Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Your mind is a web, not a stack of bricks — Let’s take stonemasonry metaphors out of learning

As a mom who has helped her kids depart occasionally or permanently from school around age-12, I get a lot of flack from family. I come from a highly-educated family myself, so the criticisms are easy. Aren’t I denying my children the opportunities which I enjoyed? Aren’t I setting them up for failure? The day-to-day judgments vary--if one is pricing financial derivatives or building a model engine, it’s all praise; if one is dancing or making an iphone documentary on our street, it’s distress.

We are all op-ed-reading, self-proclaimed consciousness-raisers, til the threat of an irregular income, out-of-pocket healthcare, or an itinerant lifestyle comes up. Then I’m a negligent parent, and we’re back to stonemasonry metaphors. You’re denying your teenagers the building blocks! The foundations! The cornerstones! 

As best I can figure, the argument goes: if my teen will memorize fast and replicate math and science concepts sooner than his age-mates along a linear vertical (e.g., organic chemistry at 14, multivariate calculus at 15), then I am assured that all bricks have been stacked, with the ego-boost that my kid stacked his sooner. Future learning will make sense, future gatekeepers will open privileged doors, future employers will give the secret handshake... right? 

I can tell you’re wavering. There’s a bit of bricklayer in all of us. Yes, gatekeepers will look for algebra and geometry and trig, because that’s what gatekeepers are programmed to look for. State education officials and community colleges and core-curricula-makers at universities will all call for a very similar vertical. Maybe bullshit. Maybe so watered-down that it’s hardly meaningful. But the same vertical nevertheless, so that boxes can be ticked and diplomas produced. And yes, there are many employers who will look for those ticked-boxes and diplomas. 

But there are neurological and social and practical reasons why our brains don’t stack bricks, and the whole stonemasonry metaphor is a fiction. 

Variety of dendritic trees, Source: Koch and Segev, Nature Neuroscience, 2000.
The shape of learning is actually more like a tree, or rather an interconnected forest of dendritic-trees, than a vertical stack. Healthy neurons connect to numerous dendrites, tree-like projections with small, bud-like extensions, the sites of protein synthesis and memory formation. The length, shape, and density of dendritic branching contributes to the brain’s signal integration and propagation. Dendritic trees are dynamic not only during early neural development, but throughout life, pruning away unnecessary extensions and creating new branches continuously.

This might lead core-curriculum apologists to counter, Well, couldn’t those synapses be engineered into place according to a scholastic plan? Couldn’t we set about to input a hierarchy of content into a population’s minds through daily repetition and practice? Surely, the base of long-term competencies, such as fine motor skills, language, and socially-patterned behavior comes from daily repetition. But the mechanisms for strong memory-formation don’t turn on and off with a switch (or rather with a school bell, homework and tests). When “learning” becomes a laundry-list of arbitrary content, as it does after kids master literacy and numeracy and head into adolescence--that is, five features of igneous rock, seven facts about Mesopotamia, three bullet points about Roman aqueducts, why Separate Peace is a good book, the formula for a parabola, and six policies related to the New Deal--then the expectation that teens’ wildly branching dendrites should neatly cement together according to a common plan becomes ludicrous. Two key conditions are usually missing: emotional connectedness to content, and ready, continuing application. To frustrated parents and teachers, this is: he’s not motivated!

When we push a teenager to stack bricks, we’re channeling his time and energy away from opportunities to get really, authentically excited. We’re also missing the social phenomenon that would happen if he found and spent more time with other people who got excited about the same things. That’s missing both the cognitive boost associated with intrinsic motivation (see the extensive work of neuroscientist Johnmarshall Reeve), and the learning-accelerant of shared-focus enthusiasm. It’s the double-whammy of being bored among bored people. (And beware, performance-parents, of being cynical among cynical people!

There are also practical reasons why we don’t stack bricks. Concepts connect and form memories when we have ready and continuing need to apply them. In the development of BreakAway, I worked with MIT Computer Science and Mathematics graduates, two over-cynical young guys who seemed depressed about the 16-year educational process from which they had just emerged. “I don’t think I ever really made a choice since the second grade,” one told me. Aaron had been a contributor to ArtofProblemSolving, a problem-solving start-up created by Bay-area math-lovers. But he himself was crammed through a relentless linear pathway of math and science classes, most of which he found unmemorable and useless. Time-waste and irrelevance was a common theme in their educations, both coming from super-high-performing high schools and rigorous MIT curricula. It came from the vertical stack, they said, the notion that one textbook or course must precede another. Both found that they plodded through thousands of hours of disjointed mathematical concepts with anxiety and fear. The really fun “a-ha!” moments happened idiosyncratically when they dove into problems that caused them to connect old and new concepts in novel ways. When need and excitement and personal investment came together, either of them could absorb volumes in a few days. But instead, years of their childhoods seem to have been misallocated. 

