In other words, the amount of embedded knowledge that a country has is expressed in its productive diversity, or the number of distinct products that it makes. Second, products that demand large volumes of knowledge are feasible only in the few places where all the requisite knowledge is available.
– The Atlas of Economic Complexity
Since finding it a few days ago, I’ve been obsessed with The Atlas of Economic Complexity published last month by researchers at Harvard and MIT. This is for a number of reasons (not a few of which are centered around the tremendous visualizations).
In estimating the Economic Complexity Index for each of the countries in the atlas, the authors took into consideration two main factors – diversity and ubiquity.
They examined the products of each country and determined the global ubiquity of those products as well as the diversity of products from each country.
The authors offer a few examples:
Take medical imaging devices. These machines are made in few places, but the countries that are able to make them, such as the United States or Germany, also export a large number of other products. We can infer that medical imaging devices are complex because few countries make them, and those that do tend to be diverse. By contrast, wood logs are exported by most countries, indicating that many countries have the knowledge required to export them. Now consider the case of raw diamonds.
These products are extracted in very few places, making their ubiquity quite low. But is this a reflection of the high knowledge-intensity of raw diamonds? Of course not. If raw diamonds were complex, the countries that would extract diamonds should also be able to make many other things. Since Sierra Leone and Botswana are not very diversified, this indicates that something other than large volumes of knowledge is what makes diamonds rare…
I’ve started applying similar measures to classrooms. Consider the Educational Complexity Index of the tasks many classrooms require of their students.
Take reading as an example. Many classrooms across the world ask their students to engage in reading. At some point in the last century reading was not nearly as ubiquitous task (in the U.S.) as it has become. Sesame Street, Blue and her clues, and Dora have all increased the ubiquity of reading tasks that were often the domain of schools. Still, the reading tasks exported by television were not as complex as those required by classrooms. As such, the market was altered, but not greatly.
This was so until the entrance of the Internet into the Education Union. Intellectual trade shifted greatly with the advent of the Internet and its educational exports. Not only did it flood global education markets with reading tasks, increasing the ubiquity of such tasks, it allowed for increased complexity of those tasks as well.
Such is the case of many other educational exports such as mathematics, music, history, etc. Schools, which spent more than a century enjoying great security in the relatively low ubiquity of their exports have felt tremors in the last few decades indicating an erosion of that security as other providers have made these exports more ubiquitous.
Also working against the favor of schools have been their repeated moves to pare down the diversity of educational products they bring to the market. With the exception of boutique programs, many schools that once offered a broad range of offerings from the arts to after-school extra-curricular activities have eliminated those programs. In many cases, these programs have been eliminated to offer students more intense versions of those same educational products mentioned above with a total disregard for the modern ubiquity and competitive complexity of those same products offered by other educational providers.
Still, something can be done, but it will require schools to develop a heretofore absent understanding of educational markets, taking into consideration the ubiquity and diversity of those product offered by other educational providers. One way for schools to increase their relevance, other than re-diversifying their offerings, is to design learning tasks that are more complex and bring to bear the full resources available within schools. Such tasks would call on students to put into play their understandings across several disciplines such as science, English and history. Ideally, they would also ask students to integrate their learning from other market providers as well – creating greater educational synergy.
Schools have long been the only superpower of learning in the educational economy and have thereby been resistant to take note of or take seriously the new producers of educational experiences. If schools hope to maintain this position they must shift practice and consider what can be done to inspire greater educational complexity within their walls.