A Re­nais­sance of the Lib­eral Arts

In the work­ing world of to­mor­row, knowl­edge alone is no longer enough to find hap­pi­ness. The big question is this: What is the best way to learn hu­man­ity and cre­ativ­ity for the dig­i­tal age?

Bulletin - - Jobs Of The Future - By St­ef­fan Heuer (text) and Jan Buchczik (illustrations)

What should chil­dren be learn­ing in the fu­ture – and what’s no longer needed?

Per­haps this dilemma was best ex­pressed in the book­lets ac­com­pa­ny­ing toy com­pany Lego’s 60th an­niver­sary sets: The head­line of the col­or­ful in­struc­tion man­u­als reads “build­ing big­ger think­ing.” The book­let con­tin­ues, “Did you know that your imag­i­na­tion is big­ger than a grown-up’s? It’s true! You can think of any­thing, all you need to do is build it.” The sets con­tain hun­dreds of blocks, but no in­struc­tions on how to cre­ate a mas­ter­piece from them.

This is, in essence, the free­dom to dis­cover some­thing new and with the will­ing­ness to break it all down again. Also known as play­ful cre­ativ­ity – but not to be con­fused with child’s play. De­vel­op­men­tal psy­cholo-

gists, teach­ers and economists agree that this is the best ap­proach to ed­u­ca­tion and work in the 21st cen­tury.

Learn­ing Hu­man­ity

The race be­tween man and ma­chine is well un­der­way, and hu­mans can cer­tainly put a great deal into the bal­ance to en­sure that they come out ahead, or at least as equal part­ners to ro­bots and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. For those who don’t want to be left be­hind, the Mckin­sey con­sult­ing firm rec­om­mends that they con­tinue to ed­u­cate them­selves and spend more time on ac­tiv­i­ties re­quir­ing so­cial and emo­tional skills, cre­ativ­ity, higher think­ing abil­i­ties and other skills that are rel­a­tively dif­fi­cult to automate. But what is the best way to learn hu­man­ity and cre­ativ­ity for the dig­i­tal age?

Ac­cord­ing to Heather Mc­gowan, an Amer­i­can ex­pert on ed­u­ca­tion, we are in need of a rad­i­cal new par­a­digm. “The worst thing for an adult to do is to ask a child what they want to be one day when they grow up,” Mc­gowan says. “The world we live in is ac­cel­er­at­ing. Young peo­ple need to be pre­pared to do 17 dif­fer­ent jobs in five dif­fer­ent in­dus­tries over the course of their life­times.” It makes no sense to use an ed­u­ca­tional model that re­quires a decade to teach a per­son a set of knowl­edge and skills and then to let them loose in the la­bor mar­ket. In­stead, Mc­gowan em­pha­sized that we should be teach­ing peo­ple HOW to learn with pas­sion rather than WHAT they should learn. “What role do I play in a team, how do I ex­press my­self, how do I de­velop con­fi­dence in the true sense of the word, how do I gain a strong un­der­stand­ing of what I can do?” Mc­gowan con­sid­ers these skills to be pre­req­ui­sites for a per­son to find a mean­ing­ful place in the au­to­mated world. “It doesn’t mat­ter whether ro­bots re­place 23 per­cent or 47 per­cent of all jobs. We need to act like it is 100 per­cent. Up un­til now, only one fifth of our econ­omy has been truly dig­i­tal­ized. The real cri­sis has yet to come.” But, ac­cord­ing to Mc­gowan, there is still time to pre­pare from school to ca­reer.

Men­tal Mus­cles

The Bri­tish-us com­men­ta­tor An­drew Keen, a crit­i­cal ob­server of the tech­no­log­i­cal revo­lu­tions from Sil­i­con Val­ley, refers to the need to build up men­tal mus­cles. “In the dig­i­tal world, peo­ple should re­mem­ber the thing that makes them hu­man: the in­tel­lec­tual ca­pac­ity to act. Ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions need to teach this rather than con­form­ity and obe­di­ence to peo­ple and tests.”

This shift in per­spec­tive, ask­ing lots of ques­tions rather than pro­vid­ing an­swers, should start on the very first day of school. “Look at pic­tures chil­dren draw on the first day of preschool,” says Aus­trian en­tre­pre­neur Ali Mahlodji. “Chil­dren draw houses with round win­dows; they have fan­tas­tic ideas. And then an adult comes along and says, ‘ You can’t do that.’ They’re sys­tem­at­i­cally de­stroy­ing cre­ative think­ing.” There is one thing that Ali Mahlodji aims to demon­strate with his video plat­form Whatchado. Any­one with enough in­quis­i­tive­ness can do any job.

For Mahlodji, learn­ing cre­ativ­ity means that peo­ple need to un­learn en­trenched mech­a­nisms dic­tat­ing how some­thing has to be done – this is equally true for pri­mary school stu­dents or man­agers. “We all start out as in­quis­i­tive ge­niuses

Any­one with enough in­quis­i­tive­ness can do any job.

and are much too quick to trade it in for rules and con­ven­tions. There is a good rea­son why man­agers strug­gle with free play,” Mahlodji ex­plains. “They have been trained to al­ways want to win.”

