June 22, 2013

The Economist's Emma Duncan explains why education's production line stinks

Emma Duncan in the middle.
The Times of London is back in the good books. Not too long ago Sir David Bell was exalting the sanctity of the traditional university degree: he smacked down the employability demands of students and exhalted the intellectual integrity of the degree. The Times reported on his worries in a report entitled, 'Intellectual integrity of degrees is at risk, says university chief.' I smacked that idea down on the Huffington Post here.

So after that the Times was in the bad books. I really wasn't impressed. For too many people, the traditional degree is causing information and skills asymmetries. The academic hand does not fit the professional working glove. To address this, universities need to teach real world skills and be associated with industry and the job market. One of my favourite quotes on this is this:
"The value of an education has nothing to do with knowledge and everything to do with awareness." 
- David Foster Wallace
And the quote below from English political philosopher, Michael Oakeshott is a personal favourite of mine (read also my essay on Michael Oakeshott on the Huffington Post here):
"The greatest achievements are accomplished in the mental fog of practical experience."
Any way, the London paper is back in the good books thanks to Emma Duncan, Deputy Editor of The Economist who has preached about the wonders of new and imaginative education methods to match the new and imaginative world in which we now live. It was joyful reading:
"Our education system resembles the manufacturing system pioneered by Henry Ford to produce cars exactly a century ago. Children pass through a uniform process, in the course of which they acquire a similar set of facts and skills. Some of them fail to get a full set of parts, in which case they are marked down as seconds; those that emerge with the requisite attributes get polished up at university and command a good price in the labour market. 
Mass production, Ford style, was abandoned long ago, for three reasons. 
1. It produced too many failures 
2. The market became more demanding 
3. And the technology changed. 
All of those are good reasons why education should be changing too."
Emma Duncan continued:
"The labour market is also demanding better-quality output. A hundred years ago, most of the products of schools were fodder for the factories. These days a lot of the dullest jobs are done either in China or by robots. Jobs in Britain today are more interesting, various and intellectually challenging, and therefore demand an education system that does a better job of honing individuals’ abilities."
Emma then spoke about Khan Academy, a new and revolutionary model of new age learning:
"With Khan’s system, the process is reversed. Children get the lectures from watching the videos for homework; in class they solve problems based on those lessons. That allows teachers to work with children individually and children to progress at their own pace. Khan’s software gives the teacher a mass of information about each child: which problems they tried, which they solved, and how long they took. Children can work on their own stuff, at their own pace, mastering a skill properly before moving on to the next task. Education becomes properly child-centred, but with data and rigour, not with posies."
However, herein lies the problem, as Emma elucidates:
"There’s a Catch-22 problem that stymies education reform. Anybody who is now in a powerful position did well at school and university, and therefore tends to think the system that produced them a rather clever sort of system, with sound values and good judgment. Anybody who didn’t do well doesn’t count."
Read Emma in the Times here (£).


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