Monday, April 25, 2016

The opportunity costs of education

I had to look up the term "opportunity cost" today.  I remember learning it when I did A Level Economics, but many years later it wasn't a term that had stuck.  I guess it was something I'd put in temporary storage until I took my exams, and then promptly dumped out.  The reason I thought about it today was because I read a section in Ted Dintersmith's Most Likely To Succeed, and because I had a conversation with a couple of colleagues about having to push somewhat irrelevant standards into our curriculum.

Dintersmith's chapter on K-12 education contains the following paragraph:
Our choice is stark.  We can continue training kids to be proficient at low-level routine tasks and to memorize content they won't remember on topics they'll never use.  Or we can embrace the reality that much of what school is about today can be "outsourced" to a smartphone, freeing up time for kids to immerse themselves in challenges.
The conversation I was having today was about the necessity of pushing a science standard about stars into the first grade programme of inquiry.  Nowhere in first grade to do we currently do anything about the stars.  Interestingly enough, a couple of weeks ago I was in Goa with my daughter.  It was a clear night and sitting on the beach we could see the constellation Orion right above us.  I knew it was Orion, because when I was a child one of my brothers was very interested in astronomy.  He had a telescope, and I remember we used to lie out on the lawn in the back garden and look at the stars through it.  Any knowledge I have of the stars today comes from that time.  I can recognize a handful of constellations - those that were in the sky over the UK during the part of the year where it's possible to lie on the grass outside (probably summer and early autumn).  I was probably about 11, and he would have been 10.  I never learned about the stars at school, and to be honest today I asked myself how relevant this knowledge might be to a 6 year old, living in Mumbai, who can't see the sky at night in a big city.  The quotation above really struck me.

When I lived in Switzerland I didn't know the names of any mountains.  Yet I had an app on my iPhone called Swiss Peaks which, when I pointed it at a mountain, would tell me its name and information about it.  I thought about whether our first graders really needed to know about the stars, or whether in fact there were apps that they could use - if they were interested - to identify stars and constellations.  In fact I found one called SkyView which is free.  You simply point your iPhone or iPad at the sky and it will identify stars, constellations, satellites and more.  Whereas when we were children, we had a cardboard Star Map that we rotated around to let us know which constellations would be visible in the night sky, now we have an app that will do the same thing - and will also let us identify the International Space Station and Hubble passing overhead.  I thought a little more about the opportunity cost of teaching students about stars, as opposed to simply teaching them how to use an app, and I thought a lot about Dintersmith's quote.  So these, according to Dintersmith, could be the opportunity costs of shoving a load of irrelevant facts and standards at students and assessing them on "one specific answer" to ensure they have mastered the standards.  Here is what they could be missing out on:

  • learning how to learn - he argues this is the simple most important skill that a student can develop
  • learning how to communicate effectively - which includes speaking, making a video, writing a blog and so on
  • learning how to collaborate productively and effectively with others
  • learning how to problem solve creatively
  • learning how to manage failure, cope with setbacks and handle the criticism of others (when there is just one right answer teachers and students are often discouraged from trying anything that might not work)
  • learning how to effect change
  • learning how to make sound decisions
  • learning how to manage projects and achieve goals
  • learning how to build perseverance and determination (attributes that are more important than IQ in determining adult success and well-being)
  • discovering what their passions are and using them to make the world a better place
What do you think is more important?  What are the opportunity costs of your education system?

Photo Credit: Michael Bolognesi via Compfight cc

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