Call for Free Ex­pres­sion

Mahlodji’s plat­form rep­re­sents a call for free ex­pres­sion in op­po­si­tion to be­hav­ing ac­cord­ing to stan­dard­ized norms. Two mil­lion visi­tors meet up on Whatchado ev­ery month, shar­ing about their pro­fes­sions with other young work­ers. “Cre­ativ­ity emerges from con­fi­dence. When view­ing these video pro­files, peo­ple quickly re­al­ize that there is a job for them out there, too,” Mahlodji says. “Never mind what par­ents or teach­ers tell you. Find­ing work is not about fol­low­ing a recipe – there are many paths to suc­cess. That is the key take­away.”

Mahlodji gets in­spi­ra­tion from the in­ter­na­tional “Schule im Auf­bruch” (“Schools in Trans­for­ma­tion”) ini­tia­tive head­quar­tered in Ber­lin. Rather than leave the cre­ative learn­ing cul­ture to pricey pri­vate in­sti­tu­tions, this move­ment launched by brain re­searchers and teach­ers at­tempts to ap­ply cur­rent meth­ods di­rectly within the ex­ist­ing school sys­tem. The ini­tia­tive’s founders point out that “ev­ery school finds its own im­ple­men­ta­tion ap­proach, at their own speed.”

It goes without say­ing that the high­tech world is an­other source of in­spi­ra­tion. Many com­pany founders in this area have lit­tle pa­tience and are will­ing to fund ex­per­i­ments. One prom­i­nent ex­am­ple is the Khan Lab School in Sil­i­con Val­ley, named af­ter Sal Khan, the founder of the on­line learn­ing plat­form Khan Academy. The motto of this new K-12 pri­vate school: “Ev­ery­one’s a teacher. Ev­ery­one’s a stu­dent.”

Change Is Now the New Nor­mal

At Khan Lab, the goal is self-reg­u­lated learn­ing and dis­cov­ery. Even grades are now called “in­de­pen­dence lev­els.” One of the pri­mary learn­ing goals is the abil­ity to ask bet­ter ques­tions within a mixed-age group. “We want to cre­ate an ed­u­ca­tion plat­form so that stu­dents learn to act and take re­spon­si­bil­ity, set mean­ing­ful goals and take own­er­ship of their own ed­u­ca­tion.”

Some sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions are tak­ing an even broader ap­proach to tack­ling the con­cept of open ex­plo­ration. For in­stance, Heather Mc­gowan helped two uni­ver­si­ties on the east coast of the United States re­vamp their de­gree pro­grams. Becker Col­lege in Worces­ter, Mas­sachusetts, out­side of Bos­ton, has been of­fer­ing a de­gree cen­tered around what they term the “ag­ile mind­set,” and its sem­i­nars have fo­cused on cre­ativ­ity and so­cial and emo­tional in­tel­li­gence since 2016. The sub­jects in­clude change as the new nor­mal, ex­plor­ing un­struc­tured prob­lems, un­cov­er­ing op­por­tu­nity in hu­man need and cre­at­ing and cap­tur­ing value from all of these changes.

Thomas Jef­fer­son Univer­sity in Philadel­phia is an in­te­grated col­lege com­bin­ing de­sign, en­gi­neer­ing and com­merce, where the cur­ricu­lum re­flects an em­pha­sis on holis­tic think­ing and deal­ing with com­plex­ity. Stu­dents here who are study­ing to be­come de­sign­ers or en­trepreneurs also learn com­puter lan­guages, bi­ol­ogy, ethics and ethnog­ra­phy.

Ul­ti­mately, it was Stan­ford Univer­sity, close to Sil­i­con Val­ley, that served as a model for many ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions when it opened its d.school for holis­tic “de­sign think­ing” 15 years ago. Stu­dents, fac­ulty and man­agers can learn how to ap­proach prob­lems clearly and prac­ti­cally and how to han­dle am­bigu­ous solutions – for in­stance, by rapidly test­ing an­swers and pro­to­types, and re­ject­ing those that don’t work. A stark con­trast to the tra­di­tional ed­u­ca­tion model.

Wanted: In­quis­i­tive Minds

Mod­els like these show that, iron­i­cally, these uni­ver­si­ties are once again ap­proach­ing the old-fash­ioned no­tion of a com­pre­hen­sive lib­eral arts ed­u­ca­tion. Rather than shap­ing young peo­ple to fit a cer­tain ca­reer, the lib­eral arts are in­tended to ex­pand a per­son’s hori­zons and pro­mote crit­i­cal think­ing.

More and more com­pa­nies, even on Wall Street, are search­ing for just such in­quis­i­tive minds. Par­tic­i­pants in fi­nance con­fer­ence in New York were re­cently taken by sur­prise when the Chief Tal­ent Of­fi­cer of as­set man­age­ment gi­ant Black­rock an­nounced that his com­pany would be hir­ing more lib­eral arts ma­jors to join its around 13,000 em­ploy­ees.

When ma­chines are re­spon­si­ble for de­vel­op­ing in­vest­ment strate­gies and man­ag­ing port­fo­lios, un­struc­tured “Lego” think­ing takes on a more crit­i­cal role than ever – en­sur­ing a col­or­ful ar­ray of op­tions and in­ter­per­sonal skills.

The motto is: “Ev­ery­one’s a teacher. Ev­ery­one’s a stu­dent.”

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