Entries Tagged 'philosophy' ↓
March 12th, 2011 — design, philosophy, politics, trends
Public education in America has long been the subject of hand-wringing and now, after over 100 years of the same model, it’s time we finally recognize what has worked and what has failed. Education is, in a sense, a kind of technology, and it’s time to ready its next version.
I’ve recently been asked to participate in some discussions about innovation in education; my mother co-founded a primary school in 1980 and I’ve had a chance to consider these topics as a student and a thinker. Here’s precisely where I believe we have failed and what we might do to invent the next generation of education.
Failure to recognize the importance of networks
What makes a successful student? Being around other successful students. We are the average of those around us. This simple fact is what has animated desegregation as well as programs like KIPP, Head Start, charter schools, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and private schools. If we really want to create social mobility and social justice, we need to change people’s position within the social graph to expose them to self-actualized learners and educated people. This suggests one imperative only and it has nothing to do with schools, per se: If we want children to learn, we must ensure that they are surrounded by people who value learning.
Overconfidence in Curriculum, Testing, and the Educational Machine
If a child’s success is determined primarily by their position within the social fabric, it cannot also follow that the machinery of education has very much impact. Consider that a single child surrounded by a diverse, thoughtful, inquisitive support network of adults and other children will undoubtedly flourish (assuming a base level of socioeconomic security). It is therefore incorrect to assume that the modern educational machine is necessary to produce a successful adult. We should recognize that successful learning can happen in many different ways, and not just through schools.
Confusion about what “school” actually is
The popular conception of “school” is that it is a place where we send our children to learn and be systematically exposed to an orderly program of ideas, culminating in a baseline level of performance that will prepare them for employment. In fact, school provides only a) a basic social safety-net within which children can be placed into a social fabric, b) state-sponsored childcare, c) minimal insurance of the breadth of instruction (via a curriculum), d) minimal insurance of the length of instruction (usually at least 13 years of 180 days each). School enables some parents to participate in the workforce while insuring a basic safety net for students who would otherwise lack a supporting social fabric.
Confusion and guilt about the role of teachers
Many people intuitively understand the value of a good teacher. But look back on your own school experience and ask honestly how many truly excellent teachers you can recall. Most people will name three or four. Some might name five or six. This suggests that the best experiences in our educational system happen by accident. We all want to value teachers and the work that they do, but when performance varies so widely, it’s difficult to develop metrics that reward those who are making the most difference. Additionally, when others have demonstrated that self-directed learning is possible when children are working within a supportive social fabric, it’s not clear that the model of “teacher as the driver of learning” is sane. The child is the driver of learning, and the teacher is only an informed and enthusiastic member of the child’s social network. Children, not teachers, are the true drivers of learning; teachers are just one part of the child’s social support fabric.
Politicization of education
We have damaged both public education and social justice by conflating the two. Well-intentioned activists on the left identified public education as a civil rights issue. And certainly education is a matter of social justice. But education is a matter of one’s position within the social fabric, and we have been forced to try to use our public school system as the only available tool to manipulate peoples’ placement within it. Well-meaning bureaucrats and school boards make countless decisions that affect people’s placement within social networks – everything from what schools they can attend to what set of classes they can access. People on the right have mistaken left-wing proponents of public education as the enemy, when in fact the enemy is only the many layers of ineffectiveness that plague our system. We can only improve education when we understand the importance of social fabrics and stop fighting each other.
Historic co-opting of education alternatives by both the right and the left
Many on both the far right and left have historically chosen to opt out of public education in favor of religious education, private schools, home-schooling, or unschooling. Because they have been associated with extreme political affiliations, or with the moneyed (and oft-maligned) “elite,” many Americans have found them distasteful. Many intuitively believe that if they pull their child out of public education, they affect the social fabric of the schools they leave behind. However, many also fear that this alone is not a sufficient reason to participate in an underperforming school environment. You hear people say, “I believe in public education; that’s why I’ve got my kid in this school. I hope I’m doing the right thing.” People should put their children in schools only if they provide functional social networks for learning.
Over-reliance on causal thinking
We largely believe the myth that if you graduate as valedictorian and go to the best college that you’ll have a rich and successful life. That may appear true on the surface, but it’s arguable that more opportunities come from the social fabric that results from those experiences than from the credentials themselves. And even optimizing for “rich and successful” doesn’t necessarily translate to “happy and fulfilling.” We all know the old saw that “your degree doesn’t matter; what matters is that you have a degree.” That’s more true today than ever (at least outside of academia itself). The reason for this has more to do with our position within the social fabric than anything else. We need to start giving kids the skills they need to become life-long learners and stop trying to win some imagined game of education.
