‘Mind the Gap’ — Develop Cultural Competence

The alleged “skills gap” dominates conversations about the relationship between education and work. Peter Smirniotopoulos and his co-author Natalie Pregibon offer an insightful analysis and some solid recommendations for how we might better prepare students for the demands of the workforce, today and tomorrow. One thing I really like about Peter’s approach is his uncompromising insistence on the value of creative thinking. Read Peter and Natalie’s series, Public Education and Job Readiness, here. Peter and Natalie were also recent guests on my radio show, Trading Fours with Drs. Modeste & Wes. You can listen to the show by clicking here.

Content is Crap (S/O to Greg Satell)

My classrooms are laboratories for engaged discussion and the development of new ideas. ConversationMy hope is that this will lead to an informed understanding of the content under scrutiny and also more meaningful and smarter work lives and civic engagement. I am passionate about educating. In my mind, the practical application of knowledge, can’t be beat. Over 20+ years of educating, I’ve put in the “deliberate practice” of 10,000 hours. What’s this mean? In part, it means the content I deliver doesn’t suck.

Why is THAT important?

In “Content is CrapGreg Satell tells the story of Ed Catmull who, as president of Pixar films, was committed to moving the films from “suck to not-suck.” This is important because Catmull wasn’t just looking for a gimmick to trick more people into seeing his films. As Greg notes, Catmull wasn’t merely seeking an audience” he wanted to “share something important with the world.” For all my love of content — American culture & jazz, ethnic studies  — “content” as Greg notes “is crap.”
But academics are genuinely delighted by content. We spend decades studying our fields of interest and by the time we reach the dissertation level, we have narrowed our chosen fields to an esoteric spot in the universe that no one else has considered in exactly the same way. Academics are the most blase entrepreneurs.

Here’s the thing — the content we find so fascinating sucks to most of the world. The way to salvage not just our egos but our beloved fields of inquiry from extinction, is to deliver the content is such a way tBoringhat connects us with the audience, that creates an emotional link between the content and something meaningful in their lives. We must create not just a new audience for our ideas but “share something meaningful with the world” which necessarily requires pushing beyond classroom walls. We must “mind the gap” between disciplinary specificity and the pragmatic demands of life outside the academy.

Education and Employers

A recent Guardian article lamented the state of economics education. Students and employers are struggling to see the relevance of skills honed in class because theoretical models fail to impress beyond the classroom. “Employers complain that recent economics graduates, while being technically proficient, know very little about the real world. Lacking knowledge about the historical backgrounds, institutional details and political idioms of real-world economies, they end up being idiot savants – they can manipulate most complicated mathematical models but cannot translate their insights into business strategies and economic policies in the real world.” — Ouch!

Disconnect

Here’s another biting critique: “When graduate economists do have something to say about the real-world economy, their advice is incomprehensible to noneconomists – and noneconomists make up almost all their audience.”

How do we Bridge the Gap?

First, educators must educate as if most students will not pursue PhDs (because most don’t). Second, academics must write for non academics. Since tenure is growing ever more elusive, this is practical because it’ll help academics secure jobs beyond the academy. Those scholars seeking to spread messages and educate the public broadly through MOOCs and/or social media (blogs, video blogs, Twitter, Facebook, radio programs, etc.) democratize education and include the global masses by using language that is easily understood. Third, seek professional viability beyond the academy — please.

You’re on your own!

According to the Guardian article, students in Norway were told by professors, their role was to offer “an analytical framework” for the material and students themselves would “have the rest of [their] lives to learn about current affairs.” This is such a cop-out. The aura of elitism is used to obscure poor pedagogy, lack of creativity, or just plain laziness. However, as hierarchies go — “‘pure’ research is more prestigious than applied or policy-relevant research, and research is more important than teaching. So, the more detached from the real world your work is, the higher up in the intellectual hierarchy you are.” Higher Ed is responsible for its own marginality, is doing its part in maintaining the status quo, and is abdicating its responsibility to prepare students for the future.

The Necessity of Mess  

This is no surprise. Our cultural quest for increased efficiencies (think Six Sigma), has led to hyper specialization, the mechanization of human beings, and the devaluation of emotional connections. We seek linear explanations and simple dichotomies to explain complex phenomena. Regarding education in economics, the Guardian writes, “In the past, economics was taught as a series of interrelated debates about competing theories and the different policy recommendations of those theories. Imprecise, even messy, but useful.”

