Tag Archives: education

Elementitis & Aboutitis

In his book “Making learning whole”, David Perkins talks about two widespread diseases of the educational system, namely “elementitis” and “aboutitis”.

Elementitis has to do with learning the elements of a discipline without seeing the big picture. Elementitis prevents students from understanding what is the purpose of the topic considered, rising their levels of frustration, apathy, and boredom. This disease is widely spread across the world when it comes to learning some important subjects, such as math. Students spend literally years learning topics in algebra, calculus, or statistics without immediately seeing their application. Imagine a cooking school where cooks-to-be learn how to bake doughs for years without even mention the word “pie”. It would be non-sense. But that is exactly what occurs in the math realm. High school students learn how to multiply or invert matrices, but they have no idea what matrices are for. When teaching foreign languages, some schools start teaching the elements of writing, grammar, and even style, without really practising oral skills. What is the point of doing this? I have seen hundreds of students able to understand something written in a foreign language, but totally incapable to actually speak more than a few sentences in such a language. My favourite example is how some teachers make (or pretend to make) their students learn English irregular verbs. Students have to learn by heart an endless list of verbs with three columns, such as eat-ate-eaten. Can there be a worse way to teach irregular verbs? This awful method is also applied to phrasal verbs, vocabulary, and so on. Unfortunately, math and languages are not the only examples of subjects infected with elementitis. History, chemistry, physics, or literature, to name a few more, could have been used as examples as well.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, programming applications such a Scratch from MIT give immediate feedback to programmers and a rewarding sense of utility. It is not a coincidence that Scratch has become so popular among young students. Scratch philosophy is in line with Perkins’ recommendation to avoid elementitis, namely start by playing a simple version of the whole game from the very beginning. As mentioned, this is easier said than done, but the point is there: innovation is needed to extrapolate the philosophy of Scratch to other spheres.

Aboutitis is related to the inability of students to learn a specific subject in full. There are so many subjects to learn and time is so limited, that teachers cannot go deep into any subject, they content themselves with scratching the surface. As a result, students are able to recognize the topics (“I have seen this before”, “that rings a bell”) but have not really grasped the rewarding deep insights that were awaiting them one or two steps further. Aboutitis prevents students from continuing learning on their own based on the knowledge acquired in the classroom. The building blocks on which their knowledge is based are not solid, but slippery. Sadly enough, aboutitis leads to covering the same topics again and again year after year at school, which again entails ample boredom and frustration. From my own experience, I can tell that my children, when learning English as a foreign language, have “learnt” the difference between present simple and present continuous for seven or eight consecutive years each.

Being aware of the existence of the two diseases, elementitis and aboutitis, is the first step to coming up with new, disruptive ways of teaching and learning. This transformation should occur at two levels. First, teachers in the classroom should try to teach fewer topics better and give an immediate sense of usefulness trough simple examples or experiences. Second, when designing an educational path, the whole body of knowledge to be taught should be split differently and coordinated in such a way that these two diseases are avoided. As I said, easier said than done, but for sure it is worth trying.

Perkins, D. “Making learning whole. How seven principles of teaching can transform education” Jossey-Bass, 2009, San Francisco, CA.


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Let Spanish universities compete with each other

Shanghai Ranking 2012: Not a single Spanish university made it to the top 200

It struck me as surprising the fact that not a single Spanish university made it to the top-200 at the last Academic Ranking of World University 2012, published by Shanghai University. Two European ones made it to the top ten (Cambridge and Oxford).Image

In addition, a number of universities from major European countries (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, The Netherlands, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, UK) made it to the top 100. The first Spanish university (Autonomous University of Madrid) appears somewhere between positions 200 and 300. Other university rankings cast similar results.

As of 2012, there are 79 universities in Spain, 50 of which are public and 29 private. Given this number of universities, it seems obvious that there must be some special causes that explain this rather surprising fact, that none of the 79 universities appear in the first two hundred positions of the ranking.

