Friday, February 13, 2015

Lonely Edge

School can feel a little like a filter. Actually, life can feel a little bit like a filter. A filter where we are searching for that thing that we are good at, or the thing that will make us happy. Slowly other stuff that is not relevant gets filtered out. The mind is ruthlessly efficient at ignoring stuff that we haven't prioritised, even if it is important to us. It may be true that you need ruthless focus if you want to be an outlier. If you want to be Nelson Mandela and save the world, it may be true that you end up sacrificing your family life for the good of the nation. If you want to dedicate your life to a particular task and become world class, i.e. better than anyone else, you may need to cut yourself off from other things. Bobby Fisher may be an example of the extreme sacrifices some make to reach greatness (see Against the World).

We need another Nelson Mandela. Perhaps we wouldn't if everyone wasn't filtering. Machines are very good at specialisation. It doesn't require creativity. Once a task can be well defined, it is likely that a machine will be able to do it. That should in theory make more time available to us, if we aren't scared of free time. If machines slowly release us from filtering we would have more common ground with those around us. As we specialise, we suffer from the curse of knowledge. It becomes harder and harder to empathise with people who don't understand what we understand. It becomes harder for us to understand what they understand without their context. Those pushing the boundaries of human thought may have a handful of people (if they are lucky) who will understand them. They may have to create entire new vocabularies. Catch phrases or chunks get used to explain something and if you don't understand the chunk, you won't understand the something. You have to come back from the boundary if you want to speak to real people. If you overspecialise, you run the risk of no longer being one of those real people.

Education has industrialised the filtering process. One person may have loved looking at the stars and wondering about the way they formed or where they end. The poetry with which she asked questions may have lead her down the artistic route. Yet what of the science? Why not both? Another person may have been told that art and biology are not money makers, and so pushed to drop those subjects in favour of something that will one day allow him to support his family. In an attempt to be outliers, you have to think in relative terms. You have to compare yourself to others and do something differently. You have to think how you can be unique. I think that is a sticky trap. Better to think about doing things well. To rethink education and life as food for your creativity. We don't have to play by ourselves on the edges when we can play together in the middle.

Ken Robinson is one of the leading thinkers on how we can relook at the way we learn. I really enjoyed 'The Element' and 'Out of Our Minds' after watching him deliver still my favourite ever TED talk. His next book, 'Creative Schools' is due out soon.

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