Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Great teachers (Part 3) - a more generalized framework

I received a few comments on my posts last week on Great Teachers (Part 1 and Part 2). (I've even left the spam comment from the company that has great jobs in Ahmedabad, India, because the comment section has been pretty sparse lately.) I'll recreate the comment I recently received from Greg, because I think it provides a useful taxonomy:
I've been thinking a lot about this post but haven't had time to comment. IMHO, there are three kinds of teachers today. The first kind is the passionate teacher, who devotes his/her life to teaching. For them, teaching is a calling - they feel like they are making the world a better place by teaching. Their passion and devotion is similar to an artist, writer or musician. The second kind of teacher is someone who just views teaching as a job. These teachers may or many not be competent, but they are not devoted to the job. The third type of teacher is someone who started out as a passionate teacher but, over time, lost the passion and now views teaching as just another job.

If my view is correct, then the issue is to attract better candidates for the "just a job" teacher, while re-igniting the passion for teaching for the burned-out teachers.

My hunch is that there are plenty of great teachers out there who have gravitated towards other, more desirable careers. Perhaps they are management consultants, corporate trainers or something else. If we can figure out what will make teaching more attractive, we may be able to get more of them into the field of teaching.
What I want to talk about in this post is not a response to Greg's ideas, which are spot on in my view, but the process he's going through in his exposition, one which supports some ideas I've had lately about problem-solving. I'm not going to argue that I have anything new or non-obvious to say, but this blog is primarily for me, and I think it's useful to think of the process of solving problems in this way - consider this post a self-reminder.

There are four large steps in solving a problem:
  1. Identify the problem
  2. Create a series of questions based on the problem
  3. Answer those questions
  4. Assemble those answers into a solution to the problem
Is that a sufficient list? Probably not. One potential difficulty I see right off the bat is that the assembly of individual answers may not be sufficient to solve the problem, so there is an inherent need for a feedback loop. Nonetheless, for me at least it's useful to break it down this way.

Is it a necessary list? I would think so, as all but the most trivial problems will need to be broken down before anyone can wrap their minds around it (to think about something like climate change as a single problem is to trivialize it; it represents a series of questions, each of which needs to be answered).

Let's take the example of education and try to use this framework, see if it really has any usefulness.

1. Identify the problem

Our schools are bad, everyone knows it, let's move on. No, wait a minute, is that a precise enough formulation of the problem? (So it seems we already need questions to do #1, perhaps a flaw in the model, but I shall forge ahead.) Let's first ask, what are schools for?

When I was young, there was occasional lip service paid to the twaddle that schools were designed to create the "educated American," a mythical archetype that had gained enough education to function as a useful citizen. The whole job thing came from specialized training, either on-the-job or in (sneer, sneer) professional schools. There was a purity to the learning process, and it wasn't to be tainted by mere vocationalism.

That was a crock then, one that is rarely maintained nowadays. Education is now clearly seen as what it always actually was, the road to good jobs and a better life. There is little pretense left that education is anything about the perfectibility of young men and women, it's all about enhancing their marketability in the global workplace of tomorrow. Whatever one person or another might think about this as a goal, it's pretty much reality, and we need to look at the educational system in that light.

[I'm not ignoring some of the other theories about education, that it is about creating compliant factory workers or their modern equivalent, or obedient citizens, or what have you. If any of those are the "secret agenda" of the "great educational conspiracy," I don't know it, and it will not drive the public discussion anyway.]

And that light is that of the marketplace, that is, the measure of our educational system is how well it prepares our children for the economic realities they will face. If we can throw in some political knowledge and some exercise, we'll do that too, but it has become fairly obvious that civics classes and physical education are not exactly top priority.

When we talk about a market, we are led to talk about supply and demand. The supply "stuff" is fairly well fixed, there are only a certain number of students in each age cohort. So the issue is, how do we manufacture the right mix of products out of that fixed raw material, one which will match well with the demand?

And now, I think, we've identified the problem we actually want to solve. It's not the poorly-defined "fix our schools," but the somewhat more precise "how do we engineer our schools so they produce the right mix of skills for the demands of the future?," a proposition that carries within it some of the subsequent questions.

I will leave this here for now, because I want to ruminate on this specific example some more. Do I still have some assumptions built in to the new question (I'm leaving "cost-effective" as implied for now)? But I think this is a step forward from the Charlie Rose-style, "What do we do to fix our failed schools?"

1 comment:

Citizen Carrie said...

Androcass, you've left a good statement of the problem, "how do we engineer our schools so they produce the right mix of skills for the demands of the future?" Makes it easier on us commenters :)

Lots of thoughts swirling in my head right now, but my first thought is that the "solution" to the problem sounds an awful lot like some sort of Communist planned economy, where bureaucrats and technocrats forecast the demand for windmill technicians in the year 2018 and ramp up our educational system accordingly. I think there is somewhat of an attempt to do just that right now, to steer students into certain career fields, but not with the efficiency of the old Sputnik-era Soviets.

Even The New Commission of the Skills of the American Workforce (backed by The Gates Foundation, among others) acknowledges how difficult it is to predict the needed skills of the American worker. The "old" commission in 1990 came out with "America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages" and offered an easy solution - just train all of our students for high-skilled (aka high-tech) jobs. An easy to way interpret that message was to emphasize math and science skills in our schools.

The "new" commission in late 2006, in their report "Tough Choices or Tough Times", commented that they "...never dreamed that we would end up competing with countries that could offer large numbers of highly educated workers willing to work for low wages."

Instead, the new commission says we now live in a "..world in which a very high level of preparation in reading, writing, speaking, mathematics, science, literature, history, and the arts will be an indispensable foundation for everything that comes after for most members of the workforce. It is a world in which comfort with ideas and abstractions is the passport to a good job, in which creativity and innovation are the key to the good life, in which high levels of education — a very different kind of education than most of us have had — are going to be the only security there is."

I'm interpreting this to mean that we should have a balanced education so we can (A) have a solid foundation for rapid training for new opportunities that arise and (B) have a diverse background to draw from in order to be creative, innovative, responsive, flexible, etc.

Unless I'm completely missing something, it seems like we need a general liberal arts education, perhaps with a mild emphasis on math and the sciences, where creativity and problem-solving is fostered. This sounds an awful lot like our educational system before NCLB forced a teaching-to-the-test mentality.

EXCEPT, this somehow isn't what we want either, and all hell's going to break loose in a couple of years because our schools are not churning out the precise number of windmill technicians that the market commands.

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