Post-secondary and continuing education is continuing to be rationalized in ways that are transforming the very foundation of the enterprise. Funding is a major driver of change in this field: how much is available, when it flows, where it comes from, what is funded, and who gets the funding are questions on the minds of those running the academy.
At the centre of the focus of this funding issue is the job market. Training qualified professionals for the job market in various forms has been one of the roles a university has played for more than a century. Now that role has become central.
Let’s consider what that means and what it could do in shaping the various possible futures of the university. This second in a series looking at the post-secondary and continuing education focuses on the metrics of jobs.
“What are all these people going do?”
The employability of graduates is now the holy grail of education industry statistics. Earlier this year I was sitting on the stage at an academic convocation with a senior colleague staring out at a sea of soon-to-be-graduates when he leaned over and asked the question quoted above. Staring at a sea of masters and doctoral graduates numbered in the hundreds and knowing that this ceremony was held twice per year, the question stuck and remains without an answer.
Maybe there were enough jobs for that cohort, but this process gets repeated twice each year at universities around the world and each year that I’ve been a professor those numbers (of graduates) seem to go up. Some of our programs in the health sciences are admitting three times the number of students than they were just ten years ago. There is much demand for education (as judged by departmental applications), but are there jobs demanding this kind of education in its current form?
Yes, the Baby Boom is moving into an age of retirement and increasing needs for health services, but do we need to graduate 80+ Physical or Occupational Therapists to meet this need this year? Do we need a few dozen more epidemiologists or health promotion specialists to add to the pool? How about psychologists or social workers: how many of those do we need? The answer from my colleagues in these fields is: We don’t know.
Chasing the Wind
Jobs are a red herring. It’s one thing to have a job, but is it the job that you trained for? (And is having that job even a reasonable goal?) Being employed is not the same as building a career. What if you were trained perfectly for a job that no longer existed? Imagine a Blacksmith in the 20th century or a Bloodletter. These questions are not asked, nor is much asked about quality of education relative to the pressures of recruitment, cost-cutting and educational rationalization. Most of us don’t know what quality education is in real terms because we are measuring it (if we are measuring anything at all besides jobs) by standards set for the jobs of the past, not the future (or even the present?).
“Skate where the puck is going, not where it’s been.” – Wayne Gretzky
Jobs are living things and very few in 2013 will resemble what they did even 10 years ago. The citizens of the developing world are entering this rapidly changing job market ready for change (See also McKinsey Global Institute report on future of work in advanced economies) because they don’t have the old ways to rely on. They are primed for change and if professional education is to meet the needs of a changing world, it needs to change too. It means getting serious about learning.
If education is rationalizing itself to focus more on jobs, then it also needs to get serious about clarifying what jobs mean, defining what ‘success’ looks like for a graduate, and whether those jobs are designed for where the proverbial puck is now or for where it is going.
Disruptive Learning / Disturbed Education
“The Only Thing That Is Constant Is Change -” ― Heraclitus
I’ve pointed out that learners have an uneasy relationship with learning principally because it means disrupting things. This is a topic I’ll be covering in greater depth in a future post, but if one considers how our social, economic, and environmental systems are changing it is not unreasonable to call this the age of disruption .
Change in complex systems is often logarithmic, not linear. It may be massively punctuated like a Lévy Flight or it could be closer to a random walk. In environments with a change coefficient that is large the level of attention must be more fine-grained than 5-year reviews. It requires developmental evaluation methods and learning organizations, not just conventional approaches to generating and assessing feedback. It requires mindful attention and contemplative inquiry to guide a regular reflective practice if one is to pay attention to the subtleties in change that could have enormous impact.
For example, if journalists and news media waited every five years to assess the state of their profession, they would have missed out on Twitter and come late to blogging, two of their (now) powerful sources of competition and tools of the trade. Some have waited, which is why they are no longer around. Metrics for journalism education today might consider the amount of exposure and proficiency in social media use, digital photography, use of handheld tools for communication, and real-time reporting skills. Metrics of the past might focus on newspapers and radio broadcasting. Which mindset, skillset and toolset would you rather be trained in today?
Questions for educators, learners (and evaluators):
Whether health sciences, journalism, human services or any field, what might some questions be that can help determine the role of job training in professional education? Here are five starters:
1. What is the state of your profession right now and are you training people for existing in this state? Are you preparing people for the next evolution?
2. Where is your field of practice going? What are the possible futures for your profession in the next 5, 10, and 20 years? Will it still exist? Are you a blacksmith looking for more horses in the automobile age or Steve Jobs waiting to attract people to a new graphical user interface?
