All significant education questions are economic

July 31, 2009 at 7:58 am 17 comments

Seymour Papert once said, “All the interesting questions in education are social questions.”  I heard this when I was visiting his company, Logo Computer Systems Incorporated (LCSI) in Montreal in the early 90’s.  His point was that what was really interesting was now whether or not Logo “worked,” but why was it being taught or not taught, what did society value and how did that get reflected in schools, how were teachers trained and then valued by their society, and so on.  He found that the education questions that most interested him were actually about the societies in which the education occurred, and what that told him about the choices of that society.

I’ve been thinking about Seymour’s comment while thinking about my last blog post, about the research questions surrounding Media Computation.  This leads me to Guzdial’s Claim: All significant education questions are economic. (By naming it, we make it easier to refer to it and refute it.)  Those education questions that lead to wondering about society are interesting, but they don’t lead to change.  A significant question, as I’m defining it here, leads to change.  Change in education is all an issue of economics.

We know how to get education right.  If we have a good tutor for every child who wants to learn, learning will occur.  Bruner tells us that anything can be learned in an honest way. Thus, one tutor per child can lead to any kind of learning. However, we can’t afford that.  Everything else we try is an economic compromise over what we know will work.

Economics is not about money.   A nice definition of economics (cited in the Wikipedia article) is “the science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.”  Human time and attention is a scarce resource that could be used for alternative pursuits.  “What do students choose to study?” is an economic question.  “Why do teachers teach that?” is an economic question.  They’re making choices.  If you want to change something significant in education, you have to know why people are making the economic choices they’re making, and figure out a way to make your alternative more attractive.

The questions that Media Computation was designed to answer were economic ones.  Losing 30-50% of the students in a CS1 is a huge waste of resources.  That’s what we tried to address.  It’s interesting is how the contextualized approach impacted future student choice.  Did we convince students that computing is interesting?  I don’t think so.  Instead, we convinced students that computing was relevant to the things that they already had value for, that it had utility for them.  Thus, we had students who were willing to take “More Media Computation” classes (as long as we kept explaining the utility), but not “More Computer Science” classes.

What I find myself struggling with here is how to describe design questions in education.  Is it significant or interesting to design a better way to teach something? If your better way is trying to address economic issues, I am claiming that it is significant.  Is it important, interesting, or worthwhile to figure out how to teach something simply better?  And what does that mean to do better?  Can you do better than the tutor with the good student?  We don’t currently have good measures of what “better learning” in computing education means.  When I look at my favorite textbooks (Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs and Computer Science Logo Style), I have a hard time saying that they were “significant” — few teachers ever used them, few students know about them today, and the languages they use have fallen out of favor.  (We CS teachers are so driven by fads.)  SICP has always been expensive to implement because it often increased WDF rates. While SICP was used to teach many of the leaders in computer science today (since it was used at MIT, Berkeley, and Brown), it’s hard to measure the impact of the approach.  Was SICP significant for those leaders?

I have certainly seen design questions answered in insignificant ways.  I get frustrated with people who show me their “great new way of teaching X” that “my students and Girl Scout groups really love,” and when I ask them for their evidence, they have none.  “I talked to the students” or “I could tell”  or “Look at the cool thing they built” is the best that I get. Teachers are lousy probes.  A teacher is not good at telling how students are learning or engaging, just by talking with them.  Measurement should be uniform across students to get any kind of sense of what of significance is happening.

As you can tell, I’m struggling these days with what makes for worthwhile education research questions.  What is the value of education design, development, and research?  Is it possible to have long-term findings?  Economic conditions (e.g., what students and teachers value) change regularly.  Is it possible to come up with a curriculum that could be used successfully for more than 20 years?  Or is curriculum always churning, to keep up with changing values and choices? What would be a significant education research question whose answer would be useful 100 years from now?  Do we have any that we can point to?

Within computing education research, doing something of worthwhile significance becomes even more dubious.  If you doubt that all significant computing education questions are eocnomic, come up with a non-economic explanation for changing our CS1 language every 5-10 years!  It’s certainly not because we have evidence that students learn better with the new language.  Computing education research questions that have any significance, that can lead to change, are economic ones.

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Media Computation is not “done” CS Majors are least likely to finish degree among Science majors

17 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Eugene Wallingford  |  July 31, 2009 at 8:55 am

    In this sense, it is perhaps true that all significant questions in many disciplines are economic questions.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  July 31, 2009 at 11:26 am

      I agree, Eugene. That’s why I find economics so interesting. It’s the science of choices.

      • 3. Eugene Wallingford  |  July 31, 2009 at 2:10 pm

        I have always encouraged CS students, especially those interested in AI, to consider Econ as a minor or double major. Reasoning in the face of scarce resources (time and space) and in the face of uncertainty make the interactions between CS and Econ valuable.

