Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Buzzwords for Jobs

21st century skills; collaboration; interdisciplinary; hands-on, real-world; portfolios; risk taking-- the Edworld's buzzwords have penetrated so deeply into our culture that they've even seeped into the Wall Street Journal. Consider an article from the front section of this past weekend's Weekend Edition, written by Tony Wagner, a former high-school teacher and the Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard. Entitled "Educating the Next Steve Jobs," Wagner's piece argues that:

Though few young people will become brilliant innovators like Steve Jobs, most can be taught the skills needed to become more innovative in whatever they do. A handful of high schools, colleges and graduate schools are teaching young people these skills—places like High Tech High in San Diego, the New Tech high schools (a network of 86 schools in 16 states), Olin College in Massachusetts, the Institute of Design ( at Stanford and the MIT Media Lab. The culture of learning in these programs is radically at odds with the culture of schooling in most classrooms.
Wagner cites no evidence showing that these programs are actually succeeding in teaching innovation; the only evidence he cites for any of his claims comes from interviews of "scores of innovators and their parents, teachers and employers." Since it's too soon to say whether the students in these programs qualify as innovators, Wagner's evidence, such as it is, doesn't apply here.

Wagner then tendentiously invokes what's supposedly happening everywhere else:
In most high-school and college classes, failure is penalized. But without trial and error, there is no innovation. 
Wagner seems to think that most classes are about innovation. But in systematic subjects like math and science, trial and error (Reform Math's guess and check) is not necessarily something to encourage. Even when trial and error is the best route, if the final product still contains errors, shouldn't assessments reflect this--as they do in the real world?

Wagner, like so many others who haven't visited enough actual classrooms, seems to be laboring under an antiquated notion of public schools in which students primarily lose points for wrong answers, as opposed to losing points for not explaining those answers in words or pictures, and not being sufficiently "colorful" and "creative."

When it comes to universities in particular, Wagner is right about one thing:
The university system today demands and rewards specialization. Professors earn tenure based on research in narrow academic fields, and students are required to declare a major in a subject area. Though expertise is important, Google's director of talent, Judy Gilbert, told me that the most important thing educators can do to prepare students for work in companies like hers is to teach them that problems can never be understood or solved in the context of a single academic discipline.
But is the answer to make all courses interdisciplinary (as opposed to simply encouraging coursework in different disciplines)?
At Stanford's and MIT's Media Lab, all courses are interdisciplinary and based on the exploration of a problem or new opportunity. 
Like other STEM enthusiasts, Wagner implicitly biases his recommendations towards engineering, especially the business side of engineering, forgetting about math and science, where advancements depend less on hands-on, interdisciplinary activity and corporate marketing, and more on ever scarcer analytical reasoning skills:
At Olin College, seniors take part in a yearlong project in which students work in teams on a real engineering problem supplied by one of the college's corporate partners. The teams present their plans to a panel of business leaders who assess their work.
At High Tech High, ninth graders must develop a new business concept—imagining a new product or service, writing a business and marketing plan, and developing a budget.

What Wagner thinks of as his biggest conclusion--based presumably on those "scores of interviews"--is total Edworld boilerplate:
In conventional schools, students learn so that they can get good grades. My most important research finding is that young innovators are intrinsically motivated. The culture of learning in programs that excel at educating for innovation emphasize what I call the three P's—play, passion and purpose. The play is discovery-based learning that leads young people to find and pursue a passion, which evolves, over time, into a deeper sense of purpose.
So are his concluding remarks:
The solution requires a new way of evaluating student performance and investing in education. Students should have digital portfolios that demonstrate progressive mastery of the skills needed to innovate. Teachers need professional development to learn how to create hands-on, project-based, interdisciplinary courses. Larger school districts and states should establish new charter-like laboratory schools of choice that pioneer these new approaches.
The larger question is whether any Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, etc., is ever the product of classrooms, regardless of how "innovative" they are.


LynnG said...

It's hard to generalize from anything going on at a place like Olin to what K-12 schools should be doing. I've been to Olin several times on college visits -- it is a fascinating and unique college and I don't doubt for a minute that they are getting spectacular results. . . but.

