Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Did you get a little shiver when you saw the title of this post? I'm sitting in a room with 28 sweating college students right now, proctoring a computer science midterm exam as a favor for a colleague, and all I can think is that I'm glad I'm at the front of the room. I spend a lot of time around college students, and they are never this quiet and intense simultaneously. In fact, I'm not sure anything in civilian adult life produces the same sort of crisis of concentration as a hard, important exam, unless it's impending nuclear meltdown, or maybe blue lights in the rear view.

It's a little disconcerting to think about all the ways that education is disconnected from the skills we need in life today. It probably worked well enough when the idea was to produce good factory workers. Sit down, shut up, line up straight and don't share with your neighbor helped prepare people for a life of mentally unengaged drone work.*

Using these same techniques to produce creative information workers may be less effective. When I talk to business owners and managers, I hear repeatedly how they need people who can collaborate effectively, communicate, and think outside the box. That's about the time the buzzwords really start to fly and my attention starts to drift.

There is a growing movement among the academic elites to bring art, music, and drama back into the fold of serious learning, partially because people with these degrees are succeeding in all sorts of technical areas, flying in the face of everything their parents tried to tell them. At the same time, the unemployment lines are saying hello to engineers and MBA's for the first time in a very long time. This is all happening while schools and communities continue to cut funding for arts and humanities, so that they can focus on teaching kids to pass a written test.

I don't really have a point. I was just looking for something to keep me from watching these kids suffer for an hour and a half. Also, did you know that computer science students almost all have really nice mechanical pencils? Except for the ones who take exams in ink. They are the ones who scare me.

*This is in no way meant to disparage manual labor or industrial work. I have done enough of it in my life to have great respect for what I still think of as "working people." But this sort of thing does tend to be repetitive, and there is usually plenty of mental space for daydreaming. Just like in school.


  1. Mechanical pencils are the best. I have my own collection.

    And since you brought up education, and that's my thing...I'm not going to go on and on and on and on about education policy, though I could and have often been known to do so. I'm too overwhelmed with work right now, mostly because I'm a student and I have midterms coming up. Suffice it to say, though, your concerns about the lack of collaborative thinking and creativity in the classroom and the dearth of lessons which highlight - or even allow - these sorts of necessary skills for the workplace are exactly the kinds of things that the Education System I've been building in my head is centered around.

    Maybe someday I'll take the system out of my head and build it in the real world. But not today. I've got too much of a crisis of concentration to worry about for my upcoming Stats midterm.

  2. I am a part-time college student in the same field in which I currently work, veterinary medicine. I am looking to move up in the field, hence the classwork. The disconnect between education and the real world is pretty amazing to me, and I see it all the time. By way of a fun example, a professor recently gave a detailed explanation of how to examine an ulcerated cornea in a dog, and even provided cheerful photos of a happy-looking lab sitting there and almost enjoying the whole thing. Meanwhile, while doing the same thing back in the clinic where I work, the examinee is either bouncing all around the room or trying to rip various appendages from my body.

    As a former educator (13 years worth), I suspect I know why the disconnect occurs. We live in an age of heavy emphasis on standardized tests as a means to evaluate instruction and learning. But real life IS NOT standardized. It is messy, unpredictable, and full of variables. "Book smarts" just does not always equate to "street smarts". As long as standardized tests rule the day, education systems in this country will only partially prepare students for reality.

  3. Chris (veterinary medicine Chris, not computer science researcher Chris): I totally agree. To expound upon your point about testing, I also feel that nationwide (or even international) standardization completely destroys the education system's ability to produce people who can actually function in the local economy. Some people (like Thomas Friedman) see our society as becoming increasingly global and "flat", yet the data shows that the vast majority of students remain where they went to school after graduation, taking jobs, buying property, and laying roots in their local communities - even today. So why is there this emphasis on standardization which largely fails to take into account the needs of the local economy?

    That's just one side of the argument against standardization. Thinking less locally and more globally - if the world is truly getting flat, and that trend of people staying put is diminishing in favor of transplantation to major urban areas - why are the standards for education not constantly updated to reflect the demands of the job marketplace? This, I feel, is tied back into Chris's original point (that's computer science researcher Chris): children today don't come out of school with the tools and skills necessary to actually compete in the job market. And if they do, it's usually by some fluke of personal characteristic rather than a product of anything the school system did for them. And that is so wrong, so very much the opposite of what it should be. (Now tying it back to my argument about the needs of the local economy:) We should not be "educating" children with some lofty goal of "standards" in mind, but rather we should be preparing them to the best of our abilities not only based on the demands of the marketplace, but also based on (and this is really controversial) what the students actually want to learn. Our school system goes so far out of its way, with the emphasis on standardization, to convince children that whatever they're passionate about is irrelevant - there's so much of a mentality of "this is what You Need To Know, So Learn It", which totally undermines the ability of children to think for themselves. When you deprive people of this essential power - and it is a power, make no mistake - it's no wonder they're unable to be creative and collaborate in the workplace. It's also no wonder that we're producing an entire class of people who are apathetic and detached from the work that they do. Not only do they have no idea how to embrace the things they're passionate about, but they've been consistently told for the past 13 years of primary/secondary schooling and 4 (or more) years of college that it doesn't matter what they're passionate about, "Learning this is what will get you a job."

    Yet when it comes time to get a job, they're all having trouble finding work - and certainly fulfilling work - because they're all stuck in this mindset of "must be standardized".

    It sucks.

    (I told you I could go on and on and on about this.)

  4. i don't think we get over test anxiety. i completed a year long post-graduate course (masters equivalent) and about had a stroke for each test. just last weekend? it was the 'on-bike' test for my permanent motorcycle license. i've been riding for over a year. i know how to do it. but still screwed the pooch on braking distance (i still passed, but i was going for a perfect score).