In economics, the most popular reform proposal is “The introduction of mathematical models of complex nonlinear systems – the kinds of models which, at least with hindsight, might have predicted the 2008 financial crisis.” This is great but without practical application, this will be — yet another — theoretical model. Lively debate, interactive class assignments, collaborative projects that involve field work, and actively engaging social media to disseminate and test ideas are just some of the ways that will make the experience of learning economics (and all fields) meaningful and practical. Let’s transfer this pedagogical approach beyond the classroom to the workplace and boardroom.

The swing of things

John Coates wrote a really insightful NYT Sunday Review article, “The Biology of Risk.” In a nutshell, he likes the idea of uncertainty in markets because it teaches us — via practical experience — to be agile and creative. If our bodies are physiologically conditioned to respond to stress such as that caused by volatility; then, reducing change leads to a reduction in our ability to respond effectively to stress. The result? More and more devastating bubbles.

Coates explains, “Under conditions of extreme volatility, such as a crisis, traders, investors and indeed whole companies can freeze up in risk aversion, and this helps push a bear market into a crash.” StressCompanies, however, have no coping mechanism. Fortunately, we have the blues and jazz — cultural coping mechanisms with built-in features like call and response, swing, and improvisation that endow practitioners to manage change confidently and even gracefully.

MurrayAccording to Cultural Historian Albert Murray, “what is ultimately at stake” in a moment of crisis “is morale, which is to say the will to persevere, the disposition to persist and perhaps prevail; and what must be avoided by all means is a failure of nerve.” (Stomping, 10) Seizing up is not an option. Coates notes, “risk aversion” [amongst traders and the like] “occurs at just the wrong time, for these crises are precisely when markets offer the most attractive opportunities…” Indeed, we need people who are agile, who can respond reflexively and creatively to changing conditions. Murray’s explanation of a musical break is relevant to, at least, those working in finance. On dealing with uncertainty, he writes: it’s a matter of “grace under pressure, creativity in an emergency, continuity in the face of disjuncture. It is on the break that you are required to improvise, to do your thing, to establish your identity, to write your signature on the epidermis of actuality which is to say entropy.” (Blue Devils, 95) But you can’t just read Murray’s writing, you have to apply his theories practically and develop a trained, reflexive, response to change. If you want your business to swing, develop cultural competence.

The similarity in thinking expressed in Coates’ 2014 NYT article and Murray’s 1974 nonfiction text belies the 40 year time difference. There’s been a gap between theory and practice for decades, at least. What’s more, the notorious racial segregation in the United States is compounded by the segregation of ideas — science and technology are necessarily divorced from music and culture — and this hurts us all. What we need is an integrated approach to educating; the practical application of Murray’s 40 year old ideas in realms beyond the art and humanities and in forums beyond the traditional classroom and stage. We must mind the gap between theory and practice, bridge it and (perchance) close the skills gap. Educate holistically and move from crash to swing.

 

Skills Shortage on the Global Stage

In one of my favorite Foreign Affairs articles, Secretary of State (former) Hilary Rodham Clinton sounds very much like the head of a multinational corporation with an ear bent towards listening to diverse constituents and reaching the geopolitical frontline. Acknowledging the changing global terrain, Clinton emphasizes interconnectedness and the changes necessary in diplomatic skills sets. She notes, “increasing global interconnectedness now necessitates reaching beyond governments to citizens directly…”. She continues, today’s ambassadors are, “responsible not only for managing civilians from the State Department and USAID but also for operating as the CEO of a multiagency mission.”[1]

How do we cultivate the skill of knowing how to communicate with civilians directly when prior experience required expertise in dealing only in elite circles and spheres of influence? 

In a really insightful TED talk, Paddy Ashdown identifies three major shifts in power. Watch Paddy’s talk below:

 

One thing that most intrigued me was the way Paddy correlated the growth of multinational corporations with international criminality, globalization means they share the same space. We get both the “good” and the “bad” at once. This mandates the rule of law but one that goes beyond our traditional nation-state thinking into the realm of global governance (not government). He notes “treaty based agreements” such as the G-20 and Kyoto as efforts in this direction. Paddy goes onto talk about our “multipolar world,” or a “European concert of balance, a five-sided balance” and “counter balance” and of course that got me to thinking about music….

I’ve written here about Global Swing and also about coordinating information from disparate sources in such a way that we not only hear the distinct “voices” but create a synthesis of meaning — harmony — in our heads (see “Six-Part Harmony.”) I’ve also written an article on the ways in which the cultural footprint of the blues and swing can be discerned in sectors as different as education, healthcare, business and governance. So, this stuff is heavy on my mind.

