Those of you who’ve read Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell), will already be familiar with the Matthew Effect (the rich get richer), but for those of you who are not, let me give you an example – A couple have stopped off in a town they don’t know and they are hungry.  So they go looking for a restaurant.  They haven’t read any reviews and they don’t really know what they want to eat;  how do they make their choice?  They walk past 9 restaurants, all of which look quite empty, when they come to the 10th restaurant they see that the restaurant is half full and the people inside look fairly content.   Which one would you choose?  Most of us, I think, would instinctively choose the restaurant with people, we would use our system 1 thinking (Kahneman), to make an assumption – that this restaurant is better than the others.  But how many of those people in the restaurant made the same assumption as you.  Is this restaurant really so much better than the other 9?   This phenomena, also know as accumulate advantage, happens in many walks of life – it explains why cities like Seoul are growing at an exponential rate, (more jobs attract more people, which creates more jobs), it explains why facebook has one billion users and how Psy got so many you-tube hits (it surely can’t be because he’s a million times better than Radiohead,can it?).  In the case of the restaurant it might be that the “best” restaurant is slightly better than the others,  and this slight advantage is enough to start an avalanche.  

Nowhere is the Matthew Effect more visible or pertinent than in Seoul, and especially in Gangnam.  Until the 80s, nobody of note lived in Gangnam, its reclaimed swampland was decidedly not des res, but then the development came, and then the money, and then the nightclubs, plastic surgeons and hagwons.  Today, property in Gangnam is twice or three times as expensive as anywhere else in Seoul  and therefore some of the most expensive real estate in the world – it’s almost impossible for a “normal’ person to buy property here.

Now, those of you who know Seoul and have travelled around it, know that each district, or gu, looks very much like another one.  It can be quite disorienting when you travel on the subway to enter at one station (with its dunkin’ donuts and starbucks) and come up the escalator to find yourself in out almost identical locale half an hour later.  It’s not like New York or London with it’s distinct boroughs,  architectures and ghettoes.  The apartments in Gangnam are no bigger or better than in other districts.  Gangnam is near the river, granted, but have you been to the river?  So what’s the attraction?  Simply that other people want to live there?  When I ask Seoulites where they would most like to live, they often say, Gangnam and when pressed to say why, they don’t mention house prices (which are exorbitant), and they certainly don’t mention the beautiful architecture (there’s none to speak of in Seoul, unless you count the palaces).  No, the number one, and only reason is, they all want their kids to go to school there.

One of the most interesting things about my job as a teacher trainer working in Seoul is I get to visit English teachers teaching in the state schools.  I help them plan their lesson and then I come to their schools to observe their classes, to evaluate their teaching and to give them “constructive” feedback.  I’ve seen some great lessons in the 4 years that I’ve been working here and I’ve seen some real stinkers.  I’ve been all over Seoul and been to all sorts of schools.  But, just like the apartments, the restaurants and the cars, the schools are much of a muchness.  In fact I’ve been to some pretty grotty schools in Gangnam (and some really nice ones).  Teachers on the other hand, are much more diverse thanks to Korea’s progressive policy of moving teachers from post to post every 5 years.  I would guess that most teachers, given the choice would prefer to teach in Gangnam too, but they are not allowed to choose which school they teach in (as far as I understand it).  So how did Gangnam earn its reputation as the centre of educational excellence and why does everyone want to send their kids to school there?

I have to admit that the lessons I saw in Gangnam were “better” on average than in other districts.  But why?  If you take away the school and the teachers, what are you left with? The answer is straightforward enough –  the students.  Gangnam’s reputation for being the best place to be educated has nothing to do with education in the way we normally think of it.  It’s got to everything to do with the people sitting in the desks (staring out of the window) and with their affluent jet setting, middle class parents.  Future prime ministers, high court judges and CEOs, most of whom have spent some time in the US, Australia or the UK, study in Gangnam schools, a high proportion of these kids attend the prestigious SKY universities (Korean IVY league schools) and once a person graduates from one of these Korean Ivy League institutions, they, like their Oxbridge and Harvard cousins, are set for life.  This is accumulated advantage in action.  The rich get richer.

This is not fair, is it?  In fact it makes my blood boil.  Why should a person’s future be decided by something as arbitrary as a post (zip) code?  But what can we do about it?  The answer may lie with the internet.  If everybody attended a school in the cloud, wouldn’t that level the playing field?  One of the most inspiring TED talks I have heard is this year’s winner – Sugata Mitra.  You should check out the talk yourself

But if you don’t have time to watch it I will give a short summary – basically, he offered poor kids access to the internet and, with minimal supervision (or teaching), poor kids taught themselves how to use the computer, they taught themselves how to use English so that they could learn how to use the computer and access the internet and they used the internet to find out the answers to some very big questions such as what DNA is and why people live on Earth and not on other planets.   His SOLE initiative is truly inspiring and offers the very real possibility of education being accessible to everybody  regardless of where they live.  But there are rather large caveats to this utopian future  – firstly answering big questions such as why is grass green is not how intelligence is currently measured in standardized testing, so those kids unlocking the mysteries of the universe on the internet may lack the necessary skills (culturally acquired) to do well  in traditional forms of testing and fall behind their rote-learning friends.  Secondly, cloud learning requires some fairly sophisticated equipment, including a computer and internet access (but these things are very quickly becoming ubiquitous) and thirdly,  the internet , like everything else in this complicated life, is itself subject to the Matthew Effect, so the schools of the future might reside in the cloud but that cloud may well be owned by Oxbridge Harvard Inc.

“For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him”

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