Education, Learning and the Transition to the Information Economy

At the DLD panel on education — which was moderated well by Simon Levine from Accel — there was an interesting discussion about the role of teachers and motivation in learning.  On one side was Shai Reshef, an education entrepreneur, who is preparing to launch a free online “University of the People.”  On the other was Alexander Olek, who has helped create a successful school program in Germany that is similar to the KIPP program in the US in that it emphasizes in school learning (longer days,  shorter vacations).  Shai was essentially arguing that teachers more often than not stand in the way of learning, whereas Alex was essentially saying that without teachers students learn nothing.  This difference expressed itself in many ways.  For instance, Shai’s own children spend a fair bit of time online, Alex’s don’t (as he put it “they only have half an hour after coming back from school”).  Shai argued that students are intrinsically motivated, whereas Alex said that nobody is motivated to learn multiplication tables.

The more I read about education and learning the more I find seemingly conflicting evidence on this issue.  For instance, Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers has a chapter on KIPP.  He cites an econometric study that looked at achievement gaps based on whether they were attributable to time in school or time on vacation and concludes that kids who are not learning from their parents and siblings during long summer vacations who fall behind.  KIPP is designed to address exactly this problem by having more school.  On the other hand, in the very same book, Gladwell presents evidence based on comparing subjects of study across countries that suggests that perceived opportunity makes a significant difference in student motivation and choice of subjects.

As I have been thinking about this, it occurred to me that at least part of the answer relates to a question that was asked by an audience member at DLD: what should be the goal of education? From the perspective of society at large, the goals of education would seem to include maintaining and furthering civilization and preparing people to be productive members of society.  From this result goals of education for individuals that have shifted over time with changes in morals and in economic activity.   For instance, in the transition from monarchies to democracies it became important for education to shift from unquestioning loyalty to involved citizenship.   The change from farming to an industrial economy required a whole new set of skills to be taught.  So the starting point seems to me understanding how the now occurring transition to an information economy changes the social and individual goals for education.

For instance, in industrial production there is a real premium on uniformity and that is still reflected in much of the existing education system.  Now, however, we are seeing computers take over more and more of the tasks that required uniformity — those tasks being the ones that lend themselves to the application of information technology.  So the premium would seem to be shifting to creativity on one hand and on the other to activities that will not be taken over by machines because they require a human touch (e.g., healthcare).  At the same time, more and more information is readily accessible to anyone whether it is through Wikipedia, the Open Courseware Consortium, or new initiatives such as Shai’s.   So learning facts in school is becoming less important than the ability to acquire facts on one’s own from the available sources.

This brings me back to the initial debate about the role of motivation and teachers in education.  I believe there are many young people who already sense that the industrial era is passing and that what and how they are learning in school does not prepare them for what is ahead.  Given that, it is not surprising that they lack motivation and are unlikely to relate to teachers who did not grow up with the web.  I am not suggesting that this view offers a quick fix, but that for reforming or reinventing education, it is essential that we get more clarity around the changing goals for society at large and based on that for individuals.  I believe that doing so will reveal this particular debate to be based on a false dichotomy.  With the right goals we will be able to improve student motivation and be able to determine the right role for schools and teachers. Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Posted: 29th January 2009Comments
Tags:  Education information economy learning teachers motivation

Newer posts

Older posts

blog comments powered by Disqus
  1. erickd reblogged this from continuations
  2. whatson reblogged this from continuations
  3. steph reblogged this from fred-wilson
  4. fred-wilson reblogged this from continuations
  5. iamdanw reblogged this from continuations
  6. continuations posted this

Newer posts

Older posts