Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Education, Universities and Innovation

Continuing or the recent debate on the European blogosphere on innovation, Horatiu Ferchiu's article has pointed the significance of education in creating an innovative culture. Yet, the question becomes how should we be able promote innovative culture through education? If innovators and entrepreneurs are born and not nurtured, can what we do matter to their increase?

The answer here appears to be easier than it appears: Yes it does matter. Let us assume that in any population about 1-2% of them have this entrepreneurial or innovative spirit. Yet, the culture of country 1 states that innovation is a bad thing, provides no assistance to them whatsoever and even poses significant hurdles to them achieving anything. In contrast, the culture of country 2 states that innovation is an excellent idea, provides support to innovators and helps them fulfill what they wish. One would expect that country 2 will have a larger percentage of active innovators than country 1 and that is mainly attributed to cultural differences. It would of course be erroneous to state that country 1 would not have any entrepreneurs or innovators, as some people are determined to do what they feel that is right and end up succeeding in doing it. Yet, we can easily see that economic-wise, country 1 would have less large businesses, more bureaucracy, and obviously less innovation. So where does education come into this equation?

It is easy to see that we are in fact molded by our role-models as children, the influence our of culture and society on ourselves and the experiences we obtain as we grow older. Add these to several characteristics we carry with us by birth like entrepreneurial spirit or mathematical or verbal abilities and you have a complete person, with its virtues and vices. Thus, as we are the derivatives of our own environment (which is prone to societal changes) and our own character (which is not so prone to changes) we could try to accommodate the former to fit our needs better.

An example on what the above paragraph is signifying is the state of education in modern universities; after witnessing the learning process in the UK, the US, Germany and practically every South European nation one can only see similarities between them, notably the grading procedure. In 99% of institutions in those countries a student's grade is decided based on a written examination (or more than one). As it is customary, students prepare for that examination by studying hard and hope to get a good grade in response to their efforts. The problem here lies in defining what is it that universities are supposed to promote: good grades or good education. Many of us would say both. Yet it appears that the former receives more significance than the latter. For example, take a random sample of students and ask them details about a class, a month after their examination. In the majority of situations they will unfortunately not remember anything. 

Why is this happening? Shouldn't youth be able to remember what they did just a month ago? After all, isn't this what universities which pride themselves to be of the best in the world supposed to do: bring more knowledge to students? Academics may protest here that they are trying to push as much information about their subject as they can, in a limited amount of time. Yet, the way they are doing this is faulty. All us who possess an education level higher than that of primary school can try the following exercise: try to remember all the classes you did in high school or university. Now remember what they were about or try to remember specific topics about them. If you can, then your memory is more than excellent. Now how about you try to remember all the projects you ever did (meaning those that you actually had to do something other than just completing some exercises). I bet you can remember them much better. 

The issue here is that although human beings can learn by being taught, they need to feel themselves as part of that learning procedure. For example, merely watching a professor lecture is nothing more than a passive activity. We do not engage in knowledge, we do not consider ourselves parts of what is going on. We are mere spectators. Our brains are seldom stimulated through this procedure, become dull recipients of knowledge; knowledge we do not learn even when we have exams. We merely memorize it in the way parrots do.

Even though teaching is one of the most important ability people possess, we need to make sure that we provide people with enough incentives to follow the teacher. Paul Graham, an innovator and academic, once stated that what is important in a good teacher are high standards, an interest on the subject and taking an interest on the students. Although I can think of many people who taught me one thing or another in the past who did not possess the above three, I can only think of one who did. How many can you find? I bet it is now many; and yet think how much better your educational experiences would have been if all your teachers/professors were like the one who possessed the above qualities. Much better I am sure.

Returning on innovation, competitions with small prizes in schools, like the ones Horatiu envisioned would be more likely to promote innovation in the long-run as well an increase of knowledge in society. In addition, they would also make us realize that innovation cannot only occur in technology or the internet. Making a better retail grocery chain would be as important as discovering a new mobile phone battery which could last longer or merely designing a new car. Innovation can take all sorts of forms and it is important to see and recognize it in all its appearances. 

We cannot design and give birth to more innovators, entrepreneurs or researchers. Yet, what we can is help in creating more opportunities for them to operate. This is not something that would only create a more entrepreneurial culture or provide more power to businesses: it would also ensure the continuous growth of job supply and knowledge in society which would enable us to foresee a much better future than the one we are currently facing.

Change is almost never easy and it almost always finds resistance in the form of obsolete and archaic illusions of the world. To quote John Steinbeck 'It is the nature of a man as he grows older to protest against change, particularly change for the better.'