I’ve been beating my head against the bricklayer metaphors time and again over years of defending my teens’ right to their own choices in learning. Last week I was panel-interviewed by secondary-ed administrators at a school in Mumbai that our fourth child wants to attend sporadically to make more friends. Despite posturing to “work together as a team,” to understand “individualization” and “learning pathways”, they showed their cards when they handed me a block schedule of “cornerstones” and “foundations”. It would be impossible, it seems, to spend daytime hours pursuing his interests; the “building blocks” have to come first. How has this metaphor become so pervasive?

Maybe the metaphor is not all bad. Maybe there is something we’re longing for that we can’t describe. Something solid and respected and important to pass from one generation to the next. That’s how I felt about going to church on Sundays when we tried for a few years, then caved to sleepiness and kids’ resistance. That’s how my husband feels about football, being signed up by his dad without any questions, pummelled and coached, and winning. That’s how my grandparents felt about sacraments. How my dad feels about the Bill of Rights and visiting Washington. How my mom feels about reading good books and knowing how to cook. If every one of us is atomized-- self-optimizing and self-satisfying--without these bonds cementing us to history, to our towns and our grandparents and our beliefs, then what have we become? 

Maybe it’s our anxiety about having forsaken those real foundations that makes us so credulous about bureaucratically-determined foundations. If not First Communion or pot roast, then parabolas and the promise of an MBA. 

We are right to want cornerstones and foundations. We are right to want rhythm and continuity in raising children. But let’s be careful how we trade family, spiritual and community-based foundations for state-sanctioned gobbledygook. Those block schedules are not cementing anything in teens’ minds. They are wasting opportunities when real, personal webs could be woven.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

You’re a great manager, but with your teen you’re pretty lame

Middle-aged parents who self-identify as highly-educated are a pretty monotonous bunch. Get one pregnant, and she’ll overhaul her diet. Deliver a baby and they’ll obsess over neurological development. Grow a toddler and they’ll research five-figure preschools.

It was among this group that I once thought I could find kindred spirits to help teens renounce high school and blaze their own complex pathways. I tried economic arguments about debt and future markets. I tried philosophical arguments about agency and individualism. I tried forming a learning coop in our building, rallying carpools to local expert talks, mobilizing friends’ kids to foreign language chat groups, maker-spaces, and robotics labs. (To be clear, I was talking about extended hours, weekdays--real time--that comes from heart-and-soul commitment, not here-and-there visits after school). Maybe that was the kicker. Or maybe folks don’t like so many moving parts--set-ups, fee agreements, transport, logistics. I would have thought that the big guys I work around, who consider themselves pretty competent, who manage multiple projects with large budgets, who adapt to dozens of complications each day, have the skills to manage this kind of project, too.
But over years of attempted conversations, their replies have dimmed my hopes. Seems like when the age of aspirational breastfeeding and transcendental preschooling passes, parents of teens become more conformist than ever, content with the state-validated Velveeta cheese glob served up by zip-code with free transportation. Get the GPA, keep up the sports, record the so-called leadership. It’s the kind of scorecard only a blockhead-manager would apply. This leaves me scratching my head, because the same parents seem pretty well put-together as leaders and risk-takers. 

Between rejections, I have given some thought to what makes my friends and peers so lame when it comes to managing their teens:
  • An if-it-aint-broke decision-making model: I have enough on my plate as it is!
  • A lazy approach to complexity: I just don’t have the mental space for that!
  • A nano-manager’s approach to task ownership: I don’t want to be wondering what she’s doing!
  • A padded playground approach to risk: What if this doesn’t work out? 
  • A Victorian view of class-ambiguity: She’d be cut off from the system! ...Then she’ll be paying the price one day…
  • And an arranged-marriage approach to teen agency: She still has to get into college!

You see what I’m up against? From the looks of things, these folks ought to have the greatest resources to throw at teenagers, if only they weren’t such blockheads. No wait, I shouldn’t say that. These guys are my best chance for allies, after all. 

OK, I’ve written about how we get addicted to school as childcare solution and then hang on too long, how middle and high-school brainwash teens into seeing the future too narrowly, how high school’s college-obsession drives perilous debt-taking, and how by unbundling learning teens can invest intensively in what interests them most. But teens are still stuck behind parents. And it is this class-anxious, risk-averse, nano-manager parenting that stifles teens from discovering their voices. Can I offer some advice?

