Sunday, August 14, 2011

Rethinking Education Part 1: Fundamentals

When I think of all the crap I learned in highschool, it's a wonder I can think at all. ~ Simon & Garfunkel, Kodachrome

Most of what we now teach our children is irrelevant to their future success as human beings and they know it. ~ Gordon Livingston, M.D.

Both quotes I took out of Livingston's book 'How To Love' an immensely descriptive and practical title that is sadly, new-age sounding when you don't have the book in your hand.

The posts I plan to do this week are simultaneously rehashed and a long time coming. They may form the draft of a letter I plan to send to my Alma Mata about various issues I have with education.

On one of TED's most watched talks Sir Ken Robinson says that he finds everybody is interested in education, everyone has an opinion on it. Opinions on education are like arseholes, to use Salt N Pepa's analogy.

Here is one more. I plan to do 5, but I have no clear plan on what those 5 will be. Todays initial one was inspired by the overemphasis our society has on expertise, and how it has pervaded the education system, and made it remarkably ineffecient.

The Air Jordan shoes for example is an expensive and professional piece of equipment, for the models released during his playing career Michael Jordan wore them himself, winning 6 NBA chamionships, a Slam Dunk contest, 5 MVP awards and is widely regarded as the greatest of all time.

Of all the people to own and wear Air Jordan's however, only Michael Jordan himself won 6 NBA championships, 5 MVP awards and is widely regarded as the greatest of all time.

Our education system has become like the Air Jordan shoe, we buy the expensive, high quality component and ignore the combination of mental fortitude, physical conditioning, fundamental skills and genetics that contributed 98% of Jordan's achievement and focus on the 2% differentiated product.

Expertise makes sense from a differentiation point of view. In business there are two broad strategies - penetration (price/cost competitiveness) and differentiation (avoiding competition). In developed nations a person who can read and right and add and subtract is not very competitive, but somebody who can design hydrodynamic structures is competitive in the job market. If you need a hydrodynamic builiding designed you are going to have to pay for the necessary expertise.

School broadly speaking is now engineered towards putting people into these differentiated nitches, with the societal objective of trying to maximise compensation for our labour and create a form of material security.

Admittedly, it isn't done efficiently - our education system cannot perfectly match the nitches that demand expertise with the nitches of expertise it produces. Somewhere in Australia somebody is paying for an expert from Scandanavia exorbitant amounts of money to consult them on the use of mobile sustainable waste management systems, while an expert in Flemish Poetry goes working in a retail bookstore.

But this I am not so concerned about, it is more in the spirit of the opening quote from Dr. Livingstone, expertise is fine says I provided we don't just assume away the 90% of fundamentals common to all professions that make for good and bad employees.


This post was dually inspired by a reflection from Rod, the training manager at my former employer and one of my mentors, apparantly in total quality management circles it has been found that only 10% of problems have what are described as 'special causes' these things have alarm bells and red flags that sound and go up when something goes wrong, that is your warehouse is on fire, a gunman is taking pot shots at people from the building adjacent, the unexpected and rare event.

These account for just 10% of the waste and ineffeciences in any business operation. The other 90% comes from 'ordinary causes' these have no warning bells and that is what makes them so damaging, they are the waste and ineffeciencies that are part of the business operations already.

For example, it used to take a long time to check in for a domestic flight. Whether you had luggage or not to be checked, you had to use the same system. Instead of getting out of your cab, getting a boarding pass from a computer, you had to arrive early and wait in line with everybody else to get allocated a seat. It was a much more resource intensive process and it annoyed customers. That process driven ineffeciency is an 'ordinary cause'.

NOW similarly 90% of what makes an employee a 'good employee' are fundamental skills I have heard referred to as 'transferable skills' many are associated with leadership, but...

BUT!!! but most of these qualities are actually identical to what make somebody a good friend, teacher, colleague, lover, teammate etc. in that way 'transferable' is a highly appropriate name.

These skills are typically evaluated in the first 2-3 seconds of a job interview before anybody has started asking questions because they are quite transparent in how we comport ourselves.

These are some of the skills that I would describe as fundamental to our success not just career wise but in all aspects of life: decision making, risk taking, communicating, skepticism, reasoning, care giving, stress management, emotional management, how to avoid negative people, how to sustain positive relationships, dealing with contingencies, listening, budgeting etc.

It isn't really an exhaustive list, but these skills are transferable to almost any context, anywhere where we are required to interact with people. I have referred to them as 'transferable' but they have also been called 'soft skills' because they can be adapted to any situation, whereas thermal engineering cannot easily be applied to running a bachelor auction the same way communicating can.

The saying is 'soft skills are hard to teach/learn and the hard skills are easy.' As somebody who struggles daily to listen to other people, I can testify that creating an Integrated Marketing Communication plan and finding the equilibrium price of a monopolistically competitive firm operating in two price discriminating markets is EASY to pick up compared to the skill of listening.

Literacy and numeracy are the only soft skills our education system gets right, otherwise we are left to a more darwinian education where we pick up these skills for our own survival... or we don't.

Organisations, communities and families across Australia are populated by people who can't make decisions effectively, don't listen, can't communicate their concerns in a way likely to get them addressed, can't spend within their means, manage their own stress and broader emotions, empathise effectively, sleep and eat right and do their job.

Their is a huge potential for society wide benefits if education refocused on these fundamental skills for day to day living.

