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Friday, January 2, 2015

Teach the Children Well...

Fitting I s'pose that I should start a new year with Keith Devlin, who has probably graced my posts more often than any other individual. His blog-year started off (yesterday) with another piece about the educational system in his ongoing attempt to persuade Americans of the need for Common Core. I'm afraid by now he's preaching to the choir -- views on this topic are so hardened. Either you believe in Common Core (perhaps with some reservations, but nonetheless support it), or you think it the product of overly-liberal educators and incompetent, intrusive government... and not a lot of wiggle-room in-between.
Keith writes succinctly at one point:
"The fact is, any parent who opposes adoption of the CCSS is, in effect, saying, 'I do not want my child prepared for life in the Twenty-First Century.' They really are. Not out of lack of concern for their children, to be sure. Quite the contrary. Rather, what leads them astray is that they are not truly aware of how the huge shifts that have taken place in society over the last thirty years have impacted educational needs."
Common Core opponents focus on the past, which somehow they think was just fine, while Keith is focused on the future, especially in terms of needed job skills for rising generations.
He also links to some great TEDTalks (Sugata Mitra and Ken Robinson) that I suspect most readers here have seen... but if you haven't, by all means, watch.

Read Keith's entire piece here:

A central part of his post is a chart showing the "skills" most sought-after in new workers by Fortune 500 companies back in 1970 versus 1999 (is there not an even more up-to-date list?)
"Problem-solving," which didn't appear in the top 10 in 1970, is #2 in 1999 (and certainly one of the impetuses for education change). In fact, the top 3 sought-after skills had completely changed by 1999, and I have to give some cynical, non-mathematical commentary about the other two:

1)  #3 on the list is "interpersonal skills," non-existent in the top 10 from 1970! I can't help but think that this is partly the result of today's world becoming a courser, less-civil place than the world of 1970. Perhaps in 1970 it was presumed that if you made it to adulthood and were seeking employment, then you had sufficient interpersonal skills for a workplace -- today employers must seek out people with such interpersonal skills! Also, on an even more cynical note, I suspect there are more jobs today (sales, marketing, public relations, management etc.) that require a person to be persuasive and controlling of others, than in 1970, when "honesty" or "sincerity" may have been greater virtues than the ability to manipulate and sway people.

2)  Meanwhile, #1 on the 1999 list is "Teamwork" (it was #10 in 1970) -- this troubles me a bit! One of the most common questions prospective employees hear these days is along the lines of "Are you a team player?" I've felt for some time now that this is often code for, "will you do whatever the company asks you to, regardless of laws and ethics?" Employers don't want workers with consciences or personal ethics (who might object to something or be whistleblowers), so much as company drones who will 'look the other way' when needed and march to the company anthem. That's a broad generalization, but from observation of big business behavior over the last 3 decades (yes, there are some ethical businesses out there; their numbers just seem in steady decline).

I usually agree with Dr. Devlin's views, but was once troubled by a response he gave me to a question I posed to him last year. He wrote:
"...the only possible answer to the provision of good education in this country is by private enterprise. The state system is a century out of date and broken beyond repair."

Wow!, "broken beyond repair"... As a proponent of public education and critic of private industry, that gloomy reply stung! The thought of private companies in charge of our education system (and it's already happening in some places) disturbs me (I continue to believe it possible for public education, and for that matter, big government, to work successfully). Keith is part of a small entrepreneurial company (BrainQuake, Inc.) and I suppose his optimism stems in part from that experience. I'm not concerned with enterprises of that size... but am worried by the companies that will, if Keith's company is successful, gobble up his enterprise and strictly subordinate whatever its good works and intentions are, to a bottom-line (...and then burp, ignominiously).

No doubt in my mind that Dr. Devlin is right and the educational system badly needs reforming... but it's so much broader than that... the Fortune 500 itself is also in desperate need of reform! And, unfortunately, I'm not convinced either will happen anytime soon.

Keith and I are close to the same age, and he once again closed out his post with some classic 60's music... so once again he inspires me to do the same ;-):


Keith Devlin said...

Shecky, Sadly, I share all your reservations about the private sector in education. In fact, those dangers are already manifest in the current system, where large for-profit publishing companies effectively dominate the system.
But the private sector is the only place to try to create new initiatives. We see this with the growth of good charter schools. (Not all are good, by any means, many are no better than state schools, and some a lot worse.)
The danger of small startups like my own of being gobbled up by a big player is significant. But that at least offers the possibility of changing the big companies in a Fifth Column way.
I am not optimistic, but I am not giving up. :)

"Shecky Riemann" said...

Thanks for the clarification Dr. Devlin.
And Keith mentions to me that he had some trouble posting his comment on the 'blogger' platform. If anyone else is having trouble please let me know (the settings I'm using should make it fairly simple, but perhaps not).