Diversity in Thinking – Comparative Advantage in a VUCA Future

“Who won World War II?  i. Goodies  ii. Baddies”

Taken from a cartoon, this line nicely sums up how multiple-choice questions in standardised examinations are dumbing down education. We have become besotted with how students perform in examinations. Such exam-centric education unduly emphasises learning the content of a discipline, usually by rote, and students often lack a deeper understanding of fundamental concepts or episteme of a discipline and the underlying thinking framework.

In the 20th century stockpiling knowledge in the form of a University degree did almost guarantee lifelong employment but now, when we are in an era where abundant knowledge is easily and cheaply accessible, having a head full of knowledge is no longer a comparative advantage. Admission into a good college on the basis of high marks and the University degree that follows may lead to the first job but mugging up just the content of a discipline does not secure a bright future for students. Moreover, intelligent machines are now taking over cognitive tasks that could earlier be performed only by a human brain and for future employment today’s students will have to compete not only with fellow humans but also with intelligent machines.

Employment and entrepreneurial prospects are significantly brighter for students who learn how to create ‘value’ for a large number of fellow denizens of planet Earth and can deliver this ‘value’ successfully to the market as a product or service. This ‘value’ could be material – designing a more efficient way to tap solar energy, or it could be physical – becoming a Yoga trainer, or it could be social – inventing a service like Facebook or Uber, or it could be psychological – offering ways of living a joyful life to multitudes.

What complicates the problem of value creation is that students will need to make this happen in a future that is VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

Education needs to prepare students to thrive in a VUCA environment by instilling in them the ability to wonder, which in turn leads to development of a fertile imagination. Education also needs to develop a laser sharp intellect with deep perception as intellect and perception are needed to abstract new patterns by connecting the knowledge dots in novel ways. Ability to deal with complexity is another essential quality for flourishing in a VUCA future. This includes ability to use intelligent machines to churn data to garner insights from information and have the ability to take judicious decisions to solve complex problems.

To achieve these objectives of cultivating an insatiable curiosity, fertile imagination, sharp intellect, deep perception and ability to solve complex problems, education has to go much beyond its current infatuation with exams and in addition to knowing the content of a discipline school and University education should also cultivate ‘disciplinary skills’ – i.e. mode/framework of thinking, threshold concepts, vocabulary… – elements that need to be mastered to gain deep expertise in that discipline.

Take history for example. It is not about mugging up facts, which is what an exam-focused education inadvertently emphasises. History is a living interpretation of the past. It is about perspectives, for example victor vs vanquished and how both sides interpret past events. Thinking like a historian is about understanding the ‘Arc of Inquiry’ – formulating probing questions to understand the larger context, articulating a historical claim, finding evidence for and against the claim in the form of primary and secondary sources, evaluating these sources for their provenance (reliability, authenticity, bias, prejudice), corroborating the sources, drawing inference and presenting your argument cogently with evidence.

Thinking like a Historian is also about learning from the wisdom of history. As Santayana put it, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” Knowing history should make one capable of taking informed action because history teaches you about choices people made in the past and the consequences of these choices. Studying history should lead to an appreciation of how seemingly insignificant acts can later lead to a domino effect.

The causal nature of history is akin to science – choices and consequences in history and cause and effect in science. While there are similarities in the two disciplines the way a scientist thinks is also very different from the way a historian thinks. Unlike a historian who is dealing with human events of the past a scientist is mostly dealing with empirical phenomena. Science can be construed as man’s dialogue with nature where a scientist observes nature, formulates a hypothesis, conducts experiments and draws an inference about a natural phenomenon. A historian cannot conduct experiments and can only rely on primary and secondary sources to interpret past events.

Learning different modes of thinking – thinking like a scientist, thinking like a historian, thinking like a writer, thinking like a mathematician, thinking like an artist and so forth, enhances a student’s ability to perceive the world in a more profound manner by looking at it through different lenses and this makes the student a deep, independent thinker. Disciplinary skills and an appreciation of how experts in different disciplines think also prepares a student to appreciate and understand cross-curriculum linkages – similarities and differences across disciplines. This in-turn develops the ability to connect the dots of knowledge in more creative and innovative ways, which yields fresh insights and facilitates finding novel solutions to complex problems, thus opening up the possibility for value creation.

And, ability to create value is the new comparative advantage in a VUCA future.