Improving By Doing (“Answers”)

Yesterday I described a study
which economist Alex Tarrabok blogged about.

Today I will provide the answers.

I’m guessing this blog is quite nerdy and only of interest to me!

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Participants in the experiment were presented with a wheel with some weights that could be moved along four axis and they were asked to place the weights to maximize the speed at which the wheel move down a track.

The problem isn’t trivial since an optimal solution requires placing the weights in different spots to take advantage of both inertial and potential energy.

Participants were organized into chains of five. Each participant was given 5 trials. The weight configuration and the results of the last two trials were passed on to the next person in the chain.

Thus, people farther down the chain potentially “inherit” more cultural knowledge.

What were the results?

1. Did the “5th participant’s” wheel go faster than the 1st?

Yes. 146 mph vs 124 mph.

2. Could the “5th participant” look at drawings of wheel configurations, and better predict which would go faster, compared to the 1st?

No. “Technology improved, understanding did not.”

So people could copy things that seemed to work, even if they could not describe exactly why they worked.

3. They allowed each generation/participant to leave the next generation a “theory” of wheel speed. Did this “book learning” speed up the evolution of technology?

No.

It did not. Moreover, theory transmission didn’t even result in much learning! Indeed, in some respects theories actually reduced learning because people who inherited a theory tended to believe it to the exclusion of other theories and, as a result, they reduced their exploration of the design space.

What are the implications for schools?

Here I found a comment from Rayward to be helpful.

What Tabarrok is describing is the phenomenon explored by Nobel winner Edmund Phelps. Here is the excellent Tim Taylor describing the Phelps’ argument.

And then to Taylor:

My own gloss on Phelps’s argument would go something like this: When standard economics (going back to Schumpeter) considers economic growth, it often follows a cookbook approach in which

science creates ideas,

engineers apply ideas,

and then a business supplied with appropriately skilled workers makes them.

In this vision, most workers are cogs in this machine, motivated solely by their wages and their prospects for consumption of goods and services.

Phelps pushes back against what I’m calling the standard perspective in a number ways. He places less emphasis on the role of science and new discovery for innovation, but correspondingly more emphasis on “business knowledge” or “commercial knowledge” in creating innovations about what to produce and how to produce it.

He argues for the importance of having large swaths of the workforce actively involving themselves in this process of business discovery and innovation. He argues on economic grounds that this broader involvement is important for innovation, and on philosophical grounds that many people find a deeper life satisfaction from involvement in creativity and a career.

Let’s replace to fit K-12. To paraphrase:

Researchers create ideas,

School leaders or district leaders apply or “choose” ideas,

And then a school supplied with teachers makes and them.

In this vision, most teachers are cogs in this machine, motivated solely by their wages and their prospects for consumption of goods and services.

Phelps pushes back.

1. He places less emphasis on the role of researchers, but correspondingly more emphasis on “practical how-to knowledge” (Lemov might be an example).

2. Phelps argues for the importance of having large swaths of teachers actively involving themselves in this process of discovery and innovation.

He argues that this broader involvement is important for innovation, and on philosophical grounds that many people find a deeper life satisfaction from involvement in creativity and a career.

This is arguably part of the pivot that Gates Foundation is making.

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I think there are 2 good situations for teachers, and 1 bad one.

Good. One is to join a school network where the “Scientist/Researchers” are in fact really really good. Be a cog in a machine that seems to help kids a lot. You give permission to being a cog because you want to be part of that.

Good. The Phelps version: let teachers as individuals innovate, choose, decide, discover. Even if they can’t articulate precisely the “theory.” I argue for that here with Michael Horn in a recent article.

Most common: a very dissatisfying middle. Teachers are given “research-tested” innovation that does not actually work in their classrooms (so they’re cogs which are ineffective), but often the management is so weak that teachers are able to behave as non-compliant cogs and do more of what they want.