Someone might suggest that it is the lack of appropriate management that produces such disappointing results. However, this does not seems to be the case, if one considers the encouraging fact that three (private) Spanish business schools (IESE, ESADE, and IE) always get outstanding marks at the European and world level. For instance, in 2012, The Economist ranked IESE’s MBA program as the top two-year MBA in Europe and 9th in the world. There are indeed great managers and professors at Spanish universities, both public and private.

In my opinion, the main reasons, among others, for Spain lagging behind in the rankings are somewhere else:

First, universities do not compete to each other. This is especially true among public universities. Spaniards do usually care about the type of degree (e.g., Engineering or Business), but not much about at which university such a degree has been issued. Therefore, there is no incentive to be the best school of Law in the country, as the market does not reward it. This leads to potential students selecting the university to study purely on a convenience basis. A large amount of undergrads study in or nearby their home towns. This has been reinforced by the autonomous communities in Spain, which have created a university (or at least a campus) at each of the fifty Spanish provinces, following a me-too policy that challenges the most elementary social planner’s common sense.

Second, public universities are not allowed to select students and have very astringent rules to hire and fire its faculties, and its staff in general. This leads to 1) mediocrity, as incentives to stand out are nonexistent (other than intrinsic) for both students and staff, 2) the formation of tightly-knit groups, which are commonplace in many universities, 3) the runaway of talented professors or professors-to-be, who find their place in the industry as incentives at universities are not appropriate for them.

Third, students (or their parents, who are the ones paying the bill for a vast majority of youngsters) are not usually willing to pay much money to get best-in-class education in a top-notch university. Many years of  inexpensive fees at public universities have made potential students believe that university education is a fundamental right in society like, say, health care, thus they do not see the point of paying what they consider to be a huge amount of money to get tertiary education. This leads to private universities reducing fees to be able to compete with public universities. Lower fees means less funds to be spent on top-notch professors, laboratories, and so on, preventing the formation of virtuous circles of excellence and meritocracy.

The good news is that the solution for the above-mentioned problems is quite straightforward, at least in theory, given that university competition should be perceived  as a healthy exercise and has proved to work well in the countries leading the ranking. The challenge, as usual, is the execution part of the plan, which can be seen as highly unpopular by those who feel comfortable with the status-quo.

These are my two cents. I would love to hear other opinions.

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Nueva “Supply Chain & Finance Initiative”

Entrevista en El Vigía Feb 2012

Alejandro Serrano – El Vigía | España

ZLC lanza la “Supply Chain & Finance Initiative” con el objetivo de liderar la nueva disciplina en Europa: Acceder a la noticia

Para saber más sobre cadena de suministro www.zlc.edu.es

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Supply Chain & Finance Initiative (SFI)

Entrevista para El Vigía Feb 2012

Alejandro Serrano – El Vigía | España

Nace la Supply Chain & Finance Initiative de la mano del Zaragoza Logistics Center, ¿cuál es la misión de esta iniciativa?

La razón de ser de la SFI es poder ayudar a las empresas a tomar mejores decisiones, mirando la realidad desde una óptica más amplia, que trascienda los puntos de vista de los directivos de un solo departamento, en concreto de cadena de suministro y de finanzas. Hay mucho que ganar ampliando el punto de vista, las empresas tienen que darse cuenta.

En general, ¿existe en las empresas españolas una relación fluida entre los departamentos de logística y de finanzas o se ha de trabajar mucho en este terreno? 

 Esta es una asignatura pendiente, no sólo en España. Hay que conseguir que los directores de logística (y de operaciones en general) y de finanzas hablen, se entiendan y tomen mejores decisiones conjuntas. Por ejemplo, un comprador debe tomar sus decisiones incorporando a éstas la situación de liquidez de la empresa; un financiero debe definir los objetivos de reducción de inventario (o en general de las NOF, necesidades operativas de fondos) teniendo en cuenta el impacto que esta decisión va a tener en el nivel de servicio al cliente.