Today, I’m thinking about the relationship between diplomacy, multinational corporations, and swing as a model of governance. It seems to me that the skill set Clinton identifies as being necessary in our cadre of diplomats is the same skill set that leaders in multinational corporations need – the ability to communicate effectively, and even confidently, across and through sectors, with particular emphasis on those that seem unfamiliar.

In moving towards a system of global governance, we’ll need to listen to not only the most vociferous, those that have traditionally held the reigns of power, but those that have been historically and geopolitically marginalized. Paddy says, “We must reach beyond the cozy circle of our Western friends.” Clinton advocates for “civilian power” and says we must reach “beyond governments to citizens directly.” New players on the global stage, MOOCs and US universities with an international bricks-and-mortar presence face similar challenges as they negotiate the realm of diplomacy and global governance through the entry-point of education. Employees at every level of the university – along with diplomats and multinational corporate leaders – must acquire new skills to be effective. There’s a lot of work in retraining to do!

Paddy informs us that the cultural model of a “European concert of balance” worked in an earlier historical period. Learning how to integrate globally is a central challenge for today’s players on the global stage and so I am convinced that cultural models hold the most promise. I’m placing my bet on swing. Let’s consider the two forms…

Fugues articulate distinct scripted voices that come together in a pleasing blend of sounds creating a unity that is both complex and simplistic. There is a beauty in fugues that soothes the soul. A fugue’s parts are transcribed and are to be performed in strict accordance with notations with very little room, if any, for improvisation. Fugues can be emotionally rich but deviations from the score are not encouraged, anticipated or desired.

Jazz is the music of active participation and it is jarring – or, at least, it can be. Collective improvisation – a la Jelly Roll Morton – comes first to mind. Jelly Roll’s music brings together a cacophony of instrumental voices in a highly textured, tightly woven musical statement where everyone’s voice is prominent, recognizably audible. Somehow, the “mess” of the music has synthesis. Part of this mess is in the unstructured articulation of voices at unexpected times. Everyone is gathered to play the same song but there’s really no way to predict how an individual musician will decide to play along. Uncertainty is inherent in jazz.

…and THIS is the world in which we live.

Swing is about coordinating the perceived cacophony and creating a musical flow – governance, if you will. Finding a way to integrate the seemingly disparate parts in such a way as to advance the score. A steady rhythm is important in swing because it drives the momentum. Henry Ford needed a reliable pace for his workers. Dancers need reliable beats to ensure well-articulated and well-placed steps. The work of cooperating with various global constituents – some of whom will seem unfamiliar and whose values systems will seem at odds with our own – will be messy. We must keep the “mess” and swing. We need people trained in coalescing eclectic parts and creating a cooperative flow.

Skills needed include: listening, collaboration, leadership, resilience, and the ability to exude grace under pressure


[1] Foreign Affairs, Volume 89, No. 6, “Leading through Civilian Power” 14 -15

Jazz, Billy Preston and Global Governance: the song that ain’t got no melody

There’s a standard seating arrangement in a jazz ensemble; reeds up front, brass in back, rhythm to the side. Jazz seating arrangment imageThe configuration of the ensemble can be changed by the conductor to accommodate her/his artistic vision and the personnel can be expanded or contracted in order to evoke a certain sound, mood, nuance, etc. Chair positions within sections can be arranged to accommodate variations in desired sound. Individual sounds work together to express a common idea and the sound is enriched when there is a diversity of voices. The artistic director is a position that rotates and for a given performance, s/he has the authority to determine the set list. This arrangement has the benefit of being both flexible and diverse.

Will it Go ‘Round in Circles?

This is a great question posed by  Billy Preston but first, Nilofer Merchant’s ideas on concentric circles… In her HBR blog Nilofer explains, “In the concentric model (as in jazz), each party has a role to play that meets shared objectives. Each ‘layer’ has power. Yet each always shares the joint goal. concentric circlesCompared to top-down hierarchy where the things are aligned at the top but then divided into parts, the concentric model shifts power to each “circle” (or musician in the case of jazz).” hierarchy imageThis is similar to my own thinking about jazz ensembles where each ‘layer’ is an instrumental section (reeds, brass, rhythm). As concentric circles move around a given point, so too do ensembles change around the shared goal of performing the score. Chair arrangements change, personnel is increased and decreased, and the artistic director position rotates. All this allows differing artistic visions to be realized and different talent groups to be illuminated. Additionally, different outcomes are realized although the overall goal is singular. Billy Preston’s song is relevant here because in his song “that ain’t got no melody” in his story that “ain’t got no moral” and his dance that “ain’t got no steps” he dares to reimagine his lived reality and embraces uncertainty such as that in reimagining hierarchy. Not only will Billy sing the song with no melody to his friends, he allows the “bad guy” to win every once in a while” in his story with no moral, and in his dance with no steps, he “lets the music move [him] around.” Uncertainty imageTurning normality (hierarchy) on its head and daring to engage uncertainty, Billy wonders “Will it go round in circles? Will it fly high like a bird up in the sky?” What will be the outcome of such daring and bold moves?

