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Rote education fails the Information Age

Most school districts still are not teaching skills needed for the Information Age. Their administrations, as well as their staffs, are behind in understanding that we are way beyond the Industrial Age.

For the most part, they are teaching the classical three Rs. I am not talking about reading, writing and `rithmetic; I am talking about rote, repetition, and routine. All of these add up to regimentation, which is what was needed to assimilate people into the Industrial Age workforce. At that time, those skills were needed on an assembly line that required repetitive actions. Public schools prepared a workforce for jobs in mass production facilities or, being more politically accurate, factories.

Last year, I ended a column with the following: ( )

• While cute curricula with whimsical goals, folksy ideals, and subtle promotion of political objectives might sound good in the coffee room, teachers should be pushed out into the real world and be replaced by those who have worked in it. If nothing else, students would get a much broader insight into what they will need in the future, and teachers would get the education they are missing.

What is the shelf life of education today? How long does a high school diploma serve you? Or a college degree or MBA for that matter?
Many of today's jobs require continual education and the ability to create new methodologies from scratch. Some require the skills to structure and develop a framework of policies and procedures where nothing currently exists. Many people are trained to handle only routine, repetitive procedures.

FACT-based education

What is needed today is FACT-based education. What does FACT stand for? Flexibility, Adaptability, Creativity, and Technology are the skill sets needed for today's as well as tomorrow's jobs.

Good jobs in any industry today require a multi-faceted person that can think quickly, the ability to adapt to new situations and learning opportunities, and the capability to use technology and automated applications that facilitate the performance of tasks within the industry. In addition to the more traditional manufacturing and factory automation systems, all industries have been swept into various forms of automated travel, brokerage, financial, and medical applications.

Education is not about getting a high school diploma or a GED. What do you really qualify for today with a high school diploma? Not much, and if you have less than that, forget it. Education is about getting a bachelor's degree or at least some post-high school vocational skills to secure a job and perhaps some type of career path.

Welcome to Wal-Mart

With the cheap digital and satellite communications we have today, call centers can be placed anywhere in the world. If a country has a good workforce that can speak English, all of the entry-level jobs that people used to do here can be outsourced.

If the new skills are not mastered, the job market looks pretty dismal. There are a lot of lower-paying jobs in the retail and service industries, but they do not really pay a living wage.

Even those jobs are getting shuffled around because of technology. A colleague pointed out that McDonald's has consolidated order takers for some restaurants into a call center in Denver. You may drive up to one in your neighborhood, but the person actually taking your order may be a thousand miles away. McDonald's even claims that its order accuracy has gone up.

General management skills that have been overlooked at many universities include writing well and being able to speak in front of people. These are still executive skills, so why aren't colleges emphasizing them?

Can you get up and speak in front of an audience? Can you put together a PowerPoint presentation by yourself? Can you write well enough to craft a full-blown report or an in-depth analysis? Or are you one that only will read a speech off of paper or delegate a written report to someone else? And you want to be in management?

Those of you who get their e-mails all messed up with typos and then send them out anyway, do you know what type of impression that makes to both internal as well as external people?

Casual doesn't mean sloppy

Many people also have said that sloppiness has crept into the workplace with dress codes that have been too laid back, and now companies and other organizations are paying the price. I see several employers trying to reverse that negative trend by requiring business dress during business hours. An owner of a business remarked that he does not want people to come to work dressed for play, he wants them to come dressed to do business.

Does that sound too conservative to some of you? As someone remarked, learn to dress as if you are taking the corporate jet to a meeting, not dressed to wash and gas it up. This is more important today because many jobs take you into the global marketplace, and showing up dressed like you are going to mow the lawn puts you at a disadvantage.

CARLINI-ISM: If you cannot learn new skills, you might as well practice “Welcome to Wal-Mart.”

Copyright 2006 - James Carlini

Recent articles by James Carlini

James Carlini: Business Worst Practices: A new best seller?