Uno de los objetivos de la nueva iniciativa es proporcionar herramientas a los profesionales para gestionar la liquidez, el riesgo y la rentabilidad, ¿necesita las empresas españolas una gran mejora en estos ámbitos?

 Los gestores en el ámbito de operaciones se han conformado tradicionalmente con valorar el impacto de sus decisiones en la cuenta de resultados. Pero hay que ir mucho más allá: es preciso valorar también el impacto de sus decisiones en el balance y en el perfil de riesgo de sus empresas. Estos dos factores pueden tener un gran impacto en el valor para el accionista.

¿Qué relevancia adquieren estas herramientas en este tiempo de crisis?

En tiempo de crisis, tomar decisiones conjuntas que tengan en cuenta los riesgos, tanto operativo como financiero,  es de suma importancia. Hay que ponderar muy bien las decisiones de forma conjunta, pues no hay mucho margen de maniobra y un error puede llevar a la empresa a suspender pagos.

Además de formación para ejecutivos, la SFI dispone de un centro de investigación. ¿En qué estudios se centran actualmente?

 Creamos modelos matemáticos para medir el impacto de las decisiones del ámbito de la cadena de suministro en el riesgo y el valor para el accionista. Por ejemplo, reducir el nivel de inventario pasándolo al proveedor o pagar más tarde hacen el balance del comprador mucho más atractivo, pero tiene consecuencias en el riesgo de la empresa y de toda la cadena de suministro que hay que ponderar antes de tomar este tipo de decisiones.

Por otro lado, estamos organizando un congreso al que van a acudir varios de los expertos mundiales en esta materia desde cuatro continentes. Dada su relevancia para la industria, las empresas necesitan respuestas que les ayuden a mejorar en sus decisiones y la comunidad investigadora no puede ser ajena a ello. El congreso se celebrará en Mayo en el Zaragoza Logistics Center.

El mercado español tiende a la exportación para salvar los números, pero ¿está realmente preparada la cadena de suministro española para salir al exterior?

Si algo bueno podemos encontrar en la crisis es que las empresas españolas están mirando al exterior para sobrevivir; esto nos hará más competitivos a medio plazo. En este proceso, observo dos carencias principales, una es idiosincrática del sector, la otra general para muchas empresas españolas. La primera es la falta de rigor en el análisis, habitualmente por desconocimiento de las herramientas del mundo de cadena de suministro. El profesional logístico bien formado es un bien escaso en España. La segunda es la falta de profesionales que hablen un nivel suficiente de inglés, lo que dificulta enormemente la comunicación y por tanto el éxito de las empresas en el exterior.

¿Por qué cree que no existen grandes operadores logísticos españoles como sucede en otros países?

 Pienso que son dos los factores. Uno son las carencias explicadas en la pregunta anterior y otro es el hecho de que la España continental esté en un istmo geográfico, lo que condiciona sustancialmente el crecimiento.

 ¿Cómo pueden ayudar a los profesionales españoles los partners internacionales de la Supply Chain & Finance Initiative?

 Acabamos de terminar una experiencia muy interesante en este ámbito con un selecto grupo de empresas europeas que facturan del orden de 50.000 millones de euros cada una. En una serie de jornadas de trabajo separadas en el tiempo, las empresas exponían sus “mejores prácticas” y aprendían de las de los demás en asuntos como cómo financiar las operaciones o cómo liberar caja para mejorar la posición de liquidez. Aprender de los mejores es un ejercicio muy inteligente que requiere dedicación, capacidad de escucha y cierta humildad para reconocer que los demás pueden hacerlo mejor que nosotros. Este tipo de actividades, claro está, puede repetirse con empresas españolas, y estaremos atentos a lo que éstas nos demanden.

El sector inmobiliario logístico español vive su particular burbuja económica. ¿Cuál cree que ha sido el mal de este mercado?

Los costes del suelo logístico llegaron a crecer descontroladamente por encima de 500 euros por metro cuadrado. Lo que ha ocurrido en el sector logístico inmobiliario ha sido un reflejo de la burbuja inmobiliaria del sector de la construcción en general.

En cuanto a la promoción de este tipo de espacios, el macroproyecto de Aragón, Plaza, afronta una deuda de 20,6 millones. Tratándose de un buen espacio con una buena ubicación, ¿cree que la mega plataforma podrá comercializar los espacios vacíos? 

No tengo dudas de que así será. Nuestros estudios indican que, desde el punto de vista del coste, Zaragoza es una plaza óptima para distribuir en España, por encima de otras ciudades, como Madrid. El menor coste del suelo y de la mano de obra compensan sobradamente la ligeramente mayor distancia al centro de gravedad del PIB español. El entorno de Zaragoza en general y el parque logístico de Plaza en particular son  por tanto emplazamientos ideales para instalar un centro de distribución.

Expertos del sector apuntan nuevas estrategias para salvar la comercialización de estos espacios. Ofrecer rentabilidades de hasta un 8% a los inversores que apuesten por suelo logístico, ¿cree que este tipo de acciones pueden ayudar?

 Mi opinión es que hay que asumir las posibles pérdidas de estos espacios para sanear los balances cuanto antes. No hacerlo pensando en que los precios subirán en el corto plazo es engañarse.

 La volatilidad de los mercados es una de las mayores preocupaciones para los logistas pero a la vez que amenaza, ¿puede suponer también una oportunidad?

 Siempre que hay riesgo hay oportunidad. Saber cuantificar y gestionar correctamente el impacto de la volatilidad crea valor para el accionista, sea buscando mayores rentabilidades o mitigando el riesgo operativa o financieramente.

¿Cómo cree que va a evolucionar en general el sector logístico durante el presente año? ¿Veremos una ligera recuperación?

La evolución del sector logístico no va a ser muy distinta de lo que haga la economía en general. Lo bueno del sector es que, a diferencia de los sectores productivos, éste no se puede trasladar a otros países. Además, la logística se beneficia del proceso de deslocalización, ya que éste implica trabajar con más inventarios (debido a la mayor incertidumbre de la demanda) y más distancia recorrida. Si unimos a esto la explosión incipiente del comercio electrónico en España, convendremos en que éste es un buen sector para apostar.

Para saber más sobre cadena de suministro www.zlc.edu.es

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Spaniards still suck at speaking English

Where Spain stands and how it can break the current vicious circle it is trapped in

Alejandro Serrano

In a recent study by EF Education First (www.ef.com.es/epi), the English level of Spaniards was ranked 17th out of 19 European countries, representing 92% of the total European population excluding the UK and Ireland. Only Russia and Turkey obtain worse results than Spain in the ranking.

The graph below shows those 19 countries, given their gross domestic product (GDP) at PPP per capita and their level of English, as measured by the EF EPI index. As you can probably guess, Spain is the red diamond. There is a strong positive correlation between level of English and GDP per capita. English level of countries to the left of the diagonal line, including Spain, is worse than what the GDP of the country would suggest.

Source: own elaboration based on data from www.ef.com and the world bank

Three years ago, the Spanish prime minister, Mr. Rodríguez Zapatero, announced a plan aimed at reaching an ambitious goal: “in ten years, Spaniards leaving high school will speak fluent English,” he solemnly asserted. But reality is quite stubborn and gives today plenty of anecdotal evidence that this will not be quite the case. If you have visited or lived in Spain and tried to communicate in English in the street (no matter the age, old or young,) you know what I am talking about.

