Build a Foundation for Your (Education) Revolution / by Cristian Mitreanu

This is a re-post of my guest column at EdTech Digest.


Paradigm shift. ... Fifty years ago, last month, a short book with less than 200 pages was published to eventually become one of the most influential of the twentieth century. Aside from introducing the concept of paradigm shift, which is now widely used and probably abused, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions has significantly changed the way we look at how science is being developed. And then some.

Kuhn introduced the idea that scientific discoveries are not cumulative and they do not get us closer to an absolute, universal truth. What is rather happening, according to him, is that scientists, as a collective, go through periods of time, defined by distinct underlying perspectives — paradigms. A paradigm constitutes the foundation for all scientific activity during such period of time, and it typically competes with the previous and the subsequent ones. In an insightful article in the Guardian, John Naughton explains:

By the standards of present-day physics, Aristotle looks like an idiot. And yet we know he wasn’t. Kuhn’s blinding insight came from the sudden realization that if one is to understand Aristotelian science, one must know about the intellectual tradition within which Aristotle worked. One must understand, for example, that for him the term ‘motion’ meant change in general — not just the change in position of a physical body, which is how we think of it. Or, to put it in more general terms, to understand scientific development one must understand the intellectual frameworks within which scientists work. That insight is the engine that drives Kuhn’s great book.
— John Naughton

And that is the insight that is essential here. While the way paradigm shifts occur remains a subject of debate among the philosophers of science, what is really important to all of us in the education and ed-tech space is the notion of paradigm and the implicit idea that our actions are always guided by an underlying worldview — whether shared by others or not.

The revolutionary movement in education has been getting significant traction over the past few years. While the value and return of investment of the formal education comes increasingly into question, the number of startups and initiatives has skyrocketed. The news are certainly flooding the Internet. And the “ed-” discussion, in general, is on. However, what we are really short on are the discussions about worldviews and underlying philosophies. Mesmerized by the success stories, we have relegated this topic to the “Hm, that’s interesting” category.

At the society level, that might be okay. It is difficult to say to what extent worldviews and the visions built on them really matter. The naturally-increasing affordability of technology, in general, has led to a “see what sticks” culture. Esteemed companies like Google have taken advantage and, as a result, promoted a tidal wave of “rapid-prototyping.” Many venture capitalists have grown comfortable funding engineers with little to no business idea, the rationale being that high-quality people can successfully change the direction of the company on a dime (action known as “pivot”). And that is fine. At the society level, numbers rule. The larger the pool of ideas and attempts to implement them, the higher the quality of the successful ones. We call that technological progress.

At the individual level, however, a coherent worldview and a clear vision based on it can significantly increase one’s odds of building something great, revolutionary. The success of Apple in an environment dominated by increasingly shorter turnarounds and product life cycles is to be attributed in large part to Steve Jobs’s worldview and vision. Thirty years ago, when most people were struggling to understand what a computer is, he saw a future of interconnected portable devices with human-centered interfaces — all pretty consistent with where things are today. But his vision didn’t stop there.

In a recently-released 1983 talk at the International Design Conference, he describes a future dominated by artificial intelligence — a vision that, incidentally, reinforces the idea and importance of a worldview, while predicting a return to the student-centric, Socratic education:

The problem was— You can’t ask Aristotle questions. And I think as we look toward the next 50 to 100 years, if we really can come up with these machines that can capture an underlying spirit, or an underlying set of principles, or an underlying way of looking at the world so that then when the next Aristotle comes around… Maybe if he carries around one these machines with him his or her whole life and types in all this stuff, then maybe someday after the person’s dead and gone we can ask this machine, ‘Hey, what would Aristotle have said- What about this?’ And maybe we won’t get the right answer. But maybe we will. And that’s really exciting to me.
— Steve Jobs

Sure, you can build a simple product, a “one-trick pony,” without a coherent worldview or a clear vision. Just focus on one customer need and build a product that addresses it. The investor hype and the financial markets might even help you build a lasting company. But even in those cases, you have to be able to tell a compelling story, internally as well as externally.

So, what is the worldview that will support your (education) revolution? Is it a wish list, a manifesto? Or, is it a model? As we get this discussion going, the presentation below might provide some ideas.