The Knowledge Metric in Education

EducationHead

Higher education is asking itself some big questions and making substantive changes to the way it sees itself and produces value for society. Education is increasingly being rationalized, which calls into question the metrics that are being used to judge how resources should be allocated. In a previous post, I looked at the jobs metric. Now, it’s time to look at the knowledge metric.

Just the facts

Education writer and teacher Will Richardson‘s TED Book Why School is a provocative read for those connected to teaching or just interested in schooling. While it focuses largely on grade school, the issues are the same for universities and colleges particularly as the primary and secondary students of today are tomorrow’s graduate and professional learners. Richardson questions the role of the school as institution in its current form suggesting that if the status quo — one characterized an information delivery warehouse — is maintained there is little need for schools to exist at all. Yet, if the education within schools is focused on asking better questions and learning when to apply knowledge, not just what knowledge to apply, there is hope.

The current trend in school reform is towards Common Core Standards, which emphasizes specific forms of knowledge, ‘facts’ and asks that students be able to recall such content when required. Under this model, the role of the teacher is one of content manager and facilitator rather than guide or mentor and students are prepped for the tests of their knowledge (memory) rather than be asked to demonstrate its application to anything outside of the test.  It is this model that many proponents of online education embrace, because the Internet is a fabulous content delivery system and education can be literally programmed and delivered to students directly without the ‘noise’ that teachers introduce to the signal. Under this model, educational content can be delivered cheaply and widely to support uniform intended effects among learners.

Richardson argues for reforming schools to something closer to the alternative model that was advanced by educational reformer and philosopher John Dewey. Richardson writes:

“In this version of reform, schools and classrooms are seen as nodes in a much larger learning network that expands far beyond local walls. Students are encouraged to connect with others, and to collaborate and create with them on a global scale. It’s not “do your own work,” so much as “do work with others, and make it work that matters.” To paraphrase Tony Wagner, assessments focus less on what students know, and more on what they can do with what they know. And, as Dewey espoused, school is “real life,” not simply a place to take courses, earn grades, amass credits, and compete against others for recognition. There lies the tension.

This second path is simply not as easy to quantify as the first. Developing creativity, persistence, and the skills for patient problem solving, B.S.-detecting, and collaborating may now be more important than knowing the key dates and battles of the Civil War (after all, those answers are just a few taps on our phones away), but they’re all much more difficult to assign a score to. I’m not saying that a foundation of content knowledge isn’t still important. To communicate, function, and reason in the world, students need effective reading and writing skills, as well as a solid foundation in math, science, history, and more. But I’m convinced we must revise the overreaching coursework requirements we place on students — requirements created at a time of scarcity, by the way. And we desperately need to revisit the thinking we’ve developed around assessment that, as Harvard researcher Justin Reich says, “optimizes the measurable at the risk of neglecting the immeasurable.””

Facts vs Problems

The knowledge metric is flawed because it assumes that content solves problems. It also presumes that the curriculum teaches the right knowledge for the right problems and that those problems can be known in advance. Let’s look at these.

One need only look to cigarette smoking as an example of how knowledge alone doesn’t always solve or prevent problems. One would be hard pressed to find anyone over the age of five who doesn’t know that sticking a lit tube of anything in their mouth and sucking on it isn’t at least somewhat unhealthy (and most know it is very unhealthy). An individual’s knowledge of smoking’s effects on physical health may not be complete, but it is often sufficient to inform the decision to quit or not start the unhealthy habit. And yet, citizens in highly educated countries like the United States, Canada and the U.K. smoke more than 1000 cigarettes per year per capita (and over 2700 per capita in places like Russia). These are not countries lacking in information on tobacco and health.

Using students’ ability to recall content makes the presumption that what is contained in a curriculum is what they need to know when they leave their program of study (at least as a start). While it may be somewhat true for students in the humanities and languages, it becomes highly problematic for those in dynamic fields or emergent areas of practice, which is becoming more normal than rare. There is no doubt that a corpus of key concepts, skills and ‘facts’ is useful, but the manner in which this knowledge can and may be applied is changing dramatically. For example, social media has upended communications in ways that very few health professionals are trained for. Journalists are particularly aware of the role that Twitter and related tools have had on their profession.

