Bryan Caplan  

Magic Potencies on the Mind as Whole

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Has the Wall St. Journal Education Against Art...

Once a teacher admits that his lessons have little or no practical use, he usually retreats to the view that it doesn't matter what his students learn. The important thing is that students are "learning how to learn."

One thing I've been learning lately is that psychologists, under the heading of Transfer of Learning, have been empirically debunking this cliched rationalization for over a century. Here's a snappy quote from pioneer debunker Edward Thorndike:

Man has a veritable passion for keeping up habits merely because he has them; there are men who would rather beat a sick child than write "thru." In education man often excuses himself in these futile conservatisms by the hope that such cherished antique fads may have magic potencies on the mind as a whole.

Perhaps this is the first in a series of quotes from the Crusty Curmudgeons of Psychology...


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The author at Economic Investigations in a related article titled News of the World #30 writes:
    Though some may reach for the stars Others will end behind bars What the future has in store no one ever knows before Yet we would all like the right to find the key to success That elusive ray of light that will lead to happiness Flax tax extravaganz... [Tracked on April 7, 2007 1:35 PM]
COMMENTS (8 to date)
Bruce G Charlton writes:

I first read in Ernest Gellner the observation that as societies become more complex they spend longer in 'general' education and less in specifically job-orientated training. In the Middle Ages an apprenticeship used to take about 7 years, starting in early teens. There was little or no transfer between crafts, after the apprenticeship.

In modern societies like the US, general (multidiciplinary) education goes up into the twenties, then there is a much shorter period of specialization for a job. It looks as if the extra years of general education make it easier and quicker for people to learn their specific jobs, and to retrain for different jobs.

So I think it likely that there is indeed a generic educated ability which is 'transferable' in the sense of shortening the period of time needed for re-training.

Part of this is probably to do with attitudes (if you specialize from early teens it is psychologically tough even to imagine doing a different job). But I think there is a cognitive aspect as well. Formal education makes people more apt to learn a wide range of skills and more flexible to shift between skills.

However, I don't think there is any specific empirical evidence for this assertion, because I don't think people have thought about looking for it. You need the theory before you can make the right observations.

Daniel writes:

Two comments come to mind. First, the "learning how to learn" line of thinking is similar to the "it doesn't matter if you learned the information or not, just as long as you know where to find it" line of thinking. While information literacy is important, I stress to my students that they may not have time to look up the information, and while OpenOffice and Excel can calculate the present values, for example, you need to understand what the number means and what it implies for your decision at hand.

Second, I agree with Bruce. When one talks with employers, they generally say that they will teach specific skills. What employers need is students that can communicate well and have computer skills.

Assessment is a big issue for every accrediting body. Assessment has moved from does the organization teach what they say they teach to do the students learn what you say they have learned. Most assessment seminars suggest an approach similar to Covey's "7 habits," starting with the end in mind. For nearly every unit the student learning objectives start with communication skills, information literacy, and critical thinking. The objectives generally differ only in the specific knowledge of the field.

jp writes:

It strikes me that one way to approach an answer to some of these questions would be to compare home-schooling outcomes with in-school-schooling outcomes. The content and quantity of what home-schooled students are taught are probably much more variable than is the case with in-school students. I recall hearing somewhere that home-schooled students are on average more "successful" than in-school-schooled students.

dearieme writes:

I'm open to persuasion that all the Euclidian geometry of my youth might have prepared my intellect for something-or-other else. But the Latin? Pshaw!

Bob writes:

Dearie makes an important point. Students cannot perform well in certain subjects unless they advance their critical thinking (or communication or fill in the blank) skills. In these cases it probably isn't important to consider how to make the lessons "practical." In other cases, well, at the risk of sounding snobby, does it makes sense to require US students to dedicate a substantial amount of their limited learning time to another language when the rest of the world is busy learning english? Maybe if you want to argue that the opportunity cost is low given what's taught elsewhere....

Loki on the run writes:

Learning to learn is one of those hopeful euphamisms that liberals and other unthinking people use.

The reality is that by the time people get to college, their ability to learn is already fixed by a combination of their genes and the environment they developed in.

Life sucks.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Loki, that is just garbage. In fact, it sounds like the the lament of a professor who doesn't want to stir any interest in his students.

As for Bryan's original point. It seems a rather dangerous point of view for an economist to take. The superiority of the discipline on the so-called "soft side" of the campus is 100% a result of it's integration of serious mathematical models and techniques to develop knowledge. And it's double plus dangerous to hold such a view if you're (like me) sympathetic to Dan Klein's (and I think Arnold Kling's) view that economics should be more story telling and less calculus. Mathematics has much more to offer than calculus. There are formal models with all sorts of nice mathematical tools that can capture the networked nature of markets rather than evaluate them in aggregate. But guess what? Two decades ago, before the Internet took off, these tools were fun abstract things to study and think about without many uncontrived applications. Perhaps nobody should have been using them as opportunities to learn and develop even more impractical knowledge back then.

Another problem I have with Bryan's view is that it's directly against something you can observe in the market right now. Post SarbOx, startups (especially in high tech) are looking at acquisition by a big fish as "the goal" rather than going public. And there are lots of companies getting acquired by the likes of Google for fairly big dollar amounts. And often, the core product of the acquired company is just buried, despite everyone wondering how it will look with the big company brand. What actually seems to be happening is that big companies acquire the startups to acquire proven teams that they can assign to new projects. And they're paying millions per head. It's as if the teams are being rewarded not for the market's response to the project their startup built and their ability to make it profitable, but for the team learning experience. I've got some cocktail party anecdotal evidence that this is how tech types are thinking these days. It would be interesting to see it studied formally.

Floccina writes:

How about we teach people how to learn by teaching them what they need to know to live.

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