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Your future isn’t in a textbook

Learning

In my last post I talked about creativity as a process of endless renewal and reinvention in pursuit of a constantly shifting and ambiguous end point – one you’ll never actually reach. Today I want to share a more specific example of where that sort of thinking could be valuably applied: education.

They say you’re underpaid for the first half of your working life and overpaid for the second. But that need only true if you’re talking about money. Because smart people know that at the start of your career your work to learn, not to earn.

That’s to say that your first job will pay sod all money but if you’re smart you’ll be learning like crazy. Why? Because that’s how you set your course. That’s how you find out where you need to go next. There’s no map to follow. You’re in the wild and you’re tracking down your future using broken twigs and tufts of metaphorical future-fur. Tell me if you think I’ve overextended this analogy…

But why wait until you’re all grown up? Why does a focus on creative, entrepreneurial self development have to be put off until you’re in work while you spend some of your most creatively fertile years treading a well worn path? Why can’t education treat young people as explorers charting their own future rather than lumps of clay waiting to be shaped according to someone else’s past?

Modern education is the way it is because education for the masses coincided, although not coincidentally, with mass production and the rise of big industrial empires. Before the second industrial revolution and before mass consumerism, most people had little to no formal education. But mass production and big bureaucracies required lots of people with a certain set of skills to be produced reliably and quickly. So schools for the masses were founded with this as their primary goal. It’s no surprise that they mirror factories – big batches of thousands and thousands of young people are taught the same things, in the same way, and Quality Assurance (read: standardised testing) marks them on how neatly uniform they come out.

This is all fine up until a point – that point being fairly basic stuff. We all need to read and write and we all need to know basic maths, geography and history. That’s what they used to teach and for that it worked very well – especially because most jobs for which education was needed were process jobs, the things computers do today.

But the world has moved on. Why hasn’t education?

Here’s an heretical idea: what if, after the age of 14, rather than choosing options like we currently do and being expected to know what we’ll want to learn about for the next however many years, we start to treat advanced education, anything above and beyond the basics, like we treat a lean, entrepreneurial startup? Rather than big batch production with standardised testing we apply an iterative, creative learning process to help people to learn the right things for them, rather than trying to make them conform to what we want to test for? Instead of multi-year courses, education could become far more modular. And rather than testing how well someone has learned whatever the standardised test says they should have learned, why not measure progress in terms of how much they have learned about themselves and how far they have progressed towards their own personal goals?

For my part, I think my education followed, by accident more than design, this sort of path. I was the classic generalist at school. I excelled at no one subject in particular. A teacher once actually described me in a school report as “an enigma who refuses to be solved” (hi Mr. Keller!) because of my stubborn insistence on only learning the things I thought were interesting. Then, later on, I simulated my proposed modular approach to education by dropping out of various courses without completing them! Again, more by accident than design. But the result is that I have a broad, eclectic (that word again!) educational past. I know a little art history. I know some graphic design. I have some psychology and physics and some history and some maths but not a lot of any one subject (OK – I did do a degree in history but there’s so much of that I can’t honestly say my puny knowledge makes a dent).

I’m not an expert in anything. And, as it turned out, I didn’t need to be for the future that lay ahead. But isn’t it a shame that I only arrived here by accident and that, for a lot of the journey, my progress felt like failure? After all, you don’t get any credit for learning half a course! But why not? Cumulatively I should have a PhD by now!

The output of education shouldn’t be a person who’s passed all the tests. Just as the output of a startup is the learning needed to become a sustainable, mature business, the output of education should be a person who knows what he or she wants to be and, more importantly, how to make that happen.

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