What’s wrong with education today?

Is it our content?  Is it our method?

Frankly, its both.  But even though both our content and our method need work, the real problem lies far deeper.   All of the usual suspects regarding content and method of our teaching could be eliminated, and we’d still have a set of institutions that deserve to be on life support.

Because our content is flawed because our method is flawed.  And our method is flawed because our epistemology of “learning” is flawed.

In brief, our governing philosophy of education is outdated.  Our entire education system is optimized for preparing people for an industrial world.  We no longer live in an industrial world.

For example, the industrial world demanded mass production and mass consumption, led by a core elite of broadly educated professional class.   (As opposed to the artisanal/agricultural world which preceded it, which required primarily agricultural production and local craftsman for small markets.)

But the world of the 21st century is no more an industrial world than the 20th century was an agricultural world.  Just as the fraction of agriculture during the industrial period fell from 80 percent of the economy at the beginning to less than percent at its end, manufacturing today is at most 10% of the modern economy.

The binding limitations on economic and social improvement in the agricultural world were land.  The binding limitation on improvement in the industrial world were labor and capital.  The binding constraints in today’s world are human ingenuity and its primary product, innovation.

Mass production and mass consumption is about conformity and submission to rules about time and the control of effort.  And, unsurprisingly in such a world, a big part of the story becomes control and power over the means of production (yes, Marx had that part right).  And since the key means of production were labor and capital, it’s not at all surprising that battles between “corporations” and “unions” became a critical component in the path of change over the industrial period.

But where mass production and mass consumption are a declining fraction of economic activity  (how many people know that 99 percent of business in America today is done by enterprises with 20 or fewer employes?), it’s no longer a battle over power by labor and capital.  Its about providing and enabling maximum opportunity for innovation.

But that’s not what most of education does.  In fact we are going the opposite direction, focusing on development of “standard” curricula, “standard” credentials, “standard” practices, and “standard” standards.  Progress in a world limited by labor and capital depends on exploiting economies of scale.  Progress in a world limited by human ingenuity depends on increasing the ways things do not depend on “standards” and “conformity” and “scale.”

Until “educators” figure out better ways of inspiring and enabling the practices of human ingenuity, we will find what we do as of increasingly marginal importance — and deservedly so.

Just like the industrial world that spawned us.

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One Response to “The hidden problem with education”

  1. Wade says:

    Thanks, Ian. It’s good to be back.

    Hopefully, with more staying power this time.

    Wade
    p.s. I know I owe you a couple letters. Belated Christmas and Epiphany greetings. May Lent find you all in good health.

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