Three-Layer Blog

Robert Scoble pointed to Dan Gillmor blogging behind him at the Camden conference; Dan's Web log mentions Donald Norman mentioning an essay he wrote; I have a comment on that essay. (Thought I'd never get there.)

Norman's essay, in brief, is that our educational system promotes individual, competition-based learning and analysis, where the real world promotes cooperative, colleague-influenced collaboration. He's right. But where he leaves off is that we need experts: the school system encourages the individual to master things through competition. Cooperative learning (which he says is mostly labeled cheating) doesn't necessarily promote each individual's ability to become minor experts. This system of education eventually routes people into specialization. Without specialization, we don't have progress, which is an arguable benefit, though I'm alive because of it. Competition plus specialization equals advancement.

A related point is that not every student can become an expert. It would be more appropriate and sensitive to figure out a student's style of learning and help them fill in the gaps where they're weakest, but also recognize multiple modes of learning, as Norman suggests, and allow students who work in different environments to not be entirely penalized for their mode.

We shouldn't encourage bad learning or bad teaching, but open ourselves to many kinds of intelligence. When I was younger, as an intellectual, I disparaged in a condescending way intelligence that didn't conform to my own. After all, my kind of intelligence got me through Yale and it runs the world. Just as the victors write history, so, too, does the most economically successive intelligence select for itself.

In many countries in Europe, the educational system is divided into multiple parts: some people track to academic high school and university; others, to more practical schools; others, to the trades (sometimes the last two are the same). We don't honor apprencticeship here except in certain unions. My brother, for instance, is a steamfitter, and he apprenticed for years and moved up through union categories to the top level he's at today. It's a hard, detail-oriented, technical job he performs - and it pays well.

Why shouldn't student be encouraged in the direction in which they are most capable while being challenged in the directions they are not - rather than being failed in the directions they are not?