Different Enough

Would you ride in a driverless car?

Let’s say you’re in Pittsburgh or Phoenix and you call for an Uber. The car rolls up, and there’s no one inside. Do you get in?

04-research-vehicle-f-015-luxury-in-motion-mercedes-benz-680x379-deYour answer might depend on how the car is configured. If there is no driver, there is no need for a driver’s seat. If the car itself has no steering wheel, pedals, or other controls, does that make a difference? Actually, if no one is driving, it’s not even necessary for everyone to face the direction of travel. What if the seats inside were configured like a train or a limo, where they face each other? Does that make you more likely or less likely to get in?

On the other hand, maybe that’s too radical. Would you feel better if there were a robotic driver: a human-like machine that mimics the actions of a human driver? While it wouldn’t actually be necessary to make the car work, it would give the car a sense of familiarity that might make you more comfortable.

We like innovation. We want to use products and adopt ideas that show that we’re making progress. My new phone needs to be better than my old phone. New appliances have fancy features that outpace their predecessors. Cars have their steady march toward increased safety and comfort that make them more attractive than their predecessors. The new products have to be new enough that we get a sense that we’re not just throwing our money away on the same old thing.

But when manufacturers innovate too much, they lose the market. Many people wouldn’t consider the early smartphones that didn’t have physical keyboards. Tankless hot water systems haven’t caught on, despite their energy efficiency and convenient size. There’s little difference in driving performance between my current hybrid car and the gas one that it replaced, but the new one has has 50% better fuel economy. Still, you don’t see many of them on the road. They’re not quite familiar enough to gain traction.

Innovation has a sweet spot. If a new product is not different enough from what we already have, it is rejected for its banality. At the same time, if it’s too different, it’s rejected as too radical.

In social psychology, this idea is called optimal distinctiveness. In social groups, we want to be alike enough to be accepted as part of the group, but we also have a need for differentiation and individuality within the group and between different groups. Jonah Berger discussed this on a recent episode of Hidden Brain. The theory also explains why, for example, teens moved away from Facebook when their parents started signing up.

But looking at this through an institutional lens, it suggests that we can’t just scrap the cultural tradition of public education and start over. Imagine for a moment that we could reach some consensus on what it is that schools should be doing. There’s a magic list of, say, ten outcomes that students should have when they complete their schooling. We have a reasonable way of measuring those outcomes, and we can all more-or-less agree that successful schools are the ones whose students consistently meet those goals. (I know. We’re somewhere over in that ill-defined area between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. Don’t worry. We’re about to ride the teacups into Wonderland.)

Now further imagine that we know how to accomplish those goals. We have a defined strategy with predictable outcomes. We know how to most efficiently provide instruction to meet the defined goals, and we have proven intervention strategies that determine when students are struggling and provide the support they need to succeed.

The problem has been defined, and its solution has been articulated. But we still can’t do it. Whatever solution we come up with has to be optimally distinct. If we have a teacher standing at the front of the room delivering content to students, and the student answering questions and doing practice problems for homework, and a test every two weeks to determine what they’ve learned, then we aren’t being very groundbreaking. (I would also argue that we’re not getting beyond the recall and skill Depth of Knowledge levels). But if we throw out the idea that we’re working with 25 students in 45 minute blocks of time, then we are accused of adopting untested new education fads and using our children as guinea pigs.

So we’re walking this line of innovation. We’re keeping traditional classes, school calendars, and bell schedules. But teachers are leveraging technology to extend and expand learning beyond what can be accomplished in a 45 minute class period. We could provide wholly online courses, but our staff, students, parents, and school community are more comfortable with classes that meet face to face. We use short formative assessments to gauge student learning and adapt instruction to meet each student’s needs. In some cases, this process could be automated. But that pushes too hard on questioning the role of the teacher, and we have no intention of doing away with teachers.

