American Culture

Dr. Slammy in 2008: Evolving a culture of learning

The biggest challenge my EducationF1rst initiative faces is one of momentum: America is not, and never has been, an intellectual culture. We do not, however much we might protest, live in a nation that treasures teaching and learning. On the list of things that we care about, education falls well to the south of things like entertainment and sports. Worse, in Instant GratificatioNation there is little tolerance for long-term solutions. We want it, we want it now, and if you don’t give it to us you will be out of business.

On the learning front, America is an object at rest, and objects at rest tend to remain that way until acted on by some force. The good news is that if we’re able to set our society in motion, that momentum then becomes something we can leverage in our long drive toward a sustainable culture of education.

While EdF1rst will generate meaningful results within the scope of my first term, the full impact of our efforts won’t be seen for perhaps a generation. Does this doom our project? Are Americans incapable of voting for the long-term future of their children? Maybe, but the stakes are too high for us not to try. We must be willing to play to the historians, not the pundits.

Over time, we must transform America into a genuine culture of learning. Families must believe, as mine did, that education is their best hope for a sustainable future, and they must be willing to act forcefully and meaningfully on this conviction. Children must grow up in homes where commitment to education is an assumption that’s embedded in the very DNA of family and community life. In neighborhoods where teachers are revered. In classrooms that are safe and nurturing. In a nation that values you for what you know, what you can do, how you can contribute.

In order for this to happen, we need a multi-pronged strategy that address both reality and perception.

  • Our schools must show results in ways that families and communities can recognize, and quickly laying in the infrastructural reforms described elsewhere in my platform will be a critical first step.
  • We will develop an innovative multi-channel public information campaign that stresses the benefits of the EdF1rst initiative and highlights its successes. This initiative will leverage every creative tool at our disposal, including both traditional broadcast and innovative social media channels.
  • We will utilize Internet and mobile technologies to establish advocacy communities to encourage hands-on investment in the educational process.
  • We will recruit spokespeople and success stories from across the entire spectrum of American life to promote the long-term benefits of a genuine commitment to learning.
  • We will ensure that our communications efforts are two-way, dynamic and thoroughly interactive.

We must never lose sight of the fact that as society evolves, so also must our educational programs. We will never stop revising, growing and improving, and we will never stop asking our citizens to help us understand how this might best be accomplished.

17 replies »

  1. Pingback: www.buzzflash.net
  2. I’ll vote for that. Although undoing the crimes committed against our “educational” system may take more than one generation. The powers that be don’t want an informed and relatively intellectual society….they’ve been figting against that outcome for far too long to let it go. The only thing that has more power than the constant barrage of messages we and our kids are fed daily, are parents. The very same parents that were raised in an era of mass consumerism, mass selfishness, mass marketing, mass hysteria, mass media, and mass consumption. We should all be figting daily to raise our kids to see the world as it is, not as PR people, Ad execs, CEO’s, pundits, and politicians want us to see it. Bravo Sam. You could probably have my vote on that one topic alone.

  3. I strongly agree with the writer. In every village and burg, parents seem more interested in the plight of the athletic team rather than the success or failure of knowledge transmission from the teacher to the student. Our streets are rife with dropouts whose only future lies as a ward of the state. There is a perverse snobbery against learning and we must, if we wish for the brand name of America to be held high, rally for education reform.

  4. I agree with Quentin that athletic competition has been one of the few acceptable ways to foster pride in one’s school.

    I suggest that, a part of this program, you encourage other kinds of contests–Jeopardy-like quiz shows, band competitions, choir competitions, and so on. Local newspapers can print weekly editorials written by students. Local television and radio stations can do the same, and can host some of the competitions.

    And that’s just off the top of my head. As soon as we start lauding young people and their teachers for accomplishments other than atheleticism, we’ll start seeing people strive more in other areas.

    Carolyn Kay
    MakeThemAccountable.com

  5. Hey there Doc.

    You and I have discussed this stuff before, of course, but I thought I’d bring up some points for those who might find them useful.

    First off, you’re right about US culture. But I think what you’re proposing is not just culture change, not just large or very large-scale culture change, but ultra large scale culture change. As someone who has been on the frontline of culture change in dozens of large organizations, I have a very informed and healthy skepticism about change initiatives that depend only on communication (aka, “hot air”). I’ve never seen one of those initiatives succeed. Not ever. And I’ve never seen the attempt at one of those initiatives fail to cause organizational damage.

    If you really want to change culture, then mass media is only a part, and only a part that reinforces important structural changes, especially in the incentive an disincentive system.

