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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: Wow, great conversation! Thank you Eric for leading this.

    In my work I find that good solutions are often frustrated by lack o critical, skeptical thinking. For example, many people excited about climate change adaptation operate under the premise that everyone knows what we need is more monitoring to detect change. Few of us challenge these assumptions or require our colleagues to apply logic and rigor in identifying goals, objectives, and actions. We need to train people to challenge assumptions, to require presentation of logic models, to somehow be skeptical while remaining open to leaps of faith. Not sure how we do that, but part of the problem is that we do not support a culture that shields skeptics --instead the culture supports those that go along.
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      Sep 21 2011: Interesting, Dan. It would be great in a later conversation to learn more about your work. Perhaps you can initiate a new TED conversation?
    • Sep 21 2011: Philosophical training might help- at least a logic class taught sometime before the age of 18!?
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      Sep 21 2011: Thanks for contributing Dan! One kernel in your post that is key to me is the dialectical tension between skepticism and being open to leaps of faith. Training students to be comfortable with that juxtaposition of apparent opposites is key.
      • Sep 21 2011: I've been struggling with how to bring this concept (of juxtaposing of opposites) across in a manner that can be easily understood. When it comes to being able to back away and look at something from a higher perspective, is there an age range where this should be taking place? Is there really an innate morality that is beyond culture and would it be dangerous or even wrong to give the power to a child to see that they have a choice of either behaving or misbehaving and that they are 'at choice' to do what they feel is right? Will that confuse a child to the point of depression or inaction for an inability to understand what to do? What about the kids who feel that it is right to harm others and go into a route that they gain power over others because it's what they want to do and what they enjoy? This morning I was writing about my own struggle with the dialectical tension in values and in being able to choose between two dynamic tensions. For example freedom vs. commitment. Both can be examined and seen as having lighter and darker aspects. The choice is there for anyone, but will a child be able to navigate through to do what is best for them in the future based on values as opposed to what they want to do and can children effectively choose values without having had much experience with the application of them in the world? Just looking to spark some thoughts, let me know how this settles on you. Cheers.
    • Sep 21 2011: I totally agree with Daniel. I think the biggest threat to the future of humanity is lazy, uncritical thinking that simple accepts and regurgitates conditioned ideas even when it is clear that they do not work. I am working on a book on this at the moment.

      I was very fortunate (although I did not realise it at the time) to be educated in such a way where I was taught to ask questions continuously, in addition to my natural curiosity. I did extremely well at school and then at university at Cambridge because I simply loved to use my brain to solve problems. I was the kind of kid who would find a new subject to learn during the summer holidays and study it to death, such as renaissance art or something I was unfamiliar with but would challenge me.

      My biggest struggle since leaving university 8 years ago has been operating in a world where critical thinking is generally not found and where, in the workplace in particular, you are seen as being obstructionist for asking the question why. So at 25 I decided I had to leave traditional employment and create my own path because it was the only way in which I would thrive.

      The issue with the western education system in general apart from a few schools like montessori or the ones I attended, is that it is designed to churn out good workers. Good workers are not supposed to, or are not required to in most places, think critically. So both the world f education plus the real world into which children are being sent must change.

      Critical thinking is a necessity, however, for the evolution of our species.

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