Knowledge Economy Learning

We Must Rethink Learning in the Knowledge Economy

Social Networking Conference Shows Broad Enterprise Case Studies: InsightAcademicians everywhere are struggling to improve their students’ competitive standings in the global Knowledge Economy, which levels the playing field in many respects. It is far easier to build a world-class competitor in the Knowledge Economy than it was in the Industrial Economy. A strong educational system is a must, along with a highly motivated population, decent infrastructure and incentives for foreign investment. In former times, being a world competitor necessitated gaining control of vast natural resources to produce a strong industrial base from which world-class armies and navies would be built. India currently exemplifies the Knowledge Economy model very well*, and countries worldwide have taken note.

However, the Knowledge Economy is drastically changing what people need to learn to succeed, and educators haven’t caught up yet. They are teaching according to Industrial Economy rules, which compromises the performance of their students.

Educators have a special opportunity to create competitive advantage by realizing that the learning proposition is far different today—due to the Knowledge Economy and the role of information in adding value. The speed of change in all parts of the world is far greater today than at any previous time, and this is largely due to increased communication—information flow among people. More information exchange leads to greater dynamism and iterations (changes and adjustments based on communication). This has a huge impact on education: for most of humankind’s existence, the young would “learn” a trade or profession, enter the trade and learn refinements on the job. Hence schooling. Today, however, the knowledge base of all trades and professions changes so quickly that the shift is to continuous learning. This is fairly well recognized.

Less obvious and even more important is the necessity of rebalancing what we learn. Since our origin as a species, information has been rare, so a large part of learning has been acquiring information and committing it to memory. Having information in memory was important because information-retaining devices were few. Prior to the printing press, information was passed from one generation to the next orally, through poems and stories. Today, information on demand can increasingly be assumed, and people add the most value by learning how to select, assimilate, analyze and apply information. Therefore, the emphasis must be on analytical skills and empathy for customers, who form the “application context” of much of the Knowledge Economy.

However, many educators are still encumbered by the assumption that “more is better” will produce stronger performance. The degree of information, and even knowledge, that is available will only increase exponentially. Whether students, artists or business executives, people will add the most value by creating and applying knowledge to obtain a differentiating result. In other words, they will live in an abstracted world in which they are aware of what information means, how it resonates or creates dissidence with other information and how to apply it to please a customer. This requires the ability to think, reflect and collaborate.

A recent article, Schools Turn Down Heat on Homework, (The Wall Street Journal, 19 January 2007; also see Stanford reprint), discusses how several elite schools in the U.S. are curtailing the amount of homework their teachers assign due to several recent studies that question the effectiveness of homework. Research cited shows that homework above a certain level actually is counterproductive to math and science scores. One of the highest scoring nations, Japan, actually has little homework; in fact, many of Japan’s elite schools banned homework in the 1990s.

As I’ve written extensively, innovation will be the engine of value creation in the Knowledge Economy, and innovation requires jumps in thinking, collaboration and creativity. Wrote thinking is counterproductive because people get stuck. Less homework will not help many students unless it is accompanied by more analysis and reflection, unless it guides students in being aware of what they are learning. This will prove to be extremely challenging because reflection requires attention, which is very scarce and getting more so. Many students are also short-changing themselves by focusing on an immediate result (passing O-levels, exams) and not pausing to think.

In this, humankind is its own worst enemy. Reflection and attention can be thought of as focus. With so much information and knowledge available, how to focus? The current generations are under enormous stress because they/we haven’t yet learned how to deal with the amount of information that it increasingly available. Our brains, attitudes and habits are still wired with the “information is scarce” assumption, so we are overloaded, and our attention suffers. It will take some time to rewire our brains and habits.

Analysis and Conclusions

  • It is difficult to appreciate the profound impact of information on demand and how it changes how we must learn. Abstract thinkers will excel the most, all else equal, because they have several levels of awareness of the subject under consideration. In the U.S., education is seriously compromised by the lack of emphasis on abstract thinking and philosophy.
  • Abstract thought is critical in several ways:
    • It aids in the connection with unfamiliar patterns of thought and can therefore help to discover opportunity and drive innovation
    • It is quintessential to meta-knowledge, to “knowing what we know”
    • It helps to “mash up” people or things that haven’t been combined before
    • It aids the imagination in a structured way to develop awareness of what factors are in a set and how a changed context might alter the effectiveness of one or more of the factors
  • In business and government, leaders create differentiated value. “Differentiated” refers to thinking, acting and producing distinctly from how others have done before.
  • Increasingly, we live in a networked world, and a safe assumption is that collaboration with people with different “knowledge bases” will drive the ability to innovate. Therefore, having collaborative learning environments will be a critical success factor.
  • Sensitivity and empathy for other people and ideas are also critical, and all cultures could improve in this area.
  • *China’s success as an economy eclipses India’s in many respects, but India currently reflects the purely knowledge-driven economic model best. China is developing a strong industrial economy first, which will become more knowledge-oriented over time.

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