Education as Evolved Organism

Today’s post is a reflection on an article in Educause Quarterly: Is Higher Education Evolving? The core idea is that the educational system as a whole has some similarities to a culture – like a bacterial culture, not a social one – of evolved organisms, who adapt based on the evolutionary pressures on them. I recommend giving it a look, because it provides an alternative viewpoint, and I always find those useful.

An evolutionary pressure is essentially (and remember I’m not a biologist) something that forces a species to change. Often this “change” happens when half of the species dies off because the temperature changed, and the other half just happened to be prepared for the change. The action of evolutionary pressures depends on an inhomogeneity in the group that’s evolving – if everyone is exactly the same, then they’ll all die or live as a group. If some of them are different (as is the case with living beings), those whose differences allow them to withstand the pressures will survive to pass on those differences. Those that can’t survive might find a new niche elsewhere, if they’re lucky. More often they’re doomed. Evolution is a harsh mistress.

It is a sad statement about my level of optimism today that I can see only two real evolutionary pressures acting on education: politics and money. The quality of education delivered is not an evolutionary pressure.

The action of politics is clear in the proliferation of increase regulations and required standardized tests, among other things. Politicians come in with (in some cases) good intentions: to hold schools to a standard. Teachers who don’t want to teach to those tests either knuckle under or leave for greener pastures, and thus the schools evolve to fit the tests. Some of them evolve in unexpected ways, such as when teachers help their students cheat on the Regents Exam. (This is not speculative. A friend of mine worked in a school where this happened. She quit.)

Money as a pressure shows up in all sorts of unexpected places, but the clearest and most recent example is the explosion into online education. Where there’s money to be made, companies sprout up or move in to make it. Another example comes from the Aero/Astro department at MIT – as they began losing students, they changed the department to make it more appealing, and now the students (and their money) are back. Money may not be the motivation for the exact changes made, mind you. Teachers and professors and department heads genuinely want to educate their students. However, money is the pressure that forced the change.

As an educational researcher, I have to say that I don’t see quality of education as a believable evolutionary pressure. Unless it becomes a matter of public outcry (politics) or students become unemployable (money) or seek their schooling elsewhere (money), most schools and teachers (and universities and professors) are content to do what they’re doing now. The “revolution” in physics education research started about 25 years ago. The evidence that the standard lecture model simply doesn’t work is overwhelming. 25 years into the revolution, how are 99% of physics courses taught? By standard lecture. Even the opportunity for an overwhelming gain in the effectiveness of education hasn’t made a dent in what we do.

Let me say that again: we know how to teach better and, as a whole, we don’t. But this online thing? That’s where the money is. Let’s do it right now.

I’m a cynic today, but the lesson is this: if you want to change education, go into politics or business.


P.S.: Troy Roddy has a variant viewpoint over at The Art of Education, which is also worth a look. He’s talking more about “education” in the conceptual sense; how we view it. I’m talking about it more in the practical sense; the methods by which we achieve it.


About Colin Fredericks

By day I help to create online courses at HarvardX. By night I write roleplaying games.

Posted on November 18, 2011, in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: