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Systemic Curricular Choices Shape National Cognitive Traits

A brief point.

AFJ has a feature article by General Martin Dempsey on the need for the Army in it’s professional military education system to build future leaders who are critical thinkers:

Building Critical Thinkers

….The Army Leader Development Strategy identifies three critical leadership attributes for all Army leaders: character, presence and intellect. In addition to those three foundational attributes, we assert that strategic leaders must be inquisitive and open-minded. They must be able to think critically and be capable of developing creative solutions to complex problems. They must be historically minded; that is, they must be able to see and articulate issues in historical context. Possessed of a strong personal and professional ethic, strategic leaders must be able to navigate successfully in ethical “gray zones,” where absolutes may be elusive. Similarly, they must be comfortable with ambiguity and able to provide advice and make decisions with less, not more, information. While all leaders need these qualities, the complexity of problems will increase over the course of an officer’s career and require strategic leaders to develop greater sophistication of thought….

Read the rest here.

The nation is currently undergoing a debate about public education, of sorts. I say “of sorts” because the debate has largely been very dishonest on the part of proponents of certain kinds of “reforms” in which they hope to have a future financial interest, if radical changes can be legislatively imposed that will a) drastically lower labor costs and b) permit a “scalable” curriculum, to use the grammar of certain equity investor CEOs and lobbyists. The former does not concern this topic as much as the second, though the two will work in unison to create a profitable business model for a for-profit management company desiring to contract with local and state governments to run school systems.

“Scalability” builds upon Bush era NCLB legislation that emphasized standardized testing in basic math and reading skills, with punitive accountability measures for schools and districts failing to make “adequate yearly progress”. Due to the penalties and escalating standards, public schools have frequently narrowed their curriculums considerably, reducing instructional time for history, science, complex literature and the arts to put greater emphasis on basic skill drill instruction in just two subjects.

The net effect is that American public school students, roughly 88 % of all school children, spend a greater proportion of their day at concrete level cognitive activities than they did five or ten years ago and far less time on higher-level “critical thinking” like analysis or synthesis, making evaluative judgments, inquiry based learning or problem solving.

 “Scalability” means expanding on this dreary and unstimulating paradigm with digitally delivered, worksheet-like exercises to comprise the largest percentage of the instructional time for the largest number of children possible. It will be a low-cost, high-profit system of remedial education for would-be contractors, provided students are not able to “opt out”, except by leaving the public system entirely.

But only if their parents can afford it.

The US military relies upon the public schools to deliver the initial k-12 education of the overwhelming majority of their officer corps, to say nothing of the enlisted ranks. The soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen who went to Andover or similar private institutions before enlisting are very, very few. Today some public schools are excellent, some are failing and the rest are in-between. Most make an effort to challenge students of all ability levels, from those needing extra help to those in AP courses and gifted programs. There is systemic resiliency in a diversity of experiences.

What will be the effect on  the military leadership in the future if critical thought is methodically removed from public education by a nationally imposed, remedially oriented, uniform, “scalable” curriculum that is effectively free of science, history, literature and the arts? What kind of cognitive culture will we be creating primarily to financially benefit a small cadre of highly politically connected, billionaire-backed, would-be contractors?

Can inculcating critical thinking really be left entirely to universities and, in the case of the military, mid-career education?

What kind of thinkers will that system produce?


Or worse?

“What we think, we become” – Buddha

8 Responses to “Systemic Curricular Choices Shape National Cognitive Traits”

  1. onparkstreet Says:

    If you want leaders that are creative than the "system" has to reward creativity. The creative will then create themselves.
    Can anyone explain to me why small problem solving groups in schools is any better than the previous board lecturing when we don’t push the students at all? It seems the critical variable is not educational theory but expectation.
    Average effort is rewarded as if it is excellence. So, mediocrity reigns.
    Never been in the military. Does it reward creativity? However you might measure such a thing?
    (Medical education, from my view as a clinician-educator, is a mess. It’s a mess because of ed theory, catering to students who view a medical degree as something that they "bought" with horrendous loans for ridiculously high tuitions, and weak-kneed bureaucrats who don’t really care about good doctoring. They care about school ranking and having meetings. Meeting, meetings, meetings, meetings.
    Can the Army weaponize meetings? We sure do seem to know how to waste time that way in this society.
    So, er, no, don’t leave it to the universities. One more burden for employers and the Army to bear, it appears.
    (I’m grumpy this am, eh?)
    – Madhu

  2. Chris Says:

    I’m a Naval Academy graduate and a Marine Officer with broken time (currently active again, and a Command and Staff grad).  The older I get, the less that I think education matters, and the more that I think selection does (and when I was a Captain, I said that the only benefit a college degree provides for an officer is ensure that he is at least 22–which is worthwhile when you lead 19 year olds).  .Anyway, there seems to be some amount of recent research arguing against the notion that colleges put much in to their students that wasn’t there already.  There was a recent paper by Dale and Krueger that somewhat undercuts the theory that one’s college matters for income, when you control for ability (they compare people admitted to a particular college to ones who attend).  My inference, and of course this fits my preconceptions, is that your college (and much more so for your PME) merely shows what you have.  So, I’d suggest that if you want creative leaders, recruit them.  Like the football coaches say, "You can’t coach speed."

