Sunday, June 26, 2005

Growing a more qualified workforce: one small idea

Those of you not in the USA or a select few other countries can skip to your next task; you've already taken this advice. For the rest of us, I have a suggestion for a simple way to improve the educational system (a big topic in the USA, given the No Child Left Behind Act), thus getting business a more qualified workforce by doing less, not more. It's only an hypothesis; I'd welcome your thoughts.

My first job was as an engineer in a small German computer company in the Black Forest. One day, I discovered that my fellow engineers couldn't tell which was larger: 13/32 or 3/8. I thought that was rather odd.

Of course, they could eventually tell which was larger: they'd use their slide rules or long division (this was quite a while ago) to determine that 13/32 was 0.40625 and 3/8 was 0.375, and then the answer was obvious. While they were doing all that division, I'd simply convert 3/8 to 12/32, and it was equally obvious but much faster to tell that 13/32 is larger than 12/32.

It turned out that they had never studied fractions in school, at least not the way I had. They never learned how to divide 27/48 by 72/14 nor how to add 3/4 and 5/9 quickly and easily. I was sure I had spent much time in school, perhaps a couple of years, learning and practicing such things.

After a bit of discussion, we determined that the only real purpose for fractions was to calculate using inches, miles, quarts, and the like—in other words, to use what I was taught to call the English system of units. I'm pretty sure I spent additional time learning how many cups in a gallon and how many yards in a mile.

Given that we in the USA sometimes read how our students aren't as well prepared as those from other nations, what would happen if we were able to skip all those months of teaching and practice with fractions and the English system of units and learn basic concepts better or move forward into more advanced concepts sooner? Would that help our students catch up with the rest of the world? Would that help US businesses have more qualified workforces in the future?

If you're an researcher, I invite you to determine if this idea might have merit.

If you're in business and think it has merit (especially if we get valid research that indicate it does), I invite you to advocate for a nation-wide conversion to the metric system to help our school systems and, ultimately, our workforces.

What do you think?


Blogger Glenda Eoyang said...

I'm all for going metric. One reason stands out--reducing unemployment with changes for everything from signs to cereal boxes. I wonder about losing fractions, though. Are there other ways that learning fractions builds cogitive ability? Perhaps it is good to be able to distinguish the larger from the smaller, see an example of rationality in the ratio, determine the units of measure in an engineering problem. I've always suspected that fractions were wasted on the young. Perhaps they could be taught quickly and meaningfully after most children develop the capacity to think abstractly--somewhere between 13 and 20. Still, it is time for US to enter the marketplace of global intelligence. Metrics may be the fastest way to do it.

28 June, 2005 05:28  
Blogger Bill Harris said...

Thanks for your comment, Glenda. I want to agree: there would seem to be some handy uses for fractions, but, when my German colleagues and I discussed it, we couldn't really come up with any that wouldn't largely go away with this switch to metric.

Most of the remaining uses seem rather esoteric for most of us. For example, I suspect few of us deal with partial fraction expansions in our work.

Try it for a month: note each time you use fractions in any significant way, and then note whether you were dealing with English ("customary") units. I haven't done that formally, at least in a while, but I suspect the only time I use fractions and not decimal fractions is when measuring length in feet or inches and volume in teaspoons, cups, quarts, and the like.

05 July, 2005 21:50  

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