Decouple learning from childcare. When young people self-select into opportunities to chat with experts, hack with friends, build, break and design with mentors for hours on end, they are operating at a level that cannot be achieved in an everybody-together, requirement-driven, behavior management system. When parents assume their teenagers need heavy-handed behavior-management, they may be inhibiting the growth of self-motivation and self-discipline. And as our culture trends toward zero-risk/tolerance, we’re missing important developmental opportunities to fool around, slack-off, mess up, and learn. Good managers know that task ownership and empowerment enable productivity; second-guessing micro-management demoralizes teams.
Take deliberate steps to welcome uncertainty and risk. I know it sounds like horrible parenting to not know where your 16-year old is, but that was the norm when we were kids. How did we get here? Find day-to-day opportunities for your teenager to speak for herself with strangers, navigate your city, manage payments, and find her way home from new places.
Ask her what’s interesting. And be prepared to listen. It’s a challenge not to frame this question around traditional education subjects, and teens just escaping from the conveyor belt will think that’s what you’re asking for. It takes time and patience and many iterations to start hearing things like I wonder why old people are so lonely? or What goes into my shampoo? or Do you think we’re being spied on? And rather than reverting these ideas to the boxes of traditional school subjects, think with her about the trajectories these concepts could launch. I wonder about that, too. What happens to our minds as we get older? Does talking and meeting people make us healthier? Which part of the brain gets engaged? Is it a good idea that older people often live so far from their families? How could they maintain feelings of independence but benefit from more interactions? Every one of these questions is a legitimate springboard to so many more articles, books, lectures, and business case studies. And if her room starts to look like a mess of clipped articles and diagrams, she is chatting with different people and visiting places around town, then you’re making her comfortable to explore.
Get comfortable with dropping “foundational” content. This is how we hobble teens’ emerging interests and re-allocate all their potential energy. It’s based on some visual of building-blocks, cornerstones, and other bricklayer metaphors. Chronological history. Transcripts. The relentless sequence of math textbooks. In our own lives, we would never approach problems this way, but we’re remarkably stubborn with our teens. Get outside the bricklayer metaphors, and think about ideas as complex webs. The threads will grow where there is intrinsic curiosity, and stay strong where knowledge loops to emotion and experience. Maybe that polynomial equation will loop in, or maybe it won’t. There will be millions of unexpected threads, and you don’t have to put them there by force. She will find them when her curiosity and motivation are authentic.
Encourage her to write goals and make graphic representations of her progress. This will be good practice for managing herself, and then mobilizing and managing others. What is her vision? How does she communicate it? What is she aiming for? How can she document what she’s doing? Remember, this is a work in progress. She’s learning management skills by doing them, and she’s implementing a project that changes as she goes.
We can get comfortable with uncertainty and moving parts. Teens in pajamas all day. Or commuting around town til late. Great books read with no reports. Discussions on WhatsApp. Half-completed Courseras. Showing up at places where cool people are doing cool things… hoping one day they’ll pay her. Shoeboxes of circuits and wires, shoeboxes of leotards, shoeboxes of tempera paints. Facebook and Skype networks of tutors and mentors. Pencilled schedules, constant changes. Dozens of micro-payments.
Comfortable, right?
You’re squirming, I know. This sounds messy. And you’re going to give me one of the replies I told you about, because somehow your manager-brain isn’t working with your teenager.
Squint your eyes. Try to see your 15-year-old as a 25-year-old. You’re smart and take risks and manage people. Help her to start doing the same.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

4 Reasons the DOJ and FTC should launch an anti-trust investigation against America’s undergraduate institutions

The heat is rising on America’s undergraduate institutions, but for reasons peripheral to the real problem. Yes, they’re favoring elite kids. Yes, they’re taking bribes. Yes, they’re racially profiling applicants. Yes, they’re relentlessly marketing to kids too young to understand debt-traps. Yes, they’re inflating grades and watering-down content. Yes, they’re teaching irrelevant and soon-forgettable content that employers aren’t interested in. Yes, they’re bloated, over-employed, wastefully splashing money around on buildings, landscaping and sports complexes. 

Why do they get away with it?

Here’s the reason why every family should write to Lamar Alexander (R-TN) head of the Senate Committee on Education and demand the Department of Justice Anti-Trust Division and Federal Trade Commission Bureau of Competition launch an investigation.

The 4-year, 120-credit-hour, all-from-one-place undergraduate degree is an anti-competitive, bundled product that distorts the market for higher learning.

Here are four reasons:

Price Discrepancy: Why does the edX/Harvard specialization in US Government, entailing 4-months of coursework cost $196, while 3 credits on campus costs $4218? Why does the Coursera/UCSanDiego specialization in Data Structure Algorithms entailing 6 months of coursework cost $294, while 4 credits on campus costs $4900?

Barriers to a-la-carte consumption: Universities make only a few courses from the entire selection available to ‘visiting’ students, holding back the majority to full-time degree candidates. This is especially true of higher-level and laboratory courses. Tuition structures often prefer all-in-one-place study; that is, students pay more to take courses here and there than they would if they took 15-18 credits in a semester from one place.

