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Can Education Keep Up

One of the things I think has not been discussed enough in the current job situation, though I think President Obama has done extremely well on this one point compared to his predecessors, is the simple fact that jobs for minimally educated people are disappearing, and thus many of the new jobs that are being created are for people with strong skills.

I always felt that high school as currently constituted was somewhat of a joke, a place to manage teenagers until they were ready for the workplace or for college. I got two and a half high school credits, and then took my GED when I turned 18. Somehow after that dismal High School experience, accomplished via correspondence while I was overseas with my parents, I managed to complete both my BA and MA degrees. (Of course, speaking of unemployability, consider the options for an MA in Religions with a concentration in Biblical and Cognate Languages. Really. That’s the full title of my degree. That’s why I own a business–it’s hard to get employment otherwise!)

I don’t mean to run down high school teachers, though I think they are often given an impossible task, but I do think that a combination of factors from excessive central control to poor pay and lousy opportunities for professional advancement tend to make high school a much less productive experience than it could be.

I have in my library a book titled The Saber-Tooth Curriculum, originally dating back to 1939 with the proper spelling – The Sabre Tooth Curriculum, but still available in a classic edition released in 2004.

The basic idea is that we tend to educate for past needs even as things change, such as training your hunters to deal with saber toothed tigers when such were disappearing from the landscape. It’s a great book. If you’re involved in education, you ought to get a copy and read it.

I recall the very negative reaction all around when I brought my programmable calculator to an elementary school classroom. I was an assistant teacher, also a college student, but in the tiny church-related school where I taught that meant taking actual classes. The gist of the complaints was that I was going to deprive the students of needed basic knowledge–their ability to add columns of figures–by providing with this device, useful largely to the lazy. As I saw it, I provided them with a very early opportunity to learn the basic concepts of computing and programming. I don’t know if my very small effort really helped any of them, but I’m certain that a broader effort would have.

These days we’re graduating students whose computer skills are somewhere between limited and non-existent. No, I don’t mean they’re all that way, I mean that we let kids out of the whole program in that condition. They’re not going to be very effective in the modern world with certain skills.

As an aside, let me note that one classic subject could do well with some reintroduction–basic logic. My wife and I watched with great amusement, and no little impatience a couple weeks ago as three or four customers ahead of us tried to work with the self-checkout lanes at the local Walmart. Now I’m aware that these things can be frustrating. Often they don’t work correctly. But these were working just fine.

All the customers needed to do was scan the item and place it in the bagging area. Several customers couldn’t get the idea. They’d try putting it directly in the shopping cart, back on the belt before the scanner, rescanning it (hopefully the watchful lady at the other end helped them with double charges!) and so forth. My ever helpful wife tried to explain, but the person ahead looked at her like she was green and had just hopped from a spaceship with a handy ray-gun.

The point I’m making here is simply that these several people didn’t have enough logic, or enough understanding of the straight line “machine thinking” that was going on to learn the process. I’m sure that unwillingness was honed by previous experiences with machines that were not working, but even there a simple skill in recognizing when a process is not happening the way it’s supposed to would be helpful.

But a New York Times Op-Ed today by J. B. Schramm [registration may be required] brings up another point I’ve been making to any young person whose attention I could hold long enough–High School is no longer enough. So I’m glad to see that some education money is being tied to the idea of preparing kids for college and that somebody is trying to measure that success. I think Schramm is quite right.

I do hope that the bureaucrats involved will find a way to measure this without making educators spend most of their time measuring, but that is another matter. Results must be measured. Then, of course, there is the question of whether we can abandon failing programs and advance successful ones based on the results.

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  1. Lifewish says:

    As an aside, let me note that one classic subject could do well with some reintroduction–basic logic. My wife and I watched with great amusement, and no little impatience a couple weeks ago as three or four customers ahead of us tried to work with the self-checkout lanes at the local Walmart.

    Agree with the conclusion. Basic logic is a useful thing to wrap your head round at an early age.

    Disagree with the example. When I try to understand how a machine works, I’m not using logic per se. What I’m doing is trying to empathise with the machine’s designers. I have to figure out what behaviour they were expecting from their users, and then behave like that. Then the machine usually works.

    Different design communities expect different behaviours from their users – it’s a cultural thing. I’d say the problem in your example is that the customers don’t have sufficient experience of hardware/software designers, and of what these folks consider to be normal user behaviour.

    So the way to solve this problem isn’t to give people training in basic logic, however cool an idea that might be. It’s to give people training in basic user interface design. That would be quite challenging given that these people have little knowledge of the underlying technology, but it might be possible.

    1. I would disagree on the example, because I believe the problem is not a knowledge of machine design, but rather the ability to experiment and extrapolate from that experimentation. One could also attribute it to an inability to follow directions, but I’m aware that few people really read those.

      In this case if you scan your item and place it in the bagging area, the system prepares for the next item; if not, not so much. My wife, who will admit she doesn’t get along with machines, finds it quite easy to work with, even though she thinks they should redesign the machine to be more human friendly.

      Nonetheless, the ability to test, observe, and appropriately alter one’s behavior seems to me to employ logic.

  2. JuliaL says:

    I have to agree with Lifewish that the problem has more to do with being familiar with the machine design and/or the expectations of the designers than an inability to reason.

    I bring my own bag. The first time I tried to use one of these things, I scanned and dropped the object in my bag. Very tired after a late night at work, I went through some trial and error to make out that the machine/designers did not consider MY bagging area to be THE bagging area. Then I had to use trial and error to figure what portion of the unmarked, monotonously gray and brown surroundings (a litle piece of the world populated by flat surfaces at several levels, crowds of candy bars and magazines, and a hoarde of cranky people squeezing past with children running up and down, and never an employee in sight) might actually qualify as THE “bagging area.”

    The directions would have have been much clearer had they included something like this:
    1. Find the bar code on each item that you wish to purchase.
    2. Hold the bar code of one item two to six inches in front of, and facing, the red screen until a light flashes. This scans the item.
    3. Place the item in the large blue rectangle on the counter to your right. This resets the scanner.

    Providing such poor instructions and such non-intuitive processes that every individual must use logical analysis to figure out how to work every piece of technology he/she comes across is an enormous, and enormously frustrating, waste of time.

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