Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Standardization vs specialization

At Olin tonight. Ironically, Tesch, Andrew, and Chandra all chose to visit on the same day. We even had a MetaOlin meeting (of sorts). Being back like this is always odd, but fun. It's like slipping on an old sweater that's far too ragged to wear in public and has holes and scratchety places, but which somehow feels good anyhow. While I'm in Olin-mode, here's more from Gardner - yes, the same book, Self-Renewal. (Seriously, Olin folks should read this one. These are all excerpts from my notes on the slim paperback.) This time he's talking about the difference between "learning about" and "learning to be."
All too often we give our young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants. We are stuffing their heads with the products of earlier innovation rather than teaching them how to innovate. We think of the mind as a structure to be filled when we should be thinking of it as an instrument to be used.
(How do you "teach someone to innovate," anyway? I'm getting sick of hearing the word "innovation." It's a buzzword that's used so often and so thoughtlessly that it's ceased to have much meaning. But Gardner wrote this years back before the word became so abused.)

He points out that being a generalist allows you to specialize in what is needed at that moment. In fact, you could say that being trained as a generalist allows you to move between different specialties. Renaissance engineering. Later, reading Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions, I saw fields of study branching out and merging into each other in a slow, melting dance through time; professions tend to change drastically within the timespan of a person's career. Think of the meteoric ascent of computer science, the fading of alchemy, the budding of systems engineering and design theory, the discussion on whether to offer 3 Olin degrees (MechE, ECE, and General Engr.) or just General Engineering (we currently do the former).

"All learning is specialization in the sense that it involves reinforcement of some responses rather than others," says Gardner, so in order to be a generalist, students need to step out of their learning and abstract it on a higher meta-level so they can identify and zoom in on the parts that most interest them. This entire process is different for each student. In order to maximize the learning of as many students as possible, schools should set up a gentle tension by training their students to be generalists and making it clear to the youngsters that it's their responsibility to create their own education that will turn them into the specialists they want to be... at that moment, at least.

Finally, my favorite.
The truly creative person is not an outlaw but a lawmaker.
You can be comfortable in chaos if you know you have the ability to create order from them in an instant if needed (like knowing you can swim strong strokes allows you to relax and float in the water). If you can create new structures - physical, mental, cultural, anything - at will, you're not so tied to old ones. You know you can always make new ones again if things don't work out. Part of why Olin's culture is so amazing is that we are, in every sense of the word, a community of makers.

2 comments:

Drew Road Mama said...

Profound thoughts to which I can surely relate. One becomes a specialist when one's passion and full being becomes engaged in that one pursuit. One can extract general principles from one's work in a special field and so, one can still influence a great audience of various fields of work. I think to be able to move fluidly from a generalist to a specialist, and vise versa, is an art in itself. Not everyone is able to do it spontaneously, but surely, can be trained to be more flexible. I think that in elementary education, teachers are required to be generalists and specialists at the same time since we are expected to teach all subject areas. As an early childhood education teacher, I know that children learn about the world in which they live through in both terms, as generalists, and as specialists. The ability to move in and out of these two ways of looking at the world is an important skill to have. It deepens and broadens one's thinking.

Mel said...

"I think to be able to move fluidly from a generalist to a specialist, and vise versa, is an art in itself." Yes. Thanks, Drew Road Mama. I've been trying to find a way to say that for a while - "master of being a jack of all trades" doesn't really hit the same spot.

And as for teaching being a mix of both, I think we've had this discussion before... and I strongly suspect that's why we both love it so.