But Olin is highly, highly selective -- it admits less than 10% of all applicants. Students entering Olin are the absolute cream of the cream -- they are highly motivated and extremely bright. Their project-based learning works because of several things - highly motivated, very bright, extremely well-prepared students working in very small classes on state of the art equipment with a world-class faculty on problems that actually are "real world" not make-believe real world.

For example, one project that students worked on was designing a consumer grill cover that stayed cool during use. Many of the engineering projects created at Olin have been commercially successful.

What drives me crazy about people like Tony Wagner is his very selective use of facts to serve his own purpose. Olin wouldn't be able to do what it does if it took all comers regardless of their preparation or motivation.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I don't think that there is any question that the MIT Media Lab is highly innovative. But they start with a very select group (MIT students) and select even further for the most innovative. It isn't clear whether they *teach* how to be innovative, even if they succeed at *being* innovative.

ChemProf said...

Yeah, my college (Harvey Mudd) had clinic for engineering and a research requirement for science majors. They were great experiences, but we were really well prepared, highly qualified students who were juniors and seniors (so had already done two years of more typical classroom work). Trying to expand that to everyone without the classroom work isn't going to do it.

Barry Garelick said...

Domain knowledge plays a big role as the above comments point out. WHen domain knowledge is limited as is typical with novices, then the success of programs like these are apt to be in the imaginations of the people running them.

Anonymous said...

I was surprised to read your complaint that he doesn't cite evidence. I have followed your blog for several years, and you almost never cite evidence. As far as I can see, your work is based primarily on anecdotes and strong personal opinions. There's nothing necessarily wrong with this. It makes your blog fun to read, although it does make your opinions less convincing. Would you consider backing up your opinions with evidence?

Katharine Beals said...

"Would you consider backing up your opinions with evidence?"
Sure, I'd be happy to consider that. Please let me know which specific opinions you'd like evidence for, and I'll see if I can oblige.

Anonymous said...

An obvious place to start would be with the various math programs you believe are ineffective. Why not cite some random assignment studies as evidence?

ChemProf said...

Anonymous, here you go:

This will slow down no one in the reform math movement, by the way.

Anonymous said...

It's a good study. It meets high standards of evidence, and it's recent. Something like this is far more convincing than reams of anecdotes and opinion pieces.

Barry Garelick said...

Laurie Rogers, author of Betrayed: How the Education Establishment Has Betrayed America says this about reform math:

"There is a wealth of data suggesting deteriorating skills in math: fewer advanced degrees in STEM fields, more difficulty in hiring mathematically skilled graduates, increased STEM hiring from oversees, higher remedial rates in college in mathematics, lower pass rates in math in college, and problems hiring from the 18-25-year-old group because of low levels of skills in math and grammar and also self-initiative.

"If someone claims that math is being taught better now than it was in the 1960s, I would say that person is ignorant, perhaps willfully so, of the stark and shockingly bleak reality all around."

Katharine Beals said...

Randomized studies are great, but in education, for a combination of practical, ethical, and ideological reasons, they are not nearly as abundant as one might wish.

Anecdotes also have their role. They humanize what's going on, and capture what's happening with particular sorts of students whose cognitive traits aren't easy to operationalize for empirical study.

The main contribution I see myself as making here vis a vis the Reform Math debate is my side-by-side comparisons of Reform Math with Singapore Math and pre-1960's U.S. math. Such detailed comparisons of particular problems sets and elicited skill sets also have their role, and help to ground such concepts as "higher level thinking," "conceptual understanding," and "mathematical challenge."

My problem with the article on which this post was originally based is that the anecdotes presented do not support the claims (nor does anything else in the article do this).

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but your side by side comparisons and anecdotes prove nothing. They only serve to reinforce your preconceptions. It is not true that we are lacking in high quality education studies. Check out the What Works Clearinghouse
You have to be willing to follow the evidence regardless of your personal preconceptions. For example, the Clearinghouse cites the Mathematica study but it also references studies that show Every Day Math to be effective. This may make you angry, but that's an emotional reaction. If you don't like the studies, you need to analyze them rationally to determine what is wrong with them.

Barry Garelick said...

Apparently what Katharine says on her blog makes you angry but that's an emotional reaction as well. Care to react?