3. Is your mindset, skillset or toolset in need of re-consideration? Does it still do the job you’ve hired it to do?
4. What do people need that your skills can help with? What unfilled needs and expectations are there in the world that your mindset, skillset and toolset could solve?
5. What would happen if your field of practice disappeared? How else could you apply what you know to making the contribution you wish to make and earn a living? What other skills, tools and ways of thinking would you need to adapt?
Design thinking can greatly help shape the way that one conceives of a problem, works through possible options, and develops prototypes to address the needs of the present and the future. Foresight methods help lay additional context for design and systems thinking by providing ways to anticipate possible futures for any given field. Lastly, knowing what the state of things are now and how they got to where they are now can help determine the path dependencies that education may have fallen into.
We can’t change what we don’t see and better foresight, hindsight and present sight is critical to better ensuring that education outcomes are not imagined, but based on something that can actually improve learning.
Cigarette smoking remains among the most significant and pernicious global public health challenges. On World No Tobacco Day it’s time to consider re-designing our approach to public health and tobacco control in the hopes of meeting this challenge and others like it more effectively.
Today is World No Tobacco Day and offers us an opportunity to take a pause and think about the ways in which we approach tobacco control as an example for public health.
Marketing funnyman Rory Sutherland, and smoker, makes a terrific observation about smoking and its power to promote quiet contemplation in one of his recent TED talks (which is well worth watching for many reasons, only some related to tobacco use):
“Ever since they banned smoking in the UK in public places I’ve never enjoyed a drinks party ever again. The reason… is when you go to a drinks party and you hold up a glass of red wine and you stand up and talk endlessly to people sometimes you don’t actually want to spend the whole time talking. It’s really, really tiring. Sometimes you just want to stand their silently, alone with your thoughts. Sometimes you just want to stand in the corner and stare out of the window.
Now the problem is now that you can’t smoke, if you stand there and stare out of the window on your own you’re an antisocial, friendless idiot.
If you stand there and stare out of the window on your own with a cigarette, you’re a fucking philosopher.”
In this tongue-in-cheek presentation, Sutherland inadvertently hits on a powerful reason to smoke, but not for the reason you might first imagine. It is less about social perspective, but internal perspectives of the self and the opportunity to better acquaint oneself with them.
Sutherland speaks to the perception of others in this talk, but I am more interested in what this act of contemplation — the ‘fucking philosopher’ aspect of smoking for some and why public health sometimes gets it wrong when it comes to tobacco control, but could get it right with mental health with the right design.
Over the past year I’ve made a concerted effort to better understand the motivations and habits of cigarette smokers from the perspective of a designer, not a public health researcher. In doing so I have sought to pay greater attention — as Rory Sutherland does — to the actual experience of smoking. And what I have noticed is the powerful contemplative effect it has on many smokers.
By no means is this a by product of cigarettes, and I certainly cannot endorse their use on health grounds, but one positive by-product of the act of smoking is greater attention to the self in the moment. Sutherland speaks to how a cigarette gives him the license to take time out of a busy party and contemplate, reflect, and gain some perspective that might seem odd or “antisocial” without the prop created by a cigarette.
Strange that we seem unable to develop the same habits and social acceptance of everyday contemplative acts in public, yet fully recognize this as legitmate with smokers even if we question the device used to precipitate the “time out”.
Smokers take breaks throughout the day to engage their cigarettes. Even in cold weather, they will go outside and sit or stand for 10 minutes just to indulge their habit, compulsion or pleasure, sometimes in small groups. This act of smoking provides a sense of community (with other smokers), contemplative space, and a pause from the everyday rush of life. Indeed, as they engage in activities that threaten their physical health they also engage in an activity that is very healthy for their mental well-being.
This is potentially another area that requires further investigation both from a positive standpoint (designing healthy space for contemplative inquiry or reflection) and looking at negative impacts of our well-intentioned efforts to curb tobacco use. While the loss of potential smoking peers has been examined, I could not find any research that examines the loss of contemplative time and its impact on smokers who quit. Doing so firstly acknowledges that cigarette use has benefits, which is problematic for many in public health. It also means getting into a zone of complexity whereby we need to consider how something that is so demonstrably toxic to the human body and others around the smoker can have potentially positive effects in other ways.
From a design perspective, how might we apply the lessons from cigarette use to mental health promotion? How might we design programs, spaces, places, and social conventions that promote the quiet contemplative acts that smokers gain from taking that cigarette break and offer potentially great value to tobacco users without creating harmful effects for others? How can we promote the quitting of smoking without the loss of the contemplative benefits that come with the act of lighting up?