  6. I’d vote for a candidate standing on an education platform in a heartbeat. (i mean a real education platform like the good Dr. proposes)

    We constantly here how other systems out perform ours, and its true. Dr. Slammy puts his finger one facet when he talks about respect for teachers. For example, the word for “teacher” in Korean translates literally as “honored teacher.” Now i was just a foreign teacher (so not a ‘real’ teacher per say) when i lived there. But when i walked down the street, parents of my students would stop and bow deeply to me. Some of these parents were international pilots and other prestigious professions. When i taught adult classes, my students were major television producers and VP’s at Korean Air; they had no real reason to revere me, but the bows were just as deep. And it is something when a man who’s wearing a suit that obviously would take you several weeks salary to purchase, hands you something with two hands in the Confucian practice of establishing the social hierarchy.

    These other societies outstrip us in education because they revere education and the educators. So here, here, to Dr. Slammy’s proposal.

  7. JSO: You’re right – communication is useless on its own. Whatever efficacy it has relates to how effectively it gets across the REALITY of something else. Incentives – yes, indeedy. Which is why we have to show results. People have to SEE that education is in fact a way up….

  8. Jackpine: Yup – you’re right on the money. As a professor I have been treated with respect, but my American students have rarely accorded me the same level of regard that I saw with international (esp. Asian) students.

    And think about this. I have a PhD, but when I’m in a business context not only do I not make a big deal about it, I sometimes hide it because I know that it can be taken as a NEGATIVE. I don’t do that when dealing with Europeans, though – for them a business person with a PhD is highly regarded.

    I don’t need people to worship me according to how many letters I have after my name, but these are symptoms and they DO tell us something, don’t they?

  9. Hello Doc,

    I didn’t mean some sort of future “seeing.” If Hawthorn taugth us anything, it’s that meaningful incentives and quick, accurate feedback loops actually get results. If your plank is going to accomplish what you want it to, I believe that you’re going to have to give some thought to fundamental structural incentives immediately.

  10. I like to think my plan does that, but maybe I haven’t articulated it clearly enough yet. In any case, you sound like a man with some specific thoughts on the subject.

  11. What incentives? What results? What kind of long-term benefits would be the most convincing, and how do you demonstrate them? Waiting for more…

    And I am very, very glad to know that changing the anti-intellectual apathy toward education in this country is your starting point – because until that shift at least begins to happen, nothing else will.

  12. Doc,

    I admit that I’m not familiar with every aspect of your plan, but I haven’t seen specific changes that I believe will get you where you want to go … yet. That doesn’t mean they’re not out there waiting to be sprung. But perhaps it would be useful to have some examples of what I mean. Please note that this sort of thing requires very careful thought and research before it’s wise to put mere notions into effect. We can’t completely curb the law of unintended consequences, but we can sure reduce that law’s rather vicious bite.

    The first thing we should think of doing is defining exactly what the hell we want out of an education. When a young woman or man graduates college, what skills should they have? Which of those skills are specific to a course of study and which are general and valuable skills useful in all walks of life? Until that is done, I think you’ve got exactly nothing. If we don’t know where we’re going, we’re pretty certain never to get there (or to think pretty much any place is “there”).

    I’ll throw out some general skills I think we should have in our college grads:

    1. A highly developed ability to identify and reject logical fallacies in any argument.
    2. The ability to determine which factors are useful in evaluating solutions to a problem, which are not, and when there are not enough factors to reach a reasonable conclusion.
    3. A demonstrated ability to produce workable, creative solutions when presented with a problem with complex factors and many uncertainties, using probabilities and the ability to tease out meaning as guides.
    4. Knowing what Occam’s razor is and how to use it.
    5. In-depth knowledge of human psychology and how it clouds decision-making, and how to guard against it.
    6. A strong understanding of what science is, what it is not, and how it works to short-circuit unhelpful intellectual patterns ingrained in the structure of our brains.
    7. Enough knowledge of cultural anthropology, mass behavior, communication theory, and the like to be able to break down and address problems having to do with norms of behavior across cultural systems.
    8. A demonstrated and strong ability to think and write clearly.

    We can test for all those things and, if the tests are designed well, we can reward for those things and punish when those things are absent.

    As a model, let’s suppose that you, Doc, when you’re President, put together a broad-based group to derive these standards and devise tests for them for our institutions of higher learning. You do this to “let the public know what sort of value they’re getting” for their money, and to determine which institutions deserve the most federal dollars for both research and financial aid. Federal dollar distribution will depend on two factors: 1) the raw results of the tests for all undergrads and 2) the improvement over four years. This will keep the Harvards and Yales of the world from running off with all the federal dollars because they’re able to recruit the most able kids.

