Jun 11 2009

questions on educational development

by at 4:59 pm

My final paper will ask what development strategies can implement best practices of education for the least advantaged students around the globe. The paper will have to address some basic questions. First, what do we know? Second, what don’t we know? Third, what changes can and should we make? Fourth, how can we make those changes? And fifth, what theory could support or challenge the strategies we would set out? In this post, I will outline what each of these questions might entail.
A global map, arranged by the "education index", provided by the Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Program

A global "education index", provided by the Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Program

So, what do we know? This question will have to be answered in several different ways. For example, we know that educational institutions often reflect the social organizations in which they are embedded. We also know that educational models provide some of the most effective means by which young people are socialized into cultural patterns. Since culture directly influences institutions, and therefore markets and politics, we know that culture and institutions form a reinforcing feedback cycle. Thus, we know how hard it is to change the practices of cultural institutions, and we can also infer how effective small changes can become over a long duration. Finally, we know which practices work, and which do not — to which we shall return.

Then, what don’t we know? We cannot know all of the externalities that also affect culture and institutions, nor can we predict what externalities will arise from small changes in those systems. We do not know the depth or complexity of each individual who participates in these educational systems. Most importantly, we do not know what form the most effective innovations in education will take, nor from where they will arise. However, all of these uncertainties and gaps in our knowledge can be harnessed productively.

What changes can we make, and what should we do? Here, the questions lose some objectivity and blend into subjective, cultural territory. We can say, generally, that we should aim to change educational practices from worse to better, and there are already measures that can help us direct those efforts. For example, we can look to previous research that indicates effective educational models, like Japan, Denmark, India, Finland, and South Korea. We can also seek out failing or defunct educational institutions, like Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, and Mexico. Finally, we can look at the relative efficacy of international, national, regional, and local educational institutions to determine what our strategy should be.

So we come to the question of strategy. This involves determining both what opportunities we have before us, as well as what challenges. Once the research indicates some particular, concrete institutional models, how we go about instituting the necessary changes will be radically contingent on the culture and the model in question. This blends into the theoretical aspect of the foregoing research, since the cultural, economic, institutional, national, linguistic, and many other networks that affect education itself will require analysis. We can say, however, that if we identify some interstitial, as-yet-untapped resources, like the apparent multilingual advantage of those in less-developed regions, then we can target our strategy to those advantages, and at the same time, minimize resistance to the small changes that will likely lead to structural revolutions.

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Jun 08 2009

American culture run amok

by at 2:30 pm

Where Douglass North argues the centrality of institutions in checking behavior and reducing uncertainty, Avner Greif takes the argument into the cultural realm by laying out how those institutions are steeped in cultural values and beliefs. Culture too plays an undeniable role in the current U.S. (and global) financial mess.

Piggies pay the piper for overspending

It is not only freewheeling spending and credit addiction that caused the economic downturn, though both are at fault and arguably became part of the American economic culture. Also at fault is the approach to regulation, which helped lead to poor lending standards and overspending. Rather than cut the problem off at the pass as it became apparent a market break down was on the horizon, we reacted afterward, especially with talk of more regulation. Is this our culture at work? I think so.

Let’s use a Greifian approach to look at historical economic challenges in the U.S. An NPR story reminded me of American responses to financial troubles. The Great Depression gave rise to a slew of new regulations and regulatory bodies, such as the FDIC. Trouble in the early 1900s led to the Federal Reserve. One legacy of the savings and loan crisis is the Office of Thrift Supervision. Now talking heads and politicians are bleating about more regulation. What about smarter regulation?

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Jun 04 2009

on dynamic stability

by at 3:28 pm

We speak of “flows”. By these, we mean the movements — of ideas, of information, of resources, of people — that describe paths through, around, and in the networks we speak of as landscapes. In this way, we talk about dynamics. We begin to think of change, in the structure of relationships, as constant. And, as we turn our attention to these flows, we find that they move in the same way metaphorically as physically. That is to say, the changes we describe tend to follow the paths of least resistance. Continue Reading »

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Jun 02 2009

the conditions for radical change

by at 4:47 pm

We can look at contemporary institutions all we like, but as Putnam points out, their adaptivity and other structural characteristics may not be immediately apparent to us. “Those concerned with democracy and development should … lift their sights beyond instant results.” Well, we are certainly concerned with development. The question is, how concerned are we with democracy itself?

