Some thoughts on educating students for “success” and “happiness” in the 21st century and more...


Some thoughts on educating students for “success” and “happiness” in the 21st century

Today we returned to work after a relaxing week of holiday-making for a day of “professional development”. The day kicked off with our school’s director sharing some information about a recent audit of our school’s parent community, which revealed that there is great anxiety among the parents at our school about their children’s experiences in school today, mostly relating to how well they will achieve on their examinations and whether their levels of achievement will assure them entrance to the top universities to which they (both the parents and the students) aspire.

The ultimate source of this anxiety, it would seem, is not the immediate importance of exam scores or even college acceptances, rather the deeper concern among parents that their children may grow up to be less successful than they themselves have been in their careers. I am sure that this anxiety is one experienced by nearly every parent in the history of mankind: from our primitive ancestors who stressed over their children’s abilities (or lack thereof) with a bow and arrow to blue collar workers of the 20th century who worked 80 hours a week to be able to send their children to state colleges where they may learn a skill that would raise their lot in the future. The parents of my students today likewise fear that their own children may grow up to be less successful in the fields they believe to be worthy of their children: business, finance, law, technology, management, and so on.

In fact, the parents whom our school serves are some of the most successful people in the world in their respective fields. They have risen to the top levels of management in multi-national corporations. They sit at the pinnacles of global financial institutions. Many are successful entrepreneurs or investors who have proudly raised their children in a world of luxury. The very fact that they send their children to our school is evidence of their own career accomplishments (we are a very expensive private school in one of the richest countries in the world).

It is for this reason that I believe nearly all these parents’ should be very anxious about their children’s futures. It is natural for parents to want their children to achieve what they have achieved (or greater!). It is natural for parents to desire for their children to be able to enjoy the living standards they have been afforded thanks to their own accomplishments in business, finance or law. As I have said, every parent in history has wanted as much for their children.

But is it realistic for a major league pitcher to wish for his son to grow up to throw a ball 105 miles per hour? Certainly not.
I believe that today it is less likely than it has been for generations that a child growing up at the top of the socioeconomic ladder will, in fact, achieve the level of professional success and the resulting income and living standard that their parents achieved. These parents’ anxieties are 100% justified and they have very little reason to believe their children will someday earn the incomes they enjoy today.

Here’s why: The entire trajectory of the global economy has shifted since my students’ parents embarked on the career paths that led them to where they are today. Globalization and technological change have displaced (or replaced) many of the blue collar jobs that Europeans and American counted on for a decent living standard in the 20th century, and these same processes have already begun to affect the white collar careers on which many of my students imagine their future paths taking them. The knowledge and skills we teach in schools today will be increasingly devalued in the future.

Knowledge will become a free good as artificial intelligence and other information technologies reduce the barriers to acquiring knowledge to zero. Likewise, the gaps in global skill levels and productivity that allowed the growth of incomes in Europe and North America to exceed those in the rest of the world throughout the 20th century have already begun to narrow, evidenced by a decade of low or no growth in the rich world and nearly 5% growth in the rest of the world. This means the pool of skilled workers of which my students will eventually be a part will be vastly broader and deeper than that in which their parents competed.

The knowledge and the skills we teach our students in school today will only continue to be devalued in the future, meaning students whose future aspirations are based on the assumption that such learning objectives will assure them a high income and living standard will find themselves drowning in a labor pool in which they have less economic value than they ever have in history.

Stated simply, value is a function of scarcity, and as skilled and knowledgeable workers become less scarce, those whose only assets are what they “learned in school” will find themselves far less likely to achieve the levels of income that those of earlier generations did.

The implication of technological advancement and globalization (both the defining forces of our century) for education is that unless we begin teaching something NEW and DIFFERENT than what was taught in the last century, our students will almost certainly not achieve what their parents (educated in the last century) have been able to achieve with their educations.

So this begs the question: What can students learn in school today that WILL help them achieve the levels of success and happiness to which all parents aspire for their children?

I think the answer to this question also came up in this morning’s speech by my school’s director. He closed by sharing a quote from a student who recently graduated from my school in which the student reflected on what he learned on a school trip to Nepal during his last week before graduating (as part of our “classroom without walls” experience). After spending a week with the orphans of Kathmandu and in a Buddhist monastery in the Himalayan foothills, this student returned to Switzerland with a new understanding of what happiness meant. He realized for the first time in his life that happiness was not measured by how many material things we surround ourselves with, but by the relationships we have with others in our community and by our connection to both other human beings and the natural and spiritual worlds.