    And, of course, you have put these standards together with the aid of employers and will make them available to employers.

    Now, you’ve created an incentive for universities to give more and better aid to those kids who have, or are likely to, score high on these tests. You’ve given them an incentive to reinstitute core curricula aimed specifically at building and testing for these skills. The kids getting the free rides to college will become heroes and heroines. Parents will begin screaming for their high schools to build a curriculum that will inculcate these skills in their children, from elementary school through high school.

    As a next step, you can hold a national contest in which teams of students from various colleges compete for $5 billion or so in prize money. The contest, naturally, would test these skills that we want. People who tune in would turn these kids into celebrities, and get an education in the meantime, as they begin to learn about logical fallacies and the like.

    Employers would begin to tout the virtues of kids with these skills as it becomes clear to them (as it WOULD) that entry-level people who do well on the tests tend to become productive and excellent employees very early on, and learn and advance quickly. Soon, the employers stop coming to universities that do a bad job with these skills and focus on those doing a good job. The pressure is turned up on all colleges and, therefore, public schools systems to turn out people with these skills.

    You, then, as President, respond to this demand with focused research on learning, resources for automation as needed and useful, increased pay for teachers if necessary, and the like. You ride a wave of demand created by a growing awareness that certain skills are extraordinarily useful in our society, and that good education is the way to get them.

    Now, I can see some drawbacks to all this, already. We turn up the pressure on students. That may be a good thing to a degree, and a bad thing if it gets out of hand. If the tests are bad, the results are bad. What gets measured gets done, so be careful what and how you measure.

    There’s no perfect answer, Doc, but I strongly beleive that any answer that has a prayer of turning out useful results needs to be systemic and needs to be embedded into the structural reward and punishment system.

  13. Thanks Jeff. Much appreciated. Wish what I wrote had sparked more comment. In my experience, ideas are pretty useless until stressed and refined … or even overturned.

    Thanks again.

  14. thought i’d add some background references; as to the actual nature of the education beast. John Taylor Gatto is a veteran teacher out of NY Pub system. His online/free book details the “by Design” lumbering, slobbering monster we see today. i concur w/the sentiment….. it will take more than one generation to recoup our losses, if ever.

    J.T. Gatto
    Underground History of American Edu.
    http://www.johntaylorgatto.com/chapters/index.htm
    chap 8
    Plato’s Guardians

    —when the ultimate source of overproduction in products and services was the overproduction of minds by American libertarian schooling and the overproduction of characters capable of the feat of production in the first place? As long as such a pump existed to spew limitless numbers of independent, self-reliant, resourceful, and ambitious minds onto the scene, who could predict what risk to capital might strike next? To minds capable of thinking cosmically like Carnegie’s, Rockefeller’s, Rothschild’s, Morgan’s, or Cecil Rhodes’, real scientific control of overproduction must rest ultimately on the power to constrain the production of intellect. Here was a task worthy of immortals. Coal provided capital to finance it.

    Through the dependence of the all on the few, an instrument of management and of elite association would be created far beyond anything ever seen in the past. This powerful promise was, however, fragilely balanced atop the need to homogenize the population and all its descendant generations.1 A mass production economy can neither be created nor sustained without a leveled population, one conditioned to mass habits, mass tastes, mass enthusiasms, predictable mass behaviors. The will of both maker and purchaser had to give way to the predestinated output of machinery with a one-track mind.

    Nothing posed a more formidable obstacle than the American family. Traditionally, a self-sufficient production unit for which the marketplace played only an incidental role, the American family grew and produced its own food, cooked and served it; made its own soap and clothing. And provided its own transportation, entertainment, health care, and old age assistance. It entered freely into cooperative associations with neighbors, not with corporations. If that way of life had continued successfully—as it has for the modern Amish—it would have spelled curtains for corporate society.

  15. JSO:

    Sorry to take so long to get back to this. Excellent thoughts on your part. If I’m elected, would you like to be in my cabinet?

    So, some specifics:

    The first thing we should think of doing is defining exactly what the hell we want out of an education.

    Agreed, and I think it’s important to view this question not in the way we Americans too often do – either/or – but instead as a both/and.

    1. A highly developed ability to identify and reject logical fallacies in any argument.

    Yep. We need to cultivate strong critical skills all around, and this is an area where way too few people are skilled, to the detriment of the the Republic.

    2. The ability to determine which factors are useful in evaluating solutions to a problem, which are not, and when there are not enough factors to reach a reasonable conclusion.

