Thursday, May 14, 2015

Zero Sum

In his post "How the American education system doesn't fail," David Brin responds to a Washington Post article by Fareed Zakaria. Zakaria's article warns of problems that may arise from focusing too heavily - or even exclusively - on excellence in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines.

Brin says that Zakaria takes too pessimistic an outlook. He suggests that the breadth requirements of a four-year bachelor's degree are fairly well embedded into American culture, and aren't likely to be done away with any time soon. But the repeated pushback against "zero sum thinking" got me thinking.

In one sense, Brin is right. Spending more time studying math and science doesn't necessarily mean completely abandoning art and literature. However, the time that we spend on any one thing (such as studying math or science) is time that we are, by deduction, not spending on something else (such as studying art or literature). So in that sense, constrained as we are by the laws of thermodynamics, it IS a zero-sum game!

These are choices I have to make in my classroom as well. Choosing to teach these stories, essays, poems, etc. means that I will not have the opportunity to teach others. The time I spend to have students practice speaking in front of the class is time we are not spending on having them practice finding information in the text that supports their analysis. These decisions would be easier if I was choosing between "good instruction" and "poor instruction," but that's rarely the case. When I have to choose between two good opportunities, knowing I can't do both... that's hard. It's really, really hard.


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