Great Recession caused by sub-standard public education?

October 23, 2009 at 12:58 pm 13 comments

Thomas Friedman has a really interesting NYTimes column about education and the cause of the Great Recession this week:

Now that we are picking up the pieces, we need to understand that it is not only our financial system that needs a reboot and an upgrade, but also our public school system. Otherwise, the jobless recovery won’t be just a passing phase, but our future.“Our education failure is the largest contributing factor to the decline of the American worker’s global competitiveness, particularly at the middle and bottom ranges,” argued Martin, a former global executive with PepsiCo and Kraft Europe and now an international investor.

This theme, that we’re particularly ignoring the bottom half (2/3’s?) of our population, occurs again later in the column:

“…the bottom half of the top, those engineers and programmers working on more routine tasks and not actively engaged in developing new ideas or recombining existing technologies or thinking about what new customers want, have done poorly. They’ve been much more exposed to global competitors that make them easily substitutable.”

I have been exploring this theme, that we’re ignoring all-but-the-best students, in my recent blog posts, about how we choose exciting the top students instead of educating all, and about how the movement to on-line education tends to wipe out the bottom half of the student body.  The top students don’t need the phonics of computing education, but those lessons that help students move farther and progress faster could do a lot for the bottom half.

Friedman is also saying that what we are teaching has to change, too.  That’s probably right.  But with 30-50% failure rates in CS1, we are currently not teaching much of anything about computer science to the students in the lower half.  Maybe we should start by helping them succeed in those first classes, so we can get to the entrepeneurship and global thinking that Friedman wants, too.

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Hooray for CS Education Week Scratch and more CS Ed in this month’s CACM

13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ian Bogost  |  October 23, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    I should really self-sensor here, but I can’t help myself. “Thomas Friedman has a really interesting…” is never a clause that resolves to “true” for me. Sorry I’m such an ass.

  • 2. Erik Engbrecht  |  October 23, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    I think the underperformance of individuals today relative to global markets is far more due to lack of incentives to perform well than it is to our poor educational system. Fixing education is important, but it won’t do any good if you don’t fix the incentives to use it.

    • 3. Mark Miller  |  October 23, 2009 at 5:54 pm

      Yes, but who’s creating the incentives? Let’s not forget how those people think as well.

  • 4. Mark Miller  |  October 23, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    Friedman closes the article with:

    “So our schools have a doubly hard task now — not just improving reading, writing and arithmetic but entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity.”

    Much easier said than done, but it needs to happen. I would add to this “scientific thinking”.

    The quote also reminds me of why I told you in a previous post “Don’t make it boring”. Don’t kill that innovative spirit. The interesting stuff may be the first exposure your students have had to something that’s genuinely exciting in their schooling. I know you equated “interesting” with “losing most of the low-ability students”, but I think if you find a way to accommodate them that doesn’t slow down the “high-ability” students then you will have found a win-win.

    I do think the state of our economy is indicative of the (lack of) quality in our educated citizenry. It’s not that we necessarily know less. It’s that we think less and carry forward narrow perspectives.

    If we’re thinking about the economy in relation to CS, I think that’s a tough nut to crack, because aside from companies like Microsoft, Google, IBM, Oracle, etc., innovative ideas in CS aren’t valued. Most companies who have IT operations, or have outsourced it to the aforementioned companies, like to think of computers as name brand “boxes” that do X, Y, and Z–devices, in effect. They look to the aforementioned companies for the innovation. I haven’t checked in a while, but I think the companies with IT operations of one sort or another are the most plentiful employers for CS graduates. Yet these are the sites that have the kinds of jobs that are most vulnerable to outsourcing. And even if one does work for one of “the big 4”, their job is not necessarily “safe”. Where most business has been focused is on innovation in management (including IT management) and business models, not technology innovation. Last I heard, most consider innovation in IT technology dead.

    I think in order for U.S. technology to be competitive “the big 4” are going to have to be challenged to design things in a way they haven’t thought about before–if not by them, then by challengers. If it’s not challenged here, then it will eventually be challenged somewhere else in the world. The question is where is that kind of perspective going to come from? If we’re going to expect Americans to be thought leaders then schools need to get students to not just take spoon-fed information (“skills for the 21st century”), but orient them towards advanced outlooks on reality, which are kind of “timeless”, and by all means, encourage their creativity.

