11 December 2006

Predicting Education

Think about the real challenge of education. You have five year olds entering the system. It’ll probably be 2026 before their careers begin and 2066 before they retire. If you go backwards in time as far, you’d be in 1986 and 1946. If we agree that the pace of change over the next sixty years will be twice as rapid as the last sixty years, it would be more appropriate to go back to 1966 and 1886. Whether or not you make it explicit, education is aimed towards preparing those precious little five year-olds for this largely unknown future. It seems to me that we would do well to think more about what that suggests about changes to the system of education rather than focus so much on competition within it.

I’m curious. What would you say most needs to change in education? My personal vote would be for education that includes fluency in systems thinking – raising the expectation that high school graduates would be able to model interdependencies through at least a couple of different methods, understand variation inherent in systems and how to work with that, understand tipping points, etc. Sustaining economic advantage during accelerating globalization, protecting the environment in a time of rapid economic growth, adopting policies that mitigate rather than exacerbate terrorism – all of these and other issues are inherently systems issues that will require a popularization of systems thinking to be dealt with by democracies. I would argue that fluency in systems thinking will be as important to sustaining effective democracies in our century as literacy was to creating them. What’s your prediction about the future?


Life Hiker said...

Educating our youth is the number one challenge of our democracy and the only solution for maintaining any semblance of the United States' position in the world.

The simplistic view of education revolves around teaching reading, writing and math. That seems to be the goal of "No Child Left Behind". The assumption is that if these skills are developed,"thinking" (which I will loosely define as arriving at defensible conclusions/actions based on information and analysis)will automatically follow. I'm not so sure.

In Haiti the French model of education continues to be used. It stresses classical knowledge,philosophy and debate. As a result, Haiti has many "educated" people, but few can fix a car, manage a bank, or help run a country. Education must have practical consequences or it is empty.

Perhaps our schools might consider implementing a new "course" at the start of the ninth grade year. For half the school day, small groups of teens would be given a variety of real world issues to research and act on. They would be coached in the problem solving process and graded on the quality of their research, thinking, interactions and actions. The lessons learned from this experience might change the way they view the remainder of their high school education.

Do I have much confidence in the teaching profession to effectively run problem-solving laboratories like this? No. Our teachers are often too much like educated Haitians - they wear their degrees on their chests, but most have never had to accomplish a real world task.

Maybe we need to re-think both the education process and the qualifications of teachers. Developing systems thinking requires applying knowledge and experiencing outcomes. Would this be a step in the right direction?

Dave said...

I think you and life hiker are way too optimistic about what institutional education can do.

My undergraduate degree was in secondary education. I taught sixth grade for a year in a self-contained classroom, while coaching the touch football, basketball and softball teams (also drove the school bus)about thirty years ago.

The kids in the class varied videly in ability and achievement. They needed to be taught, for the most part, on an individual basis. After assessing where they were, I started there and tried to instill a desire to learn.

One kid read at about a third grade level. He stuttered reading aloud and stumbled over simple words. But, when assigned to do a book report on his mini-bike manual, he could read and comprehend. Math based on the mechanics of the bike, made more sense to him. At the end of the year he tested at about fifth grade. I doubt that he maintained that progress; but, I hope he learned that he could learn.
Another kid who already had a love of learning just had to be pointed where to go. I have no doubt that he has excelled at whatever he has chosen to do.

My point is this. If a kid loves learning, it is hard to screw him or her up. If the kid tolerates the process, or worse, actively resists learning, the system is hard put to teach the basics. Institutional education has to accommodate both kids. I am more worried about the second kid than the first.