It stuck with me when I heard it a few weeks ago. For one thing, I’m not a very compliant worker, so I guess I ought to find a way to be a pathfinder before getting reassigned to the Island of Misfit Toys. Another reason it stuck with me is because I recently finished taking a machine learning course at the U of Illinois this spring. About a third of the way through the course, there emerged this mania among the students for having a defined rubric for the homework problems. What a waste. The main thing that I took from the course was that there is plenty of room for art in machine learning—the answers aren’t completely defined. There is a mathematical underpinning to the work (for the most part) but there is room to try things, in some cases very simple things, to make the algorithms provide better results. But I’d hesitate to call the results answers.
I sympathize with the students for demanding some determinism on how their results would be graded because their grades will have a bearing on their probability of employment and how much they earn. I get the pressure to do what it takes to pump up those variables. But that comes at a loss of the real reward from that class, which would be to explore the problems and see how they work, explain the approach and results, and accept that there may be no answer. I enjoyed the freedom, as an old guy taking a single class with no GPA to protect, to play.
Anyway, here’s the riff:
Consider the typical day in the typical school.
Of those six or seven hours that the student is at school, how many minutes are spent on compliance? How many minutes are spent on doing what you’re told? Then let’s look at how much time is spent on finding the right answer. Minute by minute. Compliance. The right answer. Getting a good grade. Fitting in. Doing what you’re told.
Of the 400 minutes that someone is going to spend in school–300 minutes that someone is going to spend in school today, how much time are they spending on those two tasks? I think if we’re honest, in the typical school, we’d have to agree it’s between 90 and 95% of the time. The rest of the time, perhaps, the student is left alone to daydream, to think bigger thoughts, to come up with something new. But rarely.
Leadership, and relevant to the last podcast, genius, an act of genius, isn’t about that. It’s about solving interesting problems. We rarely give our kids a chance to solve an interesting problem. We’d prefer to give them a problem where we already know the answer. Because the purpose of giving them the problem isn’t to develop their creativity, their insight, their ability to lead. The purpose is to gain compliance, predictability, to produce compliant workers who will do what they’re told for years to come.
So the answer to your question, I think, is that we need to figure out how to give students the chance to solve problems that they are probably going to be unable to solve. Not because they’re too hard, but because there is no answer. There’s merely an attempt, and then another attempt. That we can train our kids for ourselves to get comfortable with the idea that we can be uncomfortable. To be okay with the thought that we can write something down that isn’t the right answer.
So, how do teach somebody to write something original? How do we teach them to work at figuring out an advanced math theorem that has never been solved and might never be solved? How do we help them pathfind? Because pathfinding is the task that is in highest demand right now. Pathfinding says, “We’re lost, not completely lost, just a little lost. We’re not exactly sure where we want to go. We’re not exactly sure how to get there. Does anyone want to help us find a way?” And if we can help kids–6 year olds, 10 year olds, 15 year olds–develop the instinct to be comfortable doing things that feel uncomfortable, then we develop the ability to act, at least for a little bit, like a genius.