Is real school like real work?

Paul Graham, OSCON ’05: What business can learn from open-source and blogging

I subscribe to all the IT Conversations podcasts, though there are many which strike me just not worth my time or interest. Every once and a while I come across one which is a gem. This was one of them.

Clever, thoughtful and thought-provoking, both in terms of the story and the underlying economic principles involved, I found myself seeing parallels between Graham’s description of mainstream business today and higher education.

Let’s start with the point that has the most obvious economic parallels: Open source and blogging face greater and more direct competition than proprietary software and professional media.

Because the barriers to entry are so low, virtually anyone can blog. As a result, the quality of the average blogger is pretty low compared to average professional journalist. But due to the power of competition, the quality of the best bloggers is high, higher than that of the best professional journalists. (Economists will note that this example illustrates the commonly confused distinction between marginal and average.)

The blogging universe is comparable to what economists call perfect competition. By contrast, professional media are oligopolies with only limited competition. (Later Graham describes the management and decision-making of professional media as like that of a Soviet state.) The lack of effective competition provides little incentive to improve quality. By contrast, bloggers who don’t improve quality lose readership, so they face a strong incentive to improve.

Graham’s next point is that people work harder when they’re doing something they like. (This sounds like the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.) It’s commonly understood that students work harder in courses for their major than other courses. Students tend to work harder when they pursue a senior thesis than when they take a class. Two former students are working with me on a paper for publication. I see them as equal participants in this project and they are (gradually) buying into that. In any case they working hard for a project with no grade or other immediate reward.

What do we call someone who works for the love of it? Amateur. What do we call someone who only works for the money? Professional.

People working for love often surpass those working for money. This explains the success of the Firefox browser over Windows Explorer.

Graham: “I propose a new name for someone (e.g. a blogger) who publishes on line. A writer!�

Graham then observes that the average office (faculty office or classroom?) is a miserable place to get work done, because of many qualities we associate with professionalism. Businesses require official “work hours� because they can’t measure productivity. Is this similar to some administrators’ confusion between access to faculty and faculty holding “office hours?� What proportion of students would prefer to come to your physical office rather than email or IM you? But I digress. Most employees (students in a lecture hall?) spend time in a no man’s land neither working, nor having fun.

Graham: “The problem with the face time model is that the people who are pretending to work are interrupting the people who are actually working.” This reminds me of students who try to dominate class discussion, even when they have little of substance to say.

Graham: “Meetings are another net loser of productivity. Meetings (class sessions from a student’s perspective?) count as work, but they are so much easier. Meetings (classes) break up people’s day into little fragments where it’s not worth trying to get anything done.”

Real work (e.g. thinking) may not look like it as much as pretend work “activity� does.

If Graham’s argument is true, then the fundamental task for successful teachers is getting students to engage with and see themselves as primarily responsible for their own education. In order to accomplish this, teachers need to persuade students to see education as much bigger than I suspect most students currently do: not simply as a series of arbitrary hurdles towards certification (the degree) and a job, but a lifelong process of making meaning of the world and one’s life. In a very real sense, it’s not what students learn then, but what they make of what they learn. (So much for “covering� the course content.) It’s not that content doesn’t matter, or that process is more important than product, but those I think are secondary issues to getting students to become intentional learners

This entry was posted in Podcast Reviews, Teaching and Learning. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Is real school like real work?

  1. Gardner says:

    Oh, this is brilliant stuff!

    All these postponed Pedablogy posts are lighting fires under me. I salute you, sir. And this post in particular does two of my favorite things: it thinks analogously, and it advocates a bigger (and better ) picture of intentional learning than the cliches of content, process, student-centered, etc. can ever hope to convey. If education doesn’t collapse under the weight of its own fictions, it’ll be because of teachers like you.


  2. Pingback: Gardner Writes » Blog Archive » Pedablogy strikes again

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *