Sunday, September 30, 2007

Another Brilliant Scheme

I have no idea why "libertarians" would support this idea at all; especially not Jim Henley, who ought to know better. Briefly, "Direct Instruction" suggests that teachers should be given prepared scripts to use in class and instructed to follow them exactly, with classes streamed by ability and repeating courses until passed.

First of all, this is of course wildly managerialist and authoritarian; who precisely gets to decide what goes in the script? What happens to local, democratic accountability? The examples given refer to big school systems (>20 kilostudents), which implies that the sort of parish-meeting board of governors folk like Henley romanticise would maybe have some influence over paperclips.

And, of course, the entire history of brilliant centralising education schemes shows that brilliant centralising education schemes don't work. This is one, so it almost certainly won't. So how the hell did libertarians, subtype North American, come to like it?

My explanation is that it's purely the politics of ressentiment: school teachers and their trade unions are a traditional rightwing enemy image in the US, as in the UK through the 1980s, and this appeals simply because it would piss them off. It's worth remembering that even Henley and Co are actually very right-wing people indeed; in an alternate time line, they'd be on the other side.

Hence the neato anti-trade union ads; from the "Center for Union Facts", indeed. Further reading is here; apparently the Center consists of a bunch of Wal-Mart money and a well-known tobacco industry lobbyist. I think the phrase is "nice mates you got there".

This is one of the reasons I don't have ads on this blog; you either have to filter them, in which case you are in a sense taking responsibility for their content and could be accused of a conflict of interest, or else if you disclaim any control and make it clear that it's entirely up to the BlogAds or Google computers, you run the risk of something really horrible turning up. And then, if you decide to censor it, you've got to answer why you don't censor X, Y, or Z.


Anonymous said...

I think I've spoken up in the past for some form of Taylorisation in primary education along French lines, of which this would appear to be a specimen, but what slightly frightens me is that "Direct Instruction" is quite clearly a program for teaching basic literacy and numeracy to the very little, but Henley, Tabbarrok etc etc, are all talking about it as if it or something similar could be introduced into high schools. Checking on the internet strongly suggests to me that the company behind "Direct Instruction" doesn't seem to actually have a program for 12-16 education (or if it does they don't market it actively), presumably for the rather sensible reason that this would be flat out crazy.

I think the underlying psychology here is that one becomes a libertarian by being seduced by the prospect of silver bullets (lower taxes! better everything! and it's all FREE because we just get rid of the government! Cures for all known diseases once we get rid of the FDA! etc!) One only has to look at the Venn diagram for libertarians intersect science-fiction fans to see that something of this sort is going on. So there is a sort of institutional blindness to the flaws of silver bullet solutions.

PS: thinking about it, I have probably experienced something similar to Direct Instruction because it sounds quite similar to what the companies which train you to pass your regulatory exams in three days do. As a way of learning large amounts of factual material it was pretty damn efficient, but as a means of conveying understanding, not.

Anonymous said...

The other thing is that none of these guys have the qualifications needed to understand any of this stuff. Quite simply, they don't have a clue what's going on.

These pedagogy debates are going right over their heads.

I have very few qualifications in teaching. (I do have a very basic coaching qualification, but that's not exactly complicated.) However, I have read some of the literature on some of this stuff, and there are more plausible explanations for DI's success than just ``scripts!''

For instance, the DI method would appear to match up very nicely with the Constructivist notions of constructed knowledge, in as much as there is a very tight dialogue between teacher and learner. This is similar to practically all `teaching to understand' reforms, and so on.

Furthermore, this DI method won't work for anything more complicated than very easy well-structured knowledge domains. That's why they haven't tried to sell you `DI: the existential angst of Sartre and Camus'. They know it wouldn't work, because they know their limits. The libertarians don't seem to.

Now, I don't expect Henley, or Tabarrok to notice any of that stuff, because they don't have any knowledge of pedagogy, as far as I can tell. In the same way, I don't expect them to be able to discuss the nature of Romantic thought and its impact on the Pre-Raphaelites beyond a very cursory nature.

However, I do expect them to realise that, in point of fact, an economics degree is not what you need to run a school system. What you need is a lot of training in a difficult field -- essentially, applied psychology/sociology.

A professor of economics pontificating about education like this is just as ludicrous as if he were to start babbling on about cognitive theory.

In other words, I don't think they have a clue what they are talking about, and think that any problem can be solved by the judicious application of an economist, who doesn't even need to have the slightest understanding of the field.

Seriously, it's a sort of reverse statism: where the statist goes `ooh! I'm sure the Civil Service could run x better', the libertarian goes `ooh! I'm sure the economists/MBAs could do this better', both failing to note the large extent of domain specific knowledge involved.

Anonymous said...

"Now, I don't expect Henley, or Tabarrok to notice any of that stuff, because they don't have any knowledge of pedagogy, as far as I can tell."

1) Henley and Tabarrok are recommending using DI for teaching Camus? Where did they do that?

2) A knowledge of "pedagogy" is necessary to understand teaching? I have never met a person trained in "education," a field that has produced 100 years of declining results, as well as I can.

Kevin Carson said...

I tried the Google Ads things for a while, and I was amused at the tone-deaf attempts to match ads to my blog content.

For example, in one post I treated toilet paper dispensers as a paradigm for why hierarchies were so inefficient. I referred specifically to those Georgia-Pacific dispensers that seem designed, at enormous cost, to perform their basic function as badly as possible. They cost twenty times as much as a simple spool dispenser from Lowe's that can perform its function a hundred times better. I argued that the prevalence of such poorly designed and overpriced dispensers resulted from the fact that they were procured for captive clienteles who would never be able to give their feedback to Georgia Pacific, by bureaucrats who did not intend them for their own use.

Guess whose ad appeared at the top of my blog? That's right--Georgia Pacific.

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