Review of Ken Robinson's Changing Education Paradigms

[ prose  rant  review  education  ]

In this post I’m going to try something a little bit different. I’m presenting at my alma matter this fall to talk about my research for Bristol Myers Squibb. As I’ve been reflecting on objective differences in project longevity, rigor, or collaborative style in preparation for some early-mid 20’s students, I revisited one of my favorite RSA Animate talks: Ken Robinson’s ‘Changing Education Paradigms’.

Contradictions to a Vertical Career Growth/Success Narrative

People are revisiting the grad school model in the wake of several news items: grad student unions, PhD/Postdoc bubble, uncertain ROI of PhD degree, wage/hiring stagnation after the Trump tax breaks, reports about lack of businesss/soft skills in grads. There is a lack of dialogue between educational institutions and industry about necessary industry agnostics business skills and field-specific fundamentals. Furthermore, the age-old specialization/generalization axis still plagues our decision making process.

Perhaps these indicators have something to do with the myth of continuous vertical career growth that is both simplistic and greedy in values. The myth of the corporate ladder describes scrambling for vertical promotions as opposed to lateral movements within a company. I believe this may be less common in interdisciplinary fields where learning progress in both fields is cut in half or more. This traditional education/career progression paradigm has created large divides in philosophy between art/social fields and technoindustrial/logistic fields in terms of symmetry in degree value, talent pools, and funding. Degrees demonstrate mastery of foundational theory and simple but important competencies: commitment, ability to meet deadlines, and study.

The prescriptive notion that degrees are not prerequisites or guarantees about employment buries three misconceptions about higher education: a) that a degree necessarily provides both the minimum, accurate, and complete courework for success, b) that your education is complete when the degree is complete, and c) that education is sufficient for employment. That being said, the preceding three rules used to be accurate and fair descriptions of expectations of where employers and employees were supposed to meet the higher education system with the labor market. Degree inflation can be thought of in terms of jobs that list a degree as ‘required’ when they really mean ‘preferred’. Additionally, the value of a degree decreases over time as the field’s theory is advanced and rewritten.

The conversation between the business-world and education has become elitist. A small number of industry panels advise higher-education exclusively over high-schools while much of the production labor needs have low educational requirements. Conversely, the ‘too many chefs in the kitchen’ adage seems to hold for fields with high competition and diverse technical competencies with the JD and PhD bubbles as crucial examples. Why doesnt industry approach high schools or undergraduate programs with simple, fun seminars and competitions on pipetting skills to guage students, instead of pippette testing being an excrutiatingly difficult front-door barrier for laboratory companies?

So, lateral growth then?

It would be interesting for integration and/or overlap between ‘periods’ and subject areas. The assembly line mentality is used to describe the focus on throughput, efficiency, and ‘batch’ mentality but more interesting might be the siloing of students into isolated subject areas. Many professionals approach their higher education and development in the same way. Why doesn’t high-school study of WWII history include economic analysis of key commodities such as oil and steel in the origin, alliances, and progression of the war? Is it that controversial to admit that federal or top-down investment in key sectors is still a major part of our economic strategy to this day with examples of national security and STEM programs as important but controversial strategies in today’s news?

A Crisis of Metrics, Structure, and Finance

Sir Robinson describes educational and economic tradition as originating from enlightenment-age Europe, where progress was perceived largely through the lens of automation and separation of concerns. While we tend to fixate on Dickensian images of crowded, dirty London when describing the downside of industrialization, it is an economic model that provides an important focus on metrics and feedback. However, our educational ‘model’ (i.e. the systems and schema of production around time, units, quality, and throughput) also derives in part from a schoolhouse model from the 18th and 19th centuries in rural America, where a high student-teacher ratio was driven by economic necessity. In the schoolhouse model, teachers performed a humongous number of roles as caretakers (and peacekeepers among children lol), disciplinarians, counselors, and guardians of the children in rural communities. An interesting comparison would be the student/tax ratio and the student/teacher ratios between rural and urban America with cities like Vienna, Paris, and London in the 19th century.

We are simultaneously trying to standardize student quality and create uniformity across unclear definitions of literacy or core competencies in the information age without the input of children. Then we target, label, and medicate students with family or medical issues and low interest in traditional curricula. The focus on student quality through uniformity doesn’t seem to be optimizing the experience for children let alone the teachers. The student/tax and student/teacher ratios are appropriate metrics to highlight dissimilarities between the education of children and the production of goods. Moreover, the matter of curriculum and core skills is a different matter from the quantitative and objective lens of educational funding, organizational structure, and logistics.