Engaging design, complexity and imagining the systems that influence them both might yield considerable insight into how we manage other public health problems and how we might better promote mental health in the protection of physical well-being.
It’s probably rare that you have asked for more information in your work if you’re a health promoter, scientist or designer. Information is everywhere and, too often, in professional worlds, this information is presented in volumous tomes that are devoid of much of the energy that went into creating the knowledge in the first place. This is a problem for knowledge translation.
Poetry offers us insight to worlds that few other means of orality — written or otherwise. In 21st century Western countries, poetry is far less something considered worthy of serious study and is much more a tool of the romantics. We may learn about poetry in English class, but few of take it seriously enough to pursue beyond the halls of academe or a hipster-infused evening of spoken word at a local club once in a while.
That’s too bad.
Catholic scholars have used a process called Lectio Devina, a meditation on a specific phrase, to gain insight. Lectio (or Lexio) Devina involves taking a single phrase and meditating on its meaning at length. What is remarkable is how much information one can get from a single sentence or phrase. After considerable reflection, the multiple-layered storylines emerge and the options for
Consider what kind of knowledge we could glean is we took a more poetic approach to our work. By crafting it in depth, soaking into a single section, we have the ability to derive a more intense picture of what we are looking at.
Take a research paper. A published report or manuscript typically represents years of effort in conceiving an idea, gathering resources, undertaking a study and doing the work to transform data into information and into knowledge. Yet, the final product — the manuscript — is over viewed with relatively little appreciation. How often have we truly pondered and soaked up an article in depth? Really crticially questioned its contents and marvelled at the methodology, findings and recommendations in a manner that gave us the pause we took? This means going beyond p-values, ’N’, or saturation points to the heart of what the meaning is behind the article.
As authors, how often have we written something that was worth pondering and not just reflecting the minimum requirements or social conventions for publication?
As editors, do we encourage the kind of writing style and narrative formation that allows research and evidence to be displayed in a manner that encourages deeper reflection and not just represent an addition to the evidence that will be used without broader appreciation for the context from whence it came?
As publishers, do we create a space where these stories can be told? Or are we simply trying to add to the volume of literature, getting the kind of quick-bite science published without a sense of what it might mean beyond the study being reported and in the present moment?
As managers, teachers, researchers, and scholars are we taking space when offered and encouraging others to do the same?
How does our work pass when viewed from the perspective of Lexio Devina? Imagine if the research we did was greater, richer in its depth that begged us to question the phenomena of study in sufficient depth that we wouldn’t have to resort to reading hundreds of articles to gain what feels like a small crumb of knowledge.
There may be much in poetry, with its ability to say so much in so little space, that we can learn from. I don’t see haiku’s on randomized controlled trials anytime soon, but imagine staying up late at night reading and contemplating a research paper not because you had to go through it, but because you wanted to. You wished to savour the content, feel the words and enjoy the poetry of understanding? What would your work look like?
What might it produce differently than we produce now? Might it also reduce the overwhelming volume of information that we are simply unequipped to fully contemplate and synthesize?
Let’s try and find out. As we start a weekend devoted to celebrating labour, let’s contemplate what it might mean to labour differently and value what we’ve done a little more than we do now.
“Art is an intimation of the fundamental reconciliation of contradicting possibilities” – Joel Upton
Without contradiction, there is no art. Art itself is about juxtaposing ideas, tensions, concepts and working with form and space. The artist, whether consciously or not, is balancing contradictions in space, medium and form to challenge themselves and their audience to explore an idea, a feeling, concept or all three.
Engaging with art is about beholding. To behold requires focus, attention and some enthusiasm for the subject matter (knowledge doesn’t hurt much either). It requires time to contemplate the elements above and explore the contradictions and the perspective of the artist and the beholding audience. Health promotion and social change is full of contradictions. For example, how to promote freedom and self-determination while ensuring appropriate regulation to protect those who’s self-determined choices put others at risk? How do we create community and common space while respecting diversity and uniqueness — including those perspectives that don’t support commonly held values?
The list can go on. Art and the art of beholding can offer some ways to address this complexity through contemplative inquiry and learning about perspective and perspective taking.
Claude Monet in painting the Maintee sur la Siene did so from the river in his boat. By being on the river Monet was able to gain a perspective that is fundamentally different than had he painted from the shore, which he also did in other works. To behold Monet’s painting yields insights that cannot be gained by simply passing the image over.