Unwarranted switching costs: Students pay more to switch among universities; first, because they have to pay for standardized tests and pay for sharing the scores, pay for sharing transcripts, spend time preparing and then submitting applications and references, and pay for that, too—multiple times. Second, universities discount the value of “credits” already earned and curricular units covered from other places, requiring many students to re-take similar or identical courses to complete degrees.

Ex-post penalties for a-la-carte consumption: Here the term “credit” comes into play; it is the socially-accepted word for bundle-able product. And universities get to decide what is bundle-able and what is not, always in their own favor. Very few universities recognize comparable study completed whether for online certificate (e.g., Khan Academy, FutureLearn) or identity-verified certificate (e.g., edX) or even with in-person, proctored exams (e.g., ModernStates) as worth of “credit”, requiring a-la-carte consumers to repurchase learning services in bundle-able form. Students that already have advanced knowledge and skills developed through a-la-carte study (e.g., a mathematician having mastered stochastic calculus, linear algebra and coding in C++ on Khan Academy, Brilliant, through books and tutors) is NOT admissible to most Masters, PhD, or professional degree programs. Lesser candidates having undergraduate degrees—even in unrelated fields to the intended graduate study, and even degrees earned years ago and the contents of which could hardly be remembered—will get admitted to spots that the a-la-carte student can’t access.

It’s a worthwhile thought experiment, too, whether during the past few decades undergraduate institutions have really played the role of a public utility.

Why might we think of them as a utility? The 4-year, 120-credit-hour undergraduate degree has been:
  • A standardized metric of skills and knowledge embedded in HR systems of the majority of American medium and large-scale employers, including state and federal governments;
  • A metric (acceptance or enrollment to an undergraduate program) which the vast majority of American public and private high schools track as a performance metric;
  • An unavoidable pathway to access a very large portion of jobs in both the public and private sector (including many state and military jobs, where it’s a felony to represent other aggregated forms of study as a Bachelors Degree);
  • An unavoidable control-point for employees to increase compensation, even when doing the same work.
And its provision is, by definition, limited to a finite number of accredited institutions which:
  • Have privileged access to federally subsidized student loans and to the distributions of tax-preferred college savings plans;
  • Are financed therefore at rates far below what the cost of credit would be for consumption of similar learning services from providers outside this group.
What would be the implications of classifying undergraduate universities as a public utility?
  • Would it be fair that college tuitions have risen at more than double the rate of the CPI during 1980-2014, and have outstripped price increases in household utilities and healthcare?
  • Wouldn’t the FTC question the ballooning cost structures, bloated staff, and ancillary services that keep tuitions rising?
  • Wouldn’t the FTC use words like collusion, price-fixing, unfair barriers to access, unfair product bundling and switching costs to describe what is happening?
It seems for now that the public has been suckers to an industry that presents bundling as core-curriculum, switching costs as pride-in-alma-mater, and collusion as ivy-covered gateways worthy of respect. It’s time to stop the grand-standing around college education in Congress and at our kitchen tables. It’s an industry over-due for anti-trust investigation.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Raising my daughter by ten thousand suggestions

My 14 year-old daughter recently dug up a stick-figure drawing she made in kindergarten of herself scaling a smoking volcano. “I want to be a volcanologist”, she wrote, above the brown marker-haired figure in triangle-shaped skirt. That drawing, she remembers, set me into weeks of investigation about how one becomes a volcanologist--studying admissions policies at Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta, pulling up PBS films about Katia and Maurice Krafft, emailing Philip Kyle at the Mount Erebus Volcano Observatory in Antarctica, and Darcy Bevens at the Center for Study of Active Volcanoes at University of Hawaii at Hilo. We watched, played, read and talked to folks about volcanoes until, not long after, she announced that she no longer wants to be volcanologist.

That was 9 years and about ten thousand suggestions ago. As my daughter tells me, sometimes she wishes I was a more ‘normal’ mom. I learned along the way that I could create whole life-stories for my daughter, latch on to briefly-mentioned ideas and cook up must-see, must-try, must-read lists faster than she cared to notice. I learned that suggesting too hard sometimes turned her off completely. A once-fun experiment became a chore, or my insistence on background reading made conversation stilted. The most heartbreaking response she could give me was an indifferent shrug.

OK, so I also learned a few things about suggesting. Suggesting is better in sweetened spoonfuls than inundations. Suggesting doesn’t need to watch her reading over her shoulder. Or to follow-up every time. The silence between suggestions is probably more valuable than the suggestion itself.

