10 January 2009

The Limits of Education

Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers, is great. He's done it again, putting together a string of great stories that make fairly profound points. I heard him say in an interview that this book is a reaction to the last 8 years of emphasis on individual success. He focuses instead on the ecology of success. I recommend the book.

But one chapter of his really irked me. Gladwell basically accepts that education needs to be more demanding. The example he uses is of Marita, who wakes up each morning at 5:45 and goes to bed at 11 PM. This is not a graduate student. Marita is only twelve.

Gladwell writes that this kind of rigor and time spent will give Marita opportunities that she would never have otherwise. He assures us that this is reasonable. I remain unconvinced.

I’m sure that the data supports Gladwell’s contention that Marita will have more academic success at this rate. I am not so sure that the data supports the notion that Marita will have more life success with this approach.

To digress for one moment, I once heard a claim that even engineers apply less than 20% of what they learn. We spend a great deal of energy getting students prepared but very little time getting feedback on what did or did not work. What, of all that they learned, they really needed. We seem to spend even less time trying to prepare students to become creative, entrepreneurial people who know how to translate raw knowledge into value.

If education is the speed of the engine and life is the speed of the car, we have educational engines revving loudly and, given slips in transmission, drive shaft, and universal joints, wheels on the cars crawling along. Or perhaps a simpler analogy is that we keep pushing harder on the accelerator but don’t ever shift out of first gear. Learning a great deal that we don't know how to - or don't bother to - translate into changes in quality of life seems beside the point.

To focus more on education to the point of putting the kids through a rigorous program that essentially leads to sleep deprivation before puberty is, I guess, one approach. But this seems to me an approach akin to putting more horse power into the engine when the car is still in first gear rather than simply shifting. What if we got better at learning how to apply what we know rather than just learning more?

Regular readers know that I do believe education ought to be transformed – along with the corporation. If we made organizations more entrepreneurial – finding ways to provoke and translate the ingenuity of employees into new products and markets – we’d probably find communities demanding a different kind of education and preparation for life. It is not obvious, though, that the communities would simply demand greater quantities of the education they are already getting.

It might be time to stop finding new ways to push the engine to higher RPMs and instead find someway to shift gears. If today's gains can come only from working kids from 5:45 to 11, where will tomorrow's gains come from? It must just be time to realize that we're reaching the limits of an educational system that was largely defined in the late 19th century.


Anonymous said...

The last time I worked in an engineering firm, I noticed there was very little "engineering" going on. Engineers mostly enter data into a program, and the program does all the calculations and hard work. It even generates the drawings.

My sister is an accountant, and it's the same thing with her. Most of her day is spent checking forms to make sure people entered their data into their spreadsheets correctly.

I'm not sure more education is really going to lead to more opportunities. It looks like we're headed for a world of computer programmers and data entry clerks.

cce said...

When I was selecting elementary schools for my kids I can remember asking a friend why she chose to send her child to a local private school rather than the public school which has a very good reputation. And her reply was that the private school just seemed better because her child had to sooo much more homework. To her, the impossible work load was a good thing, a sign of academic rigor. Sighhh.
I'm with you on this one but I'm afraid there's a whole lot of people who think otherwise.

Lifehiker said...

I agree with you, Ron. (Even though agreement is boring!).

We have many teenagers at Pittsford Ambulance. They learn an entirely new "system" that has many uncertainties built into it, and they train "on the job" where they are in charge unless they get in over their heads - they always have a backstop. This kind of education is wonderful for them because it mimics the uncertainties found in life and real work.

Hours and hours of study,learning facts and techniques that may never be used, seems a terrible waste of time, especially for a very young person. What we need is more experiential learning in environments that students find exhilarating.

Ron Davison said...

it does seem true that a great deal of the work that is billed as knowledge work requires very little knowledge. By that measure, most workers are already way over-qualified for most jobs.

hard work is the simplest measure of efficacy. At least in some people's minds.

I love the idea of experiential learning for kids. It's funny, no? We've taken them out of the real world and put them into classrooms and it seems as though the missing piece in their education is the real world. I still think that kids should toggle back and forth between classrooms with theory and reflection and "real world" with action and results until they are about 62.