An Attitude of Learning

Amit Paley ("Homework Help, From a World Away: Web Joins Students, Cheap Overseas Tutors", Washington Post) writes on the thousands of students who are accessing tutors in other countries via the Internet. The rhetoric for and against is interesting:

"We don't believe that education should become a business of outsourcing," said Rob Weil, deputy director of educational issues at the American Federation of Teachers. "When you start talking about overseas people teaching children, it just doesn't seem right to me."


Teachers unions are vigorously lobbying for legislation that would make it more difficult for overseas tutors to receive No Child Left Behind funds. Weil, of the American Federation of Teachers, said after-school tutors should be required to pass the same rigorous certification process as public school teachers.

"Quality control doesn't end at 3 o'clock when the school bell rings," he said. "If you need a highly qualified teacher in school at 2:59, you should have a qualified teacher as a tutor after school at 3:01."

In response, Burck Smith, CEO for Smartthinking, an online tutoring company, states:

"We can do better service, more consistent service, and at a better price."

Smith says he believes that eventually schools will outsource their office hours, review sessions and other aspects of instruction to teachers that might be located anywhere in the world. Right now, about 20 percent of Smarthinking's 500 tutors are in countries such as India, the Philippines, Chile, South Africa and Israel.

"This is no different than what happens in any industry. Labor gets stratified," Smith said. "And that leads to the democratization of education, because the lower prices for tutoring means the rich and poor can access the same services."

The arguments against educational outsourcing appear to be two: quality control and it's not right. The arguments for appear to be democracy, and it's better and cheaper.

All of these, even if true, are red herrings. Take the quality control argument, for example.

In an hour-long session that cost just $18, the Indian tutor, who said his name was Mike, spent an hour walking Del Monte through such esoteric concepts as confidence intervals and alpha divisions, Del Monte recalled. He got an A on the final exam. "Mike helped me unscramble everything in my mind," the 20-year-old said.

It's highly unlikely that Del Monte (or other students or their parents) would continue to pay $18-20/hour if he had not "unscrambled" those concepts and done well on the test.

The real arguments, as usual, are power and money: Who controls education? Who gets the NCLB money? These are serious and important issues. As a U.S. educator, I'm biased: I lean toward supporting our educational system and keeping the money at home. Still, I would like to see better rhetoric than a fictitious quality control and "it's not right."

These sorts of arguments remind me of an essay I read last week by Dorothy Sayers, "The Lost Tools of Learning" on a not-yet-in-operation website named "Tools of Learning." Presented at Oxford in 1947, Ms. Sayers said:

Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined? Do you put this down to the mere mechanical fact that the press and the radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area? Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good than he or she might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?

Have you ever, in listening to a debate among adult and presumably responsible people, been fretted by the extraordinary inability of the average debater to speak to the question, or to meet and refute the arguments of speakers on the other side? Or have you ever pondered upon the extremely high incidence of irrelevant matter which crops up at committee meetings, and upon the very great rarity of persons capable of acting as chairmen of committees? And when you think of this, and think that most of our public affairs are settled by debates and committees, have you ever felt a certain sinking of the heart?

And she ended with:

What use is it to pile task on task and prolong the days of labor, if at the close the chief object is left unattained? It is not the fault of the teachers–they work only too hard already. The combined folly of a civilization that has forgotten its own roots is forcing them to shore up the tottering weight of an educational structure that is built upon sand. They are doing for their pupils the work which the pupils themselves ought to do. For the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.

To move past the rhetoric of outsourcing or any other issue, people must be able to learn for themselves. But how do we teach people to learn for themselves? What does it mean to learn for themselves? Is that "critical thinking"? Many "scholars" are good are critiquing positions other than their own, but not so well their own position. Somehow learning for oneself needs to include an attitude of learning, not treating any partticular position as sacrosanct, even one's own.

An attitude of learning, I'm thinking, needs to be joined with an attitude of respect toward and concern for others. Such an attitude can open one up to other perspectives instead of clinging to one's own position (see my post "Experts predict no better than non-experts"). I'm not sure attitudes can be taught. They seem to be more like viruses that get caught.