Like watching a 2-year-old’s vocabulary tentatively emerge after months of listening, and then explode in complexity, I’m starting to see with my daughter how years of suggesting--people, ideas, careers, dilemmas--is beginning to articulate itself. Like the 6-month old listening to her mother sing, the 9-year old absorbs something from her mother’s suggestions that’s not apparent to either of them at the time. Like a thousand open-ended questions that are only partly answered in words, but move to the front of her mind and seem to build a lens through which she watches the world. Am I here by mistake or intentionally? Is there a metaphysical purpose to my life? When will I know? Are we all living under the same moral framework, or is each one of us building his own? Would that be fair? Is anything fair? How long will I live? What will be the thing that I do that makes a difference? I couldn’t tell that this was happening when she was 7, or 9 or 11. But now I walk up on her and she is curled up with her tablet watching a YouTube lecture about the sanctity of human life. Or making lip balm in a jar from ingredients we found in the market. Or researching municipal strategies to manage street dog populations.

I am on fire with motherly purposefulness, but I’m learning to hold it back to let my daughter emerge. Watching her find herself is a quieter triumph than those explosions of 2-year-old language. But being purposeful, I’m also curious. Are other families suggesting? Are mothers calling around to find experts to talk to their kids? Are fathers messaging article links? Are grandmas talking up internship possibilities with their friends at the gym?

For me, suggesting has become a crusade. But I wonder, is it scalable? Do families by and large entrust suggesting to school teachers and guidance counselors? Can they be coached as better suggesters? Could an algorithm help? Or would a flashy, edtech solution or auto-nudging mobile app do for adolescent self-discovery what 8 hours a day of PBSKids does for sedated 18-month olds in low-quality childcare settings--that is, pretend at doing the right thing, while getting it exactly wrong?

This is just as much a moral challenge as a business problem. Suggesting is not by definition helpful, just as televised speech does not necessarily promote language development, when not coming through an engaged human. Virtuous cycles of suggestion rely on life experience, insight, and connectedness. When done right, suggesting nudges the young person into a hundred not-so-comfortable situations. It prompts thousands of conversations, often with strangers. It drives toward countless unsolvable problems and apparent dead-ends. It’s as exhausting as it is stimulating. It’s time consuming, needs the time of close family and friends, and can’t be easily priced, because there’s no apparent payoff. When we try to tell ourselves that it could be massively scaled and replicated, we find out bad-suggesting looks like: mechanical, inert, rooted in default-settings and biases, one-size-fits-all, that just keeps hammering away.

How could I plant the seeds of healthy suggesting in families with pre-teens and teens? I’m excited to see what BreakAway Learning can do to help teens and their parents feel more comfortable about exploratory learning, to put it out there completely free, and see if it can drive a change in behavior. But I know the limits of what a website can do. Good suggesting comes from strong communities and strong families. And those aren’t scalable.

Monday, February 18, 2019

What if consumers demanded the unbundling of the 4yr undergraduate degree?

The 4-year, single-institution-loyal, core-curriculum driven undergraduate degree is a bundled product. If it were a cable/telephone/data package, or a new car/warranty/service package, or an all-inclusive cruise ship vacation,
we’d be quicker to call it what it is. We’d be poking around the edges, asking ‘Why would I want this?’ and ‘I could do without that,’ and ‘How much if drop all of these things?’ In short, we’d each pick it apart and demand product and pricing according to our own interests.

But for decades now — and particularly the past decade, when Udemy, Udacity, edX, Coursera, MasterClass, SkillShare, Praxis, KhanAcademy, Preply, and a wide range of other free and fee-based, online and blended offerings crowd into this space — we accept as a given that this bundle must exist.

Progressives that call for lower costs, debt forgiveness, or outright socialization of tertiary education unwittingly cement this bundled product in place. They aim for equity and access, but frame it according to a rigid product design — SATs, admissions committees and fees, large and growing administrations, time-consuming core curricula, institution-specific degrees — that benefits the incumbent college industry more than the rising student. Looking to northern Europe is a good indication of how the socialization of costs applies further standardization to tertiary learning, deterministic testing, inflexible prerequisites, and set-in-stone curricula.

I think it’s imperative — before the next U.S. presidential election cycle — that young people, industry leaders, public figures, economists, and learning experts come together to voice a demand for something else:

