Story ideas: A different look at learning

Today I saw a presentation of Claire Boonstra on following your dreams and her dream to improve education.

Claire: I do not know how much this will overlap or be useful for your project, but here is my two cents.

Sunrise, a near future story

In “Sunrise”, one of the first stories from this series to be edited and considered “readabe, not finished” (no need to read it, unless you like to) I offer a fictional challenge to a group of over 10.000 very smart people on several campuses in Jeddah (of which one person is the protagonist):

How do you lift an oil-economy up to a knowledge economy?

It is part of a fictional near-future project (yes, the story is an SF story. Yes it is fiction) referred to as “the Arabian renaissance”: In the words of the protagonist, the challenge is as follows:

A one year pilot. A five year plan. A twenty-year trajectory. The end of an oil-economy, the beginning of a glorious technological era. A new economy of R&D, knowledge, manufacturing, science!


How do we assure that people who have these systems will also actually use them for what we build them? How do we kickstart that Arabian renaissance on science, art and whatever you have?

And more importantly in the story: how do you create a solution in which people will actually educate themselves?

When you provide a solution and a technology, people will not automatically use them. A good example are personal computers. While an academic 40 years ago would sell all his blood for access to the laptop of my father, that (relatively to 1960 awesomely, super powerful) machine is currently mainly sitting on the dinner table being used for e-mail and solitaire.

If you provide education, how do you get 80% of the population between 18 and 30 years (the target group) ready in that period: already delivering results?

What is the (story) problem?

  1. Uplift knowledge levels of entire population – Say you want to uplift an entire population to a new level of knowledge. To: “make everyone a R&D genius” and more realistically: to allow a lot of people to get more out of their personal natural resources: their brains.
  2. Current level of education is not enough – For whatever reason, education either failed or is not enough. (Number of teachers versus size of population)
  3. It has to be done in 5 to 10 years – There is no time. When this takes too long, the country — in the story — loose too much money and too much opportunity. (The oil wells in the story world might run dry.)
  4. Classic educational systems fail – For whatever reason, the current educationa systems fail. Either because they are too slow, or too single-minded.

What is the story solution?

  1. Address/reduce systems of aggression – This is an explicit term for a very subtle problem. Concrete: competition, punishment and isolation are three elements of that system of aggression. Winning, losers and creating outcasts are other ways to express this.  They are also dumb and dumbing down elements and can seriously hamper development and creativity.
  2. Focus on systems of cooperation– Working together is beneficial for all involved (unless you come from a system of agression where there “can be only one winner” and “someone has to be the best”). Think of:
    1. Communication – How do you comunicate? How do you share information? How do you solve problems? How do you solve conflicts?
    2. InclusionEveryone can add value to the project. There are no stupid ideas.
    3. Systems of cooperation – How do you manage teams? How can you do and support self-management? How do you simplify complex systems? How do you share?
  3. Focus on real-world problems– Instead of academic issues, take a real-world problem. Create teams. Make them work together. Involve as many people as possible. Solve the problem.
    1. Start small – World peace is quite big. Start with local issues. Garbage on the streets: how do we create clean streets? Poverty: how do we distribute wealth and surplus materials so that people suffer less and things improve?
    2. Set clear goals – Each project has to have a clear start and end point. SMART is one of the instruments.
    3. Distribute aspects of the problem – Not everyone is good at everything and most projects and problems have a lot of sub-issues to solve. From logistics to research/problem definition/branstorming/finding solutions to execution.
  4. Rotate responsibilities– You do not learn when you only do one aspect. You learn by doing everything a bit.
    1. Avoid one (fixed) problem owner – Everyone should be the problem owner at some point
    2. Avoid one (fixed)  decision maker – Everyone should be the decision maker at some point
  5. Prototype and iterate – This is maybe one of the most important next steps. Prototyping and iteration. The first solution you will find is just the beginning. Once you start implementing the solution, you will find new issues, net challenges and a shift in your understanding that what you thought was the problem is actually just one of the side-effects of the real thing.

What did I write before?

I wrote a lot before on education, but most of that were rants. The two pictures Claire shows in the beginning of her presentation (from the CITO test) and the story around them summarizes them perfectly. So let’s leave them out for now.

A short key scene from “Sunrise”

This parts happens at a birthday in the story. Our protagonist is invited to join the birthday of one of the girls in her project.

About one of the girls [start of quote]:

“I wanted to work for Arab News or Saudi Gazette,” she says, using English because she wants to practice. “I already had arranged an internship at Arab News.”

She shrugs. “It is how things go.”

“And what are you doing now?”

“Learning, preparing.”

She radiates hope. Hope that this Arabian renaissance is really going to happen.

“—I am writing a series of articles,” she says. “About this neighborhood. About the people that live here, about us. About your project.”

I have only read her feedback, on the wearables as she got used to it, got to use it.

“About the future.”

She stares at the yellow rug.