When leadership is not stagnant things change. Everyone is engaged and can see potential (think no glass ceiling), has decision-making authority, and can also function as an effective team member when systems are flexible and reality is creatively conceived. When all voices are validated, the sound of ensemble is enriched. When all members of a team are empowered by having decision-making ability – when concentric circles pull in talent that exists near the circumference – they can view their contributions as meaningful in the journey to reach a common goal. As it happens, such “buy in” is likely to reap benefits. In “The US Needs to Make More Jobs More Creative” Richard Florida and Roger Martin suggest asking “employees to exercise judgment and [involve them in] decision-making in order to innovate and enhance the productivity of the operation” so that “the possibility for higher productivity, higher firm performance and higher wages exists.”

Bird flyingWill it Fly High Like a Bird Up in the Sky?

In their study of creativity and the US job market, Richard and Roger distinguish between types of employment (routine oriented and creativity-oriented jobs) and income (by occupational groups and industry types). They find that no matter the industry, wages are better in clustered industries (geographically specific and trade mostly outside their home area) than in dispersed industries (they note primary medical care). By extension we can consider global governing systems where each region in a multilateral system can be seen as a clustered “industry” having specific strengths and expertise.
Global IndustryEngaging our multilateral world will mean acknowledging strengths in various sectors and being cognizant of leadership therein. Richard and Roger are concerned about the “current challenges with income inequality” given the income disparity between creativity-oriented workers in clustered industries and routine-service workers in dispersed industries. While the authors note, “there is no quick fix for this problem” they insist “we have to rethink how we utilize workers in our advanced economy.” Asking workers what they think about various processes pertaining to their work-life can tap into resources we’ve yet to discover and increase productivity in ways we’ve not imagined. Flexible arrangements like jazz ensembles or concentric circles are two examples that appeal to me because they dismantle typical organizational hierarchy in favor of lateral, flexible arrangements of people who do a better job of realizing talent, engaging democratically, and altering leadership.

Who will Sing the Song, Tell the Story and Dance?

Yet, structures that lend themselves to flexibility and diversity also require much of the individual. People must not view their positions as “routine” and must “exercise judgment [and] decision-making.” (Richard and Roger again) In a jazz ensemble, for example, each person must be a master of her/his chosen instrument; which means demonstrating exceptional technical ability, infallible literacy, and a deep knowledge of the music and its associated traditions in order to adapt to ever-changing conditions or the possibility or likelihood of change. Each person must contribute her/his voice because to do otherwise would hurt the overall sound. Surely there will be anxiety surrounding the practice of engaging people who are not accustomed to being engaged. Even world-class musicians face difficulty and anxiety when faced with performing new music. Expressing the views of members of the Berlin Philharmonic as they prepared to perform the premiere of Wynton Marsalis’s Swing Symphony, Conductor Sir Simon Rattle said, “the trouble is, we just feel so stiff in comparison.”[1] Human frailty notwithstanding, the depth of knowledge and training of world-class musicians coupled with their ability to meet change head-on and prevail in spite of anxiety is required and the more experience a musician has, the greater the likelihood that s/he can enter into volatile situations confidently and deliver sound results.

Democracy, or Who’s Running this Show?

From jazz ensembles and concentric circles, my thoughts moved deeper into democracy, civic engagement and leadership. Global communicationDana Nelson’s provocative text, Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People came to mind. Far from arguing against having a president, Dana Nelson insists that the president is not our Savior and can’t solve our problems. She places that Herculean responsibility squarely on our shoulders and argues for increased civic engagement “something larger than federal and local government and definitely more expansive than presidential leadership.” (183) In insisting that we commit to the “never-ending work of negotiating democratic disagreement,” accept a “certain level of political disunity” and the “unpredictability that lives hand-in-glove with increased creativity” she holds people accountable for their own destiny and asks us to re-imagine democracy as currently practiced. (184) Unknowingly, she also harkens the lessons of blues and conjures Billy Preston’s song “that ain’t got no melody” because she wants people to move beyond their comfort zones. Dana Nelson like Billy Preston advocates “reimagining and expanding democracy as an open system, a project nourished by both our independence and by our interdependence.” (185) – jazz ensemble, concentric circles.

Back to Basics…

Businesses are changing various management styles as our global interconnectedness increases and becomes clearer and as social media challenges existing frameworks for operational efficiency. Going back in time and using the example of Bell Labs and a NYT article highlighting the company’s history of innovation written by Jon Gertner, I found several remarkable similarities between jazz ensembles and corporations, including: (1) the incremental improvements Bell made en route to (but with no guarantee of) revolutionary innovations; (2) the necessity of physical proximity to innovation; (3) deep integration of personnel; (4) physical structure/edifice conducive to business strategy; (5) autonomy; (6) mentorship; (7) time. Who knew a jazz ensemble had so much in common with a historic business known for its technological expertise?

Interestingly, this metaphor can be extended to include workers. Haydn Shaughnessy’s article in Forbes, “What Does Work Look Like When Half of Americans are Not in a Job?” highlights qualities workers will need – individuals who are networked and who can reliably “step into an expansion opportunity and fill it out quickly.” Even when musicians are regularly employed as house bands, they maintain extensive networks of colleagues near and far who play a variety of instruments and who can be assembled quickly for performance. Social mediaSocial media has only expanded these networks. Additionally, ensembles are commonly intergenerational and thereby take advantage of the skills of both younger and more experienced musicians. Shaughnessy acknowledges the trend in business of hiring, “the under 25” group because it has a “stronger grip on social media tools” so necessary today but he notes, “they have no grip on what business needs or how businesses operate.” The need obviously, is for a mixed-generational cadre of workers and such is typically the case in a jazz ensemble where there is deference for the experience only age can bring.

Quick fixes cure nothing at all…

Learning a musical instrument (or playing a sport or learning a foreign language) takes time and is an investment that can’t be easily quantified. Culture has trained us to privilege quick fixes for everything from weight loss and controlling diabetes, to educational testing and aligning cognitive ability with GDP (see my thoughts on PISA), to restoring the economy by putting someone new in the White House this fall. Repeat after me – Barack Obama is NOT the problem.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel as we try to come up with ways to retain US vitality and harness the creativity that leads to innovation. We do, however, need to take lessons from our past and not simply, unimaginatively and arrogantly view history as irrelevant. In The Hero and the Blues, Albert Murray asserts, “[N]ot only is tradition that which continues; it is also the medium by which and through which continuation occurs.”[2] So, in taking the example of Bell Labs, we can alter the model to suit our current environment and perchance, realize similar successes long term. Innovation imageHowever, we must rethink our understanding of innovation. Gertner explains, “one type of innovation creates a handful of jobs and modest revenues; another, the type Mr. Kelly and his colleagues at Bell Labs repeatedly sought, creates millions of jobs and a long-lasting platform for society’s wealth and well-being.” Polly La Barre echoes this sentiment in her Harvard Business Review article, “Reimagining Capitalism” where she asserts, “It’s time to radically revise the deeply-etched beliefs about what business is for, whose interests it serves, and how it creates value. We need a new form of capitalism for the 21st century, one dedicated to the promotion of greater well-being rather than the single-minded pursuit of growth and profits…” We need to invest time and educate culturally from k-16, at least, because nurturing those activities that require an investment of time trains people to meet short-term demands en route to a long-term goal even when, as in the case of Bell Labs, the goal may not be immediately recognizable. Even when we are left wondering like Billy Preston, “Will it fly high like a bird up in the sky?”

Investing in time…

Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer discuss “Talent, Passion and the Creativity Maze” in their HBR blog in a way that really captivates me. While everyone raves about wanting top talent, innovating and creating new models, Teresa and Steve present a counter narrative – sort of. Quoting a Nobel Prize winning physicist, the authors write, “The labor of love aspect is important. The successful scientists often are not the most talented, but the ones who are just impelled by curiosity. They’ve got to know what the answer is.” Wait, wait! What about cognitive ability? What about test scores? What about grades? What about GDP! Teresa and Steve explain, “intrinsically motivated people are more creative because they engage more deeply with the work.” It really is that simple. Do we have the courage to sing a song that ain’t got no melody?

 

 


[1] Kate Connolly, “All Das Jazz: the Berlin Phil Swing with Wynton Marsalis” June 2010

[2] Albert Murray, The Hero and the Blues (New York, Vintage Books, 1973), 72.

