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Educating our kids

By Jay Somasundaram
Created 26/03/2009 - 11:46

This is Jay Somasundaram's [0] second contribution to Webdiary (his first was May we live in interesting times [0]), and we thank him for his latest, thought-provoking piece.


Educating our kids
by Jay Somasundaram

Suffer little children, and forbid them not to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven

Atul Gawande [1] aptly illustrates the difference between a craft and an industry. Delivering babies using forceps is known to produce superior outcomes to caesareans. Nevertheless (US) statistics show that caesarean births are increasing. Dr. Gawande argues that modern obstetrics is an industry, not a craft, and in an industry, caesareans produce better outcomes for the patients. Using forceps for difficult births is a complex art – hard to teach, hard to accredit. In an industry that requires the mass production of obstetricians, focusing on producing competence in caesareans rather than forceps deliveries produces better health outcomes for society as a whole.

Like it or not, our school system is an industry. We like to pretend it’s a craft, and blame our teachers – that if all our teachers were craftsmen, that if the teaching profession attracted the “best and the brightest” (whatever that means) then all problems would be solved. Increasing the quality of our teachers will achieve incremental benefits with increased costs. Treating schooling as an industry and applying industrial design principles will deliver sizable benefits while lowering costs.

The ferocious debate on phonetic versus whole language reading is an embarrassment for the profession. It indicates a disjoint between science and the profession that such a fundamental issue is still being debated. A craft approach has the luxury of allowing a craftsman to chose their own preference, and become expert in that technique. An industry, on the other hand, would likely conclude that the best outcome is situational on the student and their learning stage, and provide the professional teacher with an appropriate toolbox for diagnosis and treatment.

Or take the debate on national standards and testing. An industry would take them as a given – an essential pre-requisite for developing quality systems. True, the counter-arguments that these tests are far from being reliable measures of good learning or teaching, and that the information will be used inappropriately, have a lot of merit. There is an increasing body of evidence in management that performance measures and bonuses do more harm than good. Nevertheless, the benefits outweigh the harm. If we wish to understand and improve learning at a national level, we need to start measuring it, however imperfectly. After all, we use the same imperfect technique for deciding who goes to university and who doesn’t.

Reading, ’riting and ‘rithmetic are not the objectives of an education system. Rather, they are by-products. What an education system must primarily do is foster a love of learning – the skills and attributes that a child learning to walk has, but appears to lose with age. When children enjoy and know how to learn, then they are able to better utilise the multiplicity of resources they have – their family and friends, their school, TV, libraries… – to better learn their 3 Rs and everything else.

Education is of course the primary purpose of our schooling system. Schools, however, provide two other very real and important purposes. Firstly, they provide a baby-sitting service for parents. Secondly, they provide employment for the education industry (which includes not only teachers, but administrators, policy-makers, text-book publishers …). These are valid policy objectives. My objection is not their validity but that they are not openly identified and addressed. When we are not explicit about these objectives, they are met through sub-conscious actions, resulting in sub-optimal systems designs.

In an industry, investment decisions are made on cost-benefit grounds. The greatest investments are made at points where the returns are highest. The Jesuit maxim “give me the child until seven and I will give you the man” is proven by increasing research: the first few years are by far the most important for learning. And yet, public investment on education starts only at age six and increases with age.

An industry in the private sector changes due to market forces. Established, large and powerful companies may either overtly or subconsciously resists these changes, but new entrants force disruptive innovations [2] to occur relatively rapidly. Radical change is more difficult in the public sector. Radical change can occur, but is more likely to be driven by political ideology than empirical evidence. Implementation is more easily influenced by stakeholders – except that children, the most affected stakeholders, have no voice.

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