Modern Education

Via Walter Russell Mead, here is an editorial in the NY Times by Larry Summers on the future of education.

Summers lists 6 things about American education he thinks are changing. The article is pretty interesting, and while I largely agree with Summers' argument, I feel there is still some value in the traditional model of a university education. Despite hating college, I still think the 4-year residential institution has some unique advantages.

1. Education will be more about how to process and use information and less about imparting it. .... But in a world where the entire Library of Congress will soon be accessible on a mobile device with search procedures that are vastly better than any card catalog, factual mastery will become less and less important.

I completely understand where Summers is coming from. I rarely have any need of memorization to perform my job well. That being said, I think the real value of learning some things by heart is that it enables you to think faster. Much like the way good habits make it easier to use your willpower, mastering the fundamentals of a field enables you to spend precious brainpower on the challenge fo the moment. This matches up well with Summers' point 4.

2. An inevitable consequence of the knowledge explosion is that tasks will be carried out with far more collaboration. As just one example, the fraction of economics papers that are co-authored has more than doubled in the 30 years that I have been an economist. More significant, collaboration is a much greater part of what workers do, what businesses do and what governments do. Yet the great preponderance of work a student does is done alone at every level in the educational system. Indeed, excessive collaboration with others goes by the name of cheating.

For most people, school is the last time they will be evaluated on individual effort.

Where I work, copying your report from the last person who did the same thing is a standard practice. 

3. New technologies will profoundly alter the way knowledge is conveyed. Electronic readers allow textbooks to be constantly revised, and to incorporate audio and visual effects.... There was a time when professors had to prepare materials for their students. Then it became clear that it would be a better system if textbooks were written by just a few of the most able: faculty members would be freed up and materials would be improved, as competition drove up textbook quality.

As Steve Sailer recently noted, tablet technology could drive innovation in education, except no one, even Apple, has really made this happen yet. As for lecture and lab preparation, this makes sense in certain contexts. The Magistra taught a class for an online college, and all of the course materials were simply provided for her. This is super efficient, but it fundamentally changes the relation of an instructor to the subject. I've never learned as much about a subject as when I needed to teach it. Standardized instruction probably makes the most sense for the large number of people who need post-secondary education, but aren't college material. 

4. As articulated by the Nobel Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman in “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” we understand the processes of human thought much better than we once did. We are not rational calculating machines but collections of modules, each programmed to be adroit at a particular set of tasks. Not everyone learns most effectively in the same way. And yet in the face of all evidence, we rely almost entirely on passive learning. Students listen to lectures or they read and then are evaluated on the basis of their ability to demonstrate content mastery. They aren’t asked to actively use the knowledge they are acquiring.

“Active learning classrooms” — which cluster students at tables, with furniture that can be rearranged and integrated technology — help professors interact with their students through the use of media and collaborative experiences. Still, with the capacity of modern information technology, there is much more that can be done to promote dynamic learning.

I'm pretty suspicious the real utility of learning styles, but there is probably some room for improvement here. If you need to learn to be a PhD physicist, a lecture is a must. If you are learning to be an engineer, a hands-on lab would probably be way more useful. I think the problem here is probably that we try to teach everyone as if they were going to be future professors, a problem in every discipline.

5. The world is much more open, and events abroad affect the lives of Americans more than ever before. This makes it essential that the educational experience breed cosmopolitanism — that students have international experiences, and classes in the social sciences draw on examples from around the world. It seems logical, too, that more in the way of language study be expected of students. I am not so sure.

English’s emergence as the global language, along with the rapid progress in machine translation and the fragmentation of languages spoken around the world, make it less clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue is universally worthwhile. While there is no gainsaying the insights that come from mastering a language, it will over time become less essential in doing business in Asia, treating patients in Africa or helping resolve conflicts in the Middle East.

I remember scandalizing an acquaintance in college when I expressed how convenient it is that everyone in the world speaks English. I really like languages, but I suck at learning them.

6. Courses of study will place much more emphasis on the analysis of data. Gen. George Marshall famously told a Princeton commencement audience that it was impossible to think seriously about the future of postwar Europe without giving close attention to Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War. Of course, we’ll always learn from history. But the capacity for analysis beyond simple reflection has greatly increased (consider Gen. David Petraeus’s reliance on social science in preparing the army’s counterinsurgency manual).

Nuff said.