We educate children in an industrial model to prepare them to work in industrial environments, as if they were so many machine parts. We take off three months per year so kids can help with farm tasks. These are both obviously ridiculous notions today. So much of the system is the way it is because it has always been that way, and the system begets the system. We must break free. Learning should happen continuously and year-round, individually and in groups, and should be coupled with plenty of play and breaks.
How we might move forward
Buckminster Fuller famously said, “You never change things by fighting the existing model. Instead, make a new model that makes the old model obsolete.” This is happening right now.
First, new instructional tools are emerging. The phenomenal and free Khan Academy website provides deep instruction on hundreds of topics that kids can ingest at their own pace – and as supported by their network of peers and mentors.
Second, social tools like Facebook and Twitter enable people to self-organize face-to-face peer-driven instruction for their children. This will evolve into an effective, mainstream and apolitical home-schooling movement, and it will be a juggernaut.
People will opt out of public education because they will have found something that works better.
If we want to save the mission of public education, we urgently need to get smart about the nature of school, what it is and is not, and figure out a way to offer an effective social safety net for everyone that recognizes this new reality.
The old model simply doesn’t know it’s obsolete.
February 12th, 2011 — baltimore, business, design, economics, geography, philosophy, politics, social media, trends
Newly-elected Maryland State Senator Bill Ferguson was recently named to the Baltimore Business Journal‘s Power 20. This week they asked me, as a friend of Bill’s and member of a previous Power 20 cohort, to comment on Bill’s relationship with and use of power.
“Bill is a curious, humble, and earnest young man, and he represents a true shift in how power is conferred in this town,” I said. “He didn’t work his way up through the ranks and spend a few years as a city council person, or wait his turn. Bill was able to win because of a shift in political power that’s taking place right now. He derives his power from the people, not from the system.”
Political power is now being conferred through the accumulation of weak and strong ties with citizens, and no longer by top-down power structures, power-brokers, and kingmakers. Don’t get me wrong; those folks still have an impact (they did in Bill Ferguson’s race – they got behind him when it was clear he was onto something), but that impact is waning. And things that were previously unthinkable are now possible.
It may seem like hyperbole to compare the situation in Baltimore to what took place over the last three weeks in Egypt. But it’s an apt comparison.
For decades in both places, people have felt marginalized by a top-down, tone-deaf government that was more interested in its own well-being than that of its citizens. In both places, decades of neglect and mismanagement have led to a serious crisis of confidence.
People are fed up. They’re tired of feeling marginalized, the failed programs, the broken promises, the lack of accountability and the inability to implement imaginative solutions. For 60 years, Baltimore’s population has been in decline, and places in decline have not had the benefit of oversight, dollars, or creative leaders. Instead, corruption (explicit or implicit) festers.
The Perfect Storm
Several factors are emerging all at once:
- Young people want to live near their work and are tired of commuting (and they’ll accept a pay cut to do it)
- Our roads are full and can no longer be meaningfully expanded due to lack of space and funds
- Fuel costs are projected to rise as China’s demand grows exponentially
- Online networks are having a meaningful impact on real-world relationships and politics
These factors, combined, have made Baltimore the most important jurisdiction in Maryland – practically overnight. Yet our leadership has not caught up with this reality.
Baltimore’s recent rise to relevance combined with the power of communications networks will create stark shifts in the power structure.
Two Kinds of Leaders
Today we have a choice between two kinds of leaders. We can choose between the leaders that the system hands us, or we can choose to put our faith in new, emerging leaders with whom citizens have a legitimate connection and a voice.