It is true that an effort is being done in private and public schools to put a remedy to this situation. A small, but increasingly portion of curricular time is already taught in English, and bilingual education is little by little gaining momentum in many schools. However, a huge problem to implement this plan is that there are not enough native teachers to teach English, thus students do not learn how to speak. Try this: tell a 12-year-old good student to recite a list containing fifty irregular verbs (eat-ate-eaten and the like.) He or she will do it by heart, but will be incapable of correctly pronounce half of them. Let us face it: non-native teachers in Spain do not devote enough time to conversation in class (my group is too large is the usual excuse) and, even if they do, they lack the appropriate phonetics skills; even many of them speak English with an (often strong) Spanish accent.

In the business space, this unfilled educational gap leads to a clear situation of competitive disadvantage when Spanish firms try to compete with other firms in the international arena. It is not a coincidence that Spanish multinationals sell much more in Latin America than its European counterparts, who mainly sell in Europe, a much more natural market in terms of geographic distance. There is a huge language barrier, another one to add to the long list of Spanish barriers to achieve competitiveness.

How to break this vicious circle of low-skilled teachers and low-skilled students without spending enormous amounts of money on élite schools or “imported” teachers?

First, you have to start from the very beginning, taking care of the youngest by not translating cartoons on TV into Spanish  and movies for kids in theaters. Then you do the same for teenagers (first, the Harry Potters, then the twilights, then all the American movies, then…)

Second, the curriculum in schools has to be turned upside down. Start teaching only oral English in elementary school. Use cartoons, movies, and the internet to expose kids to native English. Start teaching writing skills to sixth or seventh graders, when they are ready to absorb grammar easily.

Finally, prevent students from digressing too much by learning other languages, such as German, or Italian, or French. Unless they have a clear vocation towards languages, English will be the only one they will most likely need at work. It is better to speak fluent English than intermediate German, English, Italian, and French.

Following these simple guidelines, in fifteen years, teenagers will have acquired the speaking skills that they lack today. The solution is not that original; see what the blue diamonds in the top-right part of the chart above (Norway, Denmark, Belgium, The Netherlands) have been doing for many years.

These are my two cents; it seems to me like a simple recipe for success. It is going to take a while, so the sooner they start, the better.

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Un colegio inglés internacional

Alejandro Serrano – Heraldo de Aragón, Oct 2011| España

La larga crisis económica en la que continuamos inmersos continúa enviándonos señales sobre qué fórmulas ya no funcionan en nuestra particular búsqueda del crecimiento económico, como prolongar el gasto público en construcción o tratar de atraer inversión extranjera ofreciendo al inversor salarios competitivos. El consenso generalizado es que el nuevo modelo económico debe basarse en la I+D y la innovación. Esto es más fácil de decir que de hacer, y quizá por eso nuestra comunidad no ha tenido demasiado éxito hasta ahora tratando de atraer empresas internacionales en estas áreas.

La verdad es que para atraer a Aragón a los Googles y los Amazons de este mundo (ese, no menos, debe ser el objetivo), es preciso crear las condiciones apropiadas para que las multinacionales decidan venir. Esto incluye un aspecto esencial, y es que los directivos de estas empresas también deben tener los incentivos para venir. Y ahí, admitámoslo, es donde comienzan nuestros problemas. Zaragoza no es Madrid o Barcelona, no tiene las ventajas de una gran metrópolis, y éste es un inconveniente que no puede ignorarse.

Es cierto que se han hecho mejoras significativas en este sentido: Zaragoza está bien comunicada por autovías, podemos llegar por AVE a Madrid o Barcelona en menos de noventa minutos y volar directamente a varias ciudades europeas, aunque sea à la Ryan Air. Además, debido parcialmente a la EXPO 2008, Zaragoza es bonita de ver, está bastante limpia y es una ciudad muy segura.

Pero aún hay mucho camino por recorrer. Cuando las multinacionales deciden dónde poner sus cuartes generales regionales o sus centros de I+D, una de las preguntas clave es si la ciudad candidata tiene un escuela internacional. Una respuesta negativa descalifica inmediatamente la propuesta. Un problema que Zaragoza tiene hoy es que carece de una escuela internacional en inglés. Lo más cercano que existe son los llamados colegios bilingües, pero estos no están bien vistos por las empresas porque los alumnos deben aprender español, que es un requisito que no siempre los padres ejecutivos perciben como deseable. Lo que necesitamos es la versión inglesa (quizá pública, quizá privada) del colegio Molière.

