What is education for? –is a question too seldom asked and posed by Seth Godin in this fantastic TED-x talk and discussed in his open-access manifesto on education.

Here’s my opinion: education is for fostering the traits needed by humanity. As such, what education is for must continue to evolve with humanity. Humanity’s needs in the 18th century are very different from the needs of today. Humanity’s needs in the 1950’s, when Bloom originally posited his taxonomy of learning, are more similar yet still different–and continue towards obsolescence–from the needs of today. So why are Bloom’s values still the gold standard of engineering academia?

Bloom developed his taxonomy when the US was in the middle of a legalistic-performance memetic shift as described by spiral memes. What our society valued fresh out of WWII was the house, car, and family–the classic american dream. When manifested at scale, this dream/value created unforeseen consequences, and the emergence of the word “sustainability” began to appear in the academic literature in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, as shown in this Figure from Olivier de Weck’s fantastic text “Engineering Systems: Meeting Human Needs in a Complex World.”

de Weck 4.2

Olivier used the emergence of sustainability to usher in what he called “The Epoch of Engineering Systems” a transition that corresponds to society’s performance-communitarian shift leading up to the communitarian-systemic shift that emerged over the last two decades.

So yes, Bloom’s Taxonomy of values is outdated. When I tell advocates of Bloom’s this, in classic legalistic fashion they assume I’m saying it’s wrong. I’m not saying that at all. A core aspect of spiral memes is that the higher level societal memes rely on a solid foundation of the lower memes. Bloom’s Taxonomy provides a standardized approach for assessing pedagogical performance. Just like the measuring stick, calculator, engineering paper, or many other approaches and technologies that defined the era continue towards obsolescence, but nevertheless remain an important part of our historical development. The problem is when the National Academy’s Scientific Teaching Initiative, the National Science Foundation, and administrators in positions of authority continue to force Bloom’s Taxonomy on new educators as the only approach to designing effective classroom experiences.

So back to Seth Godin’s question, “What is education for?” It’s not just about mastery of algorithmic rule following, i.e. obedience, anymore. We have a highly interconnected global society with increasingly diffuse resources and sensitive ecosystems. We no longer have the resources to spend on personal mastery of a concept when confronted with the daunting challenges of our globalization. It’s likely that those resources are more effectively spent actively working with a client to solve a problem related to the concept. I’ve posted previously that I flipped my two classes this last spring with interesting results. Here’s one excerpt from my teaching evaluations in my ME 316 Systems Design class this last semester:

Dr. Jacob, the last lecture you presented on May 1st changed me as a person. This is what I am going to take back home, Yemen. If I were asked about a thing that I remember the most in college, I would have said Jacobs’ lectures. This class was and still is and will remain one of the most remarkable classes I ever taken in my entire life. We did not care about grades or assignments; we cared about producing something for our clients. We felt confident, responsible, optimistic, and energetic. This is the backbone benefit of attending college. 

A storm is gathering and the flood waters are rising. Do you send your students to the gym to lift weights (analogous to homeworks and quizzes) or downtown to start packing sand? Somewhere, someone is in need of exactly what you are teaching. Otherwise, why would you be teaching it? Besides, the class is more likely to remember a real client need and an original solution than another day at the gym.

The values of humanity are changing. Ask yourself what you are educating for.