Spending time before the work yields perspectives that cannot be obtained through mere casual observation. One is immune to the overlaying circles, the misty cornering of the Siene, or the fact that nearly all of the painting exists in reflection. When one looks at the painting in the context of others using the same angle and different colour shades, we see that this is a work that is distinct. Searching through the various forms of the work, one sees new layers of possibility and complexity emerge as the tones change, the textures shift and the intensity of the work alters. The version held at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, where Professor Upton teaches, is particularly complex in how subtle the reflections and use of colour and texture are parlayed on the canvas.
Learning more about Monet at the time he did this painting, his life, the fact that it wasn’t like he painted it from the water, he DID paint it from the water.
But we might have known that had we not spent the time in contemplation of the painting. Got to know it, and understand it deeply. Submitted ourselves to the work with a level of intimacy that can only be obtained through the act of contemplation and engagement with the art. The longer one beholds the work and sees the various forms within it, the greater the complexity that emerges — qualities unknown or unknowable without the contemplation of the work in depth.
Monet knew that he had to survive, to produce a work of art that was in demand and could sell. He had to survive, but also did art to ensure that people were inspired and challenged. His wrestling with contradiction, his application of knowledge to a medium, and the expression of his creativity through both is what made him one of the most widely renowned impressionist painters who ever lived.
Health promotion is about contradiction. It deals with complexity all the time. How do we inspire change in others and still support self-determination? How can we change a system when that system has no single voice? How do we get individuals to do what we want, yet simultaneously respect what they want?
Health promotion also seeks to respect diversity, but at the same time, what does it do to truly understand this diversity? Do we take the time to get to know the communities it deals with. Really, truly know these communities. Do we give the time to be intimate with them?
My experience is sadly, no. In public health we use focus groups — which were initially designed to focus a research question, not serve as a means of research unto itself — to generalize from a group-think scenario to an entire community and then claim that we know them. Really? Is this beholding? Is this the kind of contemplative inquiry that makes sense for public health.
Could we learn more from artists? Our methods certainly could (see art of public health), but perhaps the way of the artist is also something we could learn more from.
Evaluation data is not always made accessible and part of the reason is that it doesn’t accurately reflect the world that people see. To be more effective at making decisions based on data, creating the mirrors that allow us to visualize things in ways that reflect what programs see may be key.
Program evaluation is all about feedback and generating the kind of data that can provide actionable instruction to improve, sustain or jettison program activities. It helps determine whether a program is doing what it claims to be doing, what kind of processes are underway within the context of the program, and what is generally “going on” when people engage with a particular activity. Whether a program actually chooses to use the data is another matter, but at least it is there for people to consider.
A utlization-focused approach to evaluation centres on making data actionable and features a set of core activities (PDF) that help boost the likelihood that data will actually be used. Checklists such as the one referenced from IDRC do a great job of showing the complicated array of activities that go into making useful, user-centred, actionable evaluation plans and data. It isn’t as simple as expressing intent to use evaluations, much more needs to go into the data in the first place, but also into the readiness of the organization in using the data.
What the method of UFE and the related research on its application does not do is provide explicit, prescriptive methods for data collection and presentation. If it did, data visualization ought to be considered front and centre in the discussion.
If the data is complex, the ability for us to process the information generated from an evaluation might be limited if we are expecting to connect disparate concepts. David McCandless has made a career of taking very large, complex topics and finding ways to visualize results to provide meaningful narratives that people can engage with. His TED talk and books provide examples of how to use graphic design and data analytics to develop new visual stories through data that transcend the typical regression model or pie chart.
There is also a bias we have towards telling people things, rather than allowing them to discover things for themselves. Robert Butler makes the case for the “Colombo” approach to inviting people to discover the truth in data in the latest issue of the Economist’s Intelligent Life. He writes:
What we need to do is abandon the “information deficit” model. That’s the one that goes: I know something, you don’t know it, once you know what I know you will grasp the seriousness of the situation and change your behaviour accordingly. Greens should dump that model in favour of suggesting details that actually catch people’s interest and allow the other person to get involved.
Art — or at least visual data — is a means of doing this. By inviting conversation about data — much like art does — we invite participation, analysis and engagement with the material that not only makes it more meaningful, but also more likely to be used. It is hard to look at some of the visualizations at places like
At the very least, evaluators might want to consider ways to visualize data simply to improve the efficiency of their communications. To that end, consider Hans Rosling’s remarkably popular video produced by the BBC showing the income and health distributions of 200 countries over 200 years in four minutes. Try that with a series of graphs.
Before acting in a manner consistent with complexity principles, people need to understand what they are, how they are different from other systems, and what it means for their work. With mainstream education, professional practice so geared to linear forms of learning this bodes poorly for building better systems thinkers.