El nuevo colegio crearía además demanda local, dado que un número cada vez mayor de padres se da cuenta de la importancia de que sus hijos hablen un nivel muy alto de inglés, algo todavía inusual en Aragón. Esta demanda local hará la inversión aún más atractiva, pero debemos tener en cuenta que esta escuela debe crearse pensando en el lucro cesante actual, es decir, en el dinero que no está llegando a nuestra región por carecer de ésta.

¿Queremos realmente atraer a las mejores empresas del mundo a Aragón? Entonces pongámosles las cosas fáciles. Los nuevos consejeros de Educación, Tecnología y Economía deben recoger esta iniciativa y ponerla en marcha. ¿Difícil de conseguir? Quizás, pero si la DGA ha decidido contar con un alto cargo irlandés y este periódico ha publicado este artículo también en inglés, significa que algo está cambiando en Aragón, y hay razones para creer en la creación de un colegio internacional en nuestra comunidad, que nos lleve a dar un paso de gigante en la dirección adecuada.

Para saber más sobre cadena de suministro www.zlc.edu.es

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Why Zaragoza needs an international English School

A necessary condition for economic growth

Alejandro Serrano

The long economic crisis we are going through keeps sending signals about what formulas do not work any longer regarding our particular quest for growth, such as prolonging government expenses on construction or attracting foreign direct investment based on lower wages. The consensus of opinion is that our new economic model should be grounded on R&D and innovation. Easier said than done, and thus it is that our community has kept struggling trying to attract international companies on these areas.

The truth of the matter is that drawing the Googles and the Amazons of the world to Aragon (that, and not less, should be the goal) requires creating the appropriate environment for companies to come. A key issue, which can make or break a deal, is that the executives working for those firms should also have the appropriate incentives to live in our region. And, let us admit it, here it is where our challenges start. Zaragoza is not Madrid or Barcelona; it has not the advantages of large metropolis, and this is a major drawback that cannot be ignored.

It is true that some significant improvements in this regard have been made: today we can drive almost everywhere from Zaragoza along highways, reach Barcelona or Madrid by AVE in less than ninety minutes, and fly directly to some of the large European cities, even if it is à la RyanAir. Furthermore, and partially due to the International Exposition of 2008, these days Zaragoza looks very nice, is quite clean, and happens to be extremely safe.

But there are still some gaps to fill. When corporations make decisions about where to place regional headquarters or R&D centers, one of the key questions to ask is whether the city under scrutiny has an international school or not. Only if the answer is in the affirmative may the city remain on the short list. As of today, a major issue is that Zaragoza does not have a true English international school. The closest we have is what we call bilingual schools, but these are assessed as inadequate by companies, because children are required to know or learn Spanish, a requisite which, admittedly, is not always perceived as desirable or even feasible by their parents. What we need is the English version (maybe public, maybe private) of the Aragonese Molière School.

Such a new school will also create local demand, since an increasing number of parents are aware of how important it is for their children to speak fluent English, an oddity still today in Aragon. This local demand will make the investment even more attractive, but we should keep in mind that the focus has to be on the current opportunity cost, i.e., on recovering the huge amount of money that is left today on the table for not having such a school in the region.

Do we really want to attract top-notch companies to Aragon? If so, then let us pave the path for them to come. The new consejeros of Education, Technology, and Economy should pick up the baton and move this initiative forward. Difficult to achieve? Maybe, but if an Irishman can become an official at the DGA and this newspaper can publish this article in English, it means that something is changing in Aragon, thus there is some hope that an international school becomes a reality and our autonomous region be moved to the next level.


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