Monday, September 21, 2015
Could teaching be 10 times better?
It is well known in the world of software development, the world I live in, that some programmers are ten or more times more productive than typical programmers. Ten times! That's a lot, day in and day out. How does it happen? Well, it isn't because one types ten times faster. The key to software development productivity is correct, debugged code.
When your code has a bug, it is usually easy to fix but it may be very difficult to find. You might spend hours finding the bug but take no time at all changing a plus to a minus or whatever the error is. The highly productive programmers quickly write code that is bug free.
The second key to high programmer productivity is to write code in separate procedures. Several benefits accrue. First, if there's a bug, the programmer can often quickly find the offending procedure. It's then easier to find the bug in the procedure, a small piece of code, than in a large body of code without procedures. Second, procedures can be reused. There is nothing that makes writing code faster than not having to write it! Third, bugs again. Once the procedure has been written and is bug free, it is bug free for all the many times it is reused.
So, programming is knowledge work with a huge range of productivity among the workers. Let's consider another form of knowledge work: teaching. How much more effective are the best teachers than the rest?
Teacher effectiveness is measured in terms of performance of students on test scores. Test scores of more effective teachers are cumulative year after year. The test scores of students having had the most effective teachers for three consecutive years are about 35 to 50 percentile points higher (depending on the subject and the study) than students of the least effective teachers for three years. That's pretty good. Could it be better? Could they be the equivalent of ten times as effective than other teachers? How?
Science fiction has suggested the idea of plugging a knowledge chip into the student's head, then bingo, instant learning! Not only that but an even greater benefit is that there is no forgetting. Plug in a calculus chip or a world history chip or a worldwide street map chip and the instant learning is complete and unchanging...until you upgrade your chip. A fantastic leap forward in teaching effectiveness! But why stop at static knowledge? Why not connect to virtual worlds through the Internet full of the avatars of innumerable others who are currently "jacked in"? One downside, we have no idea how to do it. So, any other ideas?
What about that chip idea but keep it external? We have seen a lot of progress here. With our watches we always know the time and date. With our calculators we can make accurate calculations instantly. With our spreadsheets we can readily make models and run through what-if scenarios. With Photoshop we can create "photographic evidence" of any bizarre scenario imaginable. With our Internet connections we can look up any fact or watch a video on how to change a fanbelt in a car like ours. These examples, of course, are not science fiction at all. We do these things every day.
What do devices have to do with teaching? If we were to define teaching as guiding the student to a future state where she has acquired new knowledge and skills, doesn't an electronic device accomplish that?
If the implanted knowledge chip was possible, we would be more comfortable with calling that a form of teaching because it's permanent. Put the chip in a socket behind the left ear and it's not quite so permanent. It might even be accidentally knocked out while brushing your hair, taking your skills with matrix algebra with it...until you plug it back in. But the socket allows you to easily upgrade. And by the way, what's so great about "really" teaching a regular meat brain? Have you ever watched Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? The adult contestants have forgotten most of the details of what they learned from their teachers. Devices are far more reliable over time than human memory.
What if education of the meat brain consisted largely of building skills in using devices to accomplish the same knowledge and skills objectives that is traditionally taught in class? The immediate criticism will be, what happens when you don't have your device? Sorry, but we passed that milestone millenia ago. Where once people were self sufficient in the wilderness, most of us now could not long survive without the support of civilization. And the great majority of what we learn in school is only useful in the context of a functioning civilization.
Here's the payoff. If education could be tightly tied to knowledge and skill devices, the effectiveness of teachers could increase at the rate that new devices become available. Not just twice as effective or ten times as effective but hugely more effective than current teaching and learning.
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