Modern higher education is all about competences and skills. In the process, we are losing some very bright people who just don’t fit this narrow-minded model of professionalism.
Modern education started with the Industrial Revolution and the need to graduate tons of skilled workers to carry on the same tasks over and over. Previously, education was only for the brightest and/or luckiest, and usually consisted of a very custom path through which a tutor would guide you. Nowadays in universities all around the world, we have reduced students to numbers, grades, percentages, as if we were producing computer chips or combustion engines. Efficiency is all that matters.
In order to achieve the highest possible efficiency, all around the world we educators have become engineers of sorts. We designed what we call a “model of the professional”, which is basically a set of skills and competences that an abstract ideal professional should have. Then we designed an evaluation metric which is basically the micro-average of a ton of super-narrow scores that measure super-specific skills such as taking a derivative or coding a recursive function. Finally, we designed a pipeline that takes students on one end and produces “professionals” on the other end. Those “smart” enough to learn to beat the system get the highest grades and are stamped with an abstract generic title of Computer Scientist, Medical Doctor, Lawyer, very much like a certificate of quality in a generic bottle of wine.
This system is deeply flawed, and educators all over the world know it and have been discussing it for a long time. It’s hard to change for many reasons, the least of which is the lack of teachers willing to dump the generic instruction set and craft custom learning paths for their students. I think this system is based on two basic assumptions, intuitive but flawed. Changing those assumptions could shed light on ways to improve the system.
The first assumption is that students are a blank slate that when fed through this generic pipeline we call higher education will be magically morphed into this generic professional we designed. This is wrong for so many reasons that is hard to acknowledge it as a basic assumption of our system. Ask any university professor and they will all tell you the same: All students are different. They all have different skills, interests and biases. They all require a different approach to get the most out of them. And almost all of them, when given the chance and the right environment, will become the best versions of themselves. Yet time and time again we treat them as generic droids on which we can dump a generic course and expect a generic performance in return.
The second assumption, I think, is harder to spot, because of the way the university is totally disconnected from real life all around the world. We educators think that society wants this “model of the professional”, because we think that a hospital needs 100 equally generic doctors, and a software company needs 100 equally generic programmers. However, this is also wrong at some many levels. Everywhere we ask in the industry we keep hearing the same: we need unique people with unique skills that bring something new to the team. It’s like trying to build an ensemble out of a 100 equal models. You get much better results with a variety of approaches to the same problem, than with an array of 100 exactly equal programs. Yet we keep translating what society asks into skills and competences. They tell us they need unique people, and we add “uniqueness” to the set of generic skills we want to teach with our generic college programs!
So let’s dump those two assumptions and acknowledge that we have a bunch of different kids with different interests and capabilities, and we need to turn them into a bunch of different professionals with different mindsets and skills. Now the question is how on earth can we do that? Again, we are basically engineers, we need to design a streamlined pipeline and a proper evaluation metric. And we need to do that, unfortunately, because there are so many more students than teachers that we cannot hope to be the Aristotle to each Alexander, and that’s not about to change in the near future.
I think one possible strategy is to focus on a single evaluation metric, and a single skill:
Strive to transform every student into an effective team-player.
Let’s take it piece by piece. Every student is different, so everyone will have a different set of potential capabilities that could make them effective team-players. If we encourage those specific capabilities on each student, we are in fact giving each one a different learning path. This one will focus on improving her analytical skills, that one will focus on improving his management skills, that other one her social skills, and so on. Each one is focusing on her/his own most interesting, most desirable version of themselves. On the other hand, everyone is optimizing the same metric, being a good team-player, whatever the team. Give them back to society and they will fit in the right spot. The one spot that needs that specific mindset.
Almost all low-hanging fruits that a single bright person could take are already taken, the problems that are left to solve as a society are the hard problems, and they all require teamwork. The easier problems are being automated away as I type. So, arguably, the best possible skill in the near future is being an effective team-player. If we strive to turn our students into exactly that, we are giving them the best education possible, and we are giving society the best possible return on that investment.
The final question is how exactly do we do that? How do we discover what makes every student unique and valuable in a team? Isn’t that the same Aristotle & Alexander dilemma? I think a possible solution is simply to let each of them discover it by themselves. As educators, instead of trying to tell everyone what to do, let’s focus on designing learning environments that are comfortable for every student to explore her/his own skills and capabilities and decide the best way to serve the team. And let’s evaluate them on co-op instead of solo, so that when trying to beat the system, they will actually optimize what we, the rest of the world, need them to be good at.