Sunday, January 22, 2012

Larry Summers Opines about the Future of Education: A response

Larry Summers, former President of Harvard and former member of both the Clinton and Obama Administrations has told us his thoughts on education in a recent article in the New York Times.

Let’s look at what he has to say about the future of education. He makes six points. I will consider them one by one.
  1. Education will be more about how to process and use information and less about imparting it. 
The naivete of this statement coming from a former President of Harvard is astounding. How exactly, Professor Summers do you expect that that this will happen? Will professors suddenly stop lecturing? Will classrooms cease to hold hundreds of students? Will Harvard no longer offer courses that are ‘Introduction to Whatever?” Will students no longer accumulate credits in order to graduate? Because if none of those things change, Harvard will continue to be about imparting information. Professors like to lecture. One of the primary reasons they like lecturing is that it requires very little effort and they can spend most of their time on research. Unless Harvard decides to no longer value research as its top priority in the hiring of faculty the incentives will not change. If the incentives for faculty do not change, students will continue to be treated like bodies in the seats in all but the most advanced classes, And, as any professor or can tell you, that means talking at them. 
Further, you are assuming that faculty actually know how to use the information they teach. Unless faculty spend serious amounts of time as practitioners in the real world, which the vast majority of them do not, the actual use of what is done with the information they have taught is typically unknown to them. Ask your faculty what students do with the information they have learned at Harvard after they graduate and see if you get any realistic answers. The faculty typically doesn't know.
2. An inevitable consequence of the knowledge explosion is that tasks will be carried out with far more collaboration

I am sure that is true. Now let’s think about Harvard. The kids who get into Harvard have learned to do everything but cooperate in order to get into Harvard and in order to succeed at Harvard. They fight to be number one in their classes in high school. They kill themselves to win the SAT competition. They cram for tests night and day all through school. At Harvard cooperation isn’t quite the right description. Anyone who saw ‘The Social Network” (the movie about Facebook) got the idea what really goes on when a new project is being worked on at Harvard. And, professors don’t really like cooperation because then they can’t figure out which member of the team really deserved which grade. As long as there are grades and tests and valedictorians there won’t be much cooperation. The workplace may well need it. Harvard isn’t teaching it. Neither, I might add, is the government for which you toiled all those years. Even Obama’s cabinet, of which you were a part, couldn’t cooperate which is more or less why you are no longer part of it as I understand it.
3. New technologies will profoundly alter the way knowledge is conveyed. Electronic readers allow textbooks to be constantly revised, and to incorporate audio and visual effects. 
Wow. You are so out of touch that you don’t even realize that textbooks wouldn’t exist at all if it weren’t for the constant lobbying efforts of textbook manufacturers. Textbooks are very last century. We have them because legislators can’t and won’t stop their sale. Most faculty use them to avoid teaching. Students mostly ignore them in any case no matter how many glitzy pictures they may now have in them. 
You are right that new technologies will alter the way learning happens but not because they will alter how knowledge is conveyed. That whole idea that knowledge is conveyed is exactly the problem. Knowledge was conveyed by Monks when they were the only ones who could read, so they lectured about what they had read. The fact that faculty still do this in the modern era is ridiculous. No one can remember very much of what they heard in a lecture.
And, it isn’t the conveying of knowledge that is the issue in education in any case. Real education means helping students attain new abilities, enabling them to do new things. And, yes, new technologies can and will help that happen, but that will happen by bypassing the existing university system unless that system decides to adapt to the new technologies, an unlikely event at Harvard I would think.
4. “Active learning classrooms” — which cluster students at tables, with furniture that can be rearranged and integrated technology — help professors interact with their students through the use of media and collaborative experiences. 
Really isn’t that a nice idea?  The last two Administrations, in one of which you had plenty of opportunity to speak, has basically killed that idea and replaced it by testing testing and more testing so that no one does anything but memorize. How dare you quote ideas from cognitive science when all that has happened in the last 12 years is the ignoring of those ideas in favor of more rote learning?
5. The world is much more open, and events abroad affect the lives of Americans more than ever before.
So? Is that going to make Harvard’s Psychology department stop teaching statistics and how to run an experiment? Is that going to make Harvard’s Computer Science department stop teaching theoretical computer science? There are already plenty of study abroad programs and language courses at Harvard.
6. Courses of study will place much more emphasis on the analysis of data.
Now this is just silly. Scientists have always relied on data. Baseball owners haven’t so maybe you are right about Moneyball. You leave out the absurd use of data like the article in the Times written by Harvard Economists 
saying how testing is relevant to evaluating teachers, an article that relied on the assumption that test scores were important in the first place.
I feel obligated to say that for someone who ran a university you really don’t know much about education. I offered some years ago to help you learn about education (through a mutual friend) but you weren’t interested. Maybe you should stop writing about a subject you don’t understand and go back to economics, a subject nobody understands.