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Pondering the universe


18. A new approach to education

Most people's education is based around a progressive accumulation of large amounts of knowledge and skills, but is that good enough to keep up with the plethora of knowledge that is presented to us?

It used to be that knowledge was considered power, and many were reliant on what they knew for their continued employment, so held onto as much as they could, in what I call knowledge embargo. However, now that we have computers holding corporate knowledge, and the internet overflowing with information, it is not hard to find alternate sources of the information being held onto. Now, it is how we apply knowledge that is the new power.

In a way, knowledge is like energy, in that it does not become power until we direct its use, otherwise, it is only unused potential. Trying to hold onto it, when it could be used, is counter-productive. Our education systems still rely on this knowledge-starvation model, where it is assumed that the only way to gain knowledge is by being taught it. With the advent of the internet, we are well passed that, because we have too much knowledge to assimilate. That requires a whole other approach.

Knowledge managementβ–³

To handle a surfeit of knowledge, we have to look at it from the perspective of management, where people have to be able to sort through it themselves, rather than wait for the drip-fed accumulation of pre-digested courses.

Traditional education relies heavily on multi-year courses that are supposed to encapsulate the complete set of knowledge for a vocation. This requires educational institutions to predict what knowledge is going to be required a decade downstream. With the rapid expansion of information, the predicting is becoming much more difficult, as the viable lifetime of some informations sets is less than the preparation time for major courses.

That, in itself, means that education is less likely to be a reliable predictor of a person being able to have a vocation using it.

To manage knowledge in our modern times, we have to be able to:

  1. 1.Research – find the knowledge we particularly want to know
  2. 2.Analyse – determine the veracity, provenance and usefulness of the knowledge
  3. 3.Report – distill the knowledge into useful forms.

Traditional education, especially at tertiary level, seems to expect that people will learn these skills as a byproduct of their producing papers. However, it is clearly a set of skills that must be taught formally at a much earlier stage if people are to be able to work into the future, even if only so they don't feel overwhelmed in their own private life.

Just-in-time learningβ–³

A lot of current education is predicated around the idea that the information required for a vocation is fairly static and finite. With the pace of change in lnowledge, that is clearly not the case

Some vocations' professional bodies advocate for continuous learning. While that is a step in the right direction, this principle of adaptive learning needs to be a core philosophy. For example, business computing used to be based around one or two principal languages, such as COBOL and C/C++. However, with web technologies, we now have PHP, python, java, javascript, XML, XSL, jQuery and many more to deal with.

Given that each of these languages is still being developed, we may learn a language using a particular version, but not get to use it until several versions later, in which time much of the language has been expanded and some parts deprecated, forcing us to learn a whole lot of new stuff anyway. Also, web development can involve using several languages simultaneously, requiring a flexibility of approach, with some languages being swapped out for others, depending upon requirements.

An alternate approach is to initially learn generic programming, which is about programming structures such as loops and conditional execution, and then only lookup the actual command for a particular language as required. This is just-in-time learning. It saves cluttering up one's mind with information that is likely to be obsolete by the time it is used. This is only possible because there is plentiful material on the internet about every language's commands and their usage, which can be looked up right before needing it. This approach can be the same for all other knowledge required.

Adaptability, assimilation and self-awarenessβ–³

Information is not separate from who we think we are and what we want to do. We use information to extend our influence, but doing that also requires us to change as well.

We want information so that we can make changes to our lives and others. However, to use that information, we usually need to be able to change and adapt our thinking to accommodate it. While education is meant to open up our minds to possibilities, most education systems have been geared to finding out which stream of subjects one is best suited for, so testing has been about slotting people into lanes leading to specific types of work, as if there are no overlaps.

However, modern working life often involves trying to re-integrate these streams in multi-disciplinary teams because siloed thinking fails to cater for human-friendly products and services. Perhaps it is better to stop trying to make specialists out of people, and help them be more eccletic in their thinking and skills.

One area where differences have traditionally been seen to be distinct are in behaviours. An example is where people are considered to be either introverts or extroverts. Extroverts are seen to be outgoing, sometimes loud, wanting external stimulus, whereas introverts are seen as introspective and quiet. However, people are usually somewhere in between, and those who can alter their behaviour according to circumstances are called ambiverts.

As it turns out, in employment ambiverts tend to be preferred, as they are able to work well individually and in teams. Even in traditionally extrovert occupations, like sales, they achieve better results because they can listen to clients, rather than just prescribe what is 'best' for them. This highlights that education needs to not try to slot people into behaviour types, but help them to adapt to their circumstances. To be able to do that, people have to be able to be aware of themselves and the current situation, so that they can choose how to behave at the time.

Education has tended to want to prescribe behaviour, rather than teach people how to change their behaviour as a choice. We are not talking about training people to be sociopaths manipulating people, but helping them to be truly better responsive to the needs of those they deal with and help. Education needs to make self-awareness part of the curriculum, as it enables people to be more creative and adaptable, and that has benefits in all parts of life. That doesn't mean people cannot be assertive and stand up for themselves, but they will be better able to choose what is important to stand for.


Early in our school years, we need to learn the basic knowledge management skills and core knowledge blocks, and so set ourselves up for a much more adaptive mindset that carries us more confidently into an unknown future. We future-proof ourselves first.

Of course, the manual skills that we need still take the time required to learn them, but if their learning is suitably granular, we only will need to learn them as required as well. Our learning has to be able to adapt while we are still at school, as the working world is not standing still, and we are still coming to grips with where we want to be in it. This may also mean that we spend many less years in formal education, but much of the rest of our working life is topping up. That might just save a whole lot of money on an area that most politicians see as a huge budget black hole!

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