Minds, Knowledge, Well Being and Education

I’ve been reading and watching videos from a number of folks who have posted their ideas about the connections between the mind, knowledge, creativity, well being and education (yeap, they are all connected).  There seems to be a growing sense that emphasis on knowledge workers, educations that emphasizes excessive abstration (theory), and education systems that select students solely for these capabilities leads to unhappiness, lack of economic growth and an inability for business innovation to move quick enough to keep up with the accelerated “creative distruction” of captial caused in part by a global economy.

For instance, see Sir Ken Robinson’s 2006 TED talk on education.  There is also a new book by Matthew Crawford, “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work” that delves into the artifical disassociation of thought from manual work, and the problems this creates for quality of life.  Matt wrote a New York Times piece on this as well, “The Case for Working With Your Hands“.  And, there’s Gever Tulley’s February 2009 TED talk on “Teaching Life’s Lesson with Tinkering” about how to get tinkering in the hands of children (again).

I also came across material from John Seely Brown who at one time was Chief Scientist at Xerox PARC.  I’d been aware of his work previously, but from the technology side since I currently work in the computer industry.  Here are some videos he posted on his web site: “Tinkering as a Mode of Knowledge Production“; “The Future of Learning“; and  “Teaching, Doing More With Less“.   He makes complimentary observations about the current state of education (more slanted to universities, but still relevant to secondary education) and shares some ideas about how to change it. John’s emphasis is on technology tools that can increase the collaboration and connection for students who need to learn new skills at an increasing rate, and why social networks faciliate this learning style.

My conclusions fall along the following lines.

  • Learning (as opposed to teaching) is a messy, individual process.  Ken’s story toward the end of his talk about the learning environment for a dancer drives the point home.  Learning is messy which is problematic if you need fungible skills for a consumption based economy where unit cost has to decline for a growing economy (and that clearly has far ranging benefits).  As Matt argues,the disaggregation of knowledge from manual work was important to scaling up the industrial economy of the 20th century, and that in turn is why education was designed to “manufacture” suitable “workers” who could become the “interchangable” parts required to scale this economic model.  To do that, tacit knowledge had to be codified and owned by “companies” rather than “individuals”.  (As a counter point to that argument, see “Measuring the Forces of Long-term Change, The 2009 Shift Index“, by the Deloitte Center for the Edge, which John contributed to.  In particular, look at the Impact Index, pg 5, and note the growing shift in economic value to “Contributors”.  Seems like key knowledge workers maybe getting more of the profit than the business does.)
  • Changing our education process to include “tinkering” and the tacit learning it provides (and the subtle leverage this provides from the impact on brain development) are pretty important if the future is really fluid and “well being” requires skill in how to constantly learn tacit knowledge.  Kids are naturally able to tinker unless we “program” them not to.  It’s adults who need to learn more about tinkering, and  the “process” of public education has to embrace more of this “messy method” of learning tacit knowledge.
  • Retraining teachers to be facilitators of tinkering rather than dispensers of literacy (facts) and testers of fact retention is a major disruption to the education “industry”.  I suspect the “educator guild” may not go willing down this path.  I’m also uncertain if there are enough people with the skills necessary to be “facilitators of tinkering” to scale this up.  But, its worth a try.
  • There are pretty profound implications on the global economy and work from these observations about education, knowledge workers and the artificial separation of tacit knowledge from your job. For example, the deconstruction of tacit knowledge into rules, and the resulting “lowest common denominator” job function (particularly evident in the computer technology industry) don’t bode well for creating new market value at a rate sufficient to offset the loss of margin due to global competition.  Invention of new market value requires tinkering, as Matt’s book shows us and John’s talks suggest.  Yet, I see the trend to devalue tacit knowledge growing stronger in the technology industry, which seems ironic if not moronic.