    There was an interesting debate (2 links for 2 parts) between the maker of the documentary “2 Million Minutes” and some educators in a debate that was recorded and posted online. I found it interesting in the arguments that were used, because we can be tempted to take either side. I personally didn’t particularly like the main thrust of the arguments put forward by either side, but I think both sides had a little something valuable to say. Most of all I think it reflects the current thinking of technologists and educators (apologies to those of you who combine these talents) and how they are at odds with each other. I think part of what needs to be fixed is the terms of the debate itself.

    • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  October 23, 2009 at 6:23 pm

      Mark, boring is relative. I can’t stand watching any more “Sponge Bob” with my kids. My students can’t understand how I can find all that ed psych literature interesting. The literature on worked examples and direct instruction say that high-ability learners find it boring, but low-ability students do not. As teachers, we tend to be high-ability. Using our own standards for “boring” means that we create things that students like us will find challenging, but lower-ability students simply fail at. “Know thy users/students, for they are not you.” I don’t want to create “boring” on an absolute scale. I want to create instruction that high-ability students *might* find boring, but low ability students won’t. We shouldn’t be ignoring those students who are not like us.

      • 6. Mark Miller  |  October 23, 2009 at 7:45 pm

        Yes it is relative. I was arguing from the perspective that you put forward, which was “boring for some students, but the low-ability students learned something.” I’m not arguing for leaving any students in the dust. I guess maybe we’re talking about different kinds of “boring”. I just know that you can kill the love for a subject if it’s boring in its presentation. Likewise, I know it’s also possible to kill it (and even make it boring and super frustrating) by presenting it in a way that is too hard for students to grasp. I’ve experienced both environments.

        I was arguing the point that if we are concerned about getting students to think in new ways, and part of the motivation for that is helping to improve our economic prospects then we as a society can’t afford for it to be boring, and I’m not equating that with “leave the low-ability students in the dust”. It seems to me what’s needed is two different presentations, but which are interesting to both groups. One way this could be accomplished is remediation for the “low-ability” students so they can catch up. From your description of the low-ability students it seemed like the difference was in how they approached challenges–did they expect to be given goals, or could they come up with their own. It seems that’s a skill that would be worth learning for them.

    • 7. Mark Miller  |  October 23, 2009 at 6:46 pm

      Forgot to mention, there’s a 6-second “blackout” gap in the video of part 2 of the “2 Million Minutes” debate, from 7:33 to 7:39. It looks like the battery for the video camera died, and whoever took the video had to replace it, and start recording again.

    • 8. Mark Miller  |  October 23, 2009 at 8:15 pm

      I forgot about a 3rd (and final) part to the debate here.

  • 9. Alan Kay  |  October 26, 2009 at 10:46 am

    Robert Heinlein observed “The bull wears itself out on the cape and fails to see the sword”.

    To me this article acts most strongly as a distraction away from vastly more important issues in education — such as the lack of any kind of “systems consciousness” on the part of most politicians and businesspeople (and thrown in teachers and parents also).

    This is an “Outlook” (aka an epistemological) failure and lies at the roots of many of the needed changes which shout to be made. Interesting evidence for this is that Friedman has people worrying and commenting on issues that are way down in the noise compared to the real ones.



    • 10. lixkid  |  October 27, 2009 at 1:42 am

      In your talk this year at Kyoto University you said: “… we have to go from this very simple ideas of programming to this more biological way of looking at things. And this is going to require an enormous outlook change. It is not basically an algorithmic way of looking at things, but a systems way of looking at things, the way of looking at things that is not taught at most universities in the USA. I don’t think it is taught in Japan either.”
      I am interested in whether there is a connection between what you call “systems consciousness” in your comment and what you call “systems way of looking at things” in your talk. If there is a connection, then I think there might be a connection between how programmers build their machines and how they think. In one of your other talks from 2007 you said: “… the Case Law in the USA is 3 cubic miles of paper. It is far larger than stacking up The Empire State building. These are all specific things that thousands and thousands of lawyers contending with each other have written special cases of. It is not remotely consistent, it is open to interpretation, it reasons from presedence rather than using logic, it is a mess. And in fact it looks just like most of software today.” This might be the example of the connection I am talking about except that programmers haven’t built Case Law, but are humans like lawyers.
      Is it the case that this “non-systems” way of thinking is somehow connected with the Universals you sometimes talk about in various blog discussions?
      Sorry if this is too off-topic.

      • 11. Alan Kay  |  October 27, 2009 at 8:55 am

        Hi —

        1. First question

        One way of thinking about all this is that how we decide to view situations will vastly affect what we think they are and how they work. It’s not that “there are systems out there” but that trying to view many apparent complexities as systems can often help greatly.

