Thursday, September 27, 2018

If the Goal Is Broadening My Horizons, Then Why Am I on This Campus?

We’re hearing the defense of liberal arts education more and more, from the critics of Betsy DeVos and defenders of loan forgiveness to the embittered humanities professors squeezed out by universities’ shifting priorities. They portray a battle between vocationalists and poets, business and ivory towers.
Was it serendipity that brought
these two together?
I’m a lover of books, of exploration, of living in new places and trying new things. I’m a defender of the liberal arts; but that’s why I can’t understand going to college.

Broaden your horizons! Learn to learn! Take time to explore! So goes the parent and guidance-counsellor wisdom about 4-year liberal arts degrees.

Getting in to the more elite schools requires looking like an explorer and free-thinker. A volunteer trip to Guatemala. A teen summer leadership conference. A provocative essay. (Never mind that many schools have used these subjective indicators as cover for years to disguise racial profiling in admission decisions, and one is now dragged before a Federal Court.) But better not explore too much. Not actually work two years in Guatemala. Not actually enroll for a semester in Delhi. Certainly nothing that would disrupt the pathway from high school to competitive (Oh please! Oh please! Pick meeee!!) enrollment at a single, in-residence, 4-year college.
Embarking on the journey
Teen exploration is a Panda Express version of a real thing that’s abundantly available all around us, made of real stuff, and infinitely cheaper, too.

If I should get comfortable working, living and cooperating with people very different from me, why don’t I get a job at McDonalds? Or cleaning restrooms in my nearest airport? Why not extend that volunteer work in a faraway country long enough to really make a difference? Why do we instead count on the army of admissions officers and their opaque selection model to place me with people who will supposedly broaden my worldview?

If I should learn to learn, then why is the process administration-led and not student-led? Why should I only take classes during defined intervals and only from this one school? Why shouldn’t I pursue the topics that interest me most from the sources (whether it’s Udemy or Masterclass or another university or person) that deliver the most value to me?

If I should explore, then why is there a required curriculum? And even as critics point to the erosion of supposedly “essential” education toward trendy, preachy progressivism, administrators still dish it out like a pre-set menu: so many credits of race and ethnicity, so many credits of foreign language, so many credits of social science… Why is my path so mechanical and contrived? Wasn’t Picasso exploring when he dedicated years of his life to the color blue? How have we become such bean-counters about exploration?

What you won’t hear ivory tower-defenders admit is that the ivory tower itself is a business model. And a very illiberal one. Excessively complex and untransparent selection. Bloated administrative function that poses to ensure diversity and uphold fragile identities while driving up per-student costs. Bundled product that raises switching costs and leverages simplistic HR systems (highest level of education= drop-down menu) to over-price a product that costs far less in unit-form. Inflexible product terms and conditions (e.g., timing of course availability, core requirements) that always advantage the seller. Indirect subsidy distribution and third-party payment schemes (think Sallie Mae and American taxpayer) that limit buyer incentives and information for true price comparison. Final price tag double the median household income.*

So if the goal is broadening my horizons, then why should I go to college? If I am the most liberal, liberal arts student, then I should grab my backpack and head for an internship far away. Tuck Jack Kerouac under my arm and hop the next Greyhound. Hook up to Udemy and Coursera from the sofa where I end up sleeping tonight. Show up on some college campus not starry-eyed and contractually bound,
not primed by some elite, inaccessible process, not riding on mom and dad’s home equity line of credit; but with twenty bucks, a backpack, and a one-click sign-up for the course that interests me. And a few years from now, my mix-and-match courses, my pasted-together knowledge and experiences shouldn’t wear like a stigma on my first big job interview, but should be a legitimate and understandable credential to the HR blockhead. That would be a real liberation.

Be wary of those who defend liberal arts from inside university campuses. There’s a business process at work that’s sifting, sorting and stamping the foreheads of over-eager teens (Louis Vuitton! Prada! Gucci!) while pretending to celebrate learning.

*U.S. median household income, 2016, acc. U.S. Census Bureau was $57,617.
In 2017-2018, the average cost of 4-year undergraduate tuition and fees was 2018 school year was $138,960 at private colleges, $39,880 for state residents at public colleges, and $102,480 for out-of-state residents at public colleges.

Friday, September 7, 2018

What if We Graded Students on Motivation Instead of Content-Mastery?

It’s back-to-school time for many of us, and as we buy planners and sign parental consent forms, it’s a good time to consider why we’re doing this, anyway.

Our local school refers to its curriculum as “units of mastery”, IB schools talk about “mastery-learning”, and standardized tests refer to “content-mastery” and “scholastic achievement”.

But what if all of these terms are putting an important-sounding name on a phenomenon that is really superficial and temporary?
How much can he absorb?
We’d like to think that by October, our seventh-grader has “mastered” four qualities of igneous and sedimentary rocks, our ninth grader has “mastered” the factoring of quadratic equations, our eleventh-grader has “mastered” six economic and political dynamics preceding the American Civil War. But where has this content gone, and how will it interact with other bits of knowledge, ways of thinking and solving problems in their future minds?

Admittedly, our children and their school experiences vary, and some of them will hold on to facts and rules for a surprisingly long time. (I can still sing the 50-states song, and chant the most common English prepositions in alphabetical order). But with the exception of songs, chants and Please-Excuse-My-Dear-Aunt-Sallies, many of which hang from a disjointed scholastic neuron in our aging minds, where does the rest of this content go?

If we can be honest with ourselves, it goes to the same cognitive rubbish heap as administrative process-rules from the job you held 12 years ago, phone numbers of earlier contacts, turn-by-turn directions to the grocery store in the town you lived in three towns before this one… And what would an adult say about any of those forms of knowledge? Well, actually, that you don’t need to know them, because an app knows them for you. You need to know how to get at them, how to find them when you need them, how to update or revise them when necessary.

But it’s uncomfortable to say that about teenagers. We feel viscerally that they should know how to find the roots of a parabola, say something about the Monroe Doctrine, name various kinds of wetlands, even as we ourselves could not, and most of us have never been asked to do so since high school. If you asked me right now, I would ask Siri.
Where does all the information go?
For our teens, who would love to hear me say that, we fear it’s letting them off the generational hook; it’s excusing them to return to Instagram and Buzzfeed. But the “content-mastery” approach is misguided for two reasons.

First, we are over-optimistic about our human capacity to meaningfully assimilate arbitrarily-assembled content and hold on to it over time. Admittedly, for every subject in our teens’ classes, from the water cycle to post-Civil War reconstruction to Hamlet to sexually-transmitted diseases, we find important lessons that ought to guide their future interaction with society, decision-making and perspective. In the same way, policymakers wish that adults would learn to wear seat-belts, get health insurance, eat vegetables and file a 1040 correctly. But we’ve learned a lot about the failures of massive-education in these contexts (for example, about improving adults’ financial literacy, energy efficiency, and health). In particular, the failures of classroom-style learning, excessive content, boredom, poor timing, disjointedness, and disconnection from practice, have been explored for years, but seemingly in a separate space from our attitudes about teen education. We wish for activated knowledge and informed decision-making, but our approach is like the Microsoft User Guide (notice how the iPad comes with no guide and just one button).

Second, the champions of content-mastery (many of whom hold tenured positions) poorly prepare students for the cognitive iron-man that is lifelong skills adaptation. Yuval Noah Harari’s October Atlantic article warns about the demands of an accelerating knowledge-assimilation cycle brought about by artificial intelligence and other disruptive technologies: “Old jobs will disappear and new jobs will emerge, but the new jobs will also rapidly change and vanish. People will need to retrain and reinvent themselves not just once, but many times.” She predicts the emergence of a cognitive under-class: “By 2050, a useless class might emerge, the result not only of a shortage of jobs or a lack of relevant education but also of insufficient mental stamina to continue learning new skills.”

So what are we missing? What’s the ingredient that makes things knowable? That bridges the gap between knowledge and action? That makes the best entry-level job candidate and the strongest mid-career transfer?


Would it matter if I had forgotten the particulars of the Dred Scott Case, if I was generally motivated to read news, listen to analysis, and talk about the world? Would I be so badly off if I had forgotten the formula for compound interest if I was generally motivated to search around and try to use an online calculator before signing a mortgage? There is an obvious advantage to knowing things, and don’t think I’m making a defense of ignorance and forgetfulness.
What if how she approaches learning is more
important than what she's learning?
Only a reality-check about the limits of our confused and tired minds. As when the office changes the e-procurement system for the the seventh time in two years, I humbly suggest that we are not designed for this kind of learning-by-firehose.

But we are designed to get motivated, and I really believe that it’s how we want to be most of the time. I am motivated to look good, to make people like me, to do things that I can be proud of. We are motivated when we feel that we are in control, when we create things ourselves, and when we’re recognized for the things that we create (Ariely explores this wonderfully in The Upside of Irrationality. Also, there’s a great literature about all the things a bad boss can do to de-motivate her staff, and it’s funny how much of it is built into the structure of classroom learning).

It doesn’t make sense to measure content-mastery across students, because the structure which it applies uniformly to everyone de-motivates the individual learner. It doesn’t matter what you want. You are not in control. Learn these things here. It’s also not terribly useful, because content-mastery, we have seen, is a dressed-up fallacy. Today’s “master” of polynomial long-division is tomorrow’s blank slate. Don’t get me wrong-- there is content, and it can be studied and learned. (Let’s measure that at the individual level.) With motivation and context, it can be remembered and applied.

But that’s the kicker. Motivation is what matters. We would do our teens a huge service to cultivate it and reward it. And if there’s something that will more reliably track to success, not just on next week’s test, but in the eleventh job in the fifth city with the nineteenth information system, it is our relentlessly human motivation.