UnbundleUnbrand: The overdue demand to unpack the undergraduate degree.
  1. We are a group of economists, neuroscientists, high-tech employers, and public figures.
  2. We are watching with anxiety the volume of American student loans at $1.5 trillion, 11% of which in default, 14% in forbearance, with predictions of 40% in default by 2023.
  3. American young people are chasing the false promises of knowledge, skills, and career acceleration from institutions that foremost seek to bundle and brand, that hike tuitions absorbing nearly all federal debt subsidy, that entice young people into levels of debt that are costing households more, and lasting more years than any generation has witnessed before.
  4. American high schools are chasing graduation rates and rates of placement in 4-year universities, also false promises to communities that place statistical improvement-at-any-price ahead of the real interests and needs of young people.
  5. American employers are slow to refine talent identification systems to acknowledge smart, hard-working, skilled candidates on the basis of their demonstrated learning and results. Undergraduate degrees are too often used as a baseline metric for eligibility when there is almost no correlation of knowledge or skills attained to the obtaining of the degree, nor to the demands of many careers.
  6. Meantime, the proliferation of online courseware, gameware, tutorials, face-to-face and blended learning models, subscription-based, and pay-per-use content continues, but is underused by our teenagers. The promise of individualized learning is limited not by technology or logistics, but by the social imagination, that still sees teens moving through set schedules and an arbitrary, standard hierarchy of 5 or 6 subjects.
  7. We believe that if teens will be encouraged to pursue intensive, individualized learning by making use of already abundant tools, combined with mentoring, internships and real work experience in a more flexible learning environment, the arbitrary urgency to apply and commit to 4-year undergraduate degrees would decline.
  8. Unless and until the simplistic recognition of the so-called undergraduate degree as a measure of education is unbundled, our counterproductive culture of college-readiness is depriving youth of enormous opportunity, while our economy is imperiled by students’ misguided borrowing. The loan crisis may cost America hundreds of billions. The opportunity cost of a decade of young people’s lives spent mechanically going through motions, not exploring their interests, not intrinsically motivated, is unknown.
  9. Given these concerns, we appeal to America’s universities to: 
  • Offer unbundled, a-la-carte course enrollment to anyone, anywhere, anytime
  • Stop differentiating price or credential value for “full-time”, “for credit”, versus a-la-carte students
  • Accept in any course any interested student, irrespective of prior degree attainment, or based on performance in online prerequisite study that is open to anyone
  • Enable click-to-buy or free courses, such that enrollment is quick and simple, and prices are transparent
  • Dismiss the admissions committee and eliminate the cumbersome admissions process, including fee-based standardized test-taking, essay-submission, and racial and ethnic identification
  • Offer courses in a greater variety of durations, frequency and times of year, to break down the rigidity of continuing learning

10. We appeal to America’s leading employers to:
  • Eliminate the “highest level of education attained”, simplistic human resources drop-down menu;
  • Revise human resource systems to recognize the wide range of relevant, competitive learning and experience that prospective job candidates can attain alternative to an undergraduate degree;
  • Stop differentiating salaries for the same work based on a candidate’s having or not having an undergraduate degree.
11.  We trust in the intrinsic curiosity and rebellious spirit of our youth that when these artificial constraints are removed, our youth will naturally diversify their efforts across a much broader range of subjects, problems, work and study modalities fitting to their interests and needs. With responsible guidance and supervision of family, community and state, these diverse learning approaches will enable a more motivated and productive young population, fitting a modern economy and free society.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Woe is my department! Downsizing universities try to build a public sob-story, but students aren’t missing-out, they’re migrating!

When you get no claps on Medium, or your Udemy course gets 6 buyers and one star, there isn’t half the tantrumming you’re gonna hear from an associate professor who didn’t get tenure. From the headlines of higher-ed journals that mourn the downsizing and budget rationalization of colleges coping with declining enrollments, declining selection of humanities majors, and declining interest in foreign language study, it would seem we are a sad, regressing society. Doleful professors of obscure art genres and literature are looking for work, woeful foreign language departments are closing their doors. Alas, youth don’t appreciate humanities and the wide world of languages. 

Cut the crap, academia!

Has anybody checked out the meteoric rise of Duolingo, that built a US$700 million business providing the basics of foreign language learning without charging users? Or Preply, the Ukrainian start-up that links aspiring students--mainly foreign language learners--with low-cost conversational partners and tutors around the world?

If it’s art appreciation you’re after, there’s a wide range of course and short-tutorial options from Artsy to Sootheby’s Institute to MoMA Research and Learning, not to mention college-style courseware on edX and Coursera. If it’s making art or craft or music, there’s SkillShare, MyBluPrint, New York Institute of Photography, and so many resource and lesson sites like Mutopia Project, Art of Composing, and JustinGuitar.

And of course, you would have to be crawling out from under a rock right now not to have found better lectures on just about any author, artist, or ancient civilization on YouTube (e.g., the most popular sort to the top) than the particular adjunct lecturer who’s teaching the particular course on your campus during the times you’re available this semester, and which satisfies your pre-req. See what I’m getting at?

It’s not necessarily the collapse of civilization that is foretold by declining enrollments in undergraduate humanities classes. It’s the emergence of better alternatives. But universities and students aren’t looking at this the same way. A deeper client engagement might be a place to start…

Why does the undergrad humanities student believe that she is sitting in your class?
  • * Her parents and teachers said she should do this.
  • # She’s looking for a group to fit into.
  • # She’s postponing tough decisions about her life.
  • # She feels better when her work is organized into neat steps that lead to a concrete endpoint.
  • # She works harder when she has a definite schedule and deadlines.
  • She hopes she’ll see something inspirational that could become a business model for her work.
  • She wants to build a brand for herself, narrow-in on a market niche where she can add value 
  • She wants to find people who will believe in her, build a client network, create a blog, offer free webinars, get invited to fairs and exhibits, raise money on Patreon, and create some kind of FB marketing strategy. 
  • She wants to make money. 
Stop and ask yourself which of these objectives is really served by your university class. I have put a * next to the one I think is uniquely served by universities. I put a # next to ones that are served by BOTH universities and other learning resources.