Tomorrow I will write about 'choice and responsibility' as one of those fundamental things that could be taught to people in school that would probably eliminate most of the germaine experiences that people struggle with day to day unable to relieve themselves.

But consider the trajectories of two individuals, one we will call 'House' after House M.D. and the other we will call 'Luciana' after my beautiful beautiful BMX. House possesses a high degree of specialised technical expertise, but very little interpersonal or soft skills, Luciana is a beautiful human being with excellent interpersonal skills but nothing technically beyond the core competencies.

It is my experience that in observing the two career trajectories, with both starting at entry level positions in the same organisation that sooner rather than later Luciana will be managing House, as well as others. House may well end up well compensated for his expertise, but Luciana is management material and far more crucial to the operational success of the organization. Largely because organisations consist of people and Luciana can deal with people where House cannot and has deliberately engineered his career to try and avoid having to.

Management consists almost entirely of soft skills, managing a team of doctors at a fundamental level is not much different from managing a team of brickies. There may be trade specific jargon to learn, but these can be picked up much quicker in either direction than the fundamental skills of coordinating and managing people.

Our education system is geared up to produce House's not Luciana's. In reality, because soft skills I find tend to correlate (people who listen good are generally genuinely intellectually curious) that you don't tend to find extremes like House and Luciana. You still get extremes, but I find it to be people who lack both soft and hard skills and people who possess both soft and hard skills. Tragically life is more turds and eagles than porcupines and puppies.

I feel I need to move away from the animal analogies and quickly. Because so much of our success and enjoyment of life stems from our mastery of fundamental and transferable skills I feel as a priority these skills need to be allocated a similar emphasis in curriculum. Admittedly much of what I know of soft skills comes from academic organisations, crammed into the optional elective one off seminars, guest lectures accounting optimistically for around 3% of the time I have spent in class.

Many of these skills are taught (or at least referred to) in leadership seminars, tragically delivered to students whom have already been identified as leaders by their peers, that is they naturally posess many of the soft skills through the darwinian selection. (As an aside, I should admit at my own highschool year to year their were leadership positions allocated to people with no leadership skills, as a reward for parental participation in Parental associations like school boards and committees that may have benefited from these leadership seminars).

But this is nothing like the number of hours allocated to differentiation. Numeracy and mathematics are transferable, there are many occasions where problems we encounter can be modelled mathematically and worked out on paper without the need of trial and error. But differentiation measuring the rate of change is highly specialised and covered in physics where in engineering and other professions where one is likely to use these skills and have studied physics as a prerequisite. Otherwise it is rare to think anybody will need to calculate the area under a graph and change in angle of tangents to a curve.

It is unlikely that the hours I spent on anti-differentiation, imaginary numbers, geometric proofs etc. are likely to have any real impact on my wellbeing over the course of my life apart from the natural satisfaction of studying them compared to the 0 hours I have spent in schools learning how to identify a good romantic partner, something that has caused me more anxiety than any geometric shape I have come across (except perhaps in drawing, but I do everything free hand anyway).

Yet specialist mathematics was held in high esteem by my secondary institution, despite the minimal impact it has on both our wellbeing and careers. Having been to my 10 year reunion I can say that even ENTER scores are a poor predictor of future financial and emotional wellbeing at least over a 10 year period. (in case you are from my high school and reading this, what I mean is from what I can recall of the enter scores I knew of, there is no discernable pattern).

Even university doesn't do it's students many favors. Graduates jump qualification hurdles but even with internship/workplacement initiatives an overemphasis on group assignments etc. few graduate even with a firm grasp of what they are supposed to know and even less prepared to operate in an organisational environment. Group assignments are assigned with very little education or training on how to actually manage a group assignment. They simply must be done, creating the practice whereby one individual completes the assignment and the other four sign their name to it. A good student thus learns not to delegate to people you don't trust, creating at best micromanagers to be the stars of the Australian workforce and then a bunch of people who don't actually know what their qualifications say they do.

Even then, these technical experts can be easily outshined by a salesman with incredble interpersonal instincts and no formal education or qualifications to speak of. It can and does happen and that is a failure of the education system at large.

There is nothing wrong with expertise as such, it is important, but the fundamentals, the general skills are just not being taught. To close this out with more of Dr. Livingstone, here he reflects my attitude to that 3% of time in academic institutions when I have been really engaged in something useful and interesting:

It is not surprising that most parents fall back on a series of restrictions and proscriptions, things one must not do, relating mostly to drugs, sex and driving. It's as if our fears for our children's survival overwhelm our sense of what they need to navigate happily through lives.
I think young people would respond with interest to these subjects. My experiences with teenagers in therapy is that they generally value the chance to have a conversation with a non-judgemental adult about subjects germane to their daily experience.

There is always time to go back to uni, but in Victoria at least a sense of urgency is fostered amongst 16-17 year olds to choose a specialised path of study (despite almost no university courses having a pre-requisite beyond a study score of 25 in english) and plan the rest of their lives around this.
Few graduate or leave highschool possessing an adequate grasp of something as fundamental as how to make a decision, they have made a decision that potentially wastes years of their life without any instruction as to how to make it.

Prior to 16 their are few choices a child can make in determining their own lifestyle. Most of the big fundamental decisions are made by their parents or gaurdians. 90% of the focus of education in the time leading up to this age I feel should be spent equipping them to make these decisions and manage the subsequent results of them. After that you can start specialising, and by no means finish it.

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