Saturday, June 7, 2008

don't know much biology...

This post will examine the implications of the new economy (see previous post on what's changed here) on education, focusing on the insights of Robert Reich, from his book, The Work of Nations. The broad challenge for the educational system is to transform itself from an ineffectual vestige of the industrial age to meet the needs of the new economy. One of friends who teaches in a NY public school commented that the school system appears to simply exist as a measure of social control. While I don't think this design is deliberate, it does reflect the values - order, discipline, obedience - upon which the educational system is built.

As asserted previously, these values were handsomely rewarded by the old economy. Unfortunately, as the volume-based, assembly-line industrial jobs have disappeared, so has the demand for those values.

Reich identifies four skills that define the value of an individual's labor in the new economy, and thereby, wages: abstraction, system thinking, experimentation and collaboration.

Abstraction: Ability to reduce the infinite parts of reality into simplified mental models, and, in turn, recognize patterns and meanings

System thinking: Understand relationships between various phenomena and underlying processes (e.g., don't simply think about how to solve a problem directly, but why the problem arises and how it's linked to other problems)

Experimentation: Pretty straight forward, but yet poorly taught and understood -- the art of trying out hypothesis, failing/succeeding, analytically assessing results and process of experimentation

Collaboration: Ability to articulate, clarify, restate, critique, and respond to criticism

These skills allow the individual to find unexpected relationships and potential solutions by looking at broader system of processes, variables, and outcomes. Furthermore, these skills empower the individual to hold off his/her natural tendency to view life as static snapshots, which is unfortunately reinforced by compartmentalized subjects like biology, math, etc.

Reich notes that good schools don't ask students to memorize data, but rather present data, and then ask student to assess how/why this particular data is chosen, how it might be contradicted, and, more generally, to critically assess the validity and significance of information in various forms.

Unfortunately, Reich never presents a coherent vision for reforming education because he doesn't see education as the solution to increasing inequality, dismissing the possibility of teaching the children who would become routine producers or interpersonal servers (see past post for more) to become symbolic analysts as "daunting."

While I understand that not every kid can be Einstein, I do think education is *THE* way to improve individuals' abilities to attract higher wages. You can't extort high wages (well, you can, but not forever), and it's the only way to increase individual leverage in the long-term. Furthermore, I think modern-day education is so wildly inefficient and unproductive that we don't truly understand the potential impact of education.

We do know that creative thinking, and problem-solving, is like a muscle, and if it falls into disuse it will atrophy. I often felt that my middle school curriculum killed my creativity, lulling me into an intellectual comatose that I'm only now escaping, and there may be some truth to that.

I will avoid being seduced into an attempt at a holistic take on education reform, but I can't help but offer some brief reflections. First, I think schools are trying to do two different tasks at the same time, and their ability to either suffers because of it. Most straightforward is the desire to impart knowledge and mold young minds. Secondary (?) is the goal of acclimating individuals to interacting with others and building a social acumen. Of course, while we understand that kids will learn more with the guidance of an experienced elder, we somehow think that the best way to socially acclimate these same kids is to let them learn from equally immature and chemically-imbalanced youths.

I think the Ancients really had something with the tutor-pupil relationship afforded to the noble children (except the whole sex thing...). It was understood that learning how to think demanded intense interaction and focus. In addition, social interaction was learned not among emotionally-retarded peers, but with people of vastly different ages and experiences. The Ancients were taught how to be adults. Nowadays, children are taught to be children, and often are taught how to act BY children.

I don't think we can necessarily emulate this example, but I do think it suggests a different role for the teacher and a different dynamic to the classroom. One in which the teacher should be seen a human resources executive, in charge of the development of his/her students. This would include ensuring that top performers receive additional training as well as are given additional responsibility to work with lower performers -- they should be taught to be leaders. In addition, I think it probably doesn't make sense to separate classes by age, and that cross-grade interaction is a good thing for all involved. As a final note, as Reich noted, the breakdown of learning by discrete subjects, like biology or math, is entirely unhelpful for the modern student.

More effort should be placed on teaching students how to think critically, communicate and collaborate effectively, and how to "learn" more generally. The subject matter is secondary to the development of the skills that will allow them to succeed in whatever field they enter. Efforts to stimulate academic interest through "pointless" explorations of sports or popular music are entirely worthwhile if they develop these habits of thinking and learning.

And while I don't want to explore this subject at greater length, I will point my curious readers to this Economist article on education innovations in Finland and Sweden.


Lloyd said...

Sorry it took me forever to read this. Great post though - and I think you really explored the alternatives very well without getting too long-winded.

Constructive criticism - is it possible for you to parse your post down into fewer paragraphs?

I think it's well written and really voices the thoughts well.. but for someone like me who wants a quick bullet of enlightenment.. the post reads less like a bullet and more like an injection..

Anyway.. that's just the criticism of one lazy man..

Also.. thoughts maybe on the latest attack on the liberal arts fad in the U.S. and how the U.S. is slipping behind in the "hard sciences"? (Math, Bio, Physics.. Engineering)..

Do you think there's something to that?

Publius said...


Well put -- I'm definitely going to make an effort to distill my messages into more concentrated form, and I hope you and others keep me on track.

Re: hard sciences, I think that in one way the criticism is appropriate and in another it's overblown.

The statements of fact that we are losing our competitive advantage in science/math to China, et. al are overblown -- I can't recall the source, but I remember seeing that the Chinese numbers (for instance) were inflated by the inclusion of technical repair men as "engineers."

Yet regardless if this individual concern is overblown, the increased competition American labor faces is very real, and will only grow more intense in knowledge and learning-intensive areas, such as the natural sciences and mathematics, which, to some degree, breach linguistic and national boundaries more easily than other studies.

If anything, I think the government or other external actors should remove any incentives (such as tuition reimbursement) that discriminates against math or science, but I don't know how prevalent those are.

More important than our technical scientific and engineer know-how (which has fared pretty well, looking at the leading computer engineering and scientific research companies...), is the fact that far too many Americans are unable to communicate basic thoughts through complete sentences and/or understand basic algebra equations.

Before we can get to the "symbolic analyst" skills mentioned in this post, you need these basics. Unfortunately, these basics aren't fun to teach, and no one wants to fail a kid who doesn't know them. But while it is ABSOLUTELY essential that children learn these skills before moving on, the school system supports pushing them up the latter so that the majority graduate incapable of translating a thought into a coherent statement.

That's my chief concern that I failed to address in this post.

Re: liberal arts, this is a problem of the rich, which I believe is self-correcting. We're still trying to figure out what to do with broad-based college education, and it will take a generation or two of wasted "Medieval feminists" majors to get it straight, but I am less concerned with making college students make the "right" choice, then ensuring there are no market distortions to push them down the less economically-advantageous path.