OK, so why does the instructor think she is in his class?
  • He has unique knowledge and skills.
  • * These knowledge and skills will be important to completing a degree.
  • # These things should be valued by society in general. 
  • * These things satisfy a university pre-req.
  • The skills he imparts will be vital to her career pursuits. 
Now I don’t mean to hurt feelings, but only to point to market signals. Anyone who gives a lecture on Dostoevsky is competing with a whole YouTube genre, YaleOCW, and numerous threads on GoodReads, among other resources. Maybe he is really trying, but as the number and modalities of learning resources proliferate, if his presentation is not really AWESOME, then she is compromising by sitting in his class. And do I need to go into the disconnect between college classes and career pursuits? What are we left with, then? As any professor (including Bryan Caplan) will attest whose students gleefully fled the scene when he ran 11-minutes late, most college classes exist on the rationale of core curriculum requirements and the bundled 4-year, 120-credit-hour degree. Meantime, the rapidly expanding market of shared notes and hired essay-writers, creating quick-wins for firms like OneClass, StuDocu, and Stuvia, is emblematic of the cynicism inherent in this whole process.

That a society values liberal arts is as true as its concert ticket-sales, public library usage, museum foot traffic, and digital media subscriptions. And, by the way, all the above services do cope with market tastes, convenience, perceived utility, and price sensitivity. ...All except one. Alas, the university culture. Give us more subsidized debt! Protect the core curriculum!

Don’t worry, humanities bureaucrat! You have a few more months. Graduating high school cohorts have been drinking the college Kool-Aid, and a new cohort is prepping for its PSAT right now. Meantime, you are protesting and digging in your heels and calling your critics illiterate buffoons.

But it’s not just me calling you out, buffoon that I am. You have graduated thousands of today’s bloggers, editorialists, art curators, craft-online-market-makers, freelancers of every stripe. They emerged to a job market that took no notice of the bachelor’s degree, and where anyway they had to build business model, branding, reputation and client-base from scratch. Everywhere are signals that the staid, gerito-cratic corporate careers of our forefathers are vanishing into sepia-tinted memories, giving over to AI and rationalized staffing that prefer the outsourced solution. And what are those “solutions”? They are scrappy, small teams working out of apartments day and night, eating and drinking work, work that transforms as quickly as the clients’ needs change. Ask anyone on that team if he would fund a colleague to get a liberal arts degree. Hell, no!

OK, so I concede that a few fields are not going to change so fast. University professors, for example. They’re pretty rigid when it comes to demanding formal degrees. And then there’s the State. In my recent podcast, I questioned whether President Trump could get up to pee at night and tweet that the Executive Branch doesn’t recognize the undergraduate degree as a meaningful measure of knowledge and capability anymore, and thereby force HR officers in every department and agency under him to re-formulate job qualification matrices more specifically. Well… Not impossible given the precedents he’s already set. Yes, there will be laggards to recognize the irrelevance of the undergraduate degree, and both the slow, inflexible employers and the late-to-learn, Kool-Aid-drunk bachelor-holders will find themselves at a loss.

The disruption is only beginning with humanities departments. Watch what happens to mathematics when large sections of content could be mastered on Khan Academy for free, and then fewer paid courses are needed to reach one's goals. Watch what happens to laboratory science with students shop around for semesters here and there to access best labs and best professors. Watch what happens to finance and entrepreneurship and pre-med and a hundred other subjects where students pick and choose the courses and micro-credentials that work best for them, here and there, mixed with internships and work experience, online and face-to-face. Humanities departments are just the first dominoes to fall in a system that rapidly collapses when users will unbundle and unbrand the 4-year, undergraduate degree.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Social Studies is stuck at the beginning of time, while our tweens are blind to Khashoggi, Crimea, surveillance, and the faltering priority of free expression

If you’ve got a 5th or 6th grader, then you have also printed his Mesopotamia ppt at work, built a model Roman aqueduct in a shoebox, or made a poster about pharaohs, papyrus and the Nile River. My 6th grader is the fourth in line, so I’m getting pretty tired of it, although I can whip one up quickly. But since some of our kids at any given time are pursuing individualized study, I can’t help but notice how different social studies can be.  (These days we are in a small, icy, dark city in the north of Kazakhstan, so I’m sympathetic that time with friends is often more important than real learning. My kids are homeschooling in turns with brick-and-mortar school). 