“Any change is good. Right now, nothing changes. My parents run the same shop their parents run. And while some years have been good, most years are mediocre, just good enough. Even though they would like me to take over the shop when they retire, they know I do not want to and they know that it is probably for the best if I don’t. And they know I have no interest at all running that same shop for another thirty years. We sell with minimal margins. We can only survive because the shop itself is already owned by the family and because we do not spend money on maintenance or luxuries.”

Bottom line: the girls in the project all could have and would have had a good future in a healthy economy with a lot of jobs available. Unfortunately, things worsened and they ended up working in local supermarkets, pharmacies and comparable places.

The project they are part of provide free wearable computers (it is 2019 and I assume a wearable computer is about 10 times as fast and powerful as current notebooks/laptops). On these systems runs software that allows the user to simulate any process there is software for. From bio-sciences to electronics and mechanics. Meaning that you can build anything you want, run it in a virtual environment and improve it until it works. Very similar to software.

“I think Aamilah wants to move to biosciences. She has been working on theories on— and models for smart drugs that enhance concentration and release stress. Mayeda and Hana have thrown themselves on coding, programming systems and simulations to help the local shop-owners.” She points at the other girls, describing briefly what they are doing.

“And then we are trying to implement some of the ideas you have: to work together, to try and lift this entire neighborhood up, make it a fertile grounds.”

Bottom line: why wait for others to solve your problems (sub-optimal situation) when you have all the tools right in your hands? Strap up those sleeves! Stop complaining! At work! Let’s improve stuff!

 The role of software in the story

The most important next revolution in software is – in my eyes – not another Facebook or Twitter or Google. Neither it is another company creating yet another Office suite (although more competition is not bad.)

This will rock the future, according to my story: Affordable simulation software.

  1. Cad Cam Plus – Allows you to build mechanical constructions, test them, see them work in real time, simulated within the computer. (Most Cad Cam systems costing over 30.000 euro can already do this up to a certain point)
  2. Chemical systems– Construct chemical compounds, materials, test strength, properties and whatever you can do in simulations that are as close to reality as you can get for:
    1. Medicines – Tested on models of human bodies and the human “system” (from organs to nervous system to the brain, to glands, to anything)
    2. Construction – Think anything from packaging to whatever you need to construct tiny machines to huge buildings and huge machines and vehicles
  3. Biotech construction systems – From cells in the (human) body to viral, bacterial and other living systems. Hormones, blood cells, whatever.
  4. Environmental feedback systems – Think smart cities and smart houses: feedback from environments telling you: stuff is getting worse. Stuff is getting better. From social things (robberies, safety, welfare) to physical things (rubbish, state of buildings and streets). Think simulations of these systems like real-world Sim City. In the story-reality, this is one of the most important impulses that will motivate people to take action and actually improve things as a group. As improvements become immediately measurable and visible.

Back to the now

How could you improve schooling systems now?

  1. Focus on Non-linear thinking – Because one person wrote one book about a specific subject does not mean that whatever is written is the only way to look at things. The road form “A” to “C” does not have to go through “B”
  2. Focus on systems to recognize sub-optimal situations – Can you recognize something that is functioning less than it could be? Can you define the main issues? Can you formulate the questions that lead to solutions? Including your school, the teaching given, the neighborhood?
  3. Focus on improvement of sub-optimal systems – How do you solve problems? How do you improve something that is sub-optimal or even broken? Will it indeed improve? What kind of models can you use? What kind of models can you invent?
  4. Focus on tools for research – How do you find solutions? Where do you look? What questions do you ask? Who do you involve? How do you work together?
  5. Focus on systems of cooperation – How do you work together? How do you solve conflicts? How do you create an environment where everyone is heard (instead of “hurt”).
  6. Let go of a pre-formulated plan – Problems / sub-optimal situations are most powerful if they are real and local. Try and do this top-down and you get yet another formula of limited scope with pre-baked solutions.
  7. Trust in the bottom-up approach – See next part.
  8. Facilitate the learning process, not the leaning materials – When humans develop, education is just a tool in that development. The way that education is used depends very much on that individual. How a person learns is more dominating on the long run than what that person learned. Most of the what is forgotten the moment it is no longer used and needed.

When do you start?

Right now, kids already get homework when they start elementary school. How relevant is this? Is that already the age to start that kind of process?

When is the brain developed enough to start making sense out of things in such a way that it becomes fun? Exploring issues, finding solutions?

(I do not know yet. Did not do the research yet. I just think it is a relevant question.)

From the bottom up: what about measurable results?

The moment you let go of the classical system (which is top down and controlled), you will get something that is uncontrollable.

  1. Measurable – How do you measure two completely different projects on to completely different issues on two different schools?
  2. End results – What are the end results after X years of schooling? What did the kids learn? Where can you put them?

In the old/current system, the measurable end results are the grades on your report. In your attempt to reproduce certain information, from maths to geography, you scored X out of N points.

So how do you measure a new system that has a very fuzzy content: to educate kids to: “improve sub-optimal situations and made them more optimal”? How do you measure individual progress? Individual qualities?

When those kids go out to find a job: how do you know he or she complies? Where are the hard numbers? The hard scores? How do you know you have an “6 minus” in front of you or a “A plus”?

What if that is already irrelevant?