Education, Testing and the Problem with PISA

In her March 2012 article in the Harvard Business Review, “Rethinking School” Stacey Childress makes several observations and suggestions for improving the US k-12 system (and beyond as a matter of consequence). Childress refers to a comprehensive study by Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann, The Role of Cognitive Skills in Economic Development that compares a country’s GDP with academic test scores. In a nutshell, the study found that improved test scores led to increased GDP. The study uses the period 1960 – 2000 and makes the claim that had the US closed the “education achievement gap with better-performing nations, GDP in 2010 could have been [8 – 12 percentage points] higher.” There is plenty of room for delving into the study and asking questions that consider the impact of history on the findings, such as: how did the study account for newly integrated schools in the US, the Civil Rights movement and Viet Nam? Did the rise in dual income households impact test scores? We could also ask questions about the veracity of testing in general; and specifically, the implications of using an international test such as PISA to not only level disparities inherent in collecting data but on collecting cross-cultural aggregate cognitive ability data! But for now and for the sake of initiating a discussion on the exhaustive and thoughtful study that was actually funded and conducted, I will accept the assumptions in the Hanushek and Woessmann study.

Observations

  1. The use of technology in schools – Childress notes that technology is now being incorporated in schools in really innovative ways that “blend the best of teacher and computer-delivered instruction” for a more “personalized” learning experience. As she notes, the successful integration of technology in one low-performing district in California led to the students eventually performing at the same level as their peers in an affluent area.
  2. Teacher quality as the “biggest factor in boosting that student’s performance.”
  3. Test scores as the primary indicator of student performance.

Thoughts…

  1. Technology is a great way to compound the learning experience and make it more effective — to an extent. First, technology is costly and states strapped with budgetary concerns are at a loss to implement such technology broadly. Alliances with the private sector are fraught with challenges, one of which is achieving the “right” balance between educational and profit-driven interests in advocating for students. Second, while “adaptive software” may personalize the leaning experience for students and so approximate the teacher-student relationship, the lack of human interaction remains problematic. Humans are necessary and should have a primary actual — not virtual — leadership role in educating students. Third, when students in the “low-performing” group catch up to the scores of students in the affluent group, how far will students in the affluent group have progressed? We are naive in assuming their lives will remain stagnant during the interim. Since they already have the “good test scores” they can focus on expanding their horizons in ways far beyond areas measured in assessment data.
  2. Teacher quality – there really needs to be an effective way of accessing teacher effectiveness without castigating teachers and demeaning the profession.
  3. Test scores as an indicator of student performance — there should be a holistic, more personalized and differentiated approach to assessing student performance. Too many kinds of intelligence are ignored in favor of those areas experts measure quantitatively, in this case: science, math, reading.

Back to the Hanushek & Woessmann study…

The authors’ focus on cognitive ability is a strategic move to shift discussions on improving student performance from an increase in resources and “years in school” to the “best policies to improve skills.” (658) Aligning cognitive ability with GDP is sure to attract the associated financial investments in support of educational initiatives geared towards improving skills. As Hanushek and Woessmann note, research “strongly suggests that getting the substantial improvements in the quality of schools that are necessary requires structural changes in schooling institutions.” (659). The authors offer three suggestions: (1) strong accountability systems that accurately measure student performance; (2) local autonomy that allows schools to make appropriate educational choices; and (3) choice and competition in schools so parents can enter into determining the incentives that schools face.

I “get” the idea of changing the direction of the discussion by appealing to the desire of Americans to raise GDP, especially in these recessionary times. My concern is that in aligning cognitive ability with GDP, we narrow our focus to the three areas tested by the researchers — science, math and reading — to the exclusion of other areas where cognitive ability can be demonstrated. Areas of culture that require cognitive ability include: language training, music and visual arts; sports; combination skills such as those required to build a bridge, boat or house, or identify medicinal herbs. Creativity, resilience and social adaptation require cognitive ability as well but these would not be captured in a standardized test in science, math or reading. The narrow focus on measurements emanating from developed Western nations misses a lot that’s happening in the rest of the world and so risks leaving a vast amount of cognitive ability untapped and so a vast amount of GDP unrealized… think Jeremy Lin.

