Education: Picnic basket or scavenger hunt?

I subscribe to a wonderful newsletter about design, produced by a wise and creative fellow named John McWade (publishes a newsletter called Before and After) – he passed along this tidbit – that frames a basic problem in our education prospects going forward, in every profession.  Here’s the excerpted story:

“{After a conference …} At day’s end I got visiting with Valerie Brewster, a veteran book designer and self-described dinosaur, about the decline of paper books, fine typography, and the loss of practitioners, who, with the rise of ebooks, glass pages, and our fantastically evolving technology, have jumped ship, often late in their careers, to other fields (which, paradoxically, has opened up more work for her). I commiserated with her on the displacement and difficulty of this: You spend a career mastering a craft, over decades becoming so deep, so knowing, so capable, that you are now the wise old man or woman to whom even teachers of teachers come for guidance. And then the craft vanishes, leaving what?

After hardly a moment’s reflection, Valerie said (I paraphrase), “That’s what’s going missing! We’re not making masters. The changes are coming so fast that everyone is always beginning.”

Which I hadn’t thought about in that way, but which is so perceptive.

No masters. Skills, entire professions, especially in tech, now run a 100-year life cycle in a decade or less. No one gains the wisdom of years. That’s the void I’ve felt but couldn’t articulate.”

So, ultimately, how do we even contemplate apprenticeship programs, internships and the like – if the “trainers” are only serial newbies, themselves?  How do we design a curriculum to achieve a practical  “education” if the fundamental elements no longer stay stable from one class to the next?

Samuel Johnson, the famed lexicographer, once said “Knowledge is of two kinds – that which we know, and that which we know how to find out.”  Our current system is built almost exclusively on the former – and we assess the absorption of that education with feats of memory called tests and quizzes.  When perhaps we should be testing something more realistic for today’s world: how to analyze a question, determine sources of answers, assess the legitimacy/accuracy of those sources, and come to a conclusion.

On the bright sunny day we are born, we head for the picnic of life carrying a basket, into which we put our education, and when we are hungry, enough is extracted from the basket to meet our needs.  At least that’s the theory.  We have put education into a picnic basket in which all the answers are packed neatly wrapped in a degree or a credential.  When in fact, it turns out that life is not so clearly defined as a picnic, and the education is more of a scavenger hunt – where questions soar in from left field and the answers must be dug from a heap of Internet and other non-traditional sources.

The longer we persist in pursuing a flawed model, the further we get from the right place.   Our education must be restructured, and it may be that the necessary response is as simple and elegant as this insight which made the problem so clear.  But we are doing the wrong thing – and it hurts us every day!

— Rich Bowers

The Mathematics of History

Another interesting perspective on trend analysis in history.  Yes it’s a TED talk, by Jean-Baptiste Michel, taped at the TED conference this February: The mathematics of history.

Not that this topic hasn’t been addressed in the past, but with the advent of BigData, and other powerful new computing models and paradigms, the analysis of the past and extending trends into a predicted future might be increasingly practical.  Hari Selden here we come!

— Rich Bowers

The Future That Might Have Been

Found out about it too late – but what fun it would have been to attend: The Future That Never Was.

One of the speakers, Matt Novak, wrote a piece describing the background of the concept and the event.  It is fun – though sometimes melancholy – to go back and score our success at prediction.  Usually it seems we have dreamed bigger and grander and more gloriously than reality can keep up with.  Many of us are still wondering what happened to our jet-packs, and our robotic servants and all the rest.  But the tricky part seems to be the cultural background – and the changes it must undergo – to support the paradigm-shifting new gadgets and gizmos.  Few popular futurists – the ones who can get their pieces published in the mainstream press – want to tackle the future of political access or discretionary spending power or any of the other somewhat dryer factors that absolutely control the progress of many of the innovations we most want to see.  Apparently gadgets are relatively easy – but where they touch social, political, religious or other major cultural systems – they can face a tough row to hoe.

Even though we seem daily to struggle to hang on to the wrist-strap on the subway of change – major changes really do move rather slowly, don’t they?  The roads we travel on follow the same paths that have been roads for – in some cases – hundreds and thousands of years.  Only materials have really changed.  Our schools are still structured as they have been for 200 years (oops- I almost wrote “our schools work …”).  The default “work day” is still 8-5 – daylight hours – just as they have been for centuries.  Our values, cultural biases – all tend to linger for a long time – and when change appears certain, often something happens to snap them back to the original tradition, and we have to work the process all over again.  Pushing that boulder up the same damn hill.

So we can enjoy laughing at ourselves and the naivete of our missed prognostications: the missing gadgets whose pictures imply – somehow – that life itself has changed along with the advent of personal flying machines and an economy that promotes random fabrication of anything our hearts desire at no apparent cost (hello Star Trek!).  It would have been fun, but …

— Rich Bowers