Friday, April 08, 2011

Preserving the Innovator's DNA

An article in the Wall Street Journal by Peter Sims, titled "The Montessori Mafia," provides further evidence of the benefits of early childhood education that focuses on freedom by giving more names of creatively successful Montessori-educated people (See also my earlier post "How to Make it Big"):
...the Montessori educational approach might be the surest route to joining the creative elite, which are so overrepresented by the school’s alumni that one might suspect a Montessori Mafia: Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, videogame pioneer Will Wright, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, not to mention Julia Child and rapper Sean “P.Diddy” Combs.
Sims points to a study which suggests that these are not isolated examples:
The Montessori Mafia showed up in an extensive, six-year study about the way creative business executives think. Professors Jeffrey Dyer of Brigham Young University and Hal Gregersen of globe-spanning business school INSEAD surveyed over 3,000 executives and interviewed 500 people who had either started innovative companies or invented new products. 
“A number of the innovative entrepreneurs also went to Montessori schools, where they learned to follow their curiosity,” Mr. Gregersen said. “To paraphrase the famous Apple ad campaign, innovators not only learned early on to think different, they act different (and even talk different).” 
I dug around for more information on this study. It was in fact conducted by three researchers, Jeffrey Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton Christensen from Harvard, and published under the title "The Innovator's DNA" in Harvard Business Review, December 2009. Their study concludes that there are five key "discovery skills" characteristic of creative executives:
  • Associating: Making connections between different concepts
  • Observing: Paying attention to learn what works, and how
  • Experimenting: Trying out new things, dealing with failure
  • Questioning: Expressing curiosity
  • Networking: Seeking out interesting people to learn from
These are very the much the traits I seek in my graduate students, and I have learned from experience that they are extremely rare! This is surprising because these are things, in fact, that all small children do naturally (until they are "schooled" out of these behaviors by a lifetime of highly structured education). Gregersen says exactly this in an article about their study posted online at INSEAD Knowledge
Gregersen says the five discovery skills may seem ‘intuitive’ but when it comes to the actual practice, “doing them is counterintuitive.” That’s because the adult world in which we live “does not value these actions.”
Gregersen’s advice? Start acting like a child again: “Not 100 per cent of the time, that would be absurd. We’re adults and we have to run businesses. But 20 per cent, 25 per cent of our time, act like a four-year-old again,” Gregersen told INSEAD Knowledge. “Because all these skills are what four-year-olds do. They ask thousands of questions: ‘Why?’ ‘Why not?’ This and that. They’re always asking those questions … They observe intensely and they’ll talk to just about anybody.” 
“These are the things that we all did as four-year-olds. We all did this stuff. And if we happened to attend a Montessori-type school like many innovative entrepreneurs did, then we still might be doing this stuff. But most school and corporate systems consistently say: ‘Don’t do it, stop doing it’ … and we lose our innate creative capacity.”
The connection is really quite simple. If we expect our workforce to be creative and innovative, their education has to allow them a lot of opportunities and freedom to exercise these skills.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The problem with standards

Alfie Kohn has written widely about freedom in education and unconditional parenting.

Here's an article by him on the danger of standardizing education: "Beware of the Standards, Not Just the Tests".

Kohn argues that in all the concern about testing in schools, we may lose sight of the point that the very existence of uniformized standards is a threat to learning.

He writes:

We have heard the phrase "standardized testing" so often that we may have become inured to the significance of that first word. To what extent do we really want our students to receive a standardized education? At a national conference last fall, a consultant announced with apparent satisfaction that now, thanks to standards-based reform, "for the first time in my experience, people on a grade level, in a subject area, or teaching a course at a high school are [feeling] a responsibility to all have the same destination." That she did not even feel it necessary to defend this goal says something about the current acceptance of a one-size-fits-all model of education. 
Once again, the problem is not just with the construction of the tests, but with the uniformity of the standards. Wanting to make sure that students in low-income communities don't receive a second-rate education is a laudable objective. Wanting to make sure that all students in your state receive the same education, such that they are treated as interchangeable recipients of knowledge, is a very different matter. Even more troubling are grade-by-grade standards. Here, the prescribers are not just saying, "We expect students to know the following stuff by the time they're in 8th grade," but "We expect them to learn all the items on this list in 5th grade, all the items on that list in 6th grade," and so on. Apart from the negative effects on learning, this rigidity about both the timing of the instruction and its content creates failures unnecessarily by trying to force all children to learn at the same pace.

Reading this leads me to some introspection. Each time I give a mid-term or final exam in any of my classes, am I not treating all students in my class similarly as "interchangeable recipients of knowledge"? Is it not what I do whenever I "follow" a standard syllabus or adopt a textbook? The moment we package a set of facts or tools or approaches into the rigid curriculum for a class, we enter a danger zone, that should be navigated with a great deal of care.

We should be leery of all attempts to ensure that everyone "knows" the same things about the subject, because they generally imply a naive view of knowledge as an objective collection of facts and methods. But the veneer of objectiveness obtained, for instance, by the adoption of a standard textbook, masks the sheer subjectivity of the process of putting together a class.

Consider the new course I have been developing at USC on wireless networks. It is  informed entirely by my own readings and research, and is not how the course is taught anywhere else. Say I were to write a textbook based on my course notes, and it were to be adopted as the textbook for a class in another university some day. The view of the students on the subject is then shaped in a peculiar fashion (perhaps irreparably) after my tastes. Somewhere an employer will glance at a student's transcript, and noticing that he/she has taken a course on "wireless networks" and gotten an 'A' on the subject, will assume that he/she "knows" something useful about the field. Yet this knowledge, as *all* knowledge that can be acquired in or outside a classroom, is fundamentally subjective because its very roots were subjective, shaped and colored as they were by my experiences.

While my arguments about the subjectivity of knowledge may seem particularly compelling in the context of emerging new subjects, I argue that the situation is fundamentally no different even for "ossified" old subjects. Here decades of textbook writing may seem to have lead to a consensus about the "core" body of knowledge in the field, but the converged point of view is very much a function of how the original texts were written and organized.

The only saving grace about the college environment, in contrast to the more rigid standardized curricula in schools, is the far greater freedom students have in selecting their program of study.