“Let’s just throw some social media at it” is a variant of an expression I often hear in my work in health communications consulting and training. Organizations seeking to use the new tools and media employed by Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube genuinely want to “get in the game” and use them effectively. Where things get problematic is when I tell them that social media is principally about building relationships and that extends to organizations: you need to relate and therefore act according to how you build relationships.
Just as no one (at least no one I’ve met) would consider drawing up a flowchart and showing a prospective mate the planned trajectory of their dating relationship with milestone targets and deliverables, no organization should think that they can just shovel content to people and expect their audience to relate better to them.
At first one might attribute this to a lack of understanding of social media, but that is only a small part of it. Empathy is another. But the third and perhaps biggest reason is a fundamental lack of understanding of complexity and what it means.
The seductive nature of the “best practice” and the prescription for change in 5,7, 10, 12 or whatever easy steps is something that is endemic in our society. These forms of thought suggest a linear trajectory of events, suggest an ability to control for externalities and parse out their impact, and provide a prescriptive solution that removes much of the worry about unknowns. But H. L. Mencken’s often quoted phrase (which I’ve used often) suggests the folly in this.
Simplicity is another way to get around complexity. It is something sought, but rarely achieved in its application to the lived reality of the human condition, and although much discussed it hasn’t been widely achieved as a means of policy effectiveness. The reason lies with the nature of complexity itself and its resistance to reductionism. Evidence from biology through psychology (see previous links for examples) points to the considerable problem that science has with applying linear modes of thought and inquiry to complex systems.
The problems here are multifold and complicated, if not complex.
1. Our education system is designed for linear, progressive modes of learning not discovery and non-linearity. We sit kids (and adults) in rows, we talk at them, we present material front-to-back. In short, we don’t design education for learning, but for knowledge transmission. Complexity is all about learning. Every situation has a degree of novelty to it that presents new challenges and what happens today might not be the same thing that happens tomorrow even if much is similar. Teaching to discover, adapt, play and risk is something our system doesn’t do well. How can we expect complexity and systems thinking to thrive when the muscles used
2. It’s more convienient to think in dichotomies than spectrums. As I’ve written previously, spectral thinking is something critical to many of the issues we face in complex systems. Good/bad, strong/weak, X/Y lose their meaning in complex environments where there is a. Of all the dichotomies that work, only Ying/Yang comes close. But its a more difficult concept to grasp that maybe things aren’t all one way or the other, that there is use in even something that isn’t well constructed. This problem (and the ones that follow) are tied to the first one: education and learning systems are not set up for this. We are primed for either/or thinking. Think in criminal justice terms how easy it is to demand harsh punishment for criminal acts without considering that the perpetrators are human too, even if their behaviour is unacceptable.
3. Our decision-making tools are ill-equipped to handle ambiguity. Health care is a great example of how badly we do at complexity thinking. Consider the systematic review, often viewed as the gold standard for evidence for adoption into healthcare organizations. If it has a good systematic review, then the chances that we will see that evidence translated into practice is good, right? No. Surprisingly, even systematic reviews of systematic review use shows a mixed bag in adoption. Systematic reviews are designed to reduce ambiguity, but (for those on human social systems at least) they only illustrate how much there is. A systematic review only looks at the evidence created, it doesn’t include all those questions that were never asked, never funded for inquiry, or couldn’t be structured in a manner that fits the criteria for a good review. It is, by its design, reductionistic in its approach to complexity.
4. Our institutions are resistant to complexity. Complexity takes time, nuance, and relationship development; all the things that screw up plans. You can’t plan a relationship, but you can anticipate some things. You might even be able to use scenario tools and strategic foresight methods to anticipate what might happen, but you can’t plan it. John Lennon is right:
Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans
While we plan, the complex systems move along. We can plan and fail, fail and plan, or plan to fail and work build the strategic foresight to know what to do with these “failures”.
So now what? Being aware of these things is a start, but making systems change is really the key. Making change is about questioning the way we have been taught to learn, and what our assumptions are about the universe are. Learning the difference between a simple, complicated, complex and chaotic system and the means to identify when those systems present themselves (and how they often change) is another. This means finding like minds, sharing stories, and building networks. It means creating space for relationships — even in our linear planning models if we must keep them (or better yet, get rid of most of them) — and considering what kind of returns we get from paying attention, being mindful of our systems, and what kind of things contemplative inquiry might offer that simple, detached data analysis does.
These are starting points, but not all of them. Addressing the challenge of complexity is, ironically or perhaps appropriately, complex. But the challenge of dealing with the negative outcomes resulting from overly simple approaches to dealing with complexity will ultimately be far more so.