Friday, May 14, 2010

Evolving Schools for a Whole New Mind

Today I have been at Munich International School listening to the keynote from Dan Pink. This was a great start to the conference. Dan started with a quote from Dr Richard Moniuszko:
We need to prepare kids for their future, not our past.
He argued that the purpose of education is to allow individuals to participate in society and to have young men and women being the best they can. At the moment education spends a lot of time talking about preparing students for the future - but are we approaching this in the right way?

At one time parents used to say get good marks, go to university, find a job that will give you economic security. Manufacturing jobs are disappearing so students need higher education. In all advanced economies schools were a big part of trying to build the capacity for higher education - but today these abilities are mattering less and less. However schools are still preparing students for this future - one that no longer exists.

Dan spoke about tasks that are done by the different hemispheres of the brain. Left brain tasks are lineal, sequential and logical whereas the right side of your brain is useful for processing all at once, for dealing with context rather than text and synthesis rather than analysis. The most important skills for work used to be left brain skills. Today those abilities are necessary and indispensable - you must have them - but they are no longer sufficient. Now right brain skills such as artistry, inventiveness and cognitive skills matter more than left brain skills! Future for our students is therefore different as it is the right brain abilities that determine who moves forward and who is left behind.

Dan went on to discuss what is causing this shift: Asia, automation and abundance:

Asia: Computer scientists, engineers and so on in Europe earn 50-70,000 euros, in Asia they are earning about 12 - 15,000 euros. This has lead to offshoring and outsourcing. Countires like USA and Europe have not taken account of this - India has a billion people - 15% of India's population is educated and able to compete in the global market - that is bigger than the entire population of Japan and bigger than the entire working population of the USA! Even if 85% of India's population gets left behind, there are still more people in the top 15% in India than the working population of the USA.

One advantage countries such as the USA, UK and Australia have had up to now is that they are English speaking, and English has become the linguistic operating system of the global economy. However within 2 months from now India will be the world's largest English speaking country and within 10 years China will be the world's 2nd largest English speaking country! Since the cost of communication between Western economy and India is free using skype it is clear that many "English" speaking jobs will migrate to Asia.

Automation: The effect this will have will be on routine work - it is disappearing from Western countries - spreadsheets, computer programming, brain work, law etc can all be done by the cheapest provider - these jobs will disappear in our Western economies (yet we are still training our students to do them). Software is replacing our brains - though only the logical, linear, sequential side of our brain. Once people would go to an accountant to fill out tax form - now they can use software to do this - accountants are therefore not necessary for these tasks. Divorce is another example as now lawyers are being replaced by software - there are online sites where you can fill out the forms and then submit them directly cutting out the lawyer - some of these jobs will go too. The medical industry will be hit too as you can buy diagnostic medical software - and a lot of diagnosis is routine.

Abundance: Dan talked about cars, TVs and mobile phones - everyone has them these days. In some countries it's above 100% with more than one phone per person. 1 million iPads were sold in the first month, yet 6 months ago nobody was missing one - the idea of success is to define a new need and to give the world something it didn't know it was missing - it's the most important cognitive skill today and it is basically artistic.

Things that are needed are skills that are "high touch" not "high tech" - novelty, nuance and customization - however what is going on in schools is routines, right answers and standardization - at precisely the moment that the future of the world is not about this any more.

Dan had 4 ideas about how to prepare students for the future:
  • Explore new metrics: qualifications, IQs and SATs are unable to predict who will succeed in life - IQ contributes 20% to the factors that determine life success, 80% is due to other forces (Daniel Goleman) We don't yet have ways to measure that 80%. For example empathy is one of the most important cognative skills in the workplace today ( as you can't outsource or automate it). Dan talked about the JSPE index which measures empathy - these scores correlate most closely with success in life. Generalists score better than specialists on JSPE tests. In medical school in the USA clinical empathy is now taught.
  • Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM subjects) are important for the future but the way we approach these in schools is dangerous as these disciplines train students to come up with one right answer. In some schools art programmes are being cut in order to put in more STEM subjects. Engineering employers are looking for passion, systems thinking, the ability to work in multicultural environments, interdisciplinary skills and communication skills. These are not "routine" abilities. Yet we are not preparing our engineers to do these things. Dan explained that employers want people who are T shaped - they need depth and they need breadth - to connect what they know to another discipline.

  • Rethink motivation: we offer carrots and sticks in schools but these do not get students to get to a higher level of motivation. Dan discussed the candle problem which is the subject of one of his TED talks. In this experiment some people were timed to see how long it took to solve the problem and were told this would be used to work out averages, some people were given money incentives as to how fast they could solve the problem. The problem was that the group given the money actually took longer to solve the problem. If you want people to do simple routine tasks money is a good incentive, if you want people to be creative money doesn't work - it inhibits people's work. His argument therefore is that you cannot use the same motivation for routine and non-routine tasks.
  • Infuse arts education throughout the curriculum: the arts have traditionally been seen as "ornamental" now they need to be "fundamental". Artists do things that left brain thinkers do not. China is infusing arts into the national curriculum at the same time that the West is taking them out. Dan argues that creative arts are not a frivolous luxury, but essential.
This was an amazing start to the conference and I'm looking forward to reading both of Dan's book which I bought today (A Whole New Mind and Drive) and am very excited about the rest of the conference tomorrow.

Photo Credit: Inverted Gradient by fdecomite


  1. Excellent post Maggie - thanks for taking the time to share. Have a good conference tomorrow.

  2. Thanks for the great summary of Pink's ideas and the link to his TED talk.

    However, didn't you make a mistake in paragraph five? Shouldn't it read, "Now RIGHT brain skills such as artistry, inventiveness and cognitive skills matter more than LEFT brain skills!


  3. Maryanne, thanks so much for pointing out the mistake - I fixed it!

  4. Hi
    I have read both books - both are stunning reads. You know when you read a book and it just makes sense? It just fits and feels right? He is a great writer and speaks to all of us who are trying to facilitate change!
    Have a lovely day!

  5. I hope that you had a fun time despite getting sick while you were there. I would have loved to be sitting next to you for this opening Keynote. Dan Pink has an important message. My fear is that the wheels of education will turn so slowly that students that are in our classes today will miss out on this. There is a sense of urgency here.