Broken Culture is Killing Education


I was recently reading Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus and had an “aha moment,” hitting a connection between what had been (at least in my head) two totally unrelated projects. Well, I don’t know that they’re actually connected; the whole thing is still completely hypothetical at this point. Since I don’t have a research department and team at my disposal, I could either sit on the thought or share it here. I usually sit on those ideas, and that gets me nowhere. What’s the worst that can happen? It turns out I’m wrong? I can live with that.


The Experiment That Fired Up My Thinking

Here’s the story: Shirky’s book discusses an experiment involving childcare workers in Haifa, Israel. I’d read about the experiment before—no idea where—but the way he framed it resonated with me this time around. If you’re unfamiliar with the experiment, I’ll give you the shortest, nuts-n-bolts breakdown I can. Essentially, the researchers were hoping to get a better understanding of the effects of “penalties” on behavior.

People Show up Late for Pick-up

People were always picking up their kids late at daycare, using excuses like traffic, working late, whatever. Initially, there was no penalty for picking up a child after hours; it was tacitly understood that parents should respect the daycare workers' time and do everything within their power to pick up their children as promptly as possible. This was a reflection of their culture, which Shirky aptly defines as “a community’s set of shared assumptions about how it should go about its work, and about its members’ relations with one another.” [Ref] p 143, Cognitive Surplus, emphasis mine[/Ref]

They Added a Fine for Late Pick-up

The experiment made one move: it added a penalty to the rule structure. You’re late to pickup? You pay a fine. The fine was only 3 sheckels (which Shirky says at the time was about ten bucks), so this wasn’t do-or-die. However, you leave your kid after hours? You pay.

More Late Pickups and a Fundamental Shift in The Social Contract

What happened? Late pickups increased. In fact, they more than doubled. Suddenly, instead of feeling guilty about taking advantage of the valuable time of the daycare worker, parents went about their business and picked up the kids at their convenience. By charging for the time, the experimenters unwittingly replaced in the parents’ minds the social value of the workers’ time with a monetary sum. Lateness was no longer an issue of respect, a social issue; it was just a couple bucks.Moreover, once the experiment was over and the penalty was redacted, parents still picked up their kids late. One can only assume that once their relationship to the workers was fully commoditized, parents, however unintentionally, permanently stripped their social relationship and sense of obligation to the daycare workers from the arrangement.Shirky describes it this way:

How we treat one another matters, and not just in a “it’s nice to be nice” kind of way: our behavior contributes to an environment that encourages some opportunity and hinders others. …When [the Haifa daycare] culture came to include an explicit fine, the parents could view the workers as a means to an end, rather than as partners with a mix of social and commercial bonds. [Ref] p 135, Cognitive Surplus [/ref]

My Aha! Moment

Penalty or no penalty, the commoditization of social responsibility that happened at Haifa isn't an isolated phenomenon. This is science that begins to illustrate what's happening to education--it's often viewed as either a waste of time or a means to an end, which means it's been compartmentalized and removed from a larger, social understanding. Somehow (not sure how just yet) we’ve commoditized our culture’s relationship with education and socially devalued it--with notably bad results.There are so many contributing factors here, and what's correlative and causative, I'm not sure, since I'm not usually running SAS regressions in my office. Either way, here are some of the elements I’m considering:

•   By offering so much at school (so many topics and activities), did we accidentally remove parents’ sense of responsibility to teach and model learning in society?

•   Did our general sense of entitlement and fixation on our rights cause us to forget that an education, from a global perspective, is a privilege, honor, and reflection of our social health?

•   Did we adjust to the relatively recent anonymity of our business relationships (meaning shopping at Target instead of the corner store) and extend that to teachers and schools?

•   Has what we do in the classroom confused schools’ direct connection with larger “social and commercial bonds”?

At the Haifa daycare center, they never recovered. Even after the penalty fee was lifted, the perception of the workers' time as less valuable and the parents' sense of responsibility to them was permanent: the groundwork of culture and social responsibility shifted. If the same shifts are taking place in education, can we honestly hope to reverse them

Elizabeth KingComment