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Jun 01 2009

the hunger

by at 4:52 pm

The agent of change is the individual entrepreneur responding to the incentives embodied in the institutional framework. – North, p 83

When a child goes hungry inside of a developed region, like in Southeast Washington, DC, they might find alternative sources of food, such as government-subsidized after-school programs. In areas like ours, when hunger becomes a problem, we can flex the dense ties of our urban networks and redistribute some public funding to provide, say, more food subsidies to those after-school programs. We might just as easily find community support for shifting school lunches to slightly later in the day, or even the funds to add a snack period for older grades late in the afternoon. In these ways, the vast safety-net of the dense, developed urban network provides resources by which the problem of food insecurity can be addressed for relatively large groups of children. For the rest of their families, more drastic measures can be taken, such as establishing community farms and grocery cooperatives.

The entrepreneurs who can be induced to invest in these enterprises will likely do so on the basis of their secure niche in an emerging market. The capital flows that support continued operations of these food security programs will originate at first largely from government subsidies, but they can be established to work towards more private and collective ownership over time by means of profit-sharing or by providing the initial capital as loans to individuals or small groups. These groups will, in turn, have high incentives for contributing their labor and expertise to the development of these organizations because of their close ties to one another, those which inform their collective identity, as residents within a particular neighborhood with a particular character, set of ideals, and other cultural markers which each of them shares.

Such initiatives are grounded in deeply implicit, or tacit, knowledge bases. Those who propose such projects for the poor areas of their own cities tend to have had some common experiences with those experiencing hunger. The arguments that are made in these developed urban centers on behalf of those experiencing hunger because of war, famine, and epidemic diseases in other regions of the world, however, are grounded in a very different kind of experience. Perhaps there is a connection between the current strategies for dealing with food crises in other parts of the world are also too deeply entrenched in modes of thinking that rely on media coverage, government funding, and the privilege of recourse to fast food. In this way, our mentalities about truly effective and sustainable food sources are too closely linked to our experiences with food service. I would argue that those with life experience in the heartland and country, those who have lived and word among farmers, would be the best experts to call upon when strategies for food source development are in question. When faced with a famine, one question a farmer might ask that a lobbyist might not is, “what can you grow here?”. The answers to this simple inquiry can provide a wealth of insight as to what strategies to pursue for getting a region back on track to self-sufficiency.

Simply put, there will be a marked difference between organizations of food producers who grow corn, for example, and organizations of producers of soybeans. There will also be a clear distinction between organizations that produce a variety of food, and organizations that produce one cash crop. The labor forces for each kind of group will specialize differently, their land (and tasks) will be divided very differently, and their long-term effects on local, regional, and global food markets will radically diverge. Thus, in order to deal with a food crisis, we must begin quite literally “from the ground up” as we develop solutions. The first step, at any rate, is to feed the hunger, both literal and metaphorical, of those whose lives are most likely to change radically in the short-term on account of these solutions, and to do so without compromising the longer-term direction that such strategies will take.

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May 21 2009

Different connections for different purposes

by at 2:01 pm

I capitalize on a combination of my strong and weak connections in my intellectual pursuits, and use my network for different purposes. I write about research at Georgetown, which spans thousands of topics and areas. Anything I want to know more about is researched here – piracy, HIV/AIDS, health economics, violence in the Middle East, dolphin communication tactics, you name it. Often my articles reflect my own interests and subjects I want to learn more about.

While interviewing Georgetown faculty (weak connections) I get to bounce my theories off of them. I’m dealing with experts, some of who have devoted their entire careers to their research areas, so I feel confident in the responses I get. I may not always agree with their opinion, but I know they’re not coming out of thin air either. These interactions help me reshape or reinforce my ideas and way of analyzing situations.

This bleeds over into my personal life, or strong connections. Most of my friends are either from international backgrounds or work in development, peace and conflict or other international affairs areas. Coupled with living in Washington, this means discussions of news of the day or debates over a social topic take an international affairs bent.

Take Somali piracy. The issue fascinates me, especially the visual of several men on small boats keeping the U.S. Navy at bay. I wanted to know more about this, so I interviewed a piracy expert at Georgetown – a weak connection in my network. We talked about poverty as a root cause of Somali piracy, but also the U.S. intervention in the 1990s, international efforts (or lack thereof) to boost up Somali government and the law of the seas.

Piracy later came up among my friends and, as inevitably happens, someone began a sentence with “Yes, but you have to consider …” and took on the topic as an examination of economic systems. Professionally and personally, connections in my network tend to approach issues holistically and I’ve been subconsciously trained to do so as well. It focuses my approach on the big picture rather than using tunnel vision. I’m finding that kind of holistic approach emerging in my class research papers, with different disciplines considered to answer questions. This can be challenging, especially with disciplines I know little about, but is helping more learn to stop favoring one discipline above all others.

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