Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Learning Can Be Fun

I'm taking a course at Harvard. It's called "Justice: what's the right thing to do?"

Thanks to the wonders of the Net and some generous sponsors, you can take it too by clicking here.

Suddenly, after decades away from formal schooling, I'm rethinking whether cannibalism is kosher. How about the idea that taxation is the same as slavery? These and other weighty topics are part of the course presented by one heck of a fantastic lecturer: Michael Sandel.

But rather than get into the specifics of this particular course, which is worth doing at length, what I wanted to talk about is how important the teacher is in the learning experience. This course reminded me of those occasions in college when I actually learned something that stayed with me longer than the time to the next exam. These experiences happened very, very infrequently, but universally they occurred in courses where I had an inspiring professor. In fact, I remember choosing courses strictly on the basis of who was teaching it (although sometimes the time and day of week entered into the decision as well; clearly, it couldn't be scheduled before 10am or after 3 PM, or on Friday...but I digress).

This reinforces my opinion that if we are serious about improving the U.S. education system, we need to attract the best and brightest to the profession. Right now, we're doing a lousy job of that. People like Chancellor of Schools Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C. are leading the charge to shake up the system. She's offered the teachers' union a reasonable deal: give up tenure and receive a salary and bonus based upon student performance. The teachers can get triple digit salaries if they meet specified goals.

Well, as you might expect, she's meeting a lot of resistance. If she succeeds, things could really change for the better. In those cases where new (typically young and enthusiastic) teachers have this plan, the student achievements are impressive.

The bottom line for me is that incentives work. They work in the private sector and there's no inherent reason they can't succeed in the public sector as well. The tricky part is getting the goals and the measurement of those goals right.

By the way, returning to the subject of re-experiencing college, it would be really neat if there was a way to have Friday night beer parties on-line.