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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: Let students solve real, relevant and actual problems instead of outdated and mostly fictional challenges. Connect with businesses and governments to form think tanks with students. Not exclusively for students in the last phase of their studies but right from the start.
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      Sep 21 2011: See Kaospilots.

      Undergraduate education.
      Year One: Think of a problem.
      Year Two: Make a plan
      Year Three: Act.
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        Sep 21 2011: James this is a powerful general framework, one that UC Berkeley almost implemented for their engineering programs in the 90s but in the end did not.

        My question: is it necessary to allocate an entire year for a body of students to think of a problem? Perhaps researching the right problem(s) to tackle is a valuable aspect of education, and as important as problem solving itself. I would like to hear your thoughts on this.
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          Sep 21 2011: I haven't met too many kaospiliots, but know that there is alot of industry respect going their way, and even more respect from the proud employers that snap them up. (IDEO were almost bragging they employed one on social media.)

          It is interesting that UC Berkeley thought about it and didn't do it. In my own school, there are no grades as we are creative's, and that leads to more bold and daring designs. The ex-dean went to harvard and tries to implent the system their, but couldn't as the overall university loved the grade system too much despite people in the dept knew this other option produced better results.

          I guess I think startups for that reason are more interesting in my opinion that the traditional universities as the universities aren't willing to try much where startups jump right in.
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          Sep 21 2011: I'm curious why UCB did not implement this. It would have been really interesting. Sounds like someone did not successfully make a call to action by imagining what it could be if successful!
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        Sep 21 2011: Right on James. I might add:
        Year One: Identify what you LOVE and what are your unique skills.
        Year Two: Think of 5 very different problems that fit your passions and skills
        Year Three: Make plans for 2 of these, ideally the most different
        Year Four: Act on one but have the other as a backup plan B
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          Sep 21 2011: I believe the debate at many universities is about whether linear versus non-linear learning works best. Linear learning is the most common model (i.e. first years the foundations of physics, chemistry, calculus, followed by higher division more specialized classes). The non-linear model is centered on holistic problem solving. Here, the students learn the physics, chemistry, calculus that they need to solve the problem, and they learn them as they are needed during the process. It is exciting to know that some educational platforms (e.g. Kaospilots) are moving towards the non-linear model.

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