Monday, April 18, 2011

Real World Education

Besides writing Dilbert, Scott Adams has ideas about education. In this post he wonders
why our school system is so mismatched to the educational needs of modern students. This leads me to a hypothesis that I will call the Education Complexity Shift.

I'll begin by stipulating that any field of study is helpful in training a student's mind to become more of a learning machine. Two hundred years ago, when life itself was simple (feed the horse, plant the corn) you needed to make school artificially complicated to stretch a student's mind. Once a student's mind was expanded, stressed, stretched and challenged, it became a powerful tool when released back into the relatively simple "real world."

The Education Complexity Shift observes that the real world has become more complicated than school. Imagine trying to teach a young child how to do the routine adult task of planning the most efficient trip by plane, or getting a mortgage, or investing. How about planning a wedding? How many pieces of software do you use for your job?

Today, life is more complicated than school. That means the best way to expand a student's mind is by teaching more about the practical complexities of the real world and less about, for example, the history of Europe, or trigonometry.

I'll pause here to acknowledge that both history and trigonometry are useful for students who plan to become historians or rocket scientists. For the other 99.9% of the world, little from those classes will be retained. The only benefit from much of what is taught in school is generic training of the mind, and for that we now have a better and more complicated option: the real world.

Some of you will argue that learning history is important on a number of levels, including creating a shared culture, understanding other countries, and avoiding the mistakes of the past. I agree. And if the question was teaching history versus teaching nothing, history would be the best choice every time. But if you compare teaching history with, for example, teaching a kid how to compare complicated financial alternatives, I'd always choose the skill that has the most practical value. You get all the benefit of generic mental training plus some real world benefits if any of it is retained.
I think Adams underestimates the intellectual complexity of nineteenth-century farming, but I do think he has a point. It would be possible to do a lot of intellectually demanding school work while focusing entirely on things Americans do every day. But that would only stretch minds in one direction, toward complexity. It would not do the other kinds of mind-stretching provided by a really good education: the questioning of our assumptions, the consideration of how people live or have lived in societies very different from our own, and the examination of beliefs so basic that we are hardly aware we have them. Calculating mortgages is challenging in a sense, but does it compare to contemplation of the vastness of the universe, the depth of geological time, or the astonishing intricacy of the living cell?

There is more to a real education than cleverness.

1 comment:

David said...

Wow, I didn't know that history was "simple"!