  • 4. Erik Engbrecht  |  July 31, 2009 at 10:18 am

    What’s a greater waste of resources:
    1. A student who drops during or after CS1
    2. A student who drops after CS12
    3. A CS graduate who learns to hate CS and never applies it

    I’m far more disturbed at the number of bright #3’s that I see coming into industry than I am at #1’s. I would be tempted to say a first CS course for future CS majors that has only a 50% dropout rate is probably subjecting students to excessive long-term pain in the name of relieving short-term pain.

    • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  July 31, 2009 at 11:28 am

      If the only goal of a CS1 is to produce CS professionals, I think that’s a waste of school and teacher resources. Computing is way too important to only leave it to the software engineers. Computing is important to everyone, and an introduction to computing should introduce COMPUTING, not be the starting vocational training for professional programmers.

      • 6. Erik Engbrecht  |  August 1, 2009 at 1:45 pm

        I think the degree to which you are conflating “computing” and “computer science” is risky. Pretty much every professional could benefit substantially from being computationally literate, yet most aren’t. I think a society where computational literacy were as pervasive as literacy is in ours today would look upon ours as quite primitive.

        But a computer scientist or software engineer needs to know much, much more. A suitable introduction for a CS major is very different than for someone who just wants to learn some stuff about computing.

        I recall that your school has three different intro computing courses, one for computer scientists, one for scientists and engineers, and one for everyone else. That makes a lot of sense to me. I assumed that CS1 was the one for computer scientists. if it isn’t, then we are possibly debating apples and oranges.

  • 7. hank greenberg  |  July 31, 2009 at 11:30 am

    First, you’re saying that anything that involves human choice (time and attention) is an economic issue. If you get to define things anyway you want to, then it’s easy making a claim that all significant educational questions are economic. But it’s about as useful as saying that all educational questions are about education. Like duh.

    Since you’ve defined anything involving choice as an economic issue it’s kind of difficult to come up with a non-economic reason as to why we change the language used in CS1. I’d say we change because we’re not happy with what we have, there are exogenous (e.g., industrial) reasons to change, and we find it easier tinkering with things that don’t matter (like the language) than with real substance (like the problems we solve) in asserting by change that we’re working to improve things.

    When you view all work on pedagogy and curriculum through the lens of educational research you see things differently than if you view such work through a lens of, for example, what fits with personal beliefs, e.g., Ada must be taught, or what some important person tells you is right. Of course those are educational research questions too. Sometimes a course is just a course, not a lever to answer a research question.

    • 8. Mark Guzdial  |  July 31, 2009 at 1:37 pm

      An implication of my claim is that issues of elegance are not significant. Choosing Scheme (for example) because it’s more elegant is not economic decision. Asking whether students find it more elegant is also not economic. I’m arguing, then, that this is not a significant education question.

      I’m not saying that all questions of choice are economic. Questions of choice about resources are economic. I think that follows from Lionel Robbins’ 1932 definition of economics, which I’m quoting here.

      • 9. hank greenberg  |  August 1, 2009 at 12:50 am

        What if I have to argue with my colleagues all the time about elegance, and I don’t want to do that — because my time is a resource I’m conserving. So, I adopt Scheme and SICP because it’s really good anyway, and then I don’t have to argue about it. Plus I earn good will that I can “cash in” later — is that an economic argument?

  • 10. Mark Miller  |  July 31, 2009 at 10:36 pm

    I found your statements about language choice revealing, because this is something I’ve suspected for a while now about the CS academic profession.

    One could make an economic argument for picking a popular language as the one you teach, because of other’s judgments about relevance–more students, more teachers familiar with the language. But is this a good enough rationale to pick it? Is there no intrinsic worth in considering ideas that are worth teaching, and using a modeling environment that helps teach those ideas most effectively, whether people are familiar with it or not, and/or whether industry prefers it or not?

    I’ve gotten a sense that most people view different languages as if they’re completely different instruments (talking from a scientific perspective). I think Hank Greenberg is right that what language you use isn’t that significant in reality. IMO what matters more about a development environment is the architecture it embodies. However for pedagogical reasons language design is important. So it’s important to have an architecture that supports the ideas that you want to impart, while at the same time having a language design that has pedagogical principles in it.

    This is just speculation on my part. I’m getting an increasing sense that having a facility with mathematics (the way mathematicians understand it) plays a significant role in helping one learn what programming really is. Not to say that programming is like mathematics, but there are some common principles involved. The way math is typically taught in our school systems may be a reason why there’s a mismatch between the perception of programming, and what’s relevant about it, and what CS educators are trying to teach.

  • 11. Mark Guzdial  |  August 1, 2009 at 9:38 am

    Yes, Hank, asking “Are CS faculty switching CS1 language, to C++ or Scheme or whatever, just to go along with the crowd, rather than because of educational principles?” is clearly an economic question. In fact, I’m beginning to believe that that’s exactly how it does happen. My claim is about education research questions, not “arguments.” I’m saying that education research questions that are really significant, really aiming to make a change, are really questions about economics. And if they’re not about economics, they’re not going to make a change.

