Incomplete thoughts

This video caused one of those hunches I was talking about in my post When Hunches Collide.  I saw this video last Thursday and immediately typed out a blog post but didn’t publish it because it somehow felt incomplete.  I thought I would give myself a day to let my ideas percolate a little more, but each time I came back to it I was left with the same incomplete feeling.  (I may very well need therapy to undo the lie that I learned in school: things that are incomplete are not worth turning in.)  I have watched this video 7 or 8 times now and each time I watch it, I notice  something different.  I think I believe if I keep watching it, this incomplete thought will reveal itself… it doesn’t hurt that each time I watch the video I feel like I am witnessing genius unfold. Those RSA animate guys know how to create!

In the video, Robinson talks about divergent thinking, the ability to come up with multiple solutions or answers to any problem.  He notes that there is a divergent thinking test which measures divergent thinking ability; at a certain level, one can even be considered a divergent thinking genius.  Robinson describes a linear test that was done with kindergarten students that followed them through the age of 15.  In kindergarten 98% of the students tested at the  genius level.  The percentage of students that test at the genius level drops steadily as the students get older.  Aside from getting older, formal education is the one thing these students had in common.  Robinson conjectures that we all have this capacity for genius level divergent thinking.  What happens in education?  We are taught that there is one correct answer and one way to arrive at that answer.  You see this all the time with kids and math.  They come home to complete a homework assignment and have an absolute come apart when they can’t remember the way they were shown how to complete the problem.  A parent steps in to help solve the problem, even arriving at the correct answer (as verified in the back of the book), but the child isn’t satiated.  Cue whiny voice and copious amounts of tears: “That isn’t the way that my teacher showed me how to do it *sniff* and we have to show our work the way we were taught or we don’t get credit.”  Not only are kids taught there is only one answer, they are also taught that there is only one acceptable “right” way to arrive at that answer.  Why has education been reduced to this?  I believe it is because that kind of education fits nicely and neatly into a box;  we can give a scantron bubble test to validate our methods.  Robinson notes that this one-right-answer approach is in the gene pool of education.  We want to  have the best education in the world and we try to answer that call by creating false measures to validate our feelings that we have the best education.  Forgive me for the metaphor, but it is like the dog that returns to its own vomit.  Divergent thinking is killed, creativity is stifled but test scores are high.  We want it all laid out nicely on paper: how many are we graduating, how many are going on to higher education?  But do high test scores really equate to better educated individuals?  Of course not.  High standardized test scores reveal students who can take tests.

Robinson’s mention of genes is what really caught my attention.  I have been thinking a lot about what genes currently make up education as we know it, and what genes make up learning.  In fact I wrote about the beginning of an idea here and asked for your help here.  Pandora (the radio station) works based on a set of “genes” or attributes that make up music.  It is called the Music Genome Project, modeled after the scientific research Human Genome Project.  The Human Genome project sets out to identify the sequence of chemical pairs that makeup DNA and then map them based on their location within the DNA and their function.  I’m not really a scientist (I just play one on my blog), but my understanding is that if we had a mastery of the individual genes, we could begin to isolate them and have a better shot of ending genetic diseases.  My thought is this, if we could map out the genes of education (read: learning) we could isolate the “diseased” genes in the current education gene pool and transform them accordingly.  If we could map out the learning genes, we could tailor learning to meet the needs of every student, Pandora style.  Right now education is ignoring all of the hundreds (thousands?) of genes that make up learning and focusing on two: logical mathematical and reading.  There is nothing wrong with these two genes.  They are important genes.  But we can’t ignore all the other attributes of learning.

And this is where my thought lies incomplete.  Is it possible to take on this kind of project?  Learning is incredibly complex and multifaceted…but then again so is music and DNA.  I don’t think it is an impossible task and yet I’m not sure what to do with it either.  I’m not sure that we can really transform education until we have the ability to truly customize it.  Until we can customize education, it will end up falling into a new set of standards.  They may be an improvement on the standard but they will still be missing something vitally important: the ability to meet the complexity of individuals.  Please understand, I am not recommending that students learn only those subjects they are interested in. I believe students can be interested in every subject if it is approached uniquely to meet their learning needs.  I use history as an example: in school I would rather have teeth pulled than sit through a history class and read through a textbook.  You can imagine my surprise when I got out of school and discovered that I really enjoy history, as it turns out what I don’t enjoy is textbooks. Learning has to be customized, it has to take into account the individual.  I believe mapping the genes of learning could bring us one step closer to realizing a customizable education.  So, I invite you to help me complete this thought.  Comment with your hunches, pass on your ideas and maybe those hunches will begin to collide into big, actionable ideas.

(Great advice from @mikemcsharry that helped me finally push publish “an imperfect idea launched will always beat perfection delayed indefinitely.” Thanks Mike!)



  1. Wow that’s a lot to chew over. Let me give you this as it might help. If you want an education system to be customized you are going to need a lot of content. This will come about only through two means. 1. Computers are going to be able to generate lessons about facts they know automatically. They can’t yet but they will be able to in the future. 2. Everyone needs to be a teacher. What I mean is people should all have the opportunity to contribute a lesson or whatever they know to educating people. \

    Here’s an interesting thought experiment. Imagine you have an outline to a story. Then you give it to 1000 people and have them each write a short story based on the outline. What you will get it 1000 different variations of the same thing. What we need for education is a marketplace setup like that. We put out there what we need and people can contribute their lessons. Some lessons will be better for some learners. By coming up with a genetic code of sorts that will make it possible to match a learner with a lesson.

  2. @Crudbasher: I’m not sure content is going to be the issue. Perhaps access to that content and to the perspectives within that content will be a bigger hurdle. Taking history and this quote, ‘The victors write the history.’ If the victors write history, then there must be a loser out there somewhere, right? And that perspective would be another part of the historical puzzle whatever it might be.

    The idea of differentiation and customized learning point in a few different directions. How do you get a customized learning experience within the current system? As @Crudbasher suggests, “Everyone needs to be a teacher.” I think that’s absolutely correct. We’re all experts in something or at least have skills that can assist others in learning something we know about. In the current system, self-teaching or small group teaching comes to mind as possible adaptation to customized learning.

    Otherwise, the idea of a customized learning structure would need, I think, to come from a web-based learning in order to get the customization and span the scope of teaching philosophies and styles.

    It’s a lot to think about..

  3. I am really glad you posted your “incomplete thoughts” here…now I will be thinking about them too! The part that seems the saddest to me is how much students actually lose during their education, when the whole point of education is to help them gain new skills! How can they test at a genius level in kindergarten, and not improve, when we are working so hard to teach them? Thinking about education in terms of genes is very interesting to me…and it makes a lot of sense! I think it would be a huge project to map out something like this, and it will take a lot of thinking to figure out how to even begin tackling something like that. I look forward to what other people think, and joining in the conversation.

  4. Kelly, your “incomplete thoughts” seem to form a pretty good argument when placed together. When I read this post, I thought of my recent post where I knew there was something important to reflect on but I just wan’t quire sure what it was (my post was nowhere as good as yours though). I think going through all those “incomplete thoughts” and putting them out there really helps them come alive and complete.

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