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Education for Collaboration and Creativity

Did the industrial era prepare us badly for the 21st century collaborative economy?

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Takeaways


  • We now have an economy based more on working with people than things, necessitating a new perspective on skills.
  • What matters as much as knowledge or specialist competence is the ability to work with others.
  • Character, a prime concern of pre-industrial education systems, is again coming to the fore.
  • Traditional capitalist education promoted competition among children; the new economy requires cooperation.
  • In a cooperative economy, apprenticeships are a better model of learning than the classroom.

The industrial economy rested on vocational skills, such as how to work a lathe or a computer, and on professions such as law, accountancy and medicine. The test of any educational system is whether it has prepared people adequately for work.

Education is conceived as capital, and at least for university education, young people were encouraged to think of participation as an investment with a cost now and returns later.

The variety of skills that make up a modern education system have evolved in subtle ways to fit the demands of a complex economy. Of late, there has been a tendency to specialization in fields like intellectual property law or forensic accounting, marine biology or neuroscience.

But with the rise of an economy based more on working with people than with things, a very different perspective on skills has become necessary.

What matters as much as knowledge or specialist competence is the ability to work with others — to empathize, understand, persuade or cooperate. Character, a prime concern of pre-industrial education systems, is again coming to the fore, partly thanks to research pointing to the ability to defer gratification as key to future success.

Self-regulation turns out to be the most valuable gift that family influences and schools can provide. For the future adult’s well being, the cultivation of mindfulness as well as functional skills, character as well as competence, matter greatly.

Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman‘s work has shown just how much non-cognitive skills explain success in the workplace and in life. The best schools have always attended to these as well as skills in math or physics. So have elite leadership programs.

In contrast, industrial-era education systems tended to push these to the margins — and left them out of measurement and analysis.

If the ideal education system for a traditional capitalist economy promoted competition between children, and the skills needed to work with things, perhaps a post-capitalist economy will place as much emphasis on cooperation and working with people.

We are all born with the ability to cooperate, just as we’re all (or nearly all) born with the ability to sing or to run. But as with singing and running, our innate abilities also need to be cultivated and trained if we are to become good collaborators.

Schooling for collaboration would shift more of the curriculum onto projects where pupils work with each other, solving problems and creating things.

Getting teenagers to work together to plant an allotment, to raise fish, to fix a car or to program a computer game teaches several things in one go: math, literacy and science as well as the skills of human interaction.

For skills of this kind, apprenticeships are a better model of learning than the classroom. It is striking to note that more than half of all U.S. Nobel Prize winners had worked as graduate students, postdocs or junior colleagues of other Nobel laureates.

But technology can also help here. The Internet has often fostered a passive individualism and even sometimes narcissism. But at their best, social networks encourage people to collaborate together, for example in multiuser games.

Some expect that it won’t be long before schools systematically measure how good pupils are at collaborating with their peers over networks. Some of these skills can be measured, including collaborative problem solving.

A plausible future will see these skills being measured and compared across nations, with scores for collaborative problem solving ranked alongside the more familiar data for math and science.

Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from The Locust and The Bee: Predators and Creators in Capitalism’s Future by Geoff Mulgan (Princeton University Press, 2013). Published by arrangement with the publisher. Copyright © 2013 by Princeton University Press.

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About Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan is the author of "The Locust and the Bee" and chief executive of the UK charity Nesta.

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