From the bottom up: emerging qualities

Full disclosure: I sucked at school. If I would have gone for the classic kind of career path, I would probably had ended up with some job that completely not fits me.

I sucked at school because I did not fit the program. I simply could not care less about reading stuff and learning stuff that had no relevance to me. The reason I got somewhere else is mainly luck: I can program. I have the ability to translate vague stories into working software that makes sense.

I got hired in the software business in the 1990’s because I could show very elaborate and relatively high-profile software (a Client Relationship Management program) I made for specific use and specific people, using stuff like Access 2.0.

I had no grades except for my “MBO Electronics” which is like technical high-school with specializations like electronics and – nowadays – softwre development.

So: emerging qualities

  1. One profile does not fit all – There are several profiles in people. Look at aneagrams and you already have 9 different roles. You can not provide just one learning solution for everyone. If there are nine different roles, then there are at least nine different approaches to leaning and nine different models of urgency (why is this important?) and curiosity (why would I like to know, investigate and learn this?).
  2. Different profile, different ambitions – A person like me, “introvert” and an “artist” (in the sens that I want to make beautiful stuff and do not really give a shit about much else) has a different type of ambition from a person who likes to help other people, or work with other people or coach other people or please other people. Then you have people who like to receive instructions and people who simply go out and do stuff or people who like to keep stuff working but do not like to invent new stuff.
  3. Different ambitions, shifting roles – Like with anything, there is no standard mold of people. Take 10 categories x 10 qualities, copy them, put all these copies into a separate box and shake them. Then pick out 10 main qualities at random, per box. This is roughly how people work. Qualities mix. You will find introvert people like me, who are also over-achievers. You will find introvert people who love to work with other people but hate to follow instructions. And so on.

Out of all this mess, people will arise with specific qualities developed and others remaining underdeveloped.

How do you measure this?

You don’t and you do.

The measurement is on individual levels. Like what is happening in fields like mine. Programming is an art. It has as many roles and as many people as any industry. It is also a craft. You develop skills and if you develop very specific skills (testing, debugging, setting up new projects, inventing new and tailor made solutions) you can be boss.

  1. You come forward with your list of skills and qualities – “This is what I can do. This is what I am good at. This is what I might contribute.”
  2. You make clear what is needed – What are the skills needed? What type of person? How many years of experience? What does he/she have to be able to show?
  3. You mix and match – For each individual that applies, you check the requirements with the offered skills and qualities. If the match is optimal (3 out of 5): awesome. If they are above optimal (4 out of 5 and 5 out of 5): super awesome!

Strange? New? This is how software companies hire people for many, many years.

Top down: factory model

So how is it that we “need” a top down model? Why is it so scary to drop all we know about education and start anew?

One reason is what I believe the basis is of current schooling: the factory model.

When you do your education, you are trained to function in “the factory”. That can be a bank, a software company or whatever. To be able to function within that “factory” you need basic skills. Reading, writing, math, abstract thinking, knowledge and a certain mastery of foreign languages (unless all relevant documentation is translated in your language. Then: who cares?).

This “factory” model looks a lot like the model used in the Prussian army, where each role in that army had specific training and each person with that same role could replace any other person with that same role. (Main aspects: Specialization, chains of command, scalability).

In a model like this, you need to be able to rely on the role a person plays and represents. You need to standardize things so that “X” from school “A” has the same basic knowledge as “Y” from school “B”.

The thing is that the factory model itself is slowly falling apart. In a world where change is faster than education, it is creating people with reduced value, instead of increased value. By the moment you leave school, all the knowledge you had is already outdated. Especially when the fields of knowledge are highly specialized.

Top down: the illusion of position and intelligence

In the time of my father, 1960, your chief was someone to look up to. And his chief even more. the higher you got on the corporate ladder, the more sophisticated the people were.

This had partially to do with class. Higher education until 1960 was mostly reserved for people from families with money. It was extremely costly and in some ways quite elitist.

If and when you came from lower classes, your education probably had been until the age of 16 after which you would go and find a job at some factory or whatever.

The lack of education (both in knowledge and in manners) created an artificial rift. You could be very smart, but without proper education, you were just as easy to overwhelm and overpower as any other of “lower class”.

Reality is that position and smartness are not linked at all.

People at the top of the hierarchy are now even becoming dangerously clueless on all kinds of matter they should be knowledgeable at:

  1. Technological developments – Which will be disrupting for the business? Which can be ignored for now?
  2. Sociological developments – Where are we going to? What are the trends? What does the youth want? What elements makes a happy colleague and a productive worker?
  3. Developments in the business – With disruptive changes also come new ways to do the exact same things better and differently. What are those new developments? How can the organization at large act on that?

Speed of change: musings

Where 50 years ago, the speed of change was slow enough for business to run the same way for 30 years, the rise of the educated masses has changed a lot in this. I believe ( and did not research) that there is a correlation between the availability of higher education for the common people and the increase in speed of change.

More people with more knowledge. More people form backgrounds with less rules and less dependencies. More freedom to act and move. An increase in available positions on high places where you can influence change.


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