Monday, September 4, 2017

The Twenty Year Itch: A New Approach to Education

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."
Samuel Beckett. Westward Ho.

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”                 
George Bernard Shaw. 1856-1950.

“Each year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the rest of the world.”

"Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years."
         Thomas Jefferson. Letter to James Madison. September 6, 1789.

Anyone who doubts my passion about this subject is welcome to go read my other blog posts on the topic:

I don't think anyone will argue with the statement that we can create a much more meaningful and impactful educational system if we fundamentally rethink our approach to it. The disagreements are rather about the type of system that should replace it.

One thing has become obvious to me. Incremental improvements in the current model of education will not get us where we need to go. Nothing short of a revolution in our thinking about education will address the problems of the current system. We need to stop thinking about sixteen to twenty years of education early in life that prepares you for a lifetime of work. Our world is moving forward at such a fast clip that the education we received even twenty years ago is basically obsolete for today's workforce, let alone tomorrow's information based needs. It makes no sense to assume that the education you are receiving today will prepare you for a career in 2150 or beyond.

Think about a model of education, instead, as something that will prepare you for the next twenty years of your life - not the next eighty, as it is currently being implemented. Rinse and repeat every two decades in order to avoid the “planned obsolescence” almost guaranteed by today's system.

There is an admission here that on the job learning and continual education is required for staying competitive in today's market. Once you reach age forty, in my new mode, you have a fork in the road. If, after twenty years of combined investment in education and work in a field, any field, you find you are happy and content and want to continue down the same career path, then by all means, double down for the next twenty years, pick a specific subfield to specialize in, continue to take more senior level graduate courses to beef up your education and learn about the technology and sub-specialty you're interested in. Remember, you've just spent twenty years investing in this particular field - be it computer science or economics or art history. Now you've come to a fork in the road and decide to double down. Well, good for you. Fame and fortune is sure to be yours as you become a senior leader in your field of study with many years of work and study under your belt.

If, on the other hand, you decide you've had enough and want to try your luck at something else - be it nuclear physics or genetic engineering or finance, well then - welcome to your second twenty year “era”: you have felt the “twenty year itch” and decided to scratch it.

You may go down this other path for several legitimate reasons. Maybe you decide you're just not good at "it" (your initial field of endeavor) and want to try your hand at something else. Maybe you're entrepreneurial and feel you've learned enough about this field (say, computer science) and want to learn more about economics - and the intersection of these two fields of study. These, by the way, I find, are the true innovators today - the ones who don't limit themselves to a single specialty, spending the first thirty years of their lives specializing in some esoteric field of study before their careers even begin. This model obviously rewards generalists and practitioners but it also leaves the door open for specialization - later, as needed and fresher when delivered compared to today's model. Rinse and repeat every twenty years and, I claim, the end result is a much healthier society with healthier, happier people living longer more productive lives.

Lots of interesting business ideas are born at the cross-section of disciplines, not within a single field. We should be welcoming and rewarding polymaths. If we want to succeed in the future, we have to abandon our education system built for the eighteenth century, for the industrial revolution, for mechanization, for memorization, and replace it with one for the information revolution, one based on inter-disciplinary insights. It may have made sense two hundred years ago to educate ourselves once at the beginning of our lives - when life expectancy was forty, not in the next century when it will be over a hundred.

In such a world, to be clear, you would spend the first twenty years of your life learning a craft - be it science or history or economics or medicine. You would then spend your twenties and thirties working in that field - and continue to take classes for further specialization as needed. At age forty, then, you come to a fork in the road. Continue to specialize or flip to another industry, another field of study, another career? Your forties and fifties, I claim, in this model, will be much more productive than what we get today - with the vast majority of people deciding they're stuck in a career they hate for the rest of their lives. It reinvigorates them, I claim, if they are given a chance to pursue another career. Rinse and repeat at sixty and eighty. You get my point. As our average life expectancy increases, it's the only sane option.

Such a system, I claim, would have to abandon the current model of standardized tests and specialized fields of study in its initial iteration. But the first step is to recognize that a rinse and repeat model of education is the right one for our future. Such a model will reduce the teaching of unnecessary minutiae, I claim, and will deliver a more coherent, less specialized model of education in the first twenty years of life. It will do so because it knows it will get a second chance at a subset of those students twenty years later - and maybe even forty years later. And when they come back the second time around, they'll be much more motivated than they were as teenagers and they will have twenty years of experience behind them as well. Let’s face it: Some fields of study just naturally lend themselves to incorporation of past social interactions. It is more fruitful to study, say, psychology or law later in life, as a forty year old than it is to do so as a twenty year old with no life experiences or scars on your back.

Industry would have to collaborate in this model of the universe, accepting people into their employ with perhaps a few fewer TLAs in front of their title. More generalists interested in learning a craft than specialists. In reality, most high tech companies already do this through intern programs that sometimes reach all the way into high school to pick early talent.