Mediocrity of ideas and education

The space in which ideas for education reforms are discussed has become an echo chamber with no solutions

Mediocrity of ideas and education

In 1983, a deadly virus spread through a cheetah breeding colony in Oregon, US, killing almost half the colony’s cheetah population. This virus proved deadly because the global cheetah population was already very low, thus threatening the species to extinction. Whatever small population remained and was being bred to revive its dwindling numbers now came from a small number of cheetah family trees. This meant that a lot of cheetahs had similar genetic makeups, sharing much of the same vulnerabilities and weaknesses, one of which was susceptibility to the particular virus that infected the population in the Oregon colony. This is natural selection in action.

Over time, if a species population sports a large and diverse enough pool of genes, environmental effects, such as the virus, weed out and eliminate "weak" genes from the population, leaving more "fit" genes to survive. As generations pass, mutations and new combinations of genes introduce new diversity into the population gene pool. Together, the processes of production of new genes, by mutation and reproduction, and natural selection form the process we know as evolution.

As this description shows, natural selection is fast moving, in that, it bombards populations with challenges and tests of their fitness every day/season. A species’ defense mechanism to natural selection is the production of new genes, but this happens at a much slower rate. This means that if a species’ population is too small, it is possible for a natural selective event to exterminate an entire population due to the lack of any genes fit enough to survive or its inability to evolve fast enough.

In some respects, ideas have a lot in common with genes. In his 1976 book ‘The Selfish Gene,’ Prof. Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme," which he defined as "an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture." The word meme was deliberately chosen to sound similar to gene. Like genes, memes too are subject to a process akin to evolution. They replicate when they are communicated from one person to another, and may mutate as they travel.

Situations and events will put ideas to the test, just like natural selection puts genes to the test -- only the ones fit enough will survive, while the weak will perish in the marketplace of ideas. And like natural selection, events and challenges testing policies, solutions and ideas come and go quickly. Therefore, like for genes, the only way to survive those challenges and come out better and stronger, is by making sure one does not stubbornly stick with one approach, but have a large enough evolving pool of ideas.

Let us consider the current state of affairs in the education sector. The space in which ideas for reform to this sector are discussed has become an echo chamber. Wherever you look, whatever province, project or initiative, one comes across the same clique of people, not the lack of work opportunities or projects. The same small group of people is moving from one education project to the next, with the same ideas, doing the same thing, over and over again. The icing on the cake is that most of the ‘elite’ working to reform the national public school sector, have never studied in it, nor have served in it as teachers.

Several projects in the education sector today are aimed at improving teacher training. To my best knowledge, no one has ever bothered to look for or identify high performing teachers, and learned from them localised solutions for teaching problems. Instead, people that never sat in a public school classroom for a single day, as students or teachers, push their own bright ideas from the top down. To put it bluntly in biological terms, the lack of diversity of thought has led to inbreeding of ideas at the level of decision makers.

These problems are not confined to the education sector alone. Consider the local tech-startup ecosystem. Entrepreneurship has become a buzzword at several technical universities. In some institutions students are actively pushed into becoming entrepreneurs, regardless of whether they have the inclination for it or not. This is being done with the best of intentions, as universities have realised that neither the public sector, nor private industry is capable of absorbing the hundreds of thousands of graduates churned out by universities every year.

However, even in fully developed markets, tech-startups have success rates in the single digit percentage points. Years of pushing capable and incapable students onto the entrepreneurship track is now beginning to have repercussions. Many of these startups are failing as expected, and their founders and employees are faced with the uncomfortable situation of having to apply for jobs to people that used to be their peers and juniors just a few years ago, and not everyone is prepared for that.

Interestingly, many of the most visible people preaching the innovation and entrepreneurship gospel, themselves have little or no demonstrable experience of shepherding a startup to the level of success they are pushing others towards. And like in the education development sector, the clique of entrepreneurship preachers is also a small club where everyone knows everyone, leaving us with a similar lack of diversity of perspectives.

Good ideas and models for solutions are more likely to emerge from larger base or populations. Let us consider the global problem of getting school children excited about science, programming and computer skills. The government’s "innovative" top-down approach to this end: Introduce a computer science track at the HSSC level which has failed to improve the situation one bit.

In the meantime, LearnOBots, a local Islamabad-based private startup, has managed to achieve what no government programme or initiative has been able to do get children 8-14 to undertake tasks of building embedded systems, programming robots and computers with greater proficiency and confidence than many computer science graduates of our average universities. Yet, to my knowledge nobody in the government has bothered approaching this crafty company to learn from them and see how their success can be piloted on a larger scale.

Good solutions are seldom passed down from the top. Instead, they are more likely to bubble up from a large population at the bottom, where there are more people "trying". As a colleague recently put it "Good things are happening in small pockets. Perhaps in 20 years time, we will have a true meritocracy in Pakistan instead of ‘royalty’ passing down its decrees."

Policymakers/the people at the top should spend less time pushing down their own ideas based on dated experience (if any) and spend more time traveling far and wide looking out for ideas that show good promise of working or are working already. Let us grow the gene pool of diverse solutions as big as we can, and pick from it the ones that are best.

Mediocrity of ideas and education