|Product of the system
||Newcomers, inspired to serve
|Disproportionate influence of money
||Driven by small donations, connection with people
|Ideas come from insiders and developers
||Ideas come from anywhere and from study of best practices globally
|Power comes from the top-down
||Power comes from legitimate engagement with citizens
|“Openness” is skin deep, only ‘fauxpenness’
||Transparency at every level; data is a strategic driver
|Secrecy and private realities drive decisions
||One shared view of reality drives all decisions
|Treat Symptoms: Problems (poverty, crime) are “mitigated”
||Address Root Causes: Focus on wealth creation
|Social media is a “one way,” Orwellian broadcast tool
||Social Media is a “two-way” engagement tool
|Over-Confident that the system knows best
||Open to Questioning: People know best
|Boomer-centric: top-down, command and control
||Gen-Y Centered: Collaborative, flat organizations
|People are engaged to placate them
||People are legitimately engaged
|Fear of reprisal keeps people in line
||May the best ideas and people win
||Will serve only as long as effective
It is sadly telling that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s much-promoted (Orwellian, broadcast-oriented) Safer City social media campaign follows just one person on Twitter: the Mayor herself. And it has just 78 followers. Why? Because it’s all for show, and no one legitimately cares about a program to mitigate a problem – people actually want to solve it at the root. To hell with a Safer City: give me a city where everyone can earn a living, and I can bet you it’ll be safer.
But our politicians don’t know that, because they have not taken the time to benchmark ourselves against other cities or learn from best practices elsewhere. Baltimore has more cops per capita than any other city. Why is that?
Because we need them. Why do we need them? Because we have a lot of crime. Why do we have a lot of crime? Because we have no middle class. Why do we have no middle class? Because we have not seriously focused on enabling small business formation, which is the number one driver of jobs. Instead we have given tax handouts to fatcat developers so they can build big projects and enrich their cronies.
Yes, clearly the cure is more cops. As the Mayor told the Baltimore Sun’s Justin Fenton, “Maybe we could do without as many officers, but that’s not what the public wants. They want more patrolmen on the street. They want more police in the neighborhood.”
No, Madam Mayor. What the public really wants is for these root cause issues to be addressed. It takes true leadership and understanding to go beyond just treating the symptoms.
Some have called the recent events in Egypt “the Twitter and Facebook revolution.” A few have scoffed at the idea that these tools could spark a revolution and cite eons of revolutionary precedent as proof. But it’s a mistake to dismiss their role.
Online networks are accelerants. They create connections passively where none might otherwise exist. Critical mass for change comes when the density of connections between people reaches a threshold level. Ideas spread between networks instantly. What might have taken 10 years before now takes 1 year.
The Soviet regime could never have survived in the age of networks. Iraq would have collapsed under its own weight if given time and these tools.
And the same repressive structures will fall in Baltimore, for the same reasons.
To quote Gandhi: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”
January 26th, 2011 — business, design, economics, philosophy, software, trends
David Lee Roth
“He who knows how will always work for he who knows why.”
– David Lee Roth
There are 168 hours in a week and you must decide how to spend them. You’ll probably want to spend some sleeping and eating. What will you do with the rest?
Many people that work with technology pride themselves on knowing how to do things the best way, with the best tools. In fact, the history of technology and its evolution is all about “how” and finding new, better ways to do things.
But in some important ways, “How” is the enemy of “Why.” Why should you do one thing instead of another thing? Why is it sometimes important to choose one technology over another? Some technologists would argue that it’s important to choose the better technology. Better for what?
After about age 15, I have always bristled when people called me a “tech guy.” And I wasn’t sure why. While I may be (on the best days) intelligent enough to pay attention to and use technology well, and maybe to have read a thing or two about algorithms and software, I always felt offended by the label. It was as if people were saying that I knew “how” to do things, but that I didn’t know why.
But I do know why. I’ve read enough philosophy, literature, and scripture to have a sense of what we should be doing on this earth. So calling me a “tech guy” feels wrong. I’m as much of a “why” guy as I am a “how” guy. They’re not mutually exclusive.
People who really know “why” often end up with real power and wealth. To save time, the “why” progeny formed a tribe. They go to the right schools and give each other important-sounding jobs. And they control many people who know “how” (but who may not yet know why.) Too often, though, the offspring of powerful people don’t really know “why.” They took a shortcut and there is none.
I spend a lot of time with tech people; in tech conferences; in the tech community. And many of those people know how to do a great many things. Fewer know “why.” Some have yet to realize it’s worth knowing. That’s OK, because learning why takes time.
It’s troubling to hear good, smart tech people get into the minutiae of a “how” question that doesn’t matter. (For me, home media usually falls into this category.) When I was younger, I might have had time to figure out the details of streaming movies to three televisions. Now I just don’t care. This is why Apple is making a fortune on its products. They generally deliver good results without requiring people to waste time on the details. (Steve Jobs knows both “why” and “how.”)
