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?|
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?|
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?
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.