The use of metrics in determining funding is not the point of standard metrics

I think teachers and legislators have misunderstandings about metrics. All too obvious is the anxiety surrounding competition for funding and/or even the backwards notion that the incentive structures punish struggling schools. Let’s skip this issue in favor of the focus on the heterogeneity of children, educational motivation, and curricula. Specifically, let’s point out all of the toxic ideas. That unmotivated students from poor backgrounds don’t deserve extra funding. That schools need to meet national standards to produce quality students for their communities. That there is one optimal way to educate a single student or group of students. That private schools are anti-democratic. That increasing student/teacher or student/tax ratios is an economic necessity in rich nations. That arts, shop, and sports should be targeted by mismanagement of money. It’s a red herring to describe educational budget as ‘under shortfall’ or ‘dried up’; it is either mismanaged or not adequately negotiated for. Given the complexity of tieing funding to performance regarding racial, state, and political issues I would say that a single national standard should be more decoupled, or indirectly coupled from funding. The goal of metrics is to obtain data. With measurement, local governments can determine their own treatments as part of local conversations.

Let’s skip ahead to other types of treatment in play regarding children and education. As students we see types of personalities in teachers and what they are teaching us: unforgiving teachers with strict principles of hierarchy and teachers that let the pace of the class unfold as a conversation with other human beings. These two competing but not mutually exclusive emotional extrema of what school or teaching means is not simple to talk about and I am certainly not qualified to criticize or inform.

That being said, you might agree that pure attention span is something we see in students with other behavioral issues that distract other students. What’s worse is that some students have genuine problems concentrating and/or feeling confident about investing into learning; we treat it all with the same hammer: pharmaceuticals and/or behavioral therapy. The children are free to interpret the progress they make or the help they are forced to take as ‘something wrong with them’. Most adults would agree that this is not the message we want to send. And yet we are medicating more children with derivatives of amphetamines that massively rewire and speed up the child’s brain, which they could interpret as ‘proper cognitive speed’ instead of the normal humdrum of their original personalities and perception, and the risk of addiction is real.

I will also say that the problems these children face or the costs their families are forced to bear are due to a desire for mild-mannered, sedated, and patient students being brought down on them from a hypocritically impatient, pharmaceutically liberal, capitalistic elite in the education and medical communities that believe these solutions are without consequence. While that may sound a little bit harsh, it’s the tools our culture has decided to use to combat the perceived epidemic of hyperactive, distracted children. Alternatively, the observation and opinions that this is a genuine epidemic may be the result of loose definitions, bad metrics, sales and promotional literature as much as it is the genuine inexperience or frustration of some teachers with the behavior of groups of children that often bear resemblance to medical symptoms of a nuanced developmental niche. I am not qualified to comment or critique the ins and outs of educators’ career trajectories and I don’t even want to. I believe what was intended was the desire for data and permission to iterate on educational metrics, not student evaluation.

Closing thoughts

While I merely echoed some of the thoughts Ken Robinson believes let me explain my bias or ignorance. In my experience as a scientist there is a fascination with measurement and metrics that allows you to separate different concerns or competing factors that are part of a quantitative assessment of a phenomenon or system. The accuracy of measurement or modeling is a discussion worth having and a single condensed metric tightly coupled to funding may not be a good system. To add to the complication and my level of ignorance is a existing racial disparity, a poison from the previous centuries. You cannot decouple the conversation about incentive structure and metrics from conversations and ignorance concerning slavery and segregation. I would rather the conversation be more about objective measurement of where a school is and what the local communities need. I have no words of wisdom here.

In addition to direct measurement of academic or teacher performance, we need to be more concerned with what is afforded to us by the decrease in drop-out rate, overall educational trends, uncertainty in local economies, and core purposes of education including modern literacy and the influence of technology on our social conversations. Can we afford to refund arts and sports just a little bit? Are the societal issues of surveillance, hacking, globalization proverbial canaries for an uncertain future in technology and an anti-capitalist and anti-technocratic argument? Is a society rooted in traditional engineering disciplines loosely coupled to health a more minimalist technological and logistical core? The arts continue to be a part of our social voice and aren’t phased by our love affair with technology.