In terms of job creation, business leaders consistently identify skills beyond the scope of science, math and reading as crucial for success in our global economy and recognize the value of humans to guide technology. In “Skills that will Remain in Demand in a Computer-Rich World” Leslie Brokaw refers to a study conducted by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee that cites six skills that computers can’t do. Haushek and Woessmann’s study identifying cognitive ability is just fine but it’s acute focus on ability obscures practical application. My concern here is that in our blind pursuit of increased cognitive ability as determined through science, math and reading; we train a cadre of doers and not thinkers and create a society that lacks the ability to interact, engage, and innovate. A thoughtless society is ripe for dictatorship. The ability to think critically is crucial to democracy.

Despite the nation’s lackluster scores on PISA, the US continues to champion test scores and international comparisons as valid tools for measuring student performance. The Brown Center Report issued by Brookings calls into questions such comparisons. However, the US continues to have a highly desirable system of educating. “Bucking Cultural Norms, Asia Tries Liberal Arts” is an article by Karen Fischer that champions liberal arts education precisely because it is not narrowly focused and so is thought to hold the “secrets” of innovation. Similarly, in his article, “Why do we Continue to Isolate Ourselves by only Speaking English?” Will Hutton laments the fact that so few students bother learning foreign languages and says, “To acquire another language is to open yourself up to the world and to increase vastly your employability.” Language training, like learning an instrument (I will sing this song forever), requires discipline, dedication, and endless practice. I am certain these skills are transferable to other fields like science, math and reading. I am certain these skills are beneficial to the workplace. I am certain these skills are relevant to a global economy. In each country considered in the Hanushek and Woessmann study, the populations are multilingual. Several Western nations also have Ministers of Culture who ensure the nation’s culture is integrated into the society and its policies at every level and yet these points are omitted in their influential study. The problem with PISA is that it does not accurately reflect the best of who we are as a nation.

So, why trumpet science, math and reading to the exclusion of creative forms of expression? I think Hanushek and Woessmann are correct in noting the very structure of the educational system must change and in linking their study to US capitalist desires (cognitive ability – GDP), the authors “sell” an idea they know will attract funding; it is then left to researchers, educators, policy gurus, and private sector allies to determine the methods of change. The study is so influential that it has trickled down to the level of educators and policy makers who have run rampant with the idea of science, math and reading as THE indicators of cognitive ability. We have seen a steady erosion of arts and physical education in the public education system and a steady increase in testing along with a steady rise in diagnoses of ADD and ADHD, childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes. This may be so practical as to defy common sense but having kids sit on their butts all day (and for extended days with double and triple periods of science, math and reading!) and then diagnosing them with ADHD and ADD and Type 2 diabetes is an evil game.

So back to “Rethinking School” — some points to consider: (1) providing access to and increasing the human-centered, responsible and interactive use of technology in the learning experience; (2) eliminating the various forms of bias that have excluded and otherwise discouraged so many from the classroom; (3) mandating creative and performing arts, sports and language training k-16; (4) having an interdisciplinary cadre of “assessors” who evaluate student performance; (5) reevaluating and increasing teacher compensation, it is necessary and it is long overdue; (6) increasing student exchange programs, both in country and international.

The Blues… honestly

Brainstorm is a blog on Ideas and Culture that I find really thought provoking. In his February 12, 2012, entry, Todd Gitlin asks, “Is it Possible for Americans to have an Honest Discussion About Government?” My cynicism has not yet eclipsed my hopefulness and so my answer is, “Yes, it is possible. Si, se puede!” But how and what do we gain/lose by engaging in honest debate?

Gitlin’s entry is a contemplation on a New York Times article on critics of government safety nets who also depend on these daily.  So, various commentators have been “brainstorming” (great blog name BTW) about this. As indicated in the NYT article, people who firmly believe the government is too involved in the lives of the people are also loathe to admit their own dependence on government subsidies. When the hard truth is brought to light and an admission seems unavoidable, said recipients lament the fact and indicate they’d  rather do without the assistance. Good, good but not productive.

I was fascinated in reading this because the emotional and psychological work required to recast reality seems substantial. I am reminded of Toni Morrison’s must read essay, “Unspeakable Things Unspoken” which deals with omissions of race in literature but these things are transferable, so bear with me… So, what work goes into denying the reality of receiving subsidies and what trickery is involved in simultaneously rejecting the notion of subsidies being necessary to conduct normal daily affairs (the NYT article sites allowing after school sports activities for children and paying for necessary medical operations). The article gave no answers but shed light on the issue… good, good.