This past fall my 13-year old daughter and I created social studies around a daily news feed, that sometimes captured her personal interests, and sometimes followed trending articles in politics, international security, and justice. Instead of books, she downloaded the Economist app, we
subscribed to that and Wall Street Journal, she followed Politico, Slate, Huffington Post and RealClear. When an issue seemed to be more than a daily headline but a signal of our changing times-- Russian incursions in the Black Sea, Trump dismissive of Khashoggi murder, tensions in South China Sea, under-reporting of National Climate Assessment-- then we dug up more, followed links and tracked it for several days.

A key to all of this was that we read the news-- or at least the first few paragraphs-- together. I pointed her, and she pointed me, to articles. Sometimes they hung together, of-a-piece, and we talked about that over lunch. Often she skipped around, from allegations against Facebook to U.S. university shout-downs and ‘microaggressions’, from California wildfires to trade wars. We didn’t need to talk about everything. We talked about what interested her.

Another help was that I hired a graduate student of international security studies in Nairobi to WhatsApp twice-weekly with my daughter. We kept a list of article links and passed them to her in advance of the chats. Those scheduled calls created a discipline, which meant my daughter had to get through her news, and had to remember enough to talk about it. It was interesting for me to over-hear her trail of thought as their conversation drifted from one headline to another.

No memorization, no tests, no chronology.

Instead, my daughter’s interaction with social studies was contemporaneous, exploratory, and above all, rooted in conversation. When she asked why the South China Sea is referred to as a “tinderbox,” we found an Infographic mini-lecture together. When she wondered why the U.S. administration has to seem friendly to Saudi Arabia, we found a bunch more articles in Atlantic Monthly. My background implementing development projects with adult education suggests that making learning timely, relevant, social and reinforced through active conversation will make my daughter’s interaction with this information more likely to assimilate into her active thinking about the world around her. But that wasn’t my only goal. More importantly, my daughter wants to consume news. And now she also knows how.

I’m saddened by contrast to watch my 6th grader cynically filling the blanks of his 27-page ditto-packet about ancient Mesopotamia. Fertile crescent. Tigris and Euphrates. Cradle of civilization... He watches “90-Day Fiance” in the background while he fills it out. Having seen this version of social studies so many times, I can’t help feeling that the irrelevant, boring design is intentional.

At school, social studies never gets within 50 years of the present, often not even 500 years. It’s chronological. It has big, bolded words with 3-word definitions next to them. It drills conceptual frameworks (What are the 5 traits of civilization?) to lobotomized kids, who copy phrases from page 34 into the "Critical Thinking" space on page 36. It’s non-controversial. It’s quickly forgotten. It’s so remote that even the teachers struggle to find some way to make it look exciting. (For more depressing views, try joining the FB group, Middle School Social Studies Teachers.)

Chronological learning about society ignores the obvious truth that most of us don’t seek or need a huge background to interact with real-time problems. As Elon Musk said, when building an engine, we don’t stop and study the derivation of the monkey-wrench. We just figure out how to use it. And I can see through my daughter’s experience that she becomes curious around issues like Russian shopping mall fires, American mass-shootings, Hungarian bigotry and Chinese facial-recognition surveillance, and her curiosity drives a backward examination of how these things came about. Her thinking is not in timelines. She is discovering the monkey-wrenches in her own messy way.

The “mastery” (if you speak IB) or content-memorization approach to history short-circuits the tween mind, and prevents this messy discovery process.

Mind-numbingly dull social studies lessons fit into a Hobbesian view about kids and, paradoxically, perpetuate the Hobbesian kid. Kids couldn’t care less. They hate it. They want to eat chips and watch BuzzFeed. So we hold them to their chairs, cram it down their throats (and occasionally dress it up with costumes, food-tasting and dioramas made at 11pm by exhausted working mothers). We threaten and hold the grading system over their heads. Kids comply and memorize, hate every moment, forget, and return to chips and BuzzFeed. This closes the Hobbesian loop. As soon as social studies will end, these persecuted teens will settle into making money, watching cable news-tainment, and continuing not to give a shit about the world.

I’ve written before about the wisdom of political dissidents in their fights--against whatever odds--for self-determination. About the different human value of an hour spent according to one’s own will versus complying to the will of a system. I’ve questioned why education is more Hobbesian than Lockean. Are we afraid of what our kids are made of? Is it unsettling to think of teens skipping over papyrus or the Spanish Inquisition?

For sure, the Hobbesian-programmed kid takes time to discover his productive internal motivations when you take away compulsion and timelines. You have programmed him that way. Learning-to-learn is a process. Tweens need nudges to Politico, to Slate, to the Economist. They need mentors and reminders and some urgency to read.

It takes time, patience, and daily interactions with news to cultivate the civic mind. That’s what social studies should be.