Time to rethink how we educate young people

Published in: Irish Examiner, 27 April 2015.

Text version (original) follows:  

Last month, some 900 scientists in Ireland and Irish scientists working abroad penned an open letter expressing deep concern about the Government’s research policies.  They stated that innovation needs a strong core in basic research. They also wrote that a wealth of economic research shows that sustained investment in basic research pays huge dividends economically.  They are wrong on both counts.

A widespread misunderstanding is that innovation and competitiveness depend on the amount of money spent on research and development (R&D) within our higher education institutions.  In fact, there is no evidence of a relationship between money spent on research in universities and the prosperity of a country, city or region.  Irish universities are highly adept at promoting the idea that innovation starts with scientific research.  This assumption is seriously flawed and largely discredited internationally.

Innovation has more to do with qualitative factors, such as trust and sense of community, than expenditures on university research.  Doing and valuing are critical to innovation, distinguishing it from research which centres on thinking and reflection.  The heart of an innovative culture is not discovery of new knowledge per se but of identifying connections between all sources of knowledge in order to create value.  This is why feelings of belonging that lead to cooperative relationships are more crucial than scientific research on its own in stimulating innovation.

The industrial age heralded the loss of intimate knowledge that mattered so much to traditional craftsmen.  In today’s globalised world, such tacit knowledge of materials is lost through mass production.  Breakthrough ideas require intelligence of the heart and hand, not just intelligence of the head.  Emotions, tastes, sensations and feelings which come from the heart rather than the rational mind, are primary drivers of creativity and innovation.  The most valuable resources in sectors like food or tourism are founded on inspiration, empathy and tradition, rooted in the social and economic fabric of relationships.  So a sense of place and shared meaning nurtured by experience are at least as important as skills in science or mathematics in developing an innovative ethic.

Rather than the theoretical knowledge produced by university research, and the culture of individualism driven by academic learning, intangible knowledge founded on shared meaning is key to innovation.  Learning should emphasise conversation, discussion and practice, leading to self-discovery and exploration.  What matters most is not what students learn but how they learn, a powerful argument for the benefits of apprenticeship.

Experience is an effective teacher so the best way to learn something is by doing it.  In apprenticeship education, transformative learning is likely to occur since individuals work in practical situations.  They discover the appropriate circumstances to apply what they are taught.  They learn where, when and why some solution fits or does not fit a particular situation.  Highly developed hand skills help foster a sense of identity, a great spur for entrepreneurship.  While working with materials, individuals receive meaning through their actions, which helps them understand more about themselves.  This enhances pride in work and motivation alongside self-knowledge, taste, aesthetics and an ethic of quality.

True understanding was traditionally associated, not with the de-contextualised setting of the classroom or the university lecture hall, but in a more integrated process, involving the scholar working with the master, or the craftsman working with the apprentice.  In today’s networked world, the essence of an innovative learning community is not, as many politicians and policy makers assert, the science lab, but the small-scale craft workshop, ideal for co-creating value through continuous interaction and feedback between say the customer and supplier.

Skills and competencies such as the ability to be collaborative, self-starting, quick-thinking and risk-taking are best generated through apprenticeship education.  These are more naturally developed in a problem-solving milieu than in formal university classrooms, which focus on curricula, note-taking and disconnected activities.  Yet, Ireland trains only a quarter the number of apprentices as Germany and a third the number of apprentices per employee as Denmark.  Correspondingly, at 53 per cent we top the EU with the number of 30 to 34-year-olds possessing a third level education.  The figure for Germany is a mere 33 per cent. It suggests that while there is no relationship between economic prosperity and the proportion of young people at university, there no doubt is with the quality and number undergoing vocational training.

Yesterday in this paper, entrepreneur Declan Ryan, managing director of very successful artisan food company, Arbutus Bread, none of whose bakers served their apprenticeship in Ireland, pointed to the lack of opportunities for training young people in traditional skills.  Ryan rightly alluded to an element of “snobbery” in attitudes towards apprenticeships.

Far too many students graduate from an academic environment shaped largely by an industrial model, now out of step with the kinds of learning required.  We need a different approach if we are to build a successful and sustainable innovation society.  This does not require spending a vast amount of resources, though R&D should naturally remain an important element in the country’s innovation strategy.

The influential US business magazine Fortune forecasts that in future the most valuable skills in highest demand will be those that people can do better than computers!  These include forming emotional bonds, making human judgments and being sensitive to cultural difference.  Fortune says tomorrow’s most valuable engineers will not be geniuses in cubicles. Instead, they’ll be those who can build relationships, brainstorm, and lead.

Irish innovation policy suffers from the same lack of critical discussion, groupthink, pervasive pressure for consensus and hostility to contrarian views which the 2011 Nyberg Report pointed out led to our banking crisis.  There is an imbalance in public investment with too many resources are devoted to the university sector.  Funds should be redistributed from the third and fourth levels towards vocational training and earlier education if we hope to develop a true innovation economy.  Now is the time for a radical rethink.