Here’s a challenge, tech people: learn “why.” And understand that “how” sometimes comes at the expense of “why.” You need to balance your priorities between both and choose how you’re going to spend your time each week. If you know only “how”, and never take the time to know “why,” rest assured you’ll be working for someone else who does.
As a tech-aware person you have a head start, because today it’s not enough to know only “why.” Someone who may know why but excludes technological study from their life can’t understand the world properly today because technology shifts so quickly. Sometimes things that once were important simply become obsolete.
Sometimes I talk to tech people who think they don’t have any real power because they are not part of the old-school power-tribe. But nothing is further from the truth, for inherited power is not real power.
No one has more power than someone who knows both “how” and “why.” Become that person and you change the world.
November 15th, 2010 — baltimore, business, design, economics, geography, philosophy, politics, trends
Last week another Maryland elected official, Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson, was arrested – along with his wife – on federal corruption charges. And once again, land development deals were the problem: a relatively inexperienced public official was lured by small profits gained by handing out development deals to a few cronies.
Shockingly, the press and the public feign surprise every time this happens. The Washington Post’s coverage of the Johnson arrest earnestly reports that the county seems to have developed a “pay to play” culture – and that you “don’t hear that about other jurisdictions.”
What about Baltimore city, where just nine short months ago former Mayor Sheila Dixon was convicted for accepting gifts and bribes from developers? Granted, Dixon was dealing in a few thousand dollars worth of gift cards and baubles while Johnson and his wife were flushing $100,000 checks and stuffing tens of thousands of dollars in their underwear. But one gets the impression that this may be a result of Dixon’s relative inexperience. Given more time, she would likely have learned to ask for more.
How did we get here? How is it that public-private development deals can be handed out to cronies and first-time “developers?”
First, too many people that seek public office expect to be financially enriched by it. There’s a reason it’s called public “service” – it is meant to be a sacrifice made in exchange for the opportunity to participate in private enterprise. When politicians go into office expecting that the power of public office should also include big money, they’ll be disappointed. Only crooked deals can fulfill those expectations.
Second, we have collectively lost sight of what “development” actually means. Today when people say “development,” they almost always mean turning an unsuspecting piece of land “into” something, whether it’s houses, a shopping mall, a hotel, or a stadium. And sometimes that fulfills a real need.
But too often, these are projects that we don’t truly need – but they do hold the potential to make a few people pretty wealthy. A small-time developer can double his wealth over a few years. But like a small-time addict, the beast must be fed: with new land, new projects, new deals. Because very often the gains are one-time hits. A housing project might make a five time return on investment. To keep the perpetual motion machine going, there must always be new deals.
This is where local elected officials come in. Mayors and county executives have just enough power to direct their agenda towards development projects that can enrich developers. Often, cronies of elected officials will become developers just to take advantage of their proximity to this fresh supply of new land deals. This seems to have been the case with Johnson. One of Johnson’s golf buddies had never developed anything, but was given a no-bid contract on a major project. This constitutes an illegal squandering of public funds.
Maybe it’s time to rethink what we mean when we use the word “development.” Do we really need to develop more strip malls, hotels, and suburban housing? In a place like central Maryland, we’re darn near out of land anyway. So this pyramid-scheme of land development has to stop. The corruption will only stop when local elected officials stop thinking that no-bid or restricted-bid contracts for major development deals actually move anything forward.
Instead, let’s start thinking about “development” in terms of “resource allocation.” How are we going to allocate scarce public resources to enrich our citizens through education, equal opportunity, and in repairing and maintaining the infrastructure and buildings we already have?
If the goal of “development” is to advance the economic opportunity and prosperity of the people of our state, maybe we should start by valuing our landscape. Instead of cluttering it up with mile after mile of pointless suburbia, let’s invest in places that mean something to the people that live there. Let’s make the places we have better. Let’s fix blight and make transportation systems that work. Let’s plant trees and make bike lanes.
Development should be about developing our people and making what we already have work more efficiently, not in building shoddy new projects that devalue existing assets and clutter our landscape.
And when contractors are required, let’s put the bidding online, require each bidder to go through the same qualification process, and let the lowest, most qualified bidders win.
When the public changes its perception of what development means, we will have fewer politicians who see elected office as a get-rich-quick scheme. Every time another politician is caught in these shenanigans, the public trust in government is undermined.
So a change in public perception about the nature of development can actually lead to a tangible restoration of public trust in government, and that can’t come too soon.