        For example, as far as anyone can tell, there is nothing cosmically preferred as to whether we think about the Sun going around the Earth or the Earth going around the Sun. A mathematics and physics has been made for both points of view. The big shift to heliocentrism came because the point of view from the Sun was so much simpler and let a lot more physics work more easily (for example, swinging the whole universe around the Earth has some speed of light and momentum consequences that make physics difficult to do).

        So it’s not just trying to see things as systems, but to try to explain how a system works and could be made from “parts”.

        The inter-communications (dynamic relations) between parts often serve not just to make a mechanism but to preserve over all system behavior. Simple systems (like clocks) can be “fixed” but most interesting systems have to be “negotiated with”.

        The most important characteristic of most interesting systems is that their stability is dynamic and not of infinite range, and pushing a system beyond that range will lead to another set of dynamic states (which we (a) may not want, and (b) may not be able to unwedge). For example, if we think of a system as like a lollipop balanced on its stick, then little pushes will right themselves, but a larger push will topple the lollipop — and quite a bit more work is involved in righting a toppled lollipop. Put the globe of the Earth in place of the lollipop and we have why scientists are extremely worried about many of the Earth’s systems these days (and why most of the rest of the people aren’t).

        2. Second Question

        We humans tend to be expedient, but we can also learn to think and plan. Most lawyers and the law system is expedient, but the American geniuses who designed and wrote the Constitution were real thinkers (and real systems thinkers).

        They realized that it would be a very bad idea to try to write a zillion specific laws for a world in which they could see would “progress” in many different ways. So they instead wrote what computer scientists would call a “meta-kernel”, which was a compact systems architecture for allowing open ended behaviors while instituting schemes for detecting potentially disastrous experiments and correcting them before the country toppled like the lollipop.

        The catch is that citizens have to understand how this system was set up to work and be rather thoughtful about trying new ideas, particularly those which are not influenced by a sense of the many relationships between parts of the system.

        We humans are set up genetically to be hunters and gatherers and there is no systems consciousness here. Just strip an area dry and move on. Carl Sagan said “We treat the Earth as though we have somewhere to go after we kill it”.

        Agriculture was an invention, and starts bringing in systems thinking in a number of ways (but still people would farm areas out even though it was generally realized in antiquity that this is not a good idea — for example, in the Bible it advises to “leave a field fallow one year in seven”).

        Agriculture also changed human’s notion of time and planning and surplus and cooperation, etc.

        So a simple view of what’s wrong with the US (and most other places in the world) is that without serious education in what is important (a) people will simply act with their genes to exploit local situations, and (b) not understand the systems consequences of doing this in the large with modern tools.



  • 12. Mark Miller  |  October 27, 2009 at 2:08 am

    I see Friedman as a knowledgeable and astute observer of the world as it is. On that level he enhances our understanding of what’s happening. He’s interesting to listen to sometimes. On the other hand I see him as a shallow prognosticator. He’s prone to fads. I think he was on to something with this article, but if he dug deeper I think he would find more interesting issues related to what he talked about.

    I agree with Alan in the sense that I think one aspect of keeping our economy healthy is the process of improving ourselves, and a good part of that is improving our outlook. Our economy is healthy and grows when it is capable of adding value to people’s lives. To the extent that we can’t do that it goes flat or into decline. So it’s a symptom of deeper problems, and I think this can easily relate to what Alan says is a big concern. My read of historical evidence is that the biggest bang for the buck comes from new outlooks, whole new ways of seeing things. From this comes technologies which give us capabilities our ancestors only dreamed of. I think that’s what Friedman was talking about, though he only scratched the surface of it.

    If we really think about it, skills are techniques derived from outlooks that other people came up with. A solely skills-based education is brittle. If people can’t view their circumstances in a larger way and adapt themselves, then there will likely come a point where they’ll become stuck. Skills may be good for a limited period of time, but they don’t necessarily carry us far.

    We tend to think that we need to “upgrade” our skills the way we “upgrade” our OS and apps. These things have shelf lives, creating the need to keep returning to school to keep “upgrading”. What about the idea of, “Feed a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish, and you feed him for life”? There are skills to life, and schooling helps with that, but what’s more valuable is being able to see things that we thought we knew in new ways. That’s a skill that lasts a lifetime. From there we can determine for ourselves what incidental skills we need.

  • 13. MR. D's BLOG » Blog Archive  |  November 14, 2009 at 2:02 am

    […] a professor in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology made a blog post which took a look at Thomas Friedman’s article which argued that the current recession is […]


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