Information Age Education
   Issue Number 45
July, 2010   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project. See http://iae-pedia.org/ and the end of this newsletter.

Education and Health Care Part 1:
Comparing Apples and Oranges

"If we can put a person on the moon, then why can’t we …” (Disgruntled American citizen.)

Introduction

In the heat of an argument, people often compare apples and oranges. After all, apples and oranges are both fruit. Thus, you have undoubtedly heard statements such “If we can put a person on the moon, then why can’t we solve problems such as poverty, racial discrimination, pollution of our environment, health care, and education in our country?” Many of us find it both fun and enlightening to explore these apples and oranges types of discussions.

Prabhu (2010) discusses the Imagine Cup Worldwide Finals. This year’s annual Microsoft-sponsored software contest focused on projects primarily focused on solving challenges in education, health care, and the environment.

This IAE Newsletter is the first of several that will explore our education and health care systems. Apples and oranges. The similarities and differences can promote interesting discussion on how both systems might be improved, and what the two systems can learn from each other.

A variety of topics and ideas will be explored, and far more questions will be raised than are answered.

An Example of Apples and Oranges

Health care in the United States now consumes more than 17-percent of its Gross Domestic Product. US spending for health care is tops in the world in both amount per person and in percentage of GDP.

The types of formal education we call schooling (including precollege and higher education) consume about 7-percent of the GDP. This is by no means tops in the world, although US spending per pupil at the precollege level is not far from the top.

Don’t get sucked into the argument of noting that 17% is a lot more than 7%, and using this to argue that we should spend more on education. This would be an apples and oranges comparison, partly because only part of the population is in precollege or higher education. For students, the average cost of schooling is quite a bit higher than the average cost for health care.

However, even this simple foray into comparing Education and Health Care leads to some challenging questions. How do individual people and local, regional, state, and national governments decide how much of their resources to allocate to Education, how much to Health Care, and how much to the huge number of other fiscal demands?

Apples versus oranges decisions continually face people and organizations allocating their financial resources. How does our educational system help students learn to deal with such decision-making? Think about this from a personal point of view. How do you make decisions, and did our formal education system help you learn how to make “good” decisions in the allocation of your personal resources such as time and money? This is an example of questions that are easy to raise and hard to answer.

Education and Health Care as Businesses

Both Education and Health Care are very large businesses. They both have a large number of employees and a very large number of customers. For simplicity in this newsletter, we will label these customers as students (in our Education system) and patients (in our Health Care system).

Purely on the business end of running a school system or a business, computers play a major role. Information and Communication Technology is routinely used in many different financial aspects of payroll, employee records, purchasing and spending, and so on. However, this commonality between Education and Health Care is not a thrust of this newsletter.

Both Education and Health Care have a very large number of employees. Many of these employees are well-educated and highly skilled professionals. One can compare and contrast how each of these two types of businesses deals with its professional-level employees. This exploration can include conditions of employment, various supports that are provided to help them do their work, professional development, and methods used to motivate their professional-level employees. This topic will be explored in the sequence of newsletters.

Businesses also collect, maintain, and make use of data about their customers. These data are used to help make overall business-related decisions. They are also used to make both general and (increasingly) quite specific customer-related decisions. It certainly comes as no surprise when you visit a doctor’s office and the receptionist looks up your records on a computer and updates contact and insurance information. Through use of e-mail, many businesses now send personalized individual ads to their customers.

Thus, one interesting aspect of comparing and contrasting Education with Health Care is the way the two systems interact with individual customers. For example, quite a bit of our education system is designed around a one teacher working with many students approach, while quite a bit of our health care system is designed on a one-to-one approach. This topic will be explored in the sequence of newsletters.

A Recent Book by Daniel Pink

The 2009 book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink is a business and economics book. It focuses mainly on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation within the field of business. Since both Education and Health Care can be thought of as businesses, it could well be that research on motivating employees is quite relevant to these two disciplines.

Daniel Pink’s book summarizes 40 years of research on how to motivate business employees. There is strong evidence that the traditional extrinsic motivation we call carrot and stick (if-then rewards and punishments) works well in motivating algorithmic, repetitious, boring job situations. The carrot and stick approach to maintaining and enhancing the performance of workers is successful in many different Industrial Age jobs.

To a large extent however, such an extrinsic approach to motivation does not work well in motivating heuristic problem solving and higher-order thinking activities that are key to Information Age (Digital Age) productivity. Indeed, it often leads to decreased performance in these areas.

Let’s use your authors as an example. Both Bob and Dave are retired professors. During our careers we received reasonably decent rates of pay, we had reasonably decent work conditions, we were treated reasonably fairly, and so on.

In addition, our jobs provided us with a great deal of time to do tasks of our own choosing. This autonomy and encouragement of creative productivity (not the carrot and stick of possible tenure, promotion, and pay increases) drove our careers. We were intrinsically motivated.

Humans have innate curiosity, ability to learn, and ability to be creative problem solvers. Daniel Pink tells us how these innate drives and intrinsic motivation can be supported by employers to increase productivity in work situations requiring higher-order thinking and creative problem solving.

Pink’s book contains many examples applicable both to business employees and volunteers. His examples explain why Bob and Dave produce this free newsletter. They explain the motivation of volunteers have created the Wikipedia, the Linux operating system, and the Firefox browser. Pink gives examples of a number of for-profit companies who allow certain categories of their employees to spend time on projects of their own choosing. For example, Google lets its software engineers spend a day a week on whatever they want to work on. Google and a number of other companies have enjoyed increased rates of creativity and development of potential new products through this approach.

Pink provides examples of maintenance and cleaning employees in hospitals being given encouragement to converse with patients. In many cases, this brings increased intrinsic motivation and job satisfaction to the employees that leads them to doing their overall jobs better, and it has a side benefit of bringing joy to patients they converse with.

How does this intrinsic motivation idea work in K-12 education? Here, there is a strong top-down carrot and stick approach to have teachers teach to the test so that students will score well on state and national assessments. Teachers, principals, and entire school systems are threatened by potential punishments if test scores don’t meet prescribed standards and/or yearly rates of improvement. The arguments presented in Pink’s book suggest that this approach will eventually fail in its efforts to improve the quality of education that students receive. Tony Wagner’s 2008 book discussed in the previous issue of this newsletter provides many examples of how the testing system is decreasing the quality of our educational system.

Final Comment

Pink’s writing and the work of many researchers provide an approach to analyzing the possible effect of using intrinsic motivation to increase worker productivity in activities requiring higher-order thinking and creative problem solving. He notes that this is not an exact science, and that sometimes a careful balance between use of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation approaches will be more successful than either alone.

Subsequent IAE Newsletters will explore more ideas that come from apples and oranges types of thinking.


References

Pink, Daniel H. (December 2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. USA: Riverhead Books (Penguin Group). See a 19 minute TED Video talk by Pink at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrkrvAUbU9Y.

Prabhu, Maya T. (7/12/2010). Student programmers solve real-world challenges. eSchool News. Retrieved 7/12/2010 from http://www.eschoolnews.com/2010/07/12/student-programmers-solve-real-world-challenges/.

Wagner, Tony (2008). The global achievement gap: Why even our best schools don’t teach the new survival skills our children need—and what we can do about it. NY: Basic Books.


About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. IAE is a project of the Science Factory, a 501(c)(3) science and technology museum located in Eugene, Oregon. Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address http://IAE-pedia.org, a Website containing free books and articles at http://I-A-E.org, and the free newsletter you are now reading.

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