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em Educação na Sociedade de Informação
The New Economy's Impact on Learning
Terry Ryan, Senior Researcher
The last decades of the 20th century saw countries around the world make the dramatic transition from closed, state-dominated, economies towards open, free-market, economies. The British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, captured the scale of these changes in a speech he gave in the summer of 2000 when he noted, "Over the last 30 years, world trade has increased from around $300 billion to over $5000 billions, a 15-fold increase; the amount of international capital from around $600 billion to over $8000 billion, a 13-fold increase. And foreign investment has increased from around $10 billion to over $600 billion, a 50-fold increase."1
Among an increasing number of countries, economic globalization has led to more economic openness. Today's most productive economies are open to trade, international finance and economic competition. They are also open to a constantly changing job market, and the insecurities this brings. As Chancellor Brown noted, "reforms in Britain and Europe are built on the new realities of the global economy - opened not sheltered economies. International not national capital markets, global not local competition."2 These economic changes have been driven in large part by advances in the technologies of information and communication, and the reorganization of firms, industries and markets this technology has triggered.
The Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, described the situation in the United States, "While there are various competing explanations for an economy that is in many respects without precedent in our annals, the most compelling appears to be the extraordinary surge in technological innovation that developed through the latter decades of the last century."3 Chairman Greenspan says the movement towards increasing use of ICTs, and other technologies, in the 1980s paid dividends in the mid-1990s by making businesses leaner and more flexible. He believes that more accurate and up-to-date knowledge about market conditions means fewer workers are needed to produce and deliver more goods and services, and this enables businesses to work smarter than they were able to in the past. It also means that today's workers are expected to work smarter. This article will explore the impact that the shift towards a more knowledge-based economy has had on Americans, and in particular on children's learning.
TECHNOLOGY & CHANGING CONCEPTIONS OF THE BRAIN AND LEARNING
The 21st Century Learning Initiative, since the mid-1990s, has written extensively about the nature of human learning and brain development. The story we tell about learning is vastly different to the one that was told for most of the 20th century.4 A convergence of findings from the cognitive sciences, the neurological sciences, the biological sciences and even archeology and anthropology provide powerful insights into the nature of human learning. The first point that needs to be made about learning is that the powers of new technologies have also impacted greatly on what science now understands about the brain and how humans actually learn.
For example, non-invasive brain mapping technologies, such as fMRI and Cat scans, have enabled researchers to watch learning occur as specific patterns of activity within the brain light up on a computer screen. These technologies reveal the brain to be a self-organizing open system that is shaped by its interaction with objects and events in the world. In adapting to events the brainÕs molecular mechanisms physically adjust to its environment. What this view argues is that perception is colored by experience. We never hear something in a totally objective form, but rather our receptive processes are colored by those environmental stimuli that have captured our interest in the past. We build knowledge on earlier experiences.
The U.S. National Research Council captured the essence of these changes when they reported in 1999 that, "Today, the world is in the midst of an extraordinary outpouring of scientific work on the mind and brain, on the processes of thinking and learning, on the neural processes that occur during thought and learning, and on the development of competence." The report continued, "The revolution in the study of the mind that has occurred in the last three our four decades has important implications for education."5
The contention that lies behind this article is that at the close of the 20th century the citizens of developed countries find themselves living and working in a far more open and dynamic economy than earlier generations. "In the 'New Economy,' citizens are invited to take on more individual responsibility for shaping their own destiny. They have the opportunity to become more involved in their own decision-making that impinges on their own economic and social environment. Governments must ensure that their citizens are well equipped to assume these new responsibilities. But the people they govern, too, have to become active entrepreneurs and innovators. That means breaking down barriers in the mind, as well as barriers to trade, competition and innovation. In the 'New Economy,' an 'open' society, in every sense of the word, is the key to a favorable environment for growth."6
What this means for education and learning is that during the industrial age, where brawn counted more than brains, we could get away with investing only in some of the potential of some of our children. But in the new economy, which depends on knowledge, ingenuity and innovation, on mobilizing the talents of all - getting the best out of everyone - it is essential to develop all the potential of all our children.7
Parallel to this economic shift, and the dramatic addition to educational goals, is an appreciation that the brain is an open and dynamic learning system. We now, in effect, have it in our power to design learning systems that are in line with not just the needs of the economy, but also the natural functioning of the brain. It is truly an exciting time to be alive, but as is the case in all revolutionary times there is a darkside lurking in the shadows - a society of gargantuan extremes. Consider the following facts before going any further, "The world's 200 richest people more than doubled their net worth in the four years to 1999, to more than $1 trillion - an average of $5 billion each. Their combined wealth (the top seven are Americans) now equals the combined annual income of the world's poorest 2.5 billion people. How much is $5 billion? If invested at 5.2 percent, that's a steady income of $5 million per week."8 According to James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank, "three billion people live on less than $2 a day, and 500 million live under $1 a day, absolute poverty."9
THE AGE OF ANXIETY AND INEQUALITY
"The shift from a factory-based to a computer-based economy is more traumatic even than our great-grandparents' shift from a farm-based economy. The Industrial Revolution extended over generations and allowed time for human and institutional adjustment. The Computer Revolution is far swifter, more concentrated, and more dramatic in its impact,"10 observes the eminent Harvard Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. This shift in economic systems has helped spawn an economic boom in the United States. Yet, it must be noted, economic growth is not automatically synonymous with the general welfare of all citizens. That said, consumption possibilities are an important element in welfare. Money buys possibilities that poverty does not allow. In a society with an expanding economy the questions become how to make certain economic growth leads to rising incomes and improved opportunities for all citizens, and how to make certain that growth is not achieved at the expense of future generations? Anyone interested in the learning of children must address these key questions.
The forces of globalization and "the new economy" may bring a higher standard of living, better services and more choices, but they also require "the continuous discarding of obsolete factories, economic sectors, and even human skills. The system rewards the adaptable and the efficient; it punishes the redundant and the less productive."11 It is at times brutal. It is especially painful for those who learned the rules of the earlier system well, but who have now seen the rules changed - a recent example is factory workers and miners in the former communist countries of East-Central Europe.
In the United States the economic changes of the past two decades has undoubtedly brought many benefits including 16 million new jobs since 1995 alone, but for many it has also seen life become increasingly synonymous with work. In 1999 President Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers captured the trend when they observed, "The nation's labor market is performing at record levels: the number of workers employed is at an all-time high, the unemployment rate is at a 30-year low, and real (inflation-adjusted) wages are increasing after years of stagnation."12 Americans now "put in more hours on the job than their counterparts in other industrialized nations. Americans work almost two weeks a year more than the Japanese and 14 weeks more than the Norwegians."13
These economic good times have an inevitable cost, and the price is incurred disproportionately by children who now spend far less time with those adults who love them and more time in the care of professionals whose job it is to educate them. Additionally, as a result of increasing economic opportunities fewer children are being born in developed countries, especially to parents who have more than a high school education.14 This fact helps to explain why in the United States "children make up 39 percent of the poor but only 26 percent of the total population."15 The new economy rewards those who defer child rearing, or have no children at all, to seek higher levels of education. According to the U.S. Secretary of Labor, "In 1970, college educated men earned about 36 percent more than high school graduates. Starting around 1980, college educated workers began to fare substantially better than less educated workers. By 1997, the gap had nearly doubled to 62 percent."16
The most often cited criticism of today's economy is that it creates increasing economic inequalities both within countries and between countries. "Most economists believe that, while wages have improved in the late 1990s due to robust economic growth, income inequality among workers has increased since the 1970s. Moreover, the overall gap between rich and poor has also increased in Europe and elsewhere. Despite continuous economic growth and a low rate of unemployment, the benefits of economic 'good times' in the United States have been distributed unevenly, and many groups have been left behind."17
The American situation can be summarized as follows: from 1945 until 1970, all income groups experienced economic advancement, including the poor. In fact, poor families during this period recorded the highest growth in annual real income during that time, which meant that the poor became less poor not only in relative terms, but in absolute terms as well. "Since 1973, however, the pace of income growth has slowed and income inequality has increased. Whereas median family income increased 10 percent between 1973 and 1999, income in the highest income bracket (95th percentile) grew more than a third while income in the lowest income grouping (20th percentile) remained virtually unchanged or actually dropped, especially for women. The real earnings of many low-wage and middle-class workers have stagnated or experienced only modest gains, while the more wealthy 20 percent of American families have gained greatly. In brief, since the 1970s, the standard of living of many American workers has grown very slowly, while income inequality has increased considerably."18
SOCIAL CAPITAL AND CHILDREN'S LEARNING
The reason for this brief focus on inequality is that it influences the environment in which children learn. First, in the United States educational funding is primarily drawn from property taxes. Consequently, rich communities almost always have better schools than poor communities, and increasingly in America it is only school districts in rich communities that have the resources to recruit new teachers, and most effectively utilize the power of information communication technologies. But, more significantly, and this may surprise some readers, is the influence this economic inequality has on children's out-of-school learning. Remember the brain is an open learning system and much of what children learn occurs outside the 20 percent of the time they spend in classrooms. As long ago as 1966 James Coleman's Equality of Educational Opportunity study showed that student educational achievement was most strongly affected not by tools of public policy, such as teacher salaries and classroom size, but by the environment a child's family and peers create.
Coleman, clarifying his position in 1987, wrote schools can make a difference, but they are greatly limited in their potential impact by factors relating to the family and the community. Coleman wrote, "as the Equality of Educational Opportunity report of 21 years ago first made clear, variations among family backgrounds make more difference in achievement than do variations among schools. This does not imply that 'schools don't make a difference.' There is evidence that in the absence of schooling, children from whatever background learn very little of certain things, such as mathematics. What it does imply is that schools, of whatever quality, are more effective for children from strong family backgrounds than for children from weak ones. The resources devoted by the family to the child's education interact with the resources provided by the school - and there is greater variation in the former resources than in the latter. The strategy of career-and-income oriented households in shifting burdens of child-rearing onto the state, or onto the schools, and supporting those activities through taxes or tuition, runs into this fact."19
Coleman's last sentence is an important one to reconsider in the year 2000. One of the byproducts of the recent economic changes is the fact that almost everyone is working more hours. This includes parents of children. What might less time with adults other than educators mean for children's learning? Consider the question in light of the research from the 1997 Kellogg Corporation's Learning Now program: the "conclusion was based on research conducted in Michigan, which compared the relative influence that family, community, and other factors have on student performance. Amazingly, it concluded that factors outside of the school are four times more important in determining a studentÕs success on standardized tests than are factors within the school."20
Such a research finding would not come as a surprise to anyone who appreciates the fact that children are always learning. Their brain's are always absorbing information and trying to make sense of it. The problem is that in today's information saturated world much of what they learn is either worthless or even downright dangerous. There are two ways of handling this: 1) keep children in schools and daycare centers where it is easier to control what they learn for longer hours, or 2) reconnect children's learning to the activities of the larger community by making communities safe and stimulating enough for children's constant exploration. The 21st Century Learning Initiative is dedicated to helping create the conditions for the second option, and we remain optimistic even though we understand the second option flies in the face of current economic trends.
If we want our children to become responsible life-long learners then we need to be as concerned about their time outside the classroom as we are about their time in it. If we want children to function well in an open and dynamic economy then it is imperative to expose them to open and dynamic learning environments. Harvard's Robert Putnam has written and spoken extensively about the concept of social capital, and why it matters for children's learning. What he told a recent gathering discussing the new economy at the White House is so important to children's learning that I quote it here extensively:
The basic idea of the concept of social capital is that networks have value...What I've been doing in the last several years is studying the value of those social connections for communities. And it's quite clear that social capital is one of the most important assets that a community can have. I'm very impressed as an educator with the administration's efforts to make investments to decrease class size. But the statistical evidence is that the best predictor of the performance of a community's schools, the best predictor of math scores and science scores, for example, is the social capital in that community, even better than the class size. The best predictor of the crime rate - negative predictor of the crime rate - in a community is not how many police they have, or how much they're spending on cops, but the amount of social capital in the community. And by that I simply mean the number of people who know one another's first name, the number of people who take part in community organizations, the level of trust and reciprocity in the community...
Connectedness matters to our lives and to our community's health in very many measurable ways. That's the first point: social connections really matter in measurable ways. The second point, American communities have seriously lost many forms of social capital over the last 25 years. We're familiar, all of us in this room, with one index of this, which is the decline in voting turnout. That's down about 25 percent. It turns out that that is actually one of the least striking measures of the decline in social connectedness. And in my new book, Bowling Alone, I try to pull together a lot of evidence. I'm going to just highlight a very few facts for you. The frequency with which families eat dinner together has declined by one-third over the last 25 years - not just for people who work at the White House, for all Americans - the frequency with which you have dinner with your family - the frequency with which families take vacations together has declined by one-third over the last 20 years. The number of times you have friends over to the house has declined by 45 percent in the last 25 years. Participation in clubs, in civic organizations - not just the old-fashioned ones with the funny hats, but even the new-age poetry groups and so on - adding all of those civic, community organizations up, involvement in those has been cut more than in half in the last 25 years...
So in many respects, communities all over the United States have seen a serious erosion of this very valuable asset, our social networks that connect us with one another."21
In conclusion Putnam noted, "Across time, across space, across the American states, there's a very strong, positive relationship between the degree of economic equality and the degree of social capital. The places in America that have the lowest disparity of income are the places that have the highest levels of civic engagement." It takes time and trust to develop networks, to build organizations, and to raise children. Yet, from the perspective of children's learning nothing could provide greater rewards than a cross-section of citizens coming together around the developmental needs of all its children. Parents understand this intuitively, and many want to be involved in organizations that their children are interested in joining. In fact much of the angst that parents say they feel is directly related to juggling their need to work and their desire to spend time with their kids. "Increasingly it is mandatory overtime versus coaching my kidÕs Little League baseball team," more parents are starting to lament.
REACTING TO THE TIME BIND
Despite the fact that the average family with children worked 14.5 hours more a week in 1998 than in 1974 most parents want their children, especially their very young children, to be raised by one or the other of them. According to the New York-based Public Agenda, "At the most basic level, parents of young children believe that having a full-time parental presence at home is what's best for very young children, and it is what most would prefer for their own family. The recurring, powerful refrain from the focus groups and survey findings is that whenever possible, nothing beats having a mother or father at home. Asked to choose among six child care situations that might be appropriate for children during their earliest years, 7 in 10 (70%) parents say the best is to have one parent stay at home...By an overwhelming margin (81% to 1%), today's parents say that children who spend the day with a stay-at-home parent are more likely to get affection and attention than those who are in quality child care."22
"Over the last two decades, American fathers' time at work has increased by 3.1 hour per week...for mothers, it's 5.2 hours. Employed fathers with children younger than 18 now work an average of 50.9 hours per week; working mothers 41.4 hours."23 Despite what most parents actually want, their increased working hours means their children are spending more time in the care of professionals.24 Remember that learning is an intensely subjective, personal process that each child constantly and actively modifies in light of new experiences. The more varied a person's experience the more perspectives that person can bring to a new opportunity or problem. This is an important point from the perspective of learning. The basic action of the human brain is to link one event to another. "We make sense of present experience by comparing it to previous ones; once we have found a match, we use our previous experience to decide what to do next, to predict what will follow, or simply to characterize it as another instance of something which we are familiar. What this means is that we can really only understand - and, hence, remember - situations we have been in before. Our memories are really little more than the sum of stories we can recall and apply. Part of knowing the right story to tell is having a lot of them."25
Economically, nations may gain in the short-term by getting parents into the workforce as soon as possible after the birth of their children. Both working parents and the professionals who watch children add to the gross domestic product and they pay taxes. However, it has to be stressed that as children spend more time in structured learning environments they, not surprisingly, become successful in navigating and excelling in such closed environments. They quickly learn the rules to success, and as long as the rules don't change they do well. They feel comfortable in settings where things are structured and controlled. In contrast, a more open and risky environment intimidates them; they have learned to play life safe. If this is indeed the case, then we are creating a potentially dangerous disconnect between the learning environments we are providing for children and the economy we are creating for them to enter into as adults.
Two researchers for the Board of Governors of the U.S. Federal Reserve System captured the significance of this disconnect when they wrote for the governors in 1997: "By identifying alternative means of accumulating human capital, we are able to show that an economy in the early stages of development may have too little education, but in later stages of development may have too much education ... When entrepreneurial human capital is more important than professional human capital in determining the level of technology, the steady state will have too many professionals and too few entrepreneurs. Thus, a reduction in direct formal education and an increase in entrepreneurial experience could increase per capita income."26 Read this again: it says that a reduction in direct formal education and an increase in entrepreneurial experience (activities in partnership with organizations outside the school) could increase per capita income.
What this means is that in a developed country which has plenty of professionals such as lawyers and doctors there is a greater need for a high number of entrepreneurs (those people behind the new economy) to sustain or expand economic productivity. Young people who have multiple opportunities to flex their intellect beyond just the relatively closed environment of the classroom are more likely to become such entrepreneurs. In other words, for young people to thrive in highly flexible, changing environments, they need to have grown up in open and challenging environments that stimulate their ability to be creative and thoughtful. It is rare for such challenging learning environments to coexist within institutions driven by a time-clock or a mass of standard operating procedures.
Not surprisingly, these more open learning environments are very similar to the same sorts of environments where adults thrive as well. Arie P De Geus of the Shell Corporation has written that a company that seeks short-term gains at all costs encourages lower employee loyalty and "reduced levels of trust, which then require a management style based on stronger hierarchical controls. Stronger controls reduce the space for innovation and lead to lower learning abilities of the company as a whole. Lower levels of learning in the post-industrial society reduce a company's life expectancy in a world in which success depends on the ability to maximize the use of the available brain capacity."27
This article will conclude by asking you the reader if you feel that far too many children are becoming alarmingly deficient in generating their own ideas and opportunities? If you feel that indeed they are, then you should seriously consider what can be done to develop new models of learning that would help all children take responsibility for their own learning. Believe it or not humans are in fact predisposed to think for themselves, and we are very good at it when given the proper upbringing. If this were not indeed the case we would have disappeared long ago as a species. There is a very optimistic scenario waiting to unfold and that is one where the needs of the economy are actually in-line with the natural functioning of the human brain. Yet, for this too happen, we must be careful to balance the many opportunities of today with the learning needs of our children. There is a real danger that we may be missing the opportunity. We may, in fact, be creating an economy with endless possibilities, while at the same time creating very few young people who will actually be able to take advantage of them.