Barry Garelick said...

Don't know if you are referring to
this report by WWC on Everyday Math:

Out of 72 studies examined by WWC, only one was considered acceptable, and was deemed to meet What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) evidence standards "with reservations."

"The study included 3,436 elementary students in third through fifth grades in a large urban school district in Texas. The district used the first edition of Everyday Mathematics.Based on this study, the WWC considers the extent of evi-dence for Everyday Mathematics on elementary students to be small for math achievement."

So the study barely met WWC's evidence standards, and even considering the study, they conclude that EM has a "potential positive" effect. The study showed a potential of 11 percentage point improvement. WWC further states: "Waite (2000) reported a statistically significant positive effect of Everyday Mathematics® on overall math achievement. In WWC calculations, this effect was not statistically significant. However, the WWC determined that the effects on math achievement were large enough to be considered substantively important (that is, an effect size of 0.25 or greater)."

ChemProf said...

There's another point here, Anonymous, which is that Katherine is particularly focussing on a specific subgroup of kids, STEM kids or left-brained kids, and is arguing that reform math is particularly bad for them. Even if Everyday Math was a little bit better for kids over all (and the evidence for that is weak at best), if it is particularly bad for kids who have the potential to go on to careers in STEM, that's important. Unless you want to take the attitude, which I've seen expressed many places, that STEM kids "will be fine" even if they have to deal with curriculum that doesn't work for them.

After all, when constructivist techniques came in, the argument was that they were better for girls and minorities and only a little worse for white boys. So subgroups have always been important here, not just overall results.

SteveH said...

"For example, the Clearinghouse cites the Mathematica study but it also references studies that show Every Day Math to be effective."

WWC does not have enough data to support any math curriculum, but it does not want to be seen as useless. My son's old school used this WWC comment on us parents long ago. It was about the time that the fifth grade teacher had to stop trusting the EM spiral to ensure that bright kids finally learned the times table.

SteveH said...

"Most of our high schools and colleges are not preparing students to become innovators."

Ideas are cheap. I get them all of the time. Knowledge, skills, money, and the willing to take risks are not. Some educators, however, like to claim credit for some sort of US hegemony over ideas and creativity. Worse, they use that to justify their own pet ideas of project-based learning.

It's the old argument of superficial knowledge and rote skills versus creativity and problem solving; bottom up versus top down. The modern ed school ethic is that top down is good and bottom up is bad. But, the farther you push a top down or project-based educational approach into the lower grades, the more difficult it becomes to ensure proper skills. Only the best students in schools with high expectations can pull it off. Maybe. Unfortunately, many educators think it is a "best practice" for all kids.

Anonymous said...

Listen, I enjoy reading this blog. The anecdotes and even the flashes of anger are part of what makes it so much fun. I'm not going to try to persuade anyone of the superiority of using evidence to back up your arguments if that's not what you want to do. I just think you might be more convincing and reach a larger audience if you tried using evidence, but it's still a good read.

SteveH said...

"if you tried using evidence"

This is coming from someone who thinks that WWC provides that evidence.

"I just think you might be more convincing and reach a larger audience if you tried using evidence.."

As you clearly know, most reform math curricula are based on pedagogy and opinion, with attempts at justification coming later. Once the curricula are implemented, everyone else is forced to prove that they don't work - using a much higher standard. As the Church Lady would say: "How Conveeeenient." And then they throw out WWC as justification. Been there.

However, curricula like Everyday Math are fundamentally flawed. EM tells teachers to just keep moving along and to "trust the spiral". Pump the kids along until it's too late to fix the problems. Then they blame the kids, parents, peers, and society.

There is also the issue that many studies just look for relative change with nobody studying underlying issues like full inclusion. Our schools improved with Everyday Math, but that was an improvement over MathLand, a curriculum so bad (and of the same kind) that it has been wiped off the face of the web except for the remaining bad reviews.

Anonymous is obviously not new or impartial to this argument. One can almost guess who it is. Offering advice on evidence is a cheap arguing ploy. As usual, these people to resort to vague proof, snide comments, and then they disappear. They have the curricula they want and they can stonewall. Not too surprisingly, these people often fignt tooth and nail against school choice.