James Carlini: Obstructionists block network routing diversity

James Carlini: Creativity, innovation extend to municipalities

James Carlini: Making sure YourSpace is technologically sound

James Carlini: Wait `till next year OK for baseball, not broadband

James Carlini is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University, and is president of Carlini & Associates. Carlini can be reached at or 773-370-1888. Check out his blog at

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.


Mike responded 8 years ago: #1

I agree with your premise: education should address the skill sets needed for today's as well as tomorrow's jobs. But, that's not saying much. Indeed, I think that most educators realize that children need to be able to function productively in society and that means showing/teaching students to think and act like productive and valuable members. However, stating that schools/teachers/educators should teach them in a particular way doesn't address the fundamental problems with any approach: lack of social will to allow schools to experiment, lack of fundamental skills in the students to make such teaching effective, lack of public and private resources to broadly and widely introduce (and then maintain) the expensive resources necessary to effectuate such lofty educational goals, lack of incentives for teachers to undertake a considerably more difficult teaching paradigm, etc. That's probably just to name a few.

Of those listed the lack of fundamental skills is probably the most vexing issue. How can one teach "Flexibility, Adaptability, Creativity, and Technology" when students can't do the basics? This usually has more to do with the failure of parents early on (is there any reason a child coming into first grade shouldn't already know their alphabet and basic letters?) than anything else. Those that do well in school tend to be those that do graduate and go onto universities for degrees and advanced degrees.

I think that advocating any change in education will utterly fail without educating parents first.

James Carlini responded 8 years ago: #2


Parents have to put in their fair share of time with their children, but putting more effort into "spreading out the responsibilities" instead of looking at where things can improve is exactly why many public schools are failing. You must be a teacher/educator because you focus on every excuse (poor students, lack of funding, lack of incentives, resources) and do not take any responsibility yourself.

You don't recognize that the "failure" could be the education system itself - it needs to be updated. What about poor teachers in the system? How many does tenure protect?

It seems like teachers (educators) like to point to every excuse why nothing can change in the classroom, yet on every referendum they ask for more money for schools "for the children." Well, how many parents have voted for more money for their school district and have not seen any improvement?

Time to deliver on all the slogans and all the times the children were used as pawns to get a raise.

Carrie responded 8 years ago: #3

Two comments - the remote call center for McDonalds was an eye opener for me. I'm curious to see where that trend goes of actually outsourcing taking an order at a drive through, is that a trend that may spread to even WI? Interesting.

But more importantly, the comment about being able to give a speech and have typo free e-mails. I've seen many a business owner or very bright worker that did not have public speaking skils and its such a shame. Being an effective communicator most certainly is a requirement for management, but often times that skill gets skirted. I cringe at getting e-mails with spelling or grammatical errors and you are right on the money with that comment!

Mike responded 8 years ago: #4

Nope, sorry. Computer scientist turned lawyer, but I do have lots of family members who are teachers.

I doubt most would see things your way since given the relative brevity of time any teacher/school spends with any given student simply pales in comparison to time spent with family, friends, etc.

I'm also sure you're aware that one of the best indicators of success is a child's relative ability coming into school - long before schools have a chance to mess things up.

I do think that schools do have a role in learning, obviously. However, schools are really only a place to build upon learning. Going to a gym by itself doesn't help make people more fit - actually using the equipment does. A child that doesn't come to school thinking that learning is worthwhile won't learn no matter how innovative the curriculum. On the margins, schools may be able to get some fence-sitter learners (many schools have excellent programs); it is doubtful that the actions of a school or teacher can turn disgruntled students into vibrant, creative learners.

James Carlini responded 8 years ago: #5

So I guess that you are an advocate for home-schooling then. You are right - family has a lot of influence on their child's learning. But my observations stand - public schools must change as they are an anachronism to what is needed today.

Unfortunately, you do not address or even acknowledge the common problem of the reverse action of what a school can do. It can turn off "a vibrant, creative learner" into a disgruntled student. Then what Mike???

Many students that are turned off by school, then become disinterested and turn to other means.

SYLVAN Learning and all of the other ancillary programs that many parents send their kids to would have never developed if schools (and teachers) were doing their job.

