Master the foundations, and rule a universe

Sunday, 01 July 2018

“We don’t awake spontaneously to a knowledge of our talents and passions. We develop them by mastering the foundations — and that means sticking with it.”

An edited version of Dr Finkel’s speech to the CONASTA conference was published in The Australian on 18 July 2018. The full article is below.

In the two years I have been Chief Scientist I have seen many encouraging developments in education. But I also have seen a growing sense of confusion about what we mean when we speak of a “21st-century education”.

I say: “Students should be work capable” — and people hear: “We need to teach generic skills like collaboration, instead of content knowledge like chemistry.”

I say: “Engage children through real-world problems” — and people hear: “Great, let’s toss out the textbooks.”

I say: “Children should develop the passion to learn” — and people hear: “Let’s leave it up to the children to decide what they want to be taught.”

I can’t explain why so many well-meaning people associate being a 21st-century worker with knowing less and talking more. But clearly the onus is on me to explain what I do mean, and make the case for it.

I firmly believe there is still a fundamental duty to teach students content — concepts, facts and principles — taught by teachers trained as experts in that content, with all the status and resources and professional development that we would demand in any other expert occupation.

I’m going to lead into my argument via what I believe is the bestselling, most highly acclaimed science fiction novel of all time: Frank Herbert’s Dune. You don’t need to know anything about the plot, but I want to introduce you to the hero: a young man named Paul, an exile on a desert planet, trying to wrest back control of a galactic empire.

One of the first things you learn about Paul is that he has a remarkable capacity for adapting to new environments and mastering new skills. But the next thing you learn is that this capacity wasn’t born in him. It was instilled into him. He’d be taught a principle. He’d practise it, again and again and again. He’d apply it in a real-world context. Page after page, we see Paul learning. He’s curious and flexible and agile and collaborative — not because he attended classes on how to be curious, flexible, agile and collaborative but because he developed those skills in the context of mastering content. Principle; practise; application: that’s the lesson of Dune.

I didn’t grasp that lesson when I first read Dune as a teenage boy, but I realise now that Herbert was describing a concept that IBM would later crystallise as the “T-shaped worker”.

The vertical line of the T stands for deep expertise in a discipline. You have to acquire that first. The horizontal bar stands for your flexibility to apply that expertise creatively, as part of a team in a workplace, and to develop new skills as opportunities present. That comes second.

Think of it like a garden trellis. Your subject, or discipline, gives you structure while you grow. Then you have the capacity to branch out. Without the trellis, you’re just ground cover, sprawling out in all directions, no matter how good the soil or how much love your parents pour in. And it turns out that people with trellises, T-shapes, are remarkably well-adapted to planet Earth.

I think of the chief executive of Google, Sundar Pichai. He was born in rural India. His family didn’t own a telephone until he was 12. So no iPad, no smartphone and no laptop. His first degree was metallurgy. His masters was in semiconductor physics. Then he joined Google. He developed the Chrome web browser that you probably use. When he was appointed to his first senior role he was praised by Google founder Larry Page for his deep technical expertise, combined with “tremendous entrepreneurial flair”. He is said to be incredibly quick with calculations, with a near-perfect memory for statistics. He climbed high, on a trellis.

Or how about the leader ranked last year by Forbes magazine as the most powerful woman in the world, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She studied physics at university because she did poorly in a physics course in high school and refused to be beaten. She went on to earn a doctorate in quantum chemistry. Her political success is often attributed to her capacity to approach problems methodically, combined with a brain described by German media as a “machine for learning”.

Jeff Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon and the richest person in the world, describes the ideal worker as an “expert with a beginner’s mind”. And he specifies that by expert, he means “domain expert”, who has mastered the content so thoroughly that they can play with it.

So, building web browsers, leading Germany, running a global corporate empire or tackling giant sand worms on a desert planet while saving the galaxy: it starts with learning content and mastering a discipline.

But let’s not just look at the outliers: let’s look at the evidence from run-of-the-mill Australian workplaces employing bang-in-the-middle-of-the-bell-curve people.

I have had many meetings with employers in my role as Chief Scientist and as deputy chairman of Innovation and Science Australia; and before that as chancellor of Monash University and president of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering; and before that as the chief executive of a publicly listed company. In all my meetings with people hiring graduates, no one has said to me: “Gosh, we don’t have enough people who know how to collaborate.”

No, what they say to me is: we don’t have enough specialists in software engineering. We can’t find graduates who are fluent in maths. We have meetings where three-quarters of the people in the room can’t critique a set of numbers without pulling out a calculator and slowing us down. They were asking for T-shapes, and getting flat lines — but the flat line wasn’t lifted up and anchored by that all-important vertical pillar.So I was deeply interested to read a report released last month by the NSW Department of Education, prepared by a team led by John Buchanan from the University of Sydney business school.

Buchanan was commissioned to investigate what today’s kindergarten children will need to thrive in the 21st century, not only in work but also in life. What he found was a widespread preoccupation with the so-called “soft” or “generic employability” skills, coupled with a belief that actually knowing things was outdated.

But the evidence from every field of knowledge on which he drew — cognitive psychology, education, philosophy, engineering, applied labour economics — said very clearly: give up content at your peril. I strongly agree.

To be clear, Buchanan acknowledges that future workers — or let’s say future adults — do need to develop what he calls “sound learning dispositions”: concentration, resilience, curiosity and so forth.

But to quote from his report: “We note that once learning foundations are built in early years of education, such dispositions are best acquired in the context of mastering specific disciplines or fields of vocational expertise.

“Generic skills only have meaning within specific domains of knowledge.”

In the words of a participant in one of Buchanan’s workshops: “What’s the use of learning to collaborate if you don’t have anything distinctive to contribute?”

Indeed. It seems to me that the cruellest thing we can do to school students is take away the trellis of structured subject content and, with it, that deep-rooted conviction that they are capable of learning and contributing.

Wouldn’t it be great if children just woke up, on Monday morning, with a voice inside telling them that their true calling in life is … organic chemistry.

But we don’t awake spontaneously to a knowledge of our talents and passions.

We develop them by mastering the foundations — and that means sticking with it.

It’s particularly important to inspire children towards mathematics. Mathematics is the language of science. And none of us arrives in school at the age of five as native math speakers.

We gain fluency only by learning things in sequence.

And there is no substitute for the precious years of learning mathematics, in sequence, in school. Fortunately, this message is being telegraphed to schools by some of our universities, which have declared that English and mathematics will be prerequisite languages for entry.

A real 21st-century education will combine content-rich curriculum, with high expectations, and every encouragement to thrive.

Last updated: Tuesday, 22 October 2019