Tuesday, April 09, 2013

You Won't Save Middle Class Jobs with Talk About Teaching Motivation

A few days ago, Thomas Friedman took a kernel of truth and attempted to run much too far with it. At this point there is immense downward pressure on middle class incomes and job security, and in many fields - particularly those likely to offer the best wages - it is more important than ever to maintain an up-to-date skill set if you want to remain employed. I'm all for teaching students at all levels to be more entrepreneurial and about the expectations they are likely to face in a future job market. I question the conceit,
Now there is only a high-wage, high-skilled job. Every middle-class job today is being pulled up, out or down faster than ever. That is, it either requires more skill or can be done by more people around the world or is being buried — made obsolete — faster than ever.
Specifically, what middle class jobs are being pulled up? Also, frankly, the correlation between wages and "skill" is far less precise than Friedman assumes. If you have unusual skills that happen to be in demand, you are much more likely to get a job and a decent wage than you are if you have far more developed skills that happen to be in low demand or aren't materially different from the skill set held by the larger applicant pool. Part of the problem with telling workers, "You're responsible for your own career development" is that it's much easier to evolve skills that ultimately become commonplace or obsolete than it is to identify and master new skills on your own time and your own dime that your employer may not presently value but will ultimately prove to have significant value in the marketplace.

Friedman seems excited by the notion that knowledge is becoming unimportant,
I tracked ["education specialist Tony] Wagner down and asked him to elaborate. “Today,” he said via e-mail, “because knowledge is available on every Internet-connected device, what you know matters far less than what you can do with what you know. The capacity to innovate — the ability to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life — and skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration are far more important than academic knowledge.
Frankly, hearing a statement like that from a self-described "education specialist" would leave me looking for a new expert. Let's use a simple example from early elementary school - math facts. It is very difficult to progress in mathematical knowledge and skills without a mastery of basic math facts, because if you can't do simple math problems quickly in your head you will not develop the speed necessary to keep up with the rest of the class as lessons become more complex. Sorry, no, "You can use a calculator instead", is not an answer. First, if you need a calculator for basic math facts it's still going to slow you down. Second, it's a highly unusual person who succeeds in math-dependent fields who cannot do basic math problems in her head, and quickly solve problems that would confound most of the rest of us (we might not even know what information to punch into a calculator or how to order the operations) with pen and paper.

Friedman might object, "But math is different." But it's really not. You're not going to be a good lawyer unless you have a decent understanding of the legal principles you encounter. You're not going to be a good doctor unless you quickly recognize medical conditions and symptoms within your field of practice, and know how to perform a physical examination. Friedman's perspective is probably colored by his profession - few pundits have any meaningful subject matter expertise, so they spend much of their time aggregating information and whittling it down to column length. To some degree you might be able to get away with that as an "education expert" - you're not likely to be called upon for instant answers, and to the extent that your primary focus is on research and publication you're going to be drawing upon a broad variety of sources to produce your next paper. But even in that latter context, you need enough knowledge of your subject matter to know what has come before, as you're not going to successfully publish papers that betray a fundamental ignorance of the research that has been done in the past - and you can't trust Wikipedia to bring you up to speed.

But more than that, if you want to become good at grappling with a particular set of ideas or concepts, you need to actually wrestle with the facts. You can't learn or be taught how to be a good thinker without a framework. There's a reason that traditional education typically begins with a survey course - to provide students with the necessary foundation to understand more complex concepts and ideas. As much fun as it might be to pretend otherwise, "They can look it up on the Internet" isn't a substitute. If you don't learn the basics, you're going to end up in over your head.

There's something of a tension in Friedman's assertion,
My generation had it easy. We got to “find” a job. But, more than ever, our kids will have to “invent” a job.
As evidenced by his continued statement,
Sure, the lucky ones will find their first job, but, given the pace of change today, even they will have to reinvent, re-engineer and reimagine that job much more often than their parents if they want to advance in it.
First of all, there's no evidence that jobs are going away. No major employer is casting off its employees in favor of an all-independent contractor workforce. Nor is outsourcing key functions all it's cracked up to be - when Boeing attempted to minimize its in-house expertise and rely on contractors... disaster followed. One of Yahoo!'s recent steps to re-invigorate its corporate culture was to stop employees from working at home. If there's evidence that employers are moving away from the concept of "jobs" and "employees", it's well-hidden.

Second, Friedman's expansion upon his comment reveals what I previously suggested. The issue is much less, "There won't be jobs in the future," and much more, "If employers realize that your skills aren't special your earning capacity will flatten or decline, and if your employer decides that your skills are obsolete you'll probably be shown the door." More than that, while corporations might historically have helped employees update their skills or develop new skills, Friedman sees that cost and burden as being shifted to the employee. I think he's correct, but as with professionally managed pension funds vs. individual retirement accounts I think he's missing something important: the professionals have access to information and resources that allow them, on the whole, to better predict market trends and by scaling up their operations they can take advantage of efficiencies that should allow for better training at a lower cost. When you transform that into, "Every man for himself", no matter how well you try to prepare employees for their "self-managed" future you will see a great number of them flounder or drown.

Friedman continues by speaking of the importance of motivation, more specifically of "intrinsic motivation":
Young people who are intrinsically motivated — curious, persistent, and willing to take risks — will learn new knowledge and skills continuously.
That observation is, for lack of a better word platitudinous. Of course people who are intrinsically motivated to learn and expand their skills will do so. They always have and they always will. The problem is that the forces Friedman describes are extrinsic - they come from outside the worker. Fear of job loss can be a powerful motivator, but it's extrinsic. The statement only has significance if we can teach intrinsic motivation, but unfortunately that seems to be much more a component of personality than a product of a particular pedagogy.

Which is probably why, when asked how to produce more intrinsically motivated students, Friedman's expert may as well be clicking on a "mission statement generator":
“Teachers,” he said, “need to coach students to performance excellence, and principals must be instructional leaders who create the culture of collaboration required to innovate. But what gets tested is what gets taught, and so we need ‘Accountability 2.0.’ All students should have digital portfolios to show evidence of mastery of skills like critical thinking and communication, which they build up right through K-12 and postsecondary. Selective use of high-quality tests, like the College and Work Readiness Assessment, is important. Finally, teachers should be judged on evidence of improvement in students’ work through the year — instead of a score on a bubble test in May. We need lab schools where students earn a high school diploma by completing a series of skill-based ‘merit badges’ in things like entrepreneurship. And schools of education where all new teachers have ‘residencies’ with master teachers and performance standards — not content standards — must become the new normal throughout the system.”
To me, that sounds a lot like doubling down on the status quo (although if student work is assessed through the year rather than through high-stakes standardized testing, that would be a positive step)... but with badges. (Pieces of flair?) What's missing? Anything concrete. If I were the type of boss Friedman predicts for our collective futures, and somebody handed that statement to me as a meaningful reform proposal, he would quickly find himself testing his ability to invent his own job.

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