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Maslow Looks at Spanish
I had always thought that learning a foreign language was a great investment. We have a huge number of Spanish speakers in the US and it seemed to me that being able to communicate with them would be a great skill to gain. A recent episode of the Freakonomics Radio podcast combined with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs has started to sway my opinion though. In this recent episode they took a look at the economics of learning a foreign language.
For those of you unfamiliar with Freakonomics it was a book and is now a radio show co-authored by Steven Levitt and Stephan Dubner. Steven Levitt is an Economics professor at the University of Chicago, winner of the John Bates Clark Medal (one of the most prestigious economics awards considered second only to the Nobel Prize in Economics) and has been named as one of the 100 people who shape our world by Time Magazine. Him and his co-author are skeptics so they love to disprove assumptions that we have about the world around us and the focus of the recent episode was foreign language learning.
For this episode they interviewed students, teachers and a researcher to ascertain the effects and conceptions of learning a foreign language and the results were surprising. According to Bryan Caplan of George Mason University, less than 1% of high school students gain a usable level of language competency from their high school courses and this is based on self reports leading the researchers to believe the true number is even lower. At the same time, some students leave our educational system lacking in English language and numeration skills that are requisite for many jobs. What surprised me most is that, based on the research, even the students that are able to attain fluency in a foreign language make only small gains in job competitiveness and pay compared to like peers. The following numbers are the calculated increase to compensation based on a language competency over similar peers: Spanish 1.5%, French 2.7% and German is the highest at 4%. These are for people in similar fields with similar educational backgrounds and is only true for people in the US (foreigners learning English can have tremendous returns as English has become the lingua franca for much of the world).
Now you may be thinking, as I was, that this may be an overemphasis on looking at students like widgets that we need to pump out in the correct shapes to fit into the gears of society where the job market dictates they go. Well the professor from George Mason addresses these concerns and in fact he studied this subject with the expectation of having opposites results. The author’s background as discussed in this excerpt from the radio show further illustrates his perspective.
DUBNER: And by the way, Bryan Caplan, for all that he sounds like a language skeptic, or at least a language utilitarian, in real life, he’s a language romantic. He was in college. He fell in love with German – the literature…
CAPLAN: I can read Nietzsche in German…
DUBNER: The cuisine…
CAPLAN: [GERMAN WORD] which is kind of a fancy sundae. It’s really good.
DUBNER: German music…
CAPLAN: My favorite composer is Richard Wagner, of course.
DUBNER: But still… the economist in him trumps the romantic.
His point is this: our students need to have basic skills before we force them to develop enriching skills. Foreign language should absolutely be an option in our schools for those interested, but to force it on uninterested, struggling students is a waste of time and, through his economist lens, resources. \this is especially true considering that this forced system develops few bilingual graduates.
What convinces me further of the validity to this argument is my understanding of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Reading for pleasure, visiting museums, and going to the theatre are all activities that spike when you have a level of comfort and security. This is the basic premise of Maslows Hierarchy of Needs. People will focus the majority of their mental energies in the lowest level need that is not being met. So if you are starving your thoughts and activities will center around attaining food. If you are unsafe then that will be your focus. As the data illustrates, it is upon meeting those lower needs that you can be mentally freed to explore artistic and philosophic activities that many in education hope our students will be engaged in. This is the premise of developing lifelong learners and liberal arts educations. The issues is that some students graduate without the abilities to sufficiently meet their more basic needs and do not have the mental freedom to find the desire for continued learning and enrichment, i.e. the stomach takes charge over the mind. It seems we gave evolved hardwired to try and survive before we try and thrive.
With all this in mind, what does any of it have to do with the ed tech? Well we have a job market imbalance in the United States. More jobs are shifting to requiring technical skills and the supply of workers to fill them is not keeping up- the wealth and employment gap are the result. We have lots of good jobs in the United States and many companies would prefer to keep them in the US due to security and intellectual property issues but the companies cannot find the workers with the requisite skills. By reducing the forced emphasis of foreign language we reclaim this instructional time and use it to target interventions for students that are behind in basic math and English skills and open up a larger emphasis on technical training and trades. This could mean more programming classes in school but also could mean bringing back wood and auto shop classes. Some people are even talking about programming counting as a foreign language as it mirrors language in many ways, requiring specialized verbiage and sentence structures. All of this not only seems a more prudent use of our limited instructional time but furthermore might engage a greater diversity of students.
Don’t get me wrong- I do not want to take an entirely pragmatic view to education. It is important that students graduate and live enriched, mentally stimulating lives, not just have the skills that are convenient to their employer. My critique is that in terms of our modern psychological understanding we have the cart in front of the horse. We need to give them the skills to be freed from the shackles of evolutionary psychology, before we can expect (and try to force) them to be self actualized adults we hope they will become.
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This last week I had a lot of fun playing around with Google Charts. For those of you familiar with charts in Excel, these work pretty much the same way but Google Docs will give you the prewritten HTML to post onto your website. I use this to make a spreadsheet that I load data from the state into to give daily SBAC progress updates, but it allows you to visually update your website as you update data stored in a spreadsheet about anything you track.