Monday, September 12, 2005


Last week I started to read Tom Friedman’s new book, The World is Flat. I anticipate reading more of it over the next couple of days as I’m off to TechForum in Minneapolis, an IT conference for the staff of the various CIC schools. Somehow, going on the road helps with my reading. Friedman is a huge technology booster, so it seems like an appropriate book to take along. And since at my university it’s globalization here and globalization there and we’re located in a land locked part of Central Illinois, I’m guessing this will be the mantra at many universities for years to come. Friedman’s book is likely to serve as a guide if not as a bible for this change in perspective.

I’ve only read a couple of chapters but one irony already. The miracle that is outsourcing, for which communications technology is critical, occurs in fact because the technology is not good enough. There is the online equivalent of “grunt work,” mostly data entry really, that exists in bulk yet that requires some intelligence to complete. An analysis of the work can piece it out into the higher level tasks and the grunt work. The latter gets shipped overseas, to people in India or other countries where skills are rather high but where wages are rather low. This piecing out of the work is something we in learning technology, particularly those of use who view the creation of learning objects as an important activity, should bear in mind. On that score I believe we’re still in the dark ages.

An interesting aspect is the cultural disposition necessary to make one’s country a recipient of outsourcing business in the grunt work area. This is happening as a strategic choice by high powered business leaders, not at all by accident. (Friedman does point to some important random factors, namely the massive overbuilding in transcontinental fiber optic networking, that has served as an important enabler.) One would accuse Friedman of perpetuating racial and national stereotypes except he does so by quoting these same businessmen speaking of their own business and their own countrymen who are employees in that business. They express deep respect for the American businessmen (and maybe the EU businessmen, but that is less clear from the writing) who do the “creative work,” the part of the work that is not outsourced. They are content to do the online grunt work.

Deferred gratification is a big part of this culture. This is the 21st century equivalent of the immigrant mother scrubbing floors at night so her children can go to college. But now there is no need to go leave the home country and the young women may very will not yet have children or even be married, but may be pursuing an advanced degree in a technology field while simultaneously holding down this online job, because she has a strong sense of self-advancement. This is for her own climb up the ladder and the ascendance of her nation, if not now, then in the not too distant future. There is a strong sense of ambition of the economic kind in this culture. It is fueled, most obviously, by the history of poverty in her country and the vaunted success of the Asian miracle countries, who seemingly took the same path.

Now I want to switch gears, but hold the thought, while considering a recent post from the Tomorrow’s Professor listserv by Lloyd Bond, a Carnegie Foundation Senior Scholar, about how people learn and the relative merits of rote learning via drill versus conceptual learning via providing a framework. (The
archive of the listserv will have this post in about two weeks.) Not surprisingly, Bond takes a middle ground in his post and says we need some of both as we learn. But think of this culturally and try to create a mental picture of elementary school education and then, ask which is the preferred mode? My own mental stereotype is that in the main American education has as of late shied away from rote while the Asian miracle countries (and American inner city schools that have made earnest efforts to perform well as measured by standardized test scores) do lot’s of rote in ensemble sing-song fashion. This is not just for spelling and basic arithmetic facts. It is an across the board approach to history, science, and the language arts.

Rightly or wrongly, I associate a desire for rote in the schools as an embrace of a deferred gratification culture. American culture and the students we see nowadays are often criticized for their inability to show patience and the seeming need to satisfy wants instantly. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, it is not true that learning by repetition is absent in the extra curricular and leisure activities of these kids. Drill occurs in sports, music, and video games! Yet in the latter the rote is bundled with a bunch of other thin that captivate the kids – competition, rapid feedback, and of course amazing graphics and sound track.

The alternative to rote one might assume is discovery and to promote learning in that manner even at an early age. Discovery learning places a high premium on the ability to abstract, to generalize from the experience and to have mental models in which to cast the experience so as to grow from it. One might make the simplistic assumption that if a deferred gratification culture cherishes rote as a means for students to learn, then an instantaneous gratification culture believes that discovery approach provides the best path toward creativity and analytic thinking. Were it that simple.

Creative thought, contrary to the assumptions of many young people, requires discipline and persistence, a peeling of the onion, a willingness to journey on to see what other mysteries get uncovered. Persistence is at odds with instantaneous gratification, which while indulging initial curiosity doesn’t provide a path to amplify or refine the investigation. That requires discipline and a certain faith that the process will produce those good results because, frankly, sometimes it is a struggle and hard work, and there are periods of dullness and lack of perception.

Again, let me ask the reader to hold the thought while I again change perspectives. Last week while driving around town, I caught part of a
replay of an interview on our local Public Radio station, WILL, with a professor of family history from the University of Houston, Steven Mintz. He said several provocative things that I found intriguing and that were news to me. One of those is how different Americans are from the rest of the world in emphasizing the individual over the community. An example Mintz gave is that we in America put infants into cribs while in much of the rest of the world the babies sleep with the mother. (As a parent of boys aged 11 and 13, I now have vague recollections about this subject in my own household where my wife and I struggled not just on this point but also on whether the babies should be allowed to cry or get immediate attention.) This thinking was brought into sharper focus for me when at a lunch party my staff held for someone in the office who recently had a baby I heard that the parents were following the prescription of no baby talk by adults to the infant, so the baby would have unambiguous signals from which to learn. I had not heard that one before. I guess I didn’t attend enough parenting seminars and have been too sheltered on that front. In any event, this seemed further evidence that the acculturation arguments have at least some validity and that (perhaps) one can associate a penchant for rote with a more communal and less individualistic society. Hmmm.

And now one last change in perspective. In the Times Magazine this week there is an
interesting piece about current avant-garde literary magazines, started in essence to rebel both against the popular culture and the traditional academic slant on the issues. Part of the underlying cause for these ventures is to demand a return to seriousness, yet to maintain an eclectic view about it things, and not force old categories. Although these periodicals have Web sites, they are fundamentally print activities and do limited circulation paper distributions. Here technology may not be the villain, but it is the conduit for the villainy, the trivialization of thought and the forced categories imposed by the mass media. In some respects the critique is akin to Tufte’s critique of PowerPoint. What I find disturbing is that at least at the level of the Times article, I too have had this desire for a return to seriousness and to allow the discussion to ebb and flow into any and all areas. That is one big reason I started to write this blog.

What is wrong with this picture?

No comments: