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?
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.
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.
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.”