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Book Excerpt: Nurturing the 'Hunger for Know-How'

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In School's Out, Lewis J. Perelman proposes that the current education system be scrapped in favor of "genuine learning,'' an enterprise made easier--and more mandatory--he says, by the advent of a new wave of knowledge technology that puts access to enhanced learning ("hyperlearning,'' in his phrase) in reach of everyone.

Mr. Perelman, a former public-school science teacher, has worked on technology-development programs as an analyst and research scientist in both the public and private sector. He directed the Hudson Institute's Project Learning 2001. Below is a sampler from his book:


It has taken our nation's school establishment about two decades to figure out the obvious: It doesn't make sense to spend weeks of class time forcing students to memorize multiplication tables or interpolate logarithms in a world where electronic calculators come built into rulers, pens, watches, and key rings. Schooling is simply too inert to adapt to an imminent [hyper-learning] world where an unlimited supply of "facts'' is available instantly, anytime, anywhere--and where, within a generation or so, you will be able to carry around an entire lifetime's supply of information in an object that will fit in the palm of your hand.

In the context of a knowledge-age society where humongous volumes of data can be generated, stored, and communicated with lighting speed to just about anyone, anywhere, anytime, know-how clearly has become more important than know-what. But what that requires in practice is learning how to combine knowledge with skills to achieve your goals in a real-life context.

When you consider the almost stifling cornucopia of sources and media of knowledge that confronts us, the several kinds of intelligence or skill all humans have in varying measure, the richness of human aspirations, and the immense diversity of real-life situations people care about, it's clear that nurturing the hunger for know-how is no mean task. In fact, it's a task that cannot possibly be mastered in childhood--it must be a lifelong occupation.

[A]cademic testing demonstrates not only phony competence but false incompetence as well. In particular the flurry of national tests and surveys that claim to show that frighteningly large portions of the American population are illiterate, ignorant, and incompetent should be viewed, to put it mildly, as suspect.

For instance, social scientists who observed young street vendors in Brazil doing their business in the real world found that these little-schooled, wayward children had informally developed their own calculating techniques well enough that the children could successfully solve 98 percent of marketplace math problems--such as figuring total costs or making change. But when the children were presented with the same kinds of calculating tasks in the form of arithmetic problems stated verbally with only a symbolic description of the context of the problem, the children solved only 74 percent of the problems successfully. And when the problems were presented purely as mathematical operations with no descriptive context, the children's success rate fell to 37 percent.

These results are not unusual. In another study, scientists found that minimum-wage workers employed on the loading dock of a dairy who showed almost flawless math skills in dealing with often complex work tasks, such as filling orders and making out bills, nevertheless scored poorly on academic math tests with problems equivalent to those they were successfully solving on the job. Moreover, the dairy workers showed greater flexibility in adapting their calculating strategies to real problems than did math students in school.

So what science reveals about all this out-of-context academic teaching and testing confirms what many of us suspected all along: The "best and the brightest'' aren't really so smart. And the "least and the dullest'' aren't really so dumb.

The fundamental error in the well-meaning but inept "national education goals'' effort is not in the misconceived goals that have been proposed but in the exercise of goal-setting itself. W. Edwards Deming, the dean of modern quality management, urges his clients to avoid setting these kinds of "target'' goals because at best they will become limits to performance. Simply put, goals that are intended to be floors wind up becoming ceilings.

The essential credos of "Deming's Way'' are continuous improvement (what the Japanese called kaizen), and Total Quality Management--constantly seeking to eliminate errors, faults, and failures in every aspect of a production process.

Mr. Deming's advice is reinforced by the outcome of an exhaustive, more than year-long study of Best Practices undertaken by General Electric in a quest to discover the secrets of competitive success of the leading companies in a wide range of businesses. The "earthshaking'' conclusion of this study, as Fortune magazine reported, was that G.E. had been measuring and therefore managing the wrong things: "The company was setting goals and keeping score; instead, says business development manager George Zippel, 'we should have focused more on how things got done than on what got done.'''

In fact, the experience of education reform in the 1980's bears out Mr. Deming's warning. The establishment and enforcement of minimum standards for high school graduation seems to have had the effect of encouraging better performance from those at the bottom of the academic curve. In particular, the one accomplishment of 1980's school reform was a narrowing of the gap in some of the standardized test scores of black and white students. But overall system performance did not improve, and productivity declined as costs continued grow.

The kinds of education "goals'' that would be compatible with Deming's Way and the discipline of quality management are directions rather than destinations. In a sense, instead of "targets'' the learning enterprise needs "arrows'' that point in the direction of ever-increasing productivity. The goals needed to direct a steady march toward a more productive learning enterprise are simple and do not require national tests or centralized political commissariats to be pursued effectively. The right learning goals can be summed up in four words: MORE, BETTER, FASTER, CHEAPER.

This is what the urgently needed commitment to ever more productive learning comes down to: Not only America but the whole world, and each of us, needs to learn more about anything and everything; needs to learn all of it better, in terms of quality, relevance, and value; needs to learn it faster, with less waste of precious time; and needs products, services, and methods for learning whose cost is continuously declining. The power to pursue those kinds of goals successfully can be found only in the creative engine of the competitive marketplace.

From School's Out, by Lewis J. Perelman. Copyright 1992. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow & Co. All rights reserved.

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