New Eyes for Education

You can’t see the future using the eyes of the past.

It is a central problem we face as we move toward some type of post-industrial society.  Our current institutional structures, based on industrial era models, attempt to re-create the past as a way to solve the problems of the future as opposed to envisioning the new.

What do I Mean by Old Eyes

What is new today?  Let’s consider complexity.  To some extent it’s the success of industrial standardization that has driven the emergency of complexity in the service economy.  With increasing efficiency, fewer and fewer people are needed to continue standardized processes, but this success has uncovered worlds of complexity not only where standardization has failed (like in education and much of the social sciences), but also in new fields such as design.  The problem is that most people today (even within standardized practices) need to address uniqueness and complexity in some way, but too much of our institutional structures are still geared towards a standardized industrial economy that emphasizes “one size fits all” solutions.

An example is NY Times columnist  Thomas Friedman’s view that we need a more highly educated population to address globalized competition.  This may be true, but what would happen if we suddenly started graduating 4 times the number of scientists and engineers.  Well, we’d soon have a lot of unemployed or underemployed scientists and engineers.  What the economy needs now is more entrepreneurialism of the type that fosters a creative interdisciplinary mindset.  We can only succeed now by envisioning and creating the world around us anew, not by growing an economy that in many ways has already become outgrown.  The educational systems is still seeing through old disciplinary eyes and training people to function in the past.  We have seen how the world we face is increasingly requiring us to deal with complexity, but as pointed out by D.H. Haley, our way of thinking, seen as a cultural artifact in our everyday activity, rejects complexity and interdisciplinary. (free with subscription to the Social Science Research Network)

. . . despite their successful interpretations and applications, they (complexity and ecology) have been accepted by neither mainstream science, nor mainstream culture.  Both of these powerful institutions have pushed such modes of thinking and being to the margins of normative knowledge and behaviour, without ascribing any real value or worth. . . . For here, I believe is the real issue, . . .  it is embedded in how our society is educated to think. Just as an athlete trains their muscles to perform certain activities in particular ways, so too, we are coached to think about particular things in certain ways ␣ it is a question of epistemology.

What Would New Eyes See

So how should institutions now be thinking and functioning differently?  I believe we need a new approach to learning and a new way to develop people and their capabilities.

A new approach to learning.

Learning has never been more important, but (as pointed out by Hagel, Brown and Davison) we can no longer predict what knowledge people will need in order to push it out to them.  Instead the learner is in as good a position as anyone to judge what knowledge is needed and needs to be able to pull that learning to themselves as needed.  (If nothing else, this is a condemnation of most approaches to curriculum development, and many forms of pedagogy.)  To achieve a “pull” model I think we will need the following:

  1. technological resources (internet, social media, applications as well as future innovation),
  2. expert guides (a new role for teachers), coaches, mentors, etc. . .
  3. peer networks that push our collaborative capabilities to new levels, and
  4. a vibrant, engaging and vigorous environments (cognitive, social and physical)

All of these elements should by intricately interwoven into each learners learning environment.

A new approach to developing people.

We need people with both breath and depth in their repertoire of personal capabilities.  Base assessment and development activities not on what you want people to know, but on what they will need and want to do.

Breath primarily means interdisciplinarity, especially as you are able to bring different capabilities from different disciplines into your own activity system.  This also means going beyond specific task capability to also include cognitive development and psychological capital development, as well as the promotion of psychological health and  wholeness.

Depth – The need for depth should be based on something like an activity system task analysis, the most important actions needed for everyday activity.  I don’t like a disciplinary view of depth only because the scope of a discipline can be unrelated to everyday activity within an activity system.  It is just that disciplines are historical artifacts with specific historical developmental trajectories, which may or may not fit with the needs of one’s activity system.

This transdisciplinarity need is where new forms of complexity enter into education.  A one size fits all disciplinary education is no longer sufficient.  We need an educational system that can easily be customized to fit individual learning / capability development needs and a system that can be extended over an individual’s productive lifetime.

So, I’m left with the question: what does this look like; what might new eyes see?

