In the modern era, where specialisation holds the keys to the kingdom, its worth remembering that it wasn’t always so. Hyper specialisation may be fashionable at the moment, but is it the only answer or even the correct answer with technology evolving so rapidly in most disciplines? Will the social media specialists of three years ago find themselves in such demand in three years time one wonders.
Asked to think of a famous polymath and Leonardo da Vinci will spring to mind. Artist, scientist and engineer; all time super hero, he hails from a time when it seemed possible to span enormous distances between disciplines. But a more recent example of successfully leveraging across disciplines might be Florence Nightingale. Mainly remembered as a nurse who tended to wounded British soldiers during the Crimean War, Nightingale was an accomplished mathematician who used statistics to in a modern and effective manner, a great social reformer and a medical innovator. What made Nightingale so effective was her ability to collect information at source, to collate it and present it in a thoroughly readable fashion. So far, so modern. The rose diagram that she (self-) published identifying cause of mortality in the British Army is a classic example of data visualisation that would make modern corporate power pointers hang their heads in shame.
Nightingale went on to set up the first modern school of nursing at St Thomas’ in London and was capable of leveraging skills from one discipline to another with great effect. Medicine, social reform, mathematics: all totally modern skills. Which begs a simple question: does it make you more effective to have an unusual set of skills or expertise that you can re-combine in unusual ways? Does it make sense to specialise in the modern sense or is it worth collecting together a eclectic set of skills before looking for ways to combine them in new fields. In many respects, becoming a traditional specialist is the easy way out – the pathways through education are neatly laid out and the problems are framed in a way that suits to knowledge base.
But does real innovation require a different way of looking at things, a combination of odd viewpoints?
The Education Endowment Foundation seems to be an interesting beast. At first glance, it looks like a really good thing, but I’ve learnt to approach such schemes with a degree of caution. Politics intrudes far too often in the world of education and you always need a healthy dose of scepticism. Still, any organisation that’s look to take a scientific approach to ‘what works’, to the extent of using randomised controlled trials, would appear to be on to something. I’ve always been of the belief that education should be the subject of sustained and relentless improvement, given its vital importance to our economy, our culture and our general wellbeing. If that’s a view thats supported by our political parties, then they do a poor job of translating talk into action.
If anyone has any experience or feedback from the EEF, I’d be keen to hear more.
The Dunning-Kruger cognitive bias suggests that if you have expertise or competence in a subject, you’re more likely to play down your capabilities than boast of your brilliance. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. Low ability individuals massively over estimate their abilities in areas they know nothing about. We’ve all come up against this in real life, whether around the dinner table or when people in public life make bold statements about what is essentially unknowable i.e the future.
It feels to me that we all need to be on the look out for the impact of this simple cognitive bias. We live in a world where experts are ‘discredited’ and the ‘man in the street’ knows best. Dunning-Kruger suggests otherwise.
Its almost a heresy to question the value of a university education. It is only in recent years that we’ve measured the value of our time at university in terms of future earning power and only in very recent years, with the advent of tuition fees, that a sort of educational net present value calculation has been applied to check the ‘earning power’ provided by university.
In some ways, its a shame that we are even having this conversation. Picking up the analytical and reasoning skills that a good quality university course can provide are in many ways an indispensable life skill. Todays school leavers and graduates face a particularly uncertain future even if we ignore the massive problem of environmental change. A massive technological shift is once again underway that will most likely hollow out graduate jobs in the way that manufacturing jobs came under pressure from automation. Couple that with what seems to be the beginnings of a retreat from globalisation and you seemingly have recipe for a slower graduate jobs market. we are already seeing this to a certain extent, as graduates accept ‘non-graduate’ jobs.
Of course those graduate analytical skills will be useful in an uncertain world for those willing to put them to good use. Uncertainty creates opportunity and most likely, those willing to take a more thoughtful approach and not just follow the conveyor belt into the right sort of job may find themselves at an advantage. Perhaps the best advice to graduates will be not to ‘get your head down’ and work hard, but to ‘keep your head up’ and look for opportunity in unusual places. A world of change creates winners and losers. And not always in the places you expect.