My philosophy on education

While visiting the MoMA here in New York City, I came across Jackson Pollock’s Echo: Number 25, 1951 that particularly caught my attention. At first glance, the piece appeared to be overwhelmingly complex, one without any decipherable pattern. The numerous lines, shapes and other effects defied organization. However, upon staring at the painting further, I began to observe patterns amidst its chaos — systematic building blocks which when combined created this immensely complex work.

The field of education is similar, with numerous stakeholders interacting across a field that affects every corner of the economy. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the complexity and magnitude of it all. In fact, it would seem that education’s new charge is to enable its constituents to appreciate complexity in the world. To realize transformational change in an industry, one must be able to systematically decipher those factors which are most critical, and then identify the relationships among them.

I believe that the majority of education’s challenges can be analyzed using the following formula:

Successfully cultivating engagement, is the most important factor in education. Sir Ken Robinson’s now famous talk “Changing Education Paradigms” refers to this as an aesthetic experience, one where all of the senses are alive. It is at this moment, where learning can occur at its best. Engagement is fleeting, however, occurs in short bursts, and can occur anywhere. It can occur over coffee with a mentor, during a game, when re-reading a favorite novel, and so on. Achieving these moments are never easy, and often prove to be unpredictable. However, the purpose of education is to maximize the frequency that such moments of engagement actually occur. To increase the frequency, we must look to two key factors: motivation and relevancy.

  • Motivation: Clayton Christensen explains in the book Disrupting Class that two types of motivation exist — extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic factors and intrinsic factors can be used together or separately to elicit desired behaviors. Competition is a perfect example of how extrinsic factors can help stimulate engagement. Likewise, clearly showing how a specific lesson or tool can help in one’s career search would be an excellent use of intrinsic motivation.
  • Relevancy: The more apparent the value of the knowledge or skills the more easily it will be embraced. Relevancy also operates at two basic levels — what the receiver believes is relevant and what the giver believes should be relevant. Ideally, these two priorities will be aligned, but more often than not there will be a discrepancy between what the receiver and giver consider relevant.

Both motivation and relevancy interact with each other, and depending on how well they combine in a specific case will determine the level of engagement that someone will have on that subject. Depending on the type of engagement that is desired, different aspects of the two will need to be employed. For example, in situations where the recipient may not find the material relevant, the use of extrinsic motivators may be needed to accomplish the goal.

In the end, this approach to education can be applied to any of the stakeholders, not just traditional students. Everyone involved must experience some level of engagement in order for true innovation to occur, and each stakeholder has their own motivations and relevant interests in the game. I intend to refer back to this formula going forward and improve on it over time. This blog is an effort to better understand the field of education, and it like anything else is a continuous work in progress.