My question (and concern) is: Why did it take until this student’s last week of school before he came to this important understanding? Is this not the most important lesson he could possibly learn? Should only those students lucky enough to spend a week in the Nepalese slums come to such important understandings about life, happiness and success?

I wonder if it would relieve our parents’ anxieties if we shifted our focus in school today to place less emphasis on a pre-determined set of rapidly depreciating knowledge and skills and more emphasis on relationships, connections with the community and the environment and spiritual self-awareness.

I wonder what our parents would say if we told them that our school’s focus were shifting from providing their children with information and skills that will earn them the best examination results to instilling in them an awareness of and an understanding that happiness is measured not by what you have, but by what you are able to live without.

Will parents understand that their children’s pursuit of a high paying job based on the same knowledge and skills that they learned in school will prove fruitless in an era where knowledge and skills are no longer scarce?

Will they agree that what matters is not their children’s future success as measured by their income and material well-being, rather their future happiness?

I wonder whether my students’ parents realize how justified their anxieties are. And I hope they understand that if or when their children do not succeed on the paths they envision them pursuing, it won’t be their own faults; rather, it is the inexorable outcome in an era where knowledge and skills are continually devalued by technology and globalization.

Henry David Thoreau, who shed the burden of materialistic pursuits for a simple life in the forest, once said, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

The happiness of being able to do without material things is that to which our education today must aspire. The path my students’ parents followed will become increasingly narrow and unattainable for the next generation. Therefore, a rethinking of what we teach and, in fact, value, is necessary to achieve happiness for our students in the future.

Many schools have embraced the alternative path to happiness envisioned by Thoreau and others throughout history. The awareness that true happiness is not attained by the pursuit of money and status, rather a connection with our community, the natural world and our spiritual selves and an embrace of simplicity over complexity is nothing new. The Buddha new it, Jesus knew it, Emerson and Thoreau knew it.

The question is, do our students know it? Do their parents know it? Heck, do I know it? And once we’re aware of this truth, how can we begin to redesign our schools’ learning objectives so that our students leave school with a truly attainable path to happiness and success, perhaps of a different kind from that imagined by their parents, but one that will certainly be more achievable and just as valuable in a future in which the spoils of global economic activity will be more evenly distributed between the world’s people than it has ever been in history.

     


The secret to succeeding in a competitive market? Know thine determinants of demand!

I love croissants (or “gipfeli” as they are known here in Switzerland). I also love using bakeries as examples of businesses operating in competitive industries when teaching the concepts of perfect competition in my Theory of the Firm unit. So I was thrilled to see this article from the Economist this week called Croissantonomics.

The nature of competition in the market for baked goods in New York City is clearly intense, as the baker featured in the article implies.

In all, it costs Mr Rubin $2.60 to make a $3.50 croissant. If he makes 100 and sells 70, he earns $245 but his costs are $260. Since he refuses to sell leftovers—all goods are sold within a day—he loses money. “Welcome to the bakery business,” Mr Rubin says

The article outlines the secret to success in this competitive market.

First, product differentiation: “his best creations are distinctly American: pretzel croissants (surprisingly tasty), and recipes for making money.”

Second, know the determinants of demand for your product:

There are no brownies or carrot cake on Mondays or Tuesdays—people don’t buy rich desserts after decadent weekends. He watches the weather closely, as demand melts in the rain. He keeps an eye on school calendars, to bake less when children are away. He bakes more after the fasting of Yom Kippur, when demand from Jewish customers picks up.

The article provides an excellent example of how important it is for a producer of a good in a competitive market must be intimately familiar with his consumers in order to succeed. Markets are most efficient when perfect information and knowledge of the desires of consumers is communicated to producers, but in many markets there is information asymmetry, meaning that the sellers do not know what consumers truly want and are therefore unable to bring to market those goods and services that are most in demand.

Mr. Rubin’s bakery has discovered the secret to success in a competitive market: Know thine determinants of demand and make sure you only produce precisely what it is consumers want, and do so at the least possible cost in order to eliminate waste. In this way, Economic Darwinism assures the survival of the most efficient. 

Such strategies have helped the City Bakery survive since 1990. It now has seven smaller shops in New York and seven outposts in Japan, with plans to open in Dubai.

     


The tragedy of the commons in the Arizona desert

A common access resource is one that is non-excludable but rivalrous: anyone can access it and use it but doing so reduces the benefits the resource can provide to others in society. Common examples are pastureland that is shared by cattlemen, fish in the open ocean and the atmosphere itself, which the more it is used as a sink for toxic air pollutants, the worse human health becomes.

In the American West, examples of common access resources abound, leading to several tragedies of the commons, the problems arising from individuals over-using a common resource for their own gain at the expense of others in society whose ability to benefit from the resource is diminished.

