needed more than ever," Martinez said. "It's not about us. It's about our responsibility to those we serve."

Rafla, who earned her master's degree in Cognitive Studies in Education, spoke of growing up in Egypt as a member of a minority community in a patriarchal society. "Yet despite all the disparaging, I am here -- because of my conviction, and other people's sacrifices," she said.

Rafla also described the "borderless lessons" she learned during her time at TC. "A shortcut that I had was that citizens in developed countries were happier," she said. "But I realized that there are struggles everywhere. We're all striving for the assurance of a better tomorrow."

Rafla spoke of her father and brother joining a neighborhood watch to help preserve safety during the recent upheavals in Egypt, and of similar acts of solidarity that she witnessed in New York City after Hurricane Sandy last year.

She looked out at her fellow graduates, gathered in formal ceremony this final time before dispersing into the world, and reminded them that their own connections with one another would endure.

"Don't overwhelm yourselves," Rafla said. "We're never alone. We're all interconnected in this world, changing it one human at a time, starting with ourselves."