    3. A demonstrated ability to produce workable, creative solutions when presented with a problem with complex factors and many uncertainties, using probabilities and the ability to tease out meaning as guides.

    Again, agreed. Our businesses are, within another ten years or so, going to be screaming due to the lack of problem-solving skills in the workforce. But it goes durther than that. Even in your private life things get insanely complicated if you don’t have the faculty for figuring out novel problems. Our current teach-to-the-test system is okay at producing people who can replicate what they’ve been shown how to do, but what happens when they encounter something they’ve never seen before?

    So problem-solving, innovation, resourcefulness, good old-fashioned American ingenuity.

    4. Knowing what Occam’s razor is and how to use it.

    Heh. I joke about a thing I call “Slammy’s Razor,” which posits that the simplest explanation is frequently that people aren’t very smart. This is a bad sort of joke for a presidential candidate, I know, but daily life provides very little proof that it’s wrong… 🙂

    5. In-depth knowledge of human psychology and how it clouds decision-making, and how to guard against it.

    This could be accomplished – or at least advanced – with very little effort, I’d think. Most colleges have social science divisional requirements, so there’s a framework in place already that you could leverage.

    6. A strong understanding of what science is, what it is not, and how it works to short-circuit unhelpful intellectual patterns ingrained in the structure of our brains.

    I might move this to the very top of the list. As we see around S&R from time to time, Americans have precious little grasp of how science works and that leads us into all kinds of foolishness.

    7. Enough knowledge of cultural anthropology, mass behavior, communication theory, and the like to be able to break down and address problems having to do with norms of behavior across cultural systems.

    Maybe this, coupled with #5 above, become part of the standing mission of universities in crafting their curricular requirements?

    Of course, these kinds of requisites will be greeted poorly by students in more vocational tracks if they aren’t very carefully conceived. Maybe we need to address some of this in high school instead of college?

    8. A demonstrated and strong ability to think and write clearly.

    [sigh] Yeah, and sadly, we have already cut an entire generation adrift on this count. In the college I taught at most recently, the undergrad who could do this not only wasn’t the rule, he or she was a fairly rare exception. They arrive at college with zero capability, by and large, and professors are then asked to abandon the process of higher learning in favor of remedial skills training. Denny and I have argued how much ground we’ve lost in recent years. Last we talked he said two years – that is, college seniors are about where sophomores were a few years back. I think he’s being generous – my sense is that the average millennial is a good four years off the pace set by Gen X, and we were probably less capable than the Boomers were, although I’m not sure how much. What I do know is this. My grandmother was born in 1914 and was forced to drop out of school in 9th grade. But she possessed basic writing skills that set her way beyond nearly every undergrad I taught at my last school.

    We can test for all those things and, if the tests are designed well, we can reward for those things and punish when those things are absent.

    Yeah, but you have to throw resources at the problem. Some of this you can address with technology, but when it comes to something like critical thinking, that’s going to be pretty labor-intensive, don’t you think? Not that I have a problem with that – I think we need to throw a lot more good people at the problem.

    As a model, let’s suppose that you, Doc, when you’re President, put together a broad-based group to derive these standards and devise tests for them for our institutions of higher learning. You do this to “let the public know what sort of value they’re getting” for their money, and to determine which institutions deserve the most federal dollars for both research and financial aid. Federal dollar distribution will depend on two factors: 1) the raw results of the tests for all undergrads and 2) the improvement over four years. This will keep the Harvards and Yales of the world from running off with all the federal dollars because they’re able to recruit the most able kids.

    Okay, but I think you have to hit the elementary levels hard, too. I’m thinking about your thoughts not too long ago on the massive rewards we’d realize from simply boosting early-age reading programs. I know you aren’t ruling that out – I’m just noting that I think elementary is going to be critical.

    And, of course, you have put these standards together with the aid of employers and will make them available to employers.

    Yes, although it’s going to be clear that we’re insisting on standards that many employers will probably not care about. I want their buy-in, but we’re not making our national ed system an adjunct of the corporate training mission, either. They might not care about programs in the arts. I do.

    What gets measured gets done, so be careful what and how you measure.

    As you know, I’m sensistive to the words “measure” and “test.” We’ll measure and test, of course, but what we evaluate and how we do so is going to change from our present standardization model. I want more qualitative assessment and I want a model that not only pays attention to bottom-line requisites, it accounts for those sigma=3+ cases. In other words, we’re going to invest in genius, too.

    Again, excellent thinking. Thanks for taking the time to lay this out.

  16. Doc,

    Thanks for the response. It wasn’t necessary, but it is appreciated.

