Archive for July 10, 2009

Education is to Social Work, as Civil Engineering is to Chemical Engineering

I’m listening to Paul Romer’s Seminar about Long Term Thinking, and got to thinking about the SALT podcasts and TED talks.  These really are remarkable educational opportunities — really smart people, who are also really good at communicating their ideas to a lay audience.  These are not necessarily front-line scientists.  Michael Pollan and Malcolm Gladwell, for example, are both journalists who focus on taking important ideas from science (and economics and…) and making them accessible.  Why is that uncommon? We have relatively few people who do this kind of thing, as opposed to all scientists or even all educators.  Is it because that combination of talents is so rare, or because there is little market, interest, or demand for it?

Seymour Papert once argued that educational curricula should be evaluated like art — don’t try to identify the best, but instead argue about how well this example expresses something, or how accessible another one is, or how another one leaves people thinking and talking for years later.  Compare curricula for how they reach and engage people, not for a measurable, numeric bottom line.  Wouldn’t it be great to have so many compelling CS1 curricula that we could have a CS1 “art gallery” and compare them along the lines Seymour described?

Let’s imagine that we wanted to have more education that was engaging, compelling, and explained things to people.  We’d have to re-organize how we teach and structure education.  In fact, that would go against the basic structuring mechanisms of universities.

When I was at the University of Michigan, there was a lot of excitement about the proposed increased connections between the School of Education and the School of Social Work.  At some places, like Northwestern University, these are housed in the same schools.  That makes sense because the goals of Social Work are very similar to the goals of Education — improved human development, meeting human potential, individual self-reliance, and so on.

However, if we grouped scholars in terms of methods, we would structure universities very differently.  I’ve always found it odd that Physics and Mechanical Engineering are in separate schools/colleges at most Universities, and the same with Chemistry and Chemical Engineering.  Aren’t these really the same things, relying on the same theories, doing similar experiments?  Instead, we group by outcomes.  Civil, Chemical, and Mechanical Engineering are all about applying science to solve problems for people, at a large scale (by creating bridges and buildings, chemical plants, manufacturing capacity).  Never mind that what I see faculty in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering doing much more similar things than faculty in Civil Engineering and Chemical Engineering.

If we did group by methods rather than outcomes, what disciplines would be the natural collaborators for Education?  What disciplines would lead us to think about how we do things, so that we could create the kind of curriculum-as-art that Seymour described?

  • Journalism, which also cares about methods for finding “truth,” for conveying that to people in ways that are understandable and compelling, and for structuring the story so that the punchline is up front, and the greater detail is at the end.
  • Theater, because lecture is a kind of performance. Experimental Theater does a better job of getting the audience interacting with the performance than do most lectures!
  • Medicine, which is (much more than Education) about meeting individual needs and figuring out how to tailor broad approaches to health for the individual’s particular combination of strengths and illnesses.
  • Film and Television Studies, which know a lot about using multiple media for creating a compelling story.  Everyone who does On-Line/Distance Education should take a Film Class, to figure out how you package a compelling story/experience for others whom you never see.
  • Theme Park Designers (yeah, I know it’s not an academic discipline, but maybe it should be).  I’m a big Disney Imagineering fan.  Imagineers know how to draw you into the ride with the prestory, setting expectations and explaining the context, and then giving you an experience that you talk about and remember later.
  • Economics, because in the end, most Educational decisions are economic ones.  We know how to get two-sigma improvements in learning — give everyone a personal tutor.  That’s too expensive to do at scale.  Everything else we do is a step down from that, and if we knew how economists think about these trade-offs, it might help us in Education recognize our trade-offs and where we’re making them.
  • Psychology, because Education is just Psychology Engineering.  If in a methods-oriented University we lump Chemistry and Chemical Engineering together, we certainly should put the Psychologists and the Education faculty in the same building.

Okay, I’ll get back to my Faculty Summit talk preparation now, but I’m thinking about how the quality of education should be as much about the student’s experience as about the student’s performance on the test.

July 10, 2009 at 11:00 am 2 comments


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