· How to prepare students for a complex and versatile world? ·
The need and urgency for truly disruptive innovations, transformation in the business world and across society has never been greater.
Scientific paper after scientific paper, we are reminded of the scale of the challenges ahead if we are to live in an habitable world.
The changes required to our whole production and consumption models are radical. These changes require questioning our mental models, our belief systems:
- How do we accept limits to indiscriminate economic growth?
- How do we imagine and create socio-economic models and societies with different goals, that use different metrics with human and natural systems well-being as core objectives?
- How do we change individual and collective mindsets?
These are not easy questions…
Education as isolated silos
As cliché as it sounds, part of the answer starts with education.
But, what do we mean by education?
If we consider higher education, universities, business schools, and continuing education, we realize that disciplines are still overwhelmingly delivered in isolated silos. A master student will learn a selection of core modules complemented with some electives. The student will get a finance module, an economics module, a marketing module etc. as the core part of say an Innovation management master program. Then electives will come to ‘flavor’ the core curriculum. In these electives, you can get a CSR module, a sustainable development module…
You study sustainable development but you start your program with the ‘mainstream’ economics and finance basics of a linear, extractive, endless growth economic concept.
You go through your sustainable development module but you will rarely study the physical facts that render the whole module partly pointless (if sustainable development is taught as a way “to achieve green, yellow, rainbow endless economic growth”).
There is a growing contradiction between the teaching of economics, business, marketing, strategy (to name a few topics) and the actual, empirical facts of physics and what these implies.
How can we reconcile what we now know about planetary boundaries with classical economics concepts? The market’s invisible hand, the concept of compound growth rate, for example? If we teach a bright, inquisite, curious student about these concepts and then teach him about the physics of planetary boundaries, we are likely to get a “wait a minute, these concepts can not work”.
By perpetuating this siloed approach we are missing the causal relationships between disciplines, subjects.
How are economics and physics not linked with one another? We teach students that compound growth rate principles are not concerned (even less contradictory) with the laws of physics…
If we were teaching topics in a transversal way, we would miss much less of these contradictions. We would effectively be teaching under a system thinking approach, considering the various elements of the system (the education content) and how they interact, influence each other. In our example, that would be how the laws of physics should govern economic ideas and concepts, and not the other way around as it is currently the case.
This evolution from education as silos to education as a system, responds to a growing demand from students for up to date pedagogical content that incorporates the physical limits of our ecosystem.
We see a growing number of examples of students in highly reputable higher education establishments demanding for the reality of the climate crisis and climate facts to be included in all disciplines.
The realization that planetary boundaries, ecosystem limits condition all the disciplines that are being taught is a long overdue paradigm shift in education. From the agro Paris tech students that are ‘deserting’ the agri-business in their graduation pitch, to the Mines Paris tech dean rewriting whole curricula, there is an accelerating and encouraging trend of education providers to deliver educational program solidly anchored in the laws of physics, taking a transversal and science based approach.
How to teach for a complex future?
Anchoring education on the physical constraints of our finite world is a massive switch. It questions a lot of established practices, mainstream teaching content and teaching careers. Teaching in a transversal way also challenges practices and expertise. It is quite rare to find teachers and experts that truly master 3, 4, 5 different topics. A way to combine these transversal and complimentary education expertise, is to develop teaching chairs.
The Circular Economy chair developed by ESSEC this year is a good illustration.
By mixing academic content with practitioners’ feedback, mentoring and working with real economic actors on actual case studies, students are exposed to the complexities of the real business world. In this Circular Economy chair, the ESSEC’s students got to work on actual projects from the chair’s sponsor (Bouygues, Essilor, L’Oréal). They are tasked with designing a business model according to set parameters and following Circular Economy principles. The mentoring by Circular Economy coaches allows the students to place themselves in the shoes of a project manager, a decision maker and to make choices, to choose between different arbitrages on how to create a Circular Economy project.
This project-based, learning by doing approach is possibly part of the future of education, being in higher education or in continuous education. It combines the realities of the business world, high quality academic content and the need for constant arbitrage between different parameters, while offering students cross disciplinary learnings over a short period of time.
The teaching methodology anchored in a learning by doing approach with theoretical content validated by case studies on real world challenges, provides a very intuitive, practical and interactive learning experience.
This is something we are witnessing at the Circulab Academy. Our participants are a mix of consultants, project managers, experts, engineers, entrepreneurs, designers each with in-depth knowledge of their industry and sector and with expertise in specific fields that vastly surpass ours here at Circulab.
Yet, the overwhelming feedback we receive on our courses and our learning methodology, is that it is an ‘eye opener’.
Why? We like to believe that our open, collaborative and more importantly transversal approach to knowledge sharing is the right way to disseminate knowledge about complex and ever evolving subjects (i.e: circular and regenerative economy).
In our programs we do not provide lengthy lectures nor do we ask participants to go through books or academic research papers. We create content in such a way that acquiring knowledge is perceived as a game, through interactive exercises.
For example when the learners discover our Value Chain Canvas tool, they do so by conducting a full value chain investigation and analysis. So, they do not have to learn the tool and then put it into practice, but the other way around, they deploy the tool on a real world challenge while learning how to use it.
This is just an illustration of how education for a complex world can look like.
To summarize, how can we teach for a complex, rapidly changing world?
By providing educational content, methodology and learning tools that are:
- factual, anchored in physics (accounting for planetary boundaries)
- critical, acknowledging that we do not know everything and that education content always evolve
- enjoyable and interactive
Fabrice Sorin, Circulab Academy Manager