I once proposed an idea for middle school where each team had a different focus. There would be an arts team and a STEM team. Both take the same core classes. Both have project-based curricula that focus on inquiry. The arts team would incorporate an emphasis on visual and performing arts, and would consider the academic subjects from that perspective. The stem team would focus on process, scientific method, and innovative design. The teams would always have some exposure to the other perspective, but the concentration would follow the passions of the student. Families would be able to pick which team best suits the student entering in sixth grade, and they’d follow that path for three years until going to high school.

The conversations about this idea are always good ones, but it’s really too different from our current approach to be practical. To get there, we need to focus on the smaller pieces first. Let’s spend some time trying to emphasize inquiry in some units in some courses. Let’s do some authentic project-based learning at each grade level, without totally transforming our school into a project-based learning center. We have to embrace the arts, and acknowledge the importance of stem. We have to make things different enough to be making real progress, but not so different that we don’t recognize our schools anymore.

Just different enough.

Photo credit: Mercedes F 015 concept car

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Coding != Career

Thirty years ago, when computers were still new, we didn’t know what to do with them. There was a sense — in that half generation between the widespread availability of computers and the advent of the Internet age — that the world was changing in fundamental ways. No one was sure what was really going on, but this was big. Really big.

Apple_II_plus[1]Schools bought computers because they thought children should be computer literate. They didn’t really know what that meant. They were struggling to prepare students for a world that no one understood. So they scraped together money from the media budget and grants and the PTA and they bought a few computers that they set up in a lab.  The digital age was here.

As students, we played a little Oregon Trail and Lemonade Stand. We practiced our math facts. And then, we learned BASIC programming.  Programming seemed… important. This was a skill we would need. Everyone would have a computer when we became adults. Everyone would need to know how to program it. Plus, the computers came with programming software. It was one of the few things we could do without buying additional software, and those costs weren’t anticipated when they bought the computers.

I learned BASIC in fifth grade, and by sixth I had forgotten it. I learned LOGO, but just the turtle parts of LOGO, not the really cool list handling stuff that made it a useful language. I learned to type on a typewriter, which I then used through high school. Computers didn’t help me learn other things. They were a subject all to themselves. Our school didn’t have enough of them to teach students much of anything about them. And they didn’t know what to teach us anyway. So after sixth grade, I didn’t use a computer again until I was a senior in high school, when I took programming (in Pascal, this time) for fun.

Half a decade later, I found myself with a minor in Systems Analysis and half a dozen different programming languages under my belt. I was teaching a middle school computer applications class. My predecessor had spent about 80% of the course teaching programming. Having no actual curriculum to follow, I scrapped all of it, and focused on applications instead. I felt that students needed to know more about word processing and spreadsheets and presentation software than BASIC.  A year later, I was emphasizing Internet research, evaluating online resources, documenting sources, and using the Internet to disseminate content. These were things my middle school students needed to know. They’re still things they need to know.

source-code-583537_640At the dawn of the new millennium, I was teaching a high school programming course. It was an elective. It was a neat class for students interested in programming. But students don’t need to take auto mechanics to drive a car. They don’t have to study structural engineering to work or live in a high-rise building. They don’t need a degree in economics to work at the bank. The course I taught was an introduction meant to spark interest in the field. I never felt like I was teaching a necessary (or even marketable) skill.

The early 2000s confirmed that. Remember The World is Flat? Friedman talked about going to the drive through fast food restaurant, and talking to someone in India or China to order your food, which you then pick up at the window. Auto companies were making tail light assemblies in the US, shipping them to Malaysia for cheap, unskilled labor to put the light bulbs in, and then shipping them back to go into new cars. Software companies were focusing their systems design efforts in the US, but outsourcing the routine coding to India.

Programming is an entry-level skill. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s the kind of position that is more “job” than “career”.  Sure. There’s a bubble right now, and programming skills are in demand. There are also some good reasons to teach programming, because it helps students learn logic, reasoning, and problem solving. But if schools are reacting to the media hype around coding by teaching programming to a generation of would-be programmers, they’re preparing students for a future of unemployment.

Image sources: Wikimedia Commons, Pixabay.