And your observation "Many schools have excellent programs" ??- I guess you don't travel into a lot of metropolitan areas. How many public schools have you actually stepped into? And how many have been in an inner city?

When Johnny can't add 27 and 32 in a freshman math class in an urban area, I tend to blame the teachers that have passed him up through the grades and I do not blame just him or his parents. Some schools have excellent faculty, many others have a lot of deadwood.

I have seen it with my own eyes, so I do not accept your explanation, nor dismissal of where blame should be laid.

Mike responded 8 years ago: #6

The Sylvan comparison is mildly funny since it compares instructing children in a group environment (often 20+) with one-on-one (or very small group) instruction. It's even more amusing because it involves PARENTS who are engaged enough in their child's educational life to spend a significant amount of time, money and effort for that one on one instruction. I bet there would be a lot of public school teachers that would dance a merry jig if their classroom (even for a small portion of the day) was under Sylvan like controls: few children, low tolerance for disobedience, no or low out of pocket expense, well stocked, and well supported. Sylvan also has the advantage of denying and accepting students, arbitrarily increasing or decreasing the cost of their services, hiring and firing (something public schools don't have no thanks to unions) teachers, no requirements (except those generated by markets) to teach to particular standards (silly testing requirements), etc.

I am also NOT a fan of home schooling. Indeed, I think that home schooling is border line stupid. Even with everything I know (or my wife knows), I could not provide the breadth of experience - both social and educational - to my child without sacrificing a significant portion of my own livelihood to do so. Of course, every parent has some obligation to home school: reading to them when they're young, taking them to educational and social places and events, etc.

And I would wager a bet that "most schools" is true, especially in the north. Indeed, those that can usually pick their houses in locations with good school districts. From a purely economic standpoint, urban school districts suffer two obvious problems under the current school funding regime: land devoted to significant amounts of commercial real estate which (very often) does not subsidize public schools through its taxes and high density residential property which again contributes less per pupil (even at higher tax rates) than similarly sized suburban school districts (even with at lower property tax rates). Those things mean, among other things, that schools (like those in Chicago and Milwaukee) have less money per pupil. I bet there would be few suburban parents happy at spending as much as 1/3 less than their current amount per pupil.

As for your last point regarding students not being able to do the math that a second grader ought to, isn't the real question "why does that happen?" Shouldn't we be looking at the incentives for teachers to pass them along in the first place? Why have we created a situation where it's better for teachers to pass the "deadwood" rather than spend the time, resources and money to rehabilitate any deficiency earlier? Also, are we certain that this is a new problem rather than an amplification of a problem which has long existed given the new demands of the work force?

Finally, I can't help but wonder if your push for FACT based education is really particularly helpful. I can think of few places where school (of any sort) actually prepares you for the workplace rather than provides you with the appropriate tools to unlock the necessary skills. Even the most "creative jobs" really are structured, routine and day-in-day-out in nature. The reason trade schools are such a horrible idea isn't that they prepare students for jobs before arriving at the jobs (which may be a short-term plus for the student-employer) but that they tend to teach only the skills necessary for a particular trade - which no one will readily be able to predict the status of 25 years from now - without teaching those skills fundamental to every job. That last aspect is actually a huge plus for those that do make it through at least some level of schooling: perhaps why there are more jobs for high school grads than non-grads, and more jobs for college grads than high school grads, and better jobs for post-college grads than college grads.

Ben K. responded 8 years ago: #7

You have a lot of verbage but few facts. School districts have asked and gotten more money for years with little impact. Why don't you go read funding facts and some other opinions at

There is an article that states:
Increasing per pupil spending by another 111 percent — whether it is done by compassionate conservatives in Washington, D.C., or plain old liberals in your home state - will not fix public schools...

While you're there, check out some of the bloated salaries that are being paid and see if there is ANY correlation to whether high salaries equate to better education. I don't see it.

I think Carlini is on the right track and has figured out that something has to change. Give him credit for seeing what others like you don't see. The internal problems that somehow get glossed over.

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