    Some responses of my own:

    5. In-depth knowledge of human psychology and how it clouds decision-making, and how to guard against it.

    This could be accomplished – or at least advanced – with very little effort, I’d think. Most colleges have social science divisional requirements, so there’s a framework in place already that you could leverage.

    Actually, I think this will take quite a bit of effort. I’m not talking about one survey course, here. Human nature, by its nature, presents very strong imperatives. It can be governed by the intellect, but only with great effort and great skills. What I have in mind is weaving experiential realization of the limitations of human nature throughout students’ lives, so that correcting for these limitations becomes second nature.

    Of course, these kinds of requisites will be greeted poorly by students in more vocational tracks if they aren’t very carefully conceived. Maybe we need to address some of this in high school instead of college?

    I think the marketplace will take care of any resistance. First off, I DO believe that all these things should be woven into curricula from an early age, and as experientially as possible. But I also recognize the legal limitations of the federal government when it comes to dictating curriculum. What I’ve tried to devise is an incentive system that makes schools systems fall in line for very good reason: external demands.

    IF the outcomes and measurement of those outcomes really matter to employers (and if they don’t, this initiative would be bound to fail), then we can exempt vocational-track students from the requirements that they take these courses, but make them take the test, all the same. If they do poorly, and employers notice, they will clamor for more instruction in these areas. To me, an engineer who doesn’t have the skills I’ve outlined, above, is not a very valuable employee beyond the very basics of designing sub-assembly B of assembly A for upper fastener of the rudder. Useful, but ultimately a dead end when competing against people with higher-order thinking skills.

    As for high school, please note that what I’m proposing should, if done properly, cascade down through school systems because of parent and societal demand. I’m not leaving high schools out of this.

    Yeah, but you have to throw resources at the problem. Some of this you can address with technology, but when it comes to something like critical thinking, that’s going to be pretty labor-intensive, don’t you think? Not that I have a problem with that – I think we need to throw a lot more good people at the problem.

    Imagine that technology is used to teach some reading skills (already being done and working very well), some math skills, etc. Wouldn’t that free up a great deal of faculty time to teach higher-order skills?

    Okay, but I think you have to hit the elementary levels hard, too. I’m thinking about your thoughts not too long ago on the massive rewards we’d realize from simply boosting early-age reading programs. I know you aren’t ruling that out – I’m just noting that I think elementary is going to be critical.

    Oh, I still agree entirely that elementary education is where it’s at. If a kid can’t read at grade level by the 4th grade, the chances that kid will ever do well at any intellectual endeavor decrease in a criminally dramatic way. And when I use the word “criminally,” I meant it with its double meaning.

    If designed correctly, I believe that a system like this will drive demand to push all these outcomes right down the curriculum, and not only to the kindergarten level, but potentially to the educational daycare level, as well. What I’ve been trying to recognize, here, is that the presidency is not a blank check to make law, and even Congress has constitutional limitations. Any presidential initiative must be designed to work in ways that create demand for exactly what the President wants to happen.

    In other words, sneakiness can be very useful.

    Yes, although it’s going to be clear that we’re insisting on standards that many employers will probably not care about. I want their buy-in, but we’re not making our national ed system an adjunct of the corporate training mission, either. They might not care about programs in the arts. I do.

    I disagree with an underlying premise, here. I don’t believe that any of the skills I outlined, above, would be something employers don’t care about. And when it comes to creating workable, creative solutions and teasing meaning out of complexity, what training could be more valuable than the arts?

    In no way am I trying to shortchange the arts. In fact, I think it’s quite possible that the arts would get renewed emphasis if the desired outcomes are some of the skills I presented above, and other skills I haven’t thought of.

    As you know, I’m sensistive to the words “measure” and “test.” We’ll measure and test, of course, but what we evaluate and how we do so is going to change from our present standardization model. I want more qualitative assessment and I want a model that not only pays attention to bottom-line requisites, it accounts for those sigma=3+ cases. In other words, we’re going to invest in genius, too.

    I don’t disagree about subjective evaluation. How can one evaluate the quality in thinking, creative solutions, and problem-solving when confronting a very complex problem except subjectively or, if you prefer, qualitatively.

    But let me come back to one of my first tenets, a bit restated: If you don’t know what you want, you are unlikely to get it. If you don’t know how to measure whether you’re getting what you want, you are unlikely to get it.

    Finally, if other people don’t want what you do, any ultra-large-scale attempt at culture change is doomed to failure.

    Make them want what you do, Doc. I really think it’s the only way.

Leave us a reply. All replies are moderated according to our Comment Policy (see "About S&R")

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s