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Nurturing Versatilists of the Future

“If we spend our whole lives in the silo of a single discipline, we cannot develop the imaginative skills to connect the dots or to anticipate where the next invention, and probable source of economic value, will come from.” - Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills, OECD

The Great Tit: Adapts very well to human mondifications of the environment!

The Great Tit (Parus Major) is a Versatilist in that it evolves quickly, and adapts suitably to different environments...

A lot of the cutting-edge work happening today in different fields relies on experts from specific disciplines working together to see connections and possibilities that they would not see on their own. This should not be surprising given that these ‘disciplines’ have been created by humans, for matters of convenience. When dealing with the real world, different disciplines offer different perspectives and ‘seeing the whole’ requires all these perspectives. Take the case of Corina Tarnita, a brilliant young mathematician, who worked with legendary biologist E.O.Wilson on the evolution of cooperative insects. Or consider the large number of designers who have founded successful startups in Silicon Valley- the home of ‘technology’. We could continue to talk of many such examples- anthropologists and philosophers working on the design of self-driving cars, physicists working on systems biology, and social scientists developing computational models of racial segregation.

T-Shaped Persons

Organizations such as IBM, realized years ago that they needed more ‘T-shaped’ individuals to do the best possible work. These individuals would have deep expertise in one field, but in addition to that would also have an appreciation of several other fields (breadth of knowledge). An individual with such a combination of qualities could also be called a ‘Versatilist’. Such Versatilists can see problems and possibilities far more clearly than either ‘Generalists’ or ‘Specialists’, and can also see what other expertise is needed to tackle a challenge. For example, an ecologist looking at issues of clean water may see water seeping through cracks in rocks and entering a spring, and seek out a mathematician to study crack patterns in natural ‘filtration systems’.

But how does one nurture such versatilists? Many of today’s versatilists have developed on their own- it is rarely the school or college education system that has produced them. One challenge is that the formal curriculum often does not give a taste of what a particular discipline is about. For example, doing only school math, someone with genuine mathematical interest and aptitude, may lose interest in the subject and may never realize what real mathematicians do. Another example is the vast number of programmers who actually have a poor idea of computational thinking. Another related challenge in the system is that students have little access to professionals and academics actually working in the discipline who can provide an authentic picture of the discipline. These challenges lead to students being unaware of different possibilities when pursuing higher education, or maybe even making a wrong choice of discipline, having constructed in their minds, an incorrect picture of what different disciplines entail. This problem gets further compounded at the college level, where there is little discussion between faculty and students in different majors; the silos of the mind only get thicker and thicker as the years go by.

At GenWise, we are taking some small steps towards addressing this challenge. In the GenWise 365 program (which runs over a period of 7 months through the school year), we ensure that every student gets a minimum of 12-18 hours of exposure through ‘core’ courses, in each of 5 major tracks-

  • Science & Scientific Inquiry

  • Mathematical & Computational Thinking

  • The Planetary Web: Nature, Society & the Individual

  • Technology, Design & Making

  • Tools for Thinking & Communication

Apart from this, students get an opportunity to spend 30 hours on an elective course of their own choice so that they can pursue an area of their interest in greater depth. Our goal is that an individual student spending 2 years in our programs becomes a ‘budding’ versatilist. For example, imagine a child who goes through 5 Level-1 core courses in Year 1, an elective in Cryptography in the October vacation, a 2-week summer course on International Politics, and some more Level-2 core courses in Year 2. Such a child would have a good appreciation of diverse disciplines, a deeper insight into a couple of disciplines, and would have started thinking critically, and making deeper connections between ideas. Our endeavour and hope is that our pilot efforts in this direction will find place within the mainstream education system itself, in the years to come.