Education, Complexity, and Interdisciplinary Studies-Part 1

I have three points to make in this post (or perhaps over three posts):

  1. Education that focuses on information transfer or information curation misses the mark by a mile because we live in an era in which we are inundated with information at every turn. As educators, we now need to focus on cultivating the skills necessary to effectively interface with information.
  2. Complexity theory is a theory of creativity-engagement, adaptation, and change. It thus provides a framework for education in this era characterized by the proliferation of information manifest in the rapidly accelerating dynamic world of science and technology.
  3. Interdisciplinary Studies is grounded in complexity, and as such, it functions as the vehicle through which complexity theory can be put into practice within a formal, if not traditional, academic context.

Becoming an Information Interface

Focusing primarily on information transfer or curation amounts to academic whack-a-mole. We are inundated with information at every turn as our attention, individually and collectively, has become a highly sought-after commodity. From advertisements on the side of napkin dispensers to carefully targeted political memes on social media, it has become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to intentionally manage the information with which we must deal with on a daily basis. The classroom, it seems, has become but one more contender in the information economy that demands attention. The perception has been that universities, or the instructors therein, more specifically, compel a degree of intellectual authority so as to command attention thus trumping ‘lesser’ distractions. Walk into any contemporary classroom, I would challenge, and you will find a room full of laptops, smartphones, and tablets all harnessed to the splitting of attention across multiple information platforms-the lecturer’s information often being the lowest priority (perhaps there’s a slight bias here). In a ferocious world of competing information deluges, it is not clear that the classroom is standing its ground, let alone winning.

Winning in the information economy is likely the wrong strategy anyway. Yes, we want more engaging classes, but to what end? So students can remember more? Most of us carry a smartphone of some sort that can produce more information in a single page of search results than what many can remember from an entire Bachelor’s degree. Furthermore, we, academics or anyone else, have no real idea what information students should ‘have.’

A recent flurry of New York Times bestsellers have sought to characterize the sheer tsunami of change spurred by revolution after revolution in science and technology. For example, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies chronicles the technological march toward the computer age that has produced such dexterous digital technology that it defies predictability in terms of application and implementation. Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, a conglomerate of who’s who in business and technology, has dubbed the current era as the start of The Fourth Industrial Revolution. He writes: “Mindful of the various definitions and academic arguments used to describe the first three industrial revolutions, I believe that today we are at the beginning of a fourth industrial revolution. It began at the turn of this century and builds on the digital revolution. It is characterized by a much more ubiquitous and mobile internet, by smaller and more powerful sensors that have become cheaper, and by artificial intelligence and machine learning,” (2016, 7). The technologies of this era force the questions of what are and where the distinctions lie between the categories of material, digital, and biology. In the same general category, Yuval Noah Harari, author of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, sketches the relationship between the technological and various social and economic institutions. His story compels a re-imaging of all things ‘normal’ from ethics to reproduction, if such a spectrum were to exist. Although each author has a slightly different perspective on the changes that have taken place and their impact, the common ground is a characterization of modern life as highly dynamic and viciously uncertain. The jobs of the tomorrow have, for the most part, not even been imagined yet, and from automation and outsourcing to artificial intelligence, the role of humanity in its own world is largely unpredictable. If we are to accept these authors’ analysis then it makes little sense to expend energy on figuring out what students need to know.

We do not know what we do not know nor what we will need to know. What we do know is that we, first and foremost, we must learn how to interface effectively with information, and in a world where information and its manifestations are rapidly accelerating, “effective interface” might be interchanged with something akin to “creative adaptation.” I seems to me that is matters less and less what we know; rather, more importantly, it matters how we know.

So, what are we doing here in higher education? If the goal is to prepare students for the future, equip them for a career, and cultivate engaged citizenship, the pedagogical tools of the past that focus on information transfer and curation are obsolete. Sir Ken Robinson,  in one of the most watched Ted Talks of all time, argued that school kills creativity. Educational strategies that focus on discipline (taking tests with ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers, for example), and uniformity are out of step with the contemporary demands of the economy and society at large. Education, higher education in this case, must develop its capacity to foster cultures of creativity rather than recapitulate cultures of conformity so that it can live up to its historical role as the intellectual/academic clearing house instituted by and for society. (Is this even true?). In other words, educators must develop pedagogical norms that prioritize the development and refinement of the cognitive tools necessary for the multiple dimensions of creativity: intellectual courage, tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty, empathy, adaptability, and engagement. It is no longer sufficient or, arguably, possible, for higher education to function primarily as an information transmitter or curator; rather, it must evolve into and resource for cultivating the skills of effective information interface.

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