Sunday, March 2, 2008

Thoughts on Education and the Computer Age – Shift Happens Part 2

Thoughts on Education and the Computer Age – Shift Happens
In response to 'shift happens' you tube video: Part 2 – Some Solutions

In light of the exponential growth in processing speeds, in the proliferation of data, and in the rise and fall of new areas of study at every increasing rates, what must our schools do to best prepare the students of today and tomorrow to face the world of the 21st century?

1) Recognize the importance of principles and fundamentals
2) Allow variation in schools
3) Stress continuing education – particularly in industry

1) Recognize the importance of principles and fundamentals

If we can’t guess what specific subject will be the ‘latest rage’ in two years, we can prepare students to know how to analyze the cognitive material in front of them. This is particularly important if it becomes ‘impossible’ to keep ahead of the developments in any given field. How do we prepare students to conduct analysis?

Despite the massive growth in data, understanding is rooted in fundamentals. We may have exabytes of data piling up around the world, but the language, the mathematics and the science behind the data is still essential to understanding any data. And the bulk of that language, science and mathematics remain the same.

Language, and understanding of the language, is the first step in this process. We must be able to communicate, and the rules of a given language exist so that we all arrive at the same understanding when we see or hear the same words. Students need to understand how the language is constructed and how it operates.

Of course, an increased emphasis on language really is also a call for an increased emphasis, from a societal perspective, on clarity of language. This does not mean that we keep language, particularly the English language, from growing and changing. But, it does require the discipline by all educators (and publishers and consumers) to insist on clarity and precision in speaking and writing, both to develop that particular skill and to stress the importance of ensuring that others understand us. So, students need to know how to use the language to achieve a higher level of clarity.

Schools must also teach cognitive skills, specifically mathematics and logic. If we expect the graduates, the product of the schools, to be able to look at a constantly changing landscape, and one that is changing at an ever higher rate, they must have the cognitive tools to be able to make sense of that landscape. Much more important than a specific field of study, which might explain a portion of that landscape for a certain period of time, is the ability to analyze the landscape and make sense of it. This is more a product of logic and metaphysics, built on a foundation of philosophy.

Science and mathematics must also be stressed. Mathematics is, in a very real sense, the language of all science. Fundamentals of mathematics: algebra, probability and statistics, calculus are essential for any activity in any field of science or engineering. We need to ensure that every student receives a solid foundation in all of these areas.

While language, logic, mathematics and science are essential if we want students to be able to tackle a completely new ‘landscape,’ our society also needs to ensure that there is sufficient understanding of our social and civic roots, that the new citizens of the 21st century understand those things that we don’t necessarily want to change. Civic duties and the role of the citizen in a democracy are as vital today as they have ever been. A sound understanding of the drama that is the history of the United States, the origins of the Constitution, the proper roles, responsibilities and limitations of government in a republic, these are as important fields of study as any other.

Finally, there is a real requirement that we ensure that students are well rounded. Accordingly, a decent exposure to the arts should be maintained in our schools. This has several benefits, one being to ensure that the creative process isn’t stifled, for it is that very process which provides some of the most fertile ground for the synthesis of disparate information and knowledge into greater understanding.

2) Allow Variation in Schools

That being said, there is no need for every school to address the basics with the same curriculum. Testing is important, results are important, but the process to get there is best left to the oversight of the states, the cities and towns or, best of all to the individual schools.

While a point was made that the US government only spends a tiny amount of money on research and development (R&D) within education, how much is spent on R&D by state and local governments, by private institutions and by the corporate world? My guess is significantly more than that. What is needed is not more money devoted to a centrally controlled, bureaucratic process, but rather an incentive for those who do conduct such research to share it with other schools and universities. What if we made R&D (perhaps all R&D) a tax exemption? We might also consider that any donation of R&D results to a school or university can also constitute an exemption.

Trying to drive rigidly structured curriculums by any government, other than the local school-board is probably a bad idea. The school-board should be immediately and directly responsible to the students and their parents. Let them structure the curriculum, and let them figure out how to prepare the students for various tests and for college. Poor results over time will result in their being recalled by parents, which is as it should be. Parents will figure this out much faster then any government oversight process – federal, state or local.

Furthermore, the variation will allow creative approaches to teaching; some will be good, some not so good. Occasionally one will come along that is superb. When it does, it will rapidly proliferate to other schools. That variation and growth is what we need to continually improve the ‘product’ – the graduates – of our schools.

While much has been made recently of the idea that if you have standard tests teachers will instruct to those tests and students won’t learn anything else, the act is that we do need to establish performance standards. It would seem that the right answer would be to expand the scope of the tests. The idea of a week of testing shouldn’t alarm us, no matter how unpleasant it may sound for the students. If there are no standards, no baseline, there will be no means to determine progress. And it is quite certain that our standards have fallen over time. If you doubt this, pick up a copy of McGuffey Readers – it is probable that a fairly large number of our high school graduates could not pass the tests in the reader, which was designed for 1st through 6th grade in 1836. If we face a crisis, it’s time to make the standards more rigorous, more demanding then ever before.

As important, if there are some schools that continually get their students into the best schools and others that clearly are below the average, those numbers need to be brought to light. Only by doing that will corrective action be forced.

3) Stress continuing education – and let industry play little kid soccer

As to how we address these continuingly changing fields, the answer is that we make it the purpose of high schools and colleges to create graduates who have sound fundamentals, people who know how to think, can dissect a problem and construct one or more possible solutions, and who have some ability to place a given problem in context.

That is their role. As to who takes up the problem of the rapidly changing landscape? The answer would seem to be two fold: on the one hand, to keep pace with certain very high rate of change problems – following the soccer ball, if you will – would be best managed by industry, with an assist from technical schools and community colleges. Technical schools and community colleges, acting in concert with specific industries, would seem to be a good place to start: they would more easily change into centers for short, intensive post-graduate centers for both training and education on emerging fields. Specific industries should be given tax exemptions (as should students) to support these schools. The schools would then be responsible for keeping their faculty and curriculum ‘current’ and focused on the latest twists and turns of the world in front of them.

Traditional universities would focus on preparing students to enter the 21st century by giving them the real tools they need to address any field, rather than chasing the soccer ball themselves. If the universities want to attempt to also play in that environment, they should look to expand their campuses – perhaps ad a fifth year to the standard four year curriculum – and use that to provide focused training and education beyond the realm of the foundation. Students would then have at most a single year ‘lag’ on the real world, rather than taking classes in freshman year that are passé by senior year.

We also need to develop an intellectual environment that expects various professional associations to insist on continuing education among their members. My father was a surgeon who routinely attended seminars and workshops on new surgical techniques, who constantly studied his ‘tradecraft,’ and never failed to prepare himself for any operation. As a society we should expect similar effort from every profession. President Lincoln said that ‘if I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I would spend six sharpening the ax.’ Education, especially continuing education, is sharpening the ax. We, as a society, need to make ‘sharpening the ax’ minimum acceptable behavior.

There will be those who object that we can’t teach these subjects in high school, or even college. One answer to that is ‘you’re right, we’re doomed.’ The other answer, the one I prefer, is ‘why not?’ In fact, people actually are just about as smart as you insist they be, as a whole. If we set our sights low, I guarantee we will have low results. If we set are sights high, very high, and demand high performance both from our students and our teachers, at every level, maybe, just maybe we will all be pleasantly surprised.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home