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Eric Berlow

Founder, Vibrant Data Labs


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Instead of narrow specialization, how can our educational system better train integrative, innovative, and adaptive problem solvers?

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The world is facing many complex problems that threaten the future of life as we know it, and governments and corporations have been ineffective at implementing real integrative solutions. One problem can cause many, but on the flip side, one creative solution can cause many. The world’s most innovative problem solvers have an uncanny ability to see the entire picture and hone in on simple leverage points with widespread positive impacts, yet we are not actively teaching our students to do the same. How can we not only training more creative thought leaders, but also create a population of voters who vote for them and support holistic solutions when they are presented?


Closing Statement from Eric Berlow

Thanks to everyone for the lively discussion!

If I had to summarize, it seems like there is general consensus that we need to better enable students to tap into their individual passions and to learn fundamental, transferable skills early on. While some highly technical jobs require very specific training (e.g., brain surgery), most jobs require the ability to learn quickly, to ask critical questions, and to apply the unique skills that we bring to the table (skills that maybe were never in the job description). Related to this concept, there were some very interesting arguments for the value of philosophy, art, and ethics as providing solid building blocks for embracing uncertainty, abstracting and mapping transferable skills, and balancing critical skepticism with creative leaps of faith.

Some felt that there is enormous potential in applying online tools for making education more modular and "remixable" to help students follow their individual passions. One model for this is Khan Academy, but its main success has been in teaching a very specific (and linear) subject matter (math) rather than broad, interdisciplinary education. Some felt that current online ed tools still don't do much to foster innovation. There is clearly much more we can do to improve online educational tools that enhance face-to-face learning - but there is potential.

A recurring, and very interesting, implementation theme was the concept of a "passion to action" curriculum that helps students tap into their passions, identify problems that map onto those passions, and execute a plan to act on them.

Thanks again for all the input!


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  • Sep 21 2011: In order to do so our educational system will have to be more open to innovation and that will require some deregulation and privatization of that system.
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      Sep 21 2011: Hi Jeremy, really interesting challenge. Is there any way to 'sneak' in this innovation into the existing system? In other words, how might we align the incentive structure of the existing system with new forms of engaging students more broadly?
      • Sep 21 2011: I really don't think there is a way to do that. The public system is so rigid. It has too many standards that don't allow change to happen very easily. It is a system that will always be behind in methods and technology. Kahn Academy is one example of a system that lives outside our current system and thus is able to introduce innovation. The best way to innovate in our educational system is to privatize and deregulate. The next best way is to create outside systems that compete with the current system. Innovation within the system is next to impossible.
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          Sep 21 2011: I think what Khan Academy is doing, along with MIT OpenCourseware, Stanford OpenClassroom and Engineering Everywhere, and others surely to follow - this is the way to learn. But Khan Academy and others only work if you realized you NEED the material or for some reason want to learn it, and you know specifically what to look for. Creating interest in new material and exposing students to subjects they didn't know they should have - that's also a major role of educators, which the internet is missing thus far. As well as a human touch, which should never become absent from the learning experience.

          I *LOVE* what Stanford is doing this year with live web enrollment to a live class - homeworks and all.
        • Sep 21 2011: The system is currently stifled. Lack of funding and lowest-denominator based state-standards prevent innovative development. There are hundreds of thousands of well educated teachers in the public system nationwide capable of taking education to new levels, they just need the freedom and support to do so. I believe project-based education and contextual learning are the keys to turning our system around. Goodbye to worksheets and end of chapter questions!
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        Sep 21 2011: Teachers will do what they have to in direction they want to... so then the question is how do you incentivise administrators to incentivise teachers to add certain material. Perhaps create freedom for corporations to sponsor certain school-wide transformations or projects which create room for unconventional learning. I'm sure there are ways. What my question in response to you is - who will teach these new skills? My parents couldn't teach me about financial success because they have no idea what that means - I had to learn it elsewhere. Most teachers are not equipped to teach connection-making, true creativity (out-of-the-box thinking), or create drive and ambition in students because THEY lack these things and thus would have no idea what this stuff is made of or how to teach it. Even if given material, they would present it from the framework of their own limited view of the world. How do you fix THAT?!
    • Sep 21 2011: but privatization is making the system costly and corrupted...The institutions are always interested in earning money from students without showing any advancements towards students development
      • Sep 21 2011: You are only looking at it from the current private schools system which is still regulated and standardized by the government. You need to take a fresh perspective of what it could be like if people had more freedom to choose what type of education their child gets. For profit works better. Why? Cause schools succeed or fail based on innovation and ability to provide well for the market. It is incentive based and not just old school test scores based.
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          Sep 21 2011: Granted there is always a chance for success in any noble endeavor, but how do you secure these benefits while avoiding the corrupt systems? Is there a way to actually get past the current negative paradigm? It is a frightening world, my current Governor is trying to bypass the 1st, and 14th amendment in order to create a voucher system for education. The ethical costs of that seem far worse than the benefits of what could be done. Hope is great, but hope doesn't pay for public education when all of the children in Kansas get bussed to their Christian schools.
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        Sep 21 2011: khanacademy was developed by one guy and a camera and is arguably the most disruptive an interesting concept out there.

        Cost: $50?
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          Sep 21 2011: Khan Academy is a super interesting model - especially his concept of "Flipping the Classroom": give the students the 'lecture' for homework, and have them do homework in class where the teacher can spend more time helping them problem solve and think critically. The HUGE challenge though is that math education is very linear and progressive - so it's kind of the 'low hanging fruit' of online education. How can this approach grow to include more interdisciplinary education?
    • Sep 21 2011: Definitely agree. Our country has been standardizing education, which is admiral in the case of those who are being ignored by our educational system, but we need to put the power back in the states and the districts and ultimately the schools again. Our federal government does not have the power to make sure that all students get a worthy education, nor do they have the right to tell us what that education should be.
    • Sep 21 2011: It's already starting to go that way. With the advent of charter schools, public money is being spent on schools that are operate more like private schools. I am the leader of a private school, but I have to say I would love to see our public school system make the much needed changes to benefit all of our nation's students. Currently we are nowhere near the top of education systems in the world which does not bode well for a job market that has made the transition from local/national to international. I worry about my students and how they will fare.
      • Sep 21 2011: That is true Amanda. Unfortunately standardization still prevents schools including charter schools from innovating much more than public schools are able to do.

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