In order to have an honest discussion about government we’d need to deal with the uncomfortable truths of our reality forthrightly. We’d need to, as a nation, look at hardship head on, meet it in the eye, and call it what it is in order to deal with it meaningfully. We’d have to own up to the blues, honestly. So, instead of repeating favorite feel-good political soundbites and calls for “smaller government, lower taxes” and requests to “privatize healthcare, social security, education” etc., we’d have to ask, “Why is it that I can work full-time and still not be able to pay for after school sports for my children?” or “How is it that I have worked 30+ years and can’t afford to have the operation my wife needs” or “Why can’t I afford for my child to go to a ‘good’ school?” — All variations on the theme, “My baby done left me, oh what am I going to do?”In The Omni Americans Albert Murray reminds his readers that the blues ballad, “almost always [relates] a story of frustration [but] could hardly be described as a device for avoiding the unpleasant facts… on the contrary, it is a very specific and highly effective vehicle… [for] acknowledg[ing] the essentially tenuous nature of all human existence.” (Murray, 57) Honest answers to hard questions are necessary in order to move political conversations from soundbite to real life. In this case, we need to illuminate the relationship between the private sector and government.

Gitlin notes, “We can legitimately debate which taxes are fairer, and which expenditures most necessary and just, but as long as up-by-the-bootstraps ideology runs rampant, realistic debate is crippled by dishonesty. Unacknowledged dependency on the whole social network—not just on government—makes for delusions about how easy it would be to dispense with the safety net.” Significantly, these delusions keep progress at bay.

One way to begin having an honest discussion about government is to move thoughtful conversation from the classroom into the living room via the airwaves. Why? Because educators are trained to dig beneath the surface of ideas and excavate the hidden treasures and because so many people get their “news” and political ideas from TV and radio. Discussion imageThose trained in subject-specific research are experts who have committed their professional lives to knowing a subject deeply. When we engage them in conversations and allow their voices to integrate the mainstream media and infiltrate households, we pollinate the populace with ideas, the seeds of critical thinking — this is a bold new move.

I am excited about Melissa Harris-Perry’s new show which airs on Saturdays and Sundays beginning February 18, 2012, but not just because she’s smart as all get-out, poised and balanced in her approach but because she represents a move to elevate political discussion. Harris-Perry will not avoid the hard truths of our reality, she will delve in with a brain trained to think critically and to engage. She will extract the nuggets of gold that will enrich us all.  She says, “Part of the way I end up here is, I think the ivory tower has a ton of brilliant information that doesn’t show up for ordinary people.” Chris Hayes, who also has a show on MSNBC talks about time. He says, “Sometimes it has taken five minutes… to get past the talking points that are familiar to any cable news viewer. But we have the luxury of time.” Yes, thinking takes time and delivers the opposite of soundbites and 30 second news clips.  Harris-Perry’s show airs a full two hours for two days in a row. Cynical me says this must be tied to some profit margin but intellectual me thinks this is the right thing to do. Thoughtful conversation takes time. Harris-Perry and Hayes are part of a movement to reinvest in the power of intellect and an acknowledgment — by the market no less — that thinking takes time and has long-term benefits.

The NYT article on Harris-Perry poses the question, “Is this a sign of the rise of the academic on TV? Professor imageThough cable news is still stereotyped by some as a 24-7 screaming match, there are now pockets of intellectual stimulation that did not exist a decade ago.” — the rise of academics on TV will cause a rise in the level of political discourse. Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC notes, “Today, our audience thrives on being smart.” Finally, the market has demanded more intelligent TV.

This leads me to the idea of job creation. Why? Because the market seems to finally be acknowledging what educators have always known — thinking is valuable. Harris-Perry and the like are not trained in math or science and according to the soundbite scenarios, “we need more math and science” in order to be competitive — perhaps. However, it seems to me that a better educated and more thoughtful public trained to think critically in all areas, increases national competitiveness long-term. Imagine the US nimble and flexible enough to change with changing global demands because its entire population was prepared to contribute thoughtful, informed options or responses to whatever obstacle we faced. Perhaps the US can become a nation of thought leaders who collaborate with thought leaders in every region of the world to coordinate efforts to combat any number of global ills, including: climate change, poverty, healthcare, etc. Imagine the industries associated with this growth in thought leadership.Critical thinking image

By engaging honest debate we stand to lose the comforts of delusion and these are many. We would have to take responsibility for our contributions to the fracturing our systems of governance, healthcare, education, etc., painfully engage the unknown and have the courage to create something new. We would gain integrity and be offended that the current negative political campaigns and mudslinging avoid engaging hard questions and supply only soundbite answers instead.  We would gain an engaged and better informed populace invested in creating new systems rather than simply and unimaginatively destroying what we have. We would move towards solutions and not run from the hardship of our many problems. We need the blues, honestly.