  • 12. Learning Because You Want To | Coded Style  |  August 6, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    […] All significant education questions are economic – by Mark Guzdial at Georgia Tech – Interesting how they teach computer science using media computation and the students want to learn media computation even if they do not see themselves as interested in computer science. Well that is a rough version. Mark explains it much better. […]

  • 13. Alex Ruthmann  |  August 20, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    Hi Mark,

    I’ve just come across this blog and found your post very interesting. My background is in music education research, but I’m doing more work recently in collaboration with CS professors.

    One book that I read that really moved my thinking forward regarding significant education research questions and whether or not teaching practices and choices have a meaningful long term impact is Tom Barone’s “Touching Eternity: The Enduring Outcomes of Teaching.”

    Here is a link to a review by Gloria Ladson-Billings:

    And here’s a link to the paperback on

    I agree that economic questions can result in “change” from some perspectives, but I’m not sure that professionals at the end of their careers in whatever field can ever fully articulate what contributed to their success, especially that which was part of their “formal” education. And, I’m not sure that we educators can come to agreement on what “success” or positive change even is as an outcome for our students. Many of our students may be able to describe what they *perceived* to be most or more meaningful, but a lot must also be tacitly forgotten.

    To me, Barone’s work highlights the tension between teaching for the “now” and teaching for “eternity.” I’d be interested to know what CS educators felt about this book. He is one of the few educational researchers that I know of who followed up on an in depth case study of an “exemplary” educator conducted at the beginning of his career looking for evidence that meaningful, lasting learning or “change” had occurred. Twenty years or so later, he went back and interviewed the participants in the original study and shares with the readers two different perspectives on whether or not the “exemplary” teacher succeeded in “touching eternity.” It’s a very well written, fascinating read.

  • 14. Steve Dillon  |  August 20, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    This is a fascinating article. I like Alex work in Music Education and at this very moment am writing up a report on a three year study I have done with wiki’s and blogs called eZine and iRadio. I was greatly influenced by Papert and also by Gaardner and Arts Propel portfolio assessment in this study and my approach to teaching and learning.

    Whilst the economic argument is clearly an important one I have been more concerned recently with systemic questions. What ‘ all important questions are economic’ points out is that we tend to focus the research on the learner and or the teacher rarely on the system that either supports or inhibits the transfer of knowledge. One is about information management the other about knowledge transfer. My greatest sadness has been to discover that after 20 years or more of Papert and Gardener theory the uptake amongst teachers of these approaches is really really non existent. Most still teach in mimetic ways.

    The economic argument goes someway in identifying the reasons behind that- scarcity of resources is an economic issue. I do however think that ‘esteem’ is perhaps the commodity we need to examine because when teachers have it in their relationships with students it gives the confidence to transfer knowledge in compelling and inspiring ways.

    How can we build systems to support and enable the transfer of knowledge? This too is an economic question but it is also a social question. My Colleague Andrew Brown has been working on methodologies that examine the system in which education take place integrated with software design:

    What I found employing this blend of Action oriented research and Extreme programming/Activity theory was that the impediments to uptake or negative cases reveal something about and in most cases these impediments were policies rather than physical or human problems. The policies are often reasonable and based on ‘risk management’ caution. Consequently the larger the institution the less likely the teacher felt esteem and the less likely learning & teaching would be widely successful beyond requirements.

    I think then that both the social and the economic are the big questions but in a system where esteem is high teachers and students exceed expectations. So my question is: How can we build systems that support and enable esteem in teachers? The social and economic will both figure in this.

  • 15. Andrew Brown  |  August 21, 2009 at 11:18 am

    For me a central point is student motivation. Students are likely driven by likely economic benefits of the skills they learn, hence the tendency for fashinable languages. Howver, they are also interested in the outcomes they can achieve with the skills they acquire, hence the interest in computational media and languages that provide access to that. In my ecxperoence language and computational elegance becomes significant in sustaining interest of talented students. These conditions are dynamic and so sucesses such as SICP and Logo provided these for a time but evolved too slowly to fend off alternatives. Perhaps sucession is inevitable or even desirable in any case.

  • 16. Mark Guzdial  |  August 21, 2009 at 11:31 am

    I’ve been thinking about this blog post lately as I’ve observing post-secondary computer science teachers. Here’s the corollary to my claim: In a recession, post-secondary teachers are even less concerned with improving educational outcomes.. In the University System of Georgia (as in most state university systems right now), we have record enrollments (even in CS), LESS funding, and SIGNIFICANTLY MORE pressure to bring in increased research dollars, as the only place to shore up declining revenues. Any interventions in education right now are to maintain status quo, not to gain better outcomes — nobody gets better learning by putting more students in a classroom. Thus, we observe fewer post-secondary teachers in workshops, and faculty tell us in interviews (quite explicitly) that they have no interest in improving their teaching, because that’s not what their chairs and deans want them to do. The economic concerns are driving attention AWAY from significant education questions.

  • […]  That’s a valuable perspective to learn, but it comes with a cost.  In the end, all educational decisions are economic: Is the power and brevity in notation worth the cost to learn? It is a profoundly erroneous truism, […]


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