A Lifelong High Level Learning Platform: Some Initial Thoughts

A friend was involved with a professional network, GPSEG (The Greater Philadelphia Senior Executives Group) in the Philadelphia area.   It is a group for professional networking.  There are approximately 1100 individuals registered with the group.  Membership can connect with other members for coffee meetings and there are many sub-groupings and meetings organized by locale or by industry.  Many people use the group to network for jobs, but they are encouraged to (and many do) remain with the group and continue to network after finding employment.

When describing his activities with the group, the words “learning platform” kept coming to mind as a primary goal and function of his activity.  I don’t really know much about the group and hope to learn more in the future, but just the idea began sparking my imagination.  One of the greatest educational needs for the future is for institutions that can support and actualize adult lifelong learning in ways that is functional for their everyday learning needs. The term “knowledge age” may not be sufficient to the task, but let’s at least say that learning is an imperative for everyone these days.  Prepackaged courses and curriculum will not cut it.  Networked learning is all the rage, but networks have to start and end with people.  It is important that any network be technologically enabled, but it can’t be dominated by IT thinking.  I believe it needs to have a local component and a face to face component that is primary.

This group is billed as senior executives, and I think this is a very good foundation, but I will put on my educational hat and speculate about who else could potential be served a group like this.

High Potentials – A recent Harvard Business Ideacast (Keep Your Top Talent from Defecting) reviewed the work of Jean Martin and Conrad Schmidt who authored the article How to Keep Your Top Talent in HBR (subscription required).  What struck me was their figure that 70% of today’s high performers lack critical attributes essential to their success in future roles.  What a need for education, but its got to be realtime and relevant learning in real contexts.  You can’t have the training department design a course or curriculum to fix this problem.  The learning needs are too diverse and unpredictable. Development is also spoken of in this article as an engaging and motivating force for this group.  Management may not want to expose their top talent to individuals in other organizations, but these authors say that top talent already knows their value and their place in market forces very well.

Entrepreneurs – Most cities have an entrepreneurs development and support organization.  In Cleveland it’s call Jump Start.  This type of organization could serve as a great screener of people who may not have a job history as a senior executive, but would have such potential.  For projects supported by these organizations, a learning platform is exactly the type of support entrepreneurs need as they and their companies grow and develop.  Jumpstart has advisors and networking, but I bet it does not alway function as a true learning platform like I’m envisioning.

Academics – I don’t know exactly how this would shake out, but academics and the higher education business model needs to get out of class and out of the insular world of researching order to work and interact with this type of group.  Academic models need to change and it can only happen with experience and experimentation.

I’m sure there more possibilities I should consider, but I’ll leave it there for now and allow more time for my thoughts to develop.

How to Think: Developing a Personal Learning Infrastructure

Ed Boyden from MIT’s Media Lab had an interesting post way back in 2007 titled How to Think: Managing brain resources in an age of complexity.  He lists 9 great insights that relates to structuring a personal self-managed learning environment.  The following is my edited personal version:

  1. Synthesize new ideas constantly. Never read passively. Annotate, model, think, and synthesize while you read (or receive input).
  2. Learn how to learn and prototype ideas (rapidly). ?
  3. Work backward from your goal. Make contingency maps. Find out which things depend on other things. Identify things that are not dependent on anything but have the most dependents, and finish them first.
  4. Always have a long-term plan, even if you change it every day.  Use logarithmic time planning; events that are close at hand are scheduled with finer resolution than events that are far off.
  5. Collaborate.
  6. Make mistakes quickly, then move on. As Shakespeare put it, “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.”
  7. Develop personal best-practices protocols and make them routine.
  8. Document everything obsessively and watch carefully for surprise and insight.  (Ed’s e.g. Compose conversation summaries on a notepad. At the end of the conversation, digitally photograph the paper and uploaded to a computer for keyword tagging and archiving.)
  9. Keep or make it simple, even if that is hard work.

It’s #2 where I have the most questions concerning how.  But really, everything else relates to #2.  I see 3 main thrusts in this list:

  • #1 and #5 are about expansive thinking, opening up the possibility of new ideas.
  • #3, 4 and 6 – 9 are about achieving focus.  Thought is focused by imposing constraints.
  • Also important is linking thinking and acting.  This is done through #3, 4, 5 and 6.

#7 is also a core thought. Work routines (along with a collaboration platform) are an important part of a personal learning environment infrastructure. It’s some of the ways we can create our own resources.