Lately farms have been popping up deep in the Arizona desert. Not because there is lots of water in the desert, which of course, there is not; rather because the water that lies under the desert floor is not managed by anyone and is a pure common access resource. Anyone is allowed to use as much of it as they want without any regulations regarding its use!

The story below from Marketplace sheds some more light on this story.

     


Thoughts on Scarcity and the big questions of Economics

What is scarcity? In Economics, we say that scarcity is the basic economic problem. Because there are only limited resources available in the world, but humans’ wants and needs are practically infinite, we run into a problem, how to:

  • decide what will be produced, 
  • how it will be produced, and 
  • who will get the stuff that’s produced.

Any economic system must answer these three simple questions. Today I started off a new year of AP and IB Economics with a lesson in scarcity (the full lesson plan can be viewed here). Students were faced with a classroom with only half as many chairs as there were students. In the face of the scarcity of chairs, students had to decide who would get a chair and who wouldn’t. The suggestions from this morning’s class ranged from rock, paper, scissors, to musical chairs, to first come, first serve, to a Hunger Games style fight to the death. Ultimately, students decided that I, the teacher, should create a rotating schedule of who would get the chairs, to assure that they would be allocated fairly and no particular student would get to sit in a chair more often than any other.

It was of great interest to me that the students settled on this solution. Sure, it seems fair if a schedule is set by the teacher. But why was this their preferred solution? I asked them if this is how seats in movie theaters are allocated, or seats in top universities, or beds in hospitals? They agreed that, in fact, other scarce chairs are rarely allocated in the manner they settled on, a rotating schedule assigning seats to different people on different days in a way that assure everyone gets to have the chairs equal numbers of times throughout the year.

Of course, this is NOT how seats at top universities are allocated, nor in movie theaters. Upon reflection, we determined that university spots are typically allocated in the following manner:

  1. By merit (based on academic achievements in secondary school), and
  2. By price (based on who is able to afford tuition at the best universities).

Of course, in many cases, those who may be most qualified to attend the top universities may not be able to afford the tuition, so ultimately, university spots are allocated by price.

Once we had decided that price was an important factor in allocating the scarce chairs out there in the real world, we decided to try out a price system in the classroom. Each student was asked to write down on a piece of paper (confidentially, of course), the price they would be willing to pay each day to have a seat in my class. Once I collected the “bids” I organized them from highest to lowest, and those who were willing to pay the most ended up getting chairs, while those willing to pay the least had to stand.

Is the price system fair? During our debrief I asked students whether they believed our price system for determining chair allocation was fair. Instinctively, they said it was NOT fair. Their reasons were that those who could afford to pay the most (e.g. the richest students) ended up getting chairs, while the students with less disposable income ended up standing. But what makes this unfair?

Upon further discussion, some students pointed out that in the real world, those who are able to pay the most for scarce goods (university spots, high quality health care, nice cars, big houses), have probably worked the hardest and therefore earned higher incomes than those who cannot afford these nice things. In this regard,the price system makes sure that those who work hardest and are most productive end up enjoying a higher standard of living since they can afford to consume more and nicer products.

Or is the price system unfair? On the other hand, those who cannot afford to pay the prices of lots of nice things may not be able to do so because they have not worked hard enough (either in school or in the labor market). But how, then do we explain the fact that many factory workers, miners, fishermen, farmers and others who obviously work incredibly hard, cannot afford to buy lots of nice things (and get their kids into the best universities).

The questions we struggled with today in class are some of the most fundamental questions that the field of Economics deals with, and which we will study in great detail in my classes over the next two years:

  • What is scarcity and why does it exist?
  • What are some scarce resources in the world outside of school?
  • How should scarce resources be allocated between competing wants and needs?
  • Who should get the stuff that scarce resources go towards producing?
  • What is fair? And what is efficient?
  • What kind of system for allocating scarce resources is both efficient and fair?
These and many other questions form the basis of the field of Economics. In the coming months my students will explore the answers to these questions in  their Economics classes!
     

Marketplace explains: floating versus managed exchange rate systems

For years China has kept the value of its currency, the yuan, artificially low in order to help exporters, much to the annoyance of the countries trading partners. European and American trade authorities have called for China to abandon its managed exchange rate system, hoping that a stronger yuan would help their own manufacturers as consumers would demand less of the undervalued Chinese goods.

We’ll, this week China has begun to relax its exchange rate controls, but to the frustration of Western trade promoters, the currency has moved in the wrong direction, actually weakening against the dollar and euro.

Marketplace explains the differences between floating and managed exchange rates in the podcast below.

     

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