A Critical (Thinking) Time for the Education System

Updated: Aug 25, 2020

Vale and RIP, Sir Ken Robinson, an educator best known for making the most popular TED talk of all time, 'Do Schools Kill Creativity?' viewed nearly 70,000,000 times.

Short answer to his question: Yes!

The education system in most countries is a legacy model to feed the factories of the Industrial Age. And Sir Ken challenged this by saying that we're not producing people with the real life mindsets and skill-sets for the 21st century.

He started a great conversation, and it's important that we continue not only the conversation but also take action to change lanes.

Why is this important now?

Because Professor Google knows all the answers, but it doesn't know the questions.

“Critical Questioning is not a skill that is promoted or developed in B-Schools,” says Adjunct Professor Jim Reinnoldt, a former airline executive (and client of mine), and now lecturing on the International Business program at the University of Washington. “There’s not enough focus on how you ask questions in the context of business.”

So how do we expect people on our team to be expert challengers within the VUCA environment of the New Economy?

This is where Sir Ken made the point about schools failing us. Long before we get into the workforce, a different education approach might help with opening the mind.

Two existing models offer some insight as to what that future should look like:

The first is the International Baccalaureate (“IB”) system, which is gaining in popularity with over 4000 schools worldwide now offering this program.

IB offers a more multidisciplinary approach to education, and at least one critical thinking subject must be chosen, plus greater emphasis on personal development and leadership.

They aim to develop learners who are, inter alia, Inquirers, Thinkers, Communicators, Open-minded, Risk-takers, and Reflective.

The ibo.org website states that they “aim to do more than other curricula by developing inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people.” They highlight a key difference from other curricula because they encourage students “to think critically and challenge assumptions.”

The IB website also claims their students outperform others at tertiary level, without substantiating it.

Another method is worth considering. The Montessori Method dates back to the early 1900s, based on the work of Maria Montessori with “mentally challenged” children in Rome. Her son Mario carried the baton and fine-tuned her approach.

The method is characterized by an emphasis on independence, freedom within limits, and “respect for a child’s natural psychological, physical, and social development.”

While there is some variation in how the rubber actually hits the road in this system, the given tenets are: mixed age classrooms (typically in 3-year brackets), a choice of activity from within prescribed options, and uninterrupted blocks of work time (three hours is considered ideal).

Unlike the direct instruction hypodermic model favoured by most of the world’s education systems, Montessori instead offers a constructivist or "discovery" model, where students learn concepts from working with materials.

Human tendencies towards abstraction, communication and exploration are emphasized.

A mountain of research is amassing which shows this is how kids prefer to learn, and learn better. Moreover, it prepares them better for a lifetime of open-ended problem solving, which real life throws up in spades, in personal and professional situations.

It is this “discovery mentality” that seems key to lifelong learning and possible success, and discovery skills are what set successful innovators apart, behaviourally.

The research on Montessori outcomes is generally positive: a Science Magazine study in 2006 pointed out that “when strictly implemented, Montessori education fosters social and academic skills that are equal or superior to those fostered by a pool of other types of schools.”

Research in the book Innovator's DNA shows that leaders at innovative companies spend 50% more time on discovery-based activities than their counterparts. Its authors, Clay Christen, Hal Gregersen, and Jeff Dwyer surveyed and/or interviewed over 3,500 people who had either started innovative companies or invented new products.

A Wall Street Journal article in 2011 postulated that “The Montessori educational approach might be the surest route to joining the creative elite, which are so over-represented by the school’s alumni that one might suspect a Montessori Mafia: Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, video game pioneer Will Wright, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, not to mention Julia Child and rapper Sean “P. Diddy” Combs.”

“A number of the innovative entrepreneurs went to Montessori schools, where they learned to follow their curiosity,” Mr. Gregersen told WSJ. “To paraphrase the famous Apple ad campaign, innovators not only learned early on to think different, they also act different and even talk different.”

Larry Page and Sergey Brin said as much to Barbara Walters, legendary American broadcaster best known for hosting The Today Show. “We both went to Montessori school,” Page told her, “and I think it was part of that training of not following rules and orders, and being self-motivated, questioning what’s going on in the world, doing things a little bit differently.”

The name of Will Right is less known, but the inventor of the bestselling The Sims videogames, is also forthcoming in his praise for the method. “SimCity comes right out of Montessori,” he said. “Montessori taught me the joy of discovery. It’s all about learning on your terms, rather than a teacher explaining stuff to you.”

How are formal education and creativity correlated?

Frans Johansson, author of The Medici Effect, makes the excellent observation that “formal education often looks like an inverted U when correlated with one’s success as a creator. After an optimum point it actually lowers the odds.”

Edison, Jobs, Gates, Branson … we’ve all heard the stories of college drop-outs who drop-kicked themselves through the goalposts of business success without a degree.

The primary, secondary and tertiary education systems are therefore under intense scrutiny around the world today, as they are increasingly seen to be yet another 18th century Industrial Age relic generating a mismatch with what business actually needs from graduates. Despite the conversation, real changes seem hard to embed.

That involves a shift from the "sage on stage" teaching model to a "guide by your side" learning model. Teaching people not what to think, but how to think. Moving from a "What Is" modality to a "What If?" mentality.

We owe it to Sir Ken to keep searching for a better way to engage learners and create creators if we're going to solve the problems of the world. One of the biggest which might be an outdated education system.

If you are interested in levelling up your critical thinking skills and challenging the status quo, I suggest you check out this online-critical-thinking-course which can change your game in under 3 hours.

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