State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Education and Sustainability

In case you haven’t noticed, this is a presidential election year and there is a lot of huffing and puffing about test scores and educational achievement. According to some of our politicians, our poor education system is causing America to fall behind in the great race to dominate the global brain-based economy. Perhaps, but I don’t think so. Peter Drucker, the management guru I most admire, once said you can’t manage something unless you can measure it. Without measures you can’t tell if things are getting better or worse. And so we have developed a wide range of tests that supposedly tell us what students have learned. To make sure it looks like learning is going on, teachers teach to the test and the kids that are good at test taking receive trophies. But what if we are measuring the wrong thing? What if the goal of education is not simply to convey a set of things you know, but to convey an ability to think, create, consult, collaborate and do? In my view, education is not just facts and concepts, but the application of knowledge and understanding to important tasks and problems. Measuring that type of learning requires more than standardized tests.

We have a created a complex world with many moving parts and we require many forms of what I’ll call micro-expertise. We often need: someone who is good at setting up spreadsheets and breaking data down to its key elements; someone who knows how to use social media to raise funds for a charitable event; or someone who knows how set up a home entertainment system and explain its upkeep to someone over 50 years old. What part of our current education system is designed to produce the agile problem solver and lifelong learner who can figure this stuff out and put it to work?

If the education I received from 1960 to 1979 is much better than the one received by the twenty- and thirty-year-olds I now work with and teach, why are they constantly explaining the use of new technology to me and bringing me research sources they have found via those technologies? I went to a great high school (James Madison High School in Brooklyn, as did Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Bernie Sanders, Chuck and Fran Schumer, and Carol King), and we learned a lot, but we did not learn how to utilize 21st-century information technology. It hadn’t been invented yet. But even if it had been invented, it wouldn’t have shown up on the SAT or Regents exams.

I suspect all those young people walking the streets of our cities, head facing down and praying to their smart phones, are not simply playing electronic poker. They are obtaining information about the world we live in and processing it in real time. This may not be reflected in their GRE or SAT scores, but it is reflected in their ability to navigate and problem solve in the real world. How do we measure that? How do we measure the creative and innovative drive of American workers? It is clear that people want to come here from all over the world, and they come here for the creative and innovative environment that is America’s true comparative advantage in the world economy.

Bruce Springsteen may have said it best: “We learned more from a three-minute record… than we ever learned in school”. The knowledge base needed for the renewable economy will require basic understanding of our world but also will require many specialized areas of technical expertise. The point is that one size will not fit all, and a quantitative test of knowledge, while useful, is only a very partial indicator of learning and knowledge. Understanding a person’s ability and knowledge may be the most difficult measurement task there is. As a teacher I am constantly surprised by the comments and questions I hear in the classroom. I am often surprised by the person commenting or questioning, because someone who has not performed well on my exams may demonstrate a deeper understanding of the subject than the test was designed to measure. The test and our grading system are far from perfect. This is not an argument against testing. I am simply arguing for multiple indicators of performance and arguing against over-reliance on tests, which yes, can be quantified, but are only pretending to be objective.

I have a deep bias toward learning by doing and teaching through group problem-solving projects. Groups include different types of talents and test a student’s ability to cooperate and facilitate production in a team environment. The complex world we live in requires multiple forms of expertise, orientation and talent. Sustainability problems often require knowledge of chemistry, hydrology, toxicology, ecology, finance, politics, law, management and marketing. Is anyone good at all of that? One person might be good at running the numbers. A second knows how to conduct interviews that provide the back-story that the numbers don’t convey. A third could be a genius at graphic design and does a wonderful job of laying out the slide deck and report. The final product is a test of the group’s ability. In engineering or design the final product may be a prototype or a model. In my field it is typically a report, a presentation deck, a video or a memo.

How do you measure individual contributions to the team effort? How do you measure the intangibles that someone contributes to the group effort? The key role played by that thoughtful trip to the coffee shop to bring back the fuel for the all-nighter? The suggestion by the most senior team member based on a project that took place two decades ago. The ability of a team member to stimulate creative problem solving across disciplines and professions. It is difficult to measure individual contributions to group processes, and yet more and more work is performed by groups.

In a world where manual labor provides fewer and fewer jobs, knowledge and learning are more important than ever. But we are basing our definition of education and learning on the economy and knowledge base of the 19th and 20th centuries. We live in a different world now. At one time, an educated person was someone who had read the hundred or so most important works of western civilization. Those books remain vital, but they are not enough.

When we say America is behind other countries in test scores, my instinct is to question the tests, but to also ask our schools to think more clearly about what they are asking our kids to learn. So many different types of skills are needed to transition to the renewable economy, some element of our educational process should be devoted to identifying what children like to do and what they are good at. Those may not be the same thing, and it is important for people to identify the useful skills they possess. I loved playing guitar when I was a teenager, but I wasn’t really very good at it. That was an important thing to figure out before I was 25. Kids should be able to pursue their dreams, but should also learn how to identify their usable talents.

The deepest problem with our education system, other than test mania, is the inadequate access to learning that poor children must contend with. If there is a danger to America’s future, it is not poor test scores, but the large number of children who will never reach their full potential due to an absence of opportunity. Fixing that is far more important than getting back into the top ten test ranking. Without education, it is impossible to participate in the brain-based economy.

But education must be redefined to include group work and problem solving, must be life-long, and must be made more accessible to poor children and older people who need to learn to participate in the nation’s economic, political and social life. The ultimate measure of our educational system will be the wealth, fairness and sustainability of our system of economic production and consumption. Let’s measure that.

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