Programming Our Future
In two excellent pieces about the current troubles of the American public school system, Kathy Sierra and Seth Godin discuss how our current system is designed to produce workers for a post-war, need-for-productivity, need-for-smooth-working industrial society. Kathy calls it assembly line education; Seth refers to the students who get turned out as "cogs"; Whatever you call them, the problem the that much of America is facing is that there are no longer enough places in the societal machinery for the cogs that the school system turns out.
This, as Bill Gates pointed out in a recent challenge to schools, is because our economy has shifted to an economy of ideas. Yes, this has caused all sorts of problems, like exporting of jobs, and reliance on other countries for production. But it is the choice we have made, and until we figure out a way to balance it back toward an idea/production mix, we need to find a way for our children to make enough money to get move out of our houses (come on, isn't that the ultimate goal of raising children anyway?)
In order to become successful in this idea economy, a new kind of worker is needed. Rather than the traditional "I" shaped specialist career man, as Tom Kelley, IDEO's general manager is fond of saying, "T" shaped workers are the new power-employees. These workers have a broad exposure to a number of fields, with a specialty in one that colors the others. In the last 10 years, schools have gotten wise to this idea, but their efforts have been more like lengthening the "I" with another skill, than widening the "T".
Think back to your education, specifically your high-school (around age 14-18 for those of you in different school types). Think about the word "creativity". How was it introduced to you? It was probably "brainstorming" right? Was it the classic "throw out as many ideas as possible, no idea is a bad one, and then winnow out the less valuable ideas afterward"? Was it introduced as though it was some magic bullet of cutting edge technology?
What if we told you that this method is almost 40 years old? Not only that, it was originally designed, and still is best suited to the advertising business, or other businesses where "catchyness" is valuable above most else. In those 40 years, hundreds of new techniques have been developed, but still haven't found their way into schools.
So how can designers change this muddle of a system? Boy, that's the hundred thousand dollar question isn't it? Obviously, as a designer you can volunteer at your local school to expose the kids to a different job's perspective (how many of us didn't know what design was until college). Different school systems like Montessori, are trying to give children more freedom to discover their own strengths. In developing "T" shaped individuals, exposure to wide varieties of information and ideas is also important, in addition to that freedom.
For one thing, while computers have been present in schools now for some time, they have yet to become real essential parts of education, other than to fulfill cog-style skill learning like typing and word processing. What if a blogging system, or file sharing system of information could be set up between schools of all different geographic areas and social strata? Through the computers, children could exchange problems and solutions with other children, or other outside people from around the country and world. Perhaps this could allow greater discussion and insight into wider ranges of ideas than a simple classroom setting would. And this is just one concept; there must be more (you could use your brainstorming skills here).
This opportunity for better schools won't go away. And, if the government, or private organizations like the Gates's, ever get serious about funding change, it could also be a chance to make a living designing. But the most important thing to think about is this. What you learn in life effects you logarithmically; every year of learning is a smaller and smaller percentage of your total understanding. Imagine the enormous effect you could have on the course of society and culture by changing the minds of 50 million 8 year olds over the next 10 years. If change is what designers are in it for, that's huge.
There's no way that a new sneaker could do that.
Copyright 2004-2006 Dominic Muren and IDFuel Team