It’s crunch time. On the one hand, the complexity of our lives and the challenges we face demand an unprecedented level of knowledge and expertise. This is especially true when the best answers require innovation. Education, both on the job and for our next generation of workers, is needed more than ever.
On the other hand, economies worldwide are in crisis. Governments, corporations, and individuals are cutting budgets, and money for education is being reduced at all levels.
We are starving education at the very time when our investments need to grow. Part of the problem may be priorities that have shifted to the near term. Suspicions about experts (including teachers) and the erosion of the traditional appreciation of education may also be at fault. These are cultural problems that will be difficult to counter.
I do find hope, however, in bringing the ideas of frugal innovation to education. (In fact, education provides a good model for identifying frugal opportunities – something I will go into with my next post.) Here I will only focus on gaining knowledge and capability. I will not go into other aspects of education, such as relationship building and accreditation.
Simplify – I saw the struggle as IBM struggled to take advantage of the power of parallel computing. On paper, the systems were more powerful than traditional mainframes, but the problems needed to be reconceived in simpler forms. They needed to be broken up into smaller bit and directed to the array of available processors, and then reassembled.
Much of our education has become big and bloated, full of intertwined facts and problems. (In the US, history is an especially egregious example of this because state legislatures jam in the perspectives of powerful interests.) Frameworks are important and needed to take learning beyond the anecdotal. But there are many standalone bits that could be deleted, moved around, or taught by other means, such as computer.
In fact, one trend that I expect to catch fire is teaching much of what is taught in introductory, quantitative fields in e-classrooms. Good lessons are already available online for free, and these can supplement classroom teaching in ways that increase productivity.
But the first step is to see what the simplest expressions of any courses might be.
Use what’s local – The most powerful, life-changing education I had while I was in high school was when I worked in a lab in a hospital. Essentially, it was an apprenticeship in microbiology, and it didn’t cost my school any money. I did a moderate amount of work as an organizer and errand-runner (which covered the hospital’s costs), and I got to do research and immerse myself in an active work environment.
Many more people and organizations are willing to provide mentorships, guest speakers, co-op assignments, and other hands-on experiences that can provide knowledge within contexts that make the work more vital and attractive.
Within a work environment, there is the concept of the brown bag lunch. Colleagues share their expertise in an informal manner. In my last years at IBM, some of us expanded this into virtual space, providing mentorship and learning to colleagues worldwide. I also used my opportunities working on reports for the IBM Academy to draw in people who had never participated in such projects and get them working with the company’s best minds on some of its toughest problems. (All done as volunteer efforts, by the way.)
Adapt skills – I have real doubts about the professionalization of teachers. In New York we have people who majored in the humanities attempting to teach science and math. (Full disclosure here – My own attempts to teach science were discouraged by the school system, despite my having a Masters in Organic Chemistry and several years teaching at IBM.) Without a doubt, there are people who have mastered skills students need, who could join in the education effort if they were identified, encouraged, and enabled with some classroom experience.
Sometimes it is easy to guess who might have the skills. An engineer probably could share his or her knowledge of math. But we have a greater opportunity to find talent and skill thanks to online communities. For instance, people who provide the best answers regularly and are recognized by the community have the added bonus of demonstrated communications skills and genuine enthusiasm for their subjects.
Make the poor your market — Linus Pauling once told me how distressed he was that most chemistry textbooks frontloaded the lessons with theoretical concepts (including his own). He believed in starting where the students were, with looking at rocks from the playground. The green on that rock – is it s different material? How can we find out?
Starting where people are rather than in the “logical” place is one way that a lesson can create teachable moments. Studies show that this engenders teacher/student respect that is especially effective with poorer students. It also can turn the world around them into a classroom that suggests questions for discussion and investigation later on.
As with frugal innovation, looking at the course from the point of view of the poorest segment reveals what is essential and suggests new ways to reach society’s goals.
A frugal approach does not replace traditional education or diminish society’s responsibility to extend employment by upgrading the skill of workers and to prepare the next generation to provide value and participate thoughtfully and knowledgeably in civic affairs. But in a time when people are dismayed by the tasks at hand and the growth of public, private, and personal debt, a frugal approach may ease the burden enough to allow us to make the best choices.