It also presumes that the content itself is relatively static. Certainly, curriculum renewal is something that most learning institutions engage in, but the primacy of content itself as the driver of education also assumes that the foundation for that knowledge is solid and can be applied today in the manner it was applied yesterday. In dynamic conditions, that isn’t often true. Further, the relevance of knowledge is framed by the problems to which that knowledge is applied. Genetic information, for example, can be incredibly useful when framed against tests that have high confidence, predictability and value to people, yet without such a context it is largely useless to those non-scientists who have it.

Areas of social innovation — which are expanding dramatically in number and scope — illustrate the problem of changing context well. This is a field characterized by problems, problem solving and novelty (which is what innovation is all about). Standard approaches don’t apply easily or at all when we are faced with high levels of novelty. Thinking and re-thinking the problem frame, knowing what to find, where to find it, and the skills to integrate relevant knowledge together is something that is not captured in the knowledge metric. Yet, it is those skills that will lead innovation. Knowledge translation professionals know this and so do knowledge brokers.

Are we designing our educational programming to advance on the kind of design issues of problem framing, finding and solving that our world is facing? Or are we simply taking content that can be obtained through books, the Internet and other materials, repackaging it and creating expensive warehouses of information that take learners out of the world and out of context in the process?

I don’t suggest that universities and continuing education programs stop delivering content, but if knowledge is the metric by which they are judging their success then it behooves educational administrators and funders to justify why they can do it better than other tools. What made sense when content was a rare commodity makes little today when it is overflowing in abundance for little or no cost. Universities and post-graduate training programs have an opportunity to re-imagine education and have the tools to do it in a way that makes learning more powerful and relevant for the 21st century should they choose to change their metrics of success.

Designing education

How might we take the enormous talent trust that exists among university faculty (and their students) who co-locate (physically, virtually or in some combination) in a school and develop the skills to not only address problems of today, but prepare everyone for possible challenges in the future?

How might we integrate what we know, identify the knowledge we need, and create systems to take advantage of the talent and creativity of individuals to make universities, colleges, and post-professional training venues for innovation and inspiration rather than just content delivery vehicles?

What kind of metrics do we need to evaluate this kind of education should we choose to develop it?

These are questions whose answers might yield more learning than those focused on what knowledge students have when they graduate.

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Image source: Shutterstock.

5 Comments on “The Knowledge Metric in Education

  1. As in so many things, I agree with Cameron. Context over content is proven by leading US universities like Harvard and MIT (and others) who routinely give away content free on the internet by broadcasting their lectures. Anyone can consume the content of a Harvard lecture. It is the context of being at Harvard and discussing the lecture in class and in seminars with students and other scholars that differentiates the educational experience. The content is given away as a lost leader to attract the brightest faculty, students and staff to go to Harvard and benefit from the context.

  2. Cameron, I agree with your underlying premise and I am glad to see a reference to the work of John Dewey. I have one concern. Although I have not read the writings of Will Richardson I work with several people who have, and their understanding leaves me perplexed. The quote you used above used the term b.s detecting in problem solving and I do not see evidence of that in some of the people I work with. It is business as usual, albeit the frame for that business is outdated from the 19th Century. We have prettied it up with digital technology poorly chosen and implemented and called it reform. It is the simply change-for-the-sake-of change ordered from ivory towers and theoretical stances that have little to do with schools or learning. Where we do implement effective problem solving as part of our pedagogical structure and consider context we shift into learning that Ellen Langer of Harvard has referred to as mindful.

    • Thanks for your comment. Without knowing Will Richardson personally, I interpret his comment as being one related to being critical thinkers and the kind of communicators needed to express this critical thought into ways that stimulate further discussion. His argument is that if school is about conveying the right facts to students, then we are perhaps poorly served by schools given that we can supplant that with technology for the most part. If we are teaching people to think critically, in context, and understand when to ask questions, we are doing something else.

      There are many teachers who do this and they do it because they put the effort in to be good teachers, maybe have great skill, an ethic of learning well-suited to education, but not because the system supports that. That is what concerns me. If we leave it to individual teachers to cultivate that at the same time we create the conditions that make it so hard and stressful for teachers to do their best work, for educational administrators to lead (and be followed) that we reduce the likelihood that we can create good knowledge and great learning. That’s the sad part of this story.

      I appreciate you taking the time to comment and thanks for your remarks.

      • I agree with you Cameron about leaving it up to individual teachers although we should not limit their individual innovation and creativity. Margaret Wheatley, in her new book, spoke about the need to think about the impact individuals can or cannot make on the world.

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