  3. zen Says:

    Hi Doc Madhu,
    I am not well versed in the culture of medical education, beyond hearing my med prof uncle rant about his interns near the end of his career. I am not sure though if the sense of entitlement ( showing up + effort = an A or B) comes from ed theory or how Gen Y has been raised by manic helicopter parents. I see it in my own students but so do employers of young workers whether they went to college or not. Immigrants and the children of immigrants appear to be the exception to this attitude, whether they went to public schools or not. Their parents had different standards, expectations and child rearing cultures.
    Hi Chris,
    " The older I get, the less that I think education matters, and the more that I think selection does"
    Heritability of talents and intelligence and talents is a factor, to a degree. You have to have a certain level of smarts to, say, get a good score on the LSATs, pass an EE course, master calculus, understand James Joyce or Clausewitz and so on. However, how and when your smarts interact with the environment has a broad effect on longitudinal outcomes.
    You do not get into Harvard merely by being very smart and our "selection" process, which does a rough job of sorting out American students is partially measuring these other environmental effects, usually derived from a high SES upbringing which includes a superior k-12 education and implicit knowledge of elite social mores. Which is why the typical Harvard student seems more broadly versatile and affectively competent than  their peer at MIT , CalTech or U. of C. who might be more brilliant in IQ wattage but narrower in application or social acuity.

  4. Chris Says:

    Zen,From what I understand, a series of twin studies have shown little to no relationship between cognitive development and SES.  So, I would say that it was not upbringing that turned a kid on a path to Caltech instead of Harvard, but that he was born more suited to Caltech than Harvard.  Now, if we return to PME, I would not take my position as implying passivity for the education/training of our officers.  Just like the football coaches and speed, they make their players run sprints.  But, we need to be realistic.  If you want better Colonels, don’t rely on Naval War College to improve your Lieutenant Colonels.  Instead, recruit better lieutenants.

  5. zen Says:

    Hi Chris,
    To  an extent, we are talking past one another but  partly you are assuming the sum effects of ability and environmental interaction at the selection point to be intrinsic qualities i.e, – "more suited".
    Twin studies yield a lot of useful empirical information about IQ, SES and education but are handicapped by self-selection bias. Children are just not assigned at random to adoptive families for good reasons and SES verifiably matters in longitudinal academic performance even when IQ’s are constant ( or at least within a half of a standard deviation).  The famous "summer lag" in children’s academic performance increases as you move down the SES scale and diminishes then disappears when you move to the top due to the more intellectually stimulating and culturally enriched environment, differences in family values.
    So children in the UMC and above benefit from accumulating measurable gains each year that low SES children of the same IQ while being far more likely to attend first rate k-12 schools. They are also, from this kind of socialization, far more likely to acquire "soft skills" like task persistence, delayed gratification, longer time horizons, social fluency and qualities loosely defined as "good character" that goes into the "suitedness" for, say, Yale law school or Annapolis.
    As you can’t dictate family structure and values, nor should we as a society try to do so though we should refrain from policies which subsidize making them worse, education represents the primary ladder of uplift for children of high ability but low to lower middle SES status. It cannot make up all the difference but it can remediate some of the gap that would occur if a child with high ability and low SES went to a dysfunctional school or one in which all complex activities had been intentionally eliminated.
    There’s a strong oligarchical element of eliminating the generational competition in what these privately educated UC "reformers", well-to-do grads  from Ivy League universities mostly, are trying to impose nationally while making a buck for themselves. Economists would call that using government power to lock in a comparative advantage for their children and their class.

  6. Chris Says:

    Hey, Zen, my apologies if I was being unresponsive.  The twin studies do indeed suffer from restriction of range in that children are not placed in very low SES homes.  Similarly, I do not dispute that truly terrible schools will stunt a student’s development.  Perhaps our disagreement is about where you draw the line at which you’ve basically gotten all you are going to get out of improving the environment (diminishing marginal returns).  Well, I enjoyed this back and forth, and I don’t want to wear out my welcome.  Take care.

  7. zen Says:

    Hey Chris,
    No apologies required my friend, you have not overstayed and you are always welcome to comment here.
    Not unresponsive and not entirely wrong either – while it is hard to tell from my replies, I agree with you – up to a point. Intrinsic ability matters a lot it just isn’t the whole picture. I seldom post about matters related to my professional work as it tends to cause me to belabor the point – as I have done today 🙂

  8. Union vs. Non-Union (Towboat jobs thread from Maritime Employment Forum) Says:

    […] are outside my area of expertise but here is a right leaning FP / military blog about the issue Systemic Curricular Choices Shape National Cognitive Traits Here is another article Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule our Schools K.C. function […]

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