‘Mind the Gap’ — Develop Cultural Competence

The alleged “skills gap” dominates conversations about the relationship between education and work. Peter Smirniotopoulos and his co-author Natalie Pregibon offer an insightful analysis and some solid recommendations for how we might better prepare students for the demands of the workforce, today and tomorrow. One thing I really like about Peter’s approach is his uncompromising insistence on the value of creative thinking. Read Peter and Natalie’s series, Public Education and Job Readiness, here. Peter and Natalie were also recent guests on my radio show, Trading Fours with Drs. Modeste & Wes. You can listen to the show by clicking here.

Content is Crap (S/O to Greg Satell)

My classrooms are laboratories for engaged discussion and the development of new ideas. ConversationMy hope is that this will lead to an informed understanding of the content under scrutiny and also more meaningful and smarter work lives and civic engagement. I am passionate about educating. In my mind, the practical application of knowledge, can’t be beat. Over 20+ years of educating, I’ve put in the “deliberate practice” of 10,000 hours. What’s this mean? In part, it means the content I deliver doesn’t suck.

Why is THAT important?

In “Content is CrapGreg Satell tells the story of Ed Catmull who, as president of Pixar films, was committed to moving the films from “suck to not-suck.” This is important because Catmull wasn’t just looking for a gimmick to trick more people into seeing his films. As Greg notes, Catmull wasn’t merely seeking an audience” he wanted to “share something important with the world.” For all my love of content — American culture & jazz, ethnic studies  — “content” as Greg notes “is crap.”
But academics are genuinely delighted by content. We spend decades studying our fields of interest and by the time we reach the dissertation level, we have narrowed our chosen fields to an esoteric spot in the universe that no one else has considered in exactly the same way. Academics are the most blase entrepreneurs.

Here’s the thing — the content we find so fascinating sucks to most of the world. The way to salvage not just our egos but our beloved fields of inquiry from extinction, is to deliver the content is such a way tBoringhat connects us with the audience, that creates an emotional link between the content and something meaningful in their lives. We must create not just a new audience for our ideas but “share something meaningful with the world” which necessarily requires pushing beyond classroom walls. We must “mind the gap” between disciplinary specificity and the pragmatic demands of life outside the academy.

Education and Employers

A recent Guardian article lamented the state of economics education. Students and employers are struggling to see the relevance of skills honed in class because theoretical models fail to impress beyond the classroom. “Employers complain that recent economics graduates, while being technically proficient, know very little about the real world. Lacking knowledge about the historical backgrounds, institutional details and political idioms of real-world economies, they end up being idiot savants – they can manipulate most complicated mathematical models but cannot translate their insights into business strategies and economic policies in the real world.” — Ouch!

Disconnect

Here’s another biting critique: “When graduate economists do have something to say about the real-world economy, their advice is incomprehensible to noneconomists – and noneconomists make up almost all their audience.”

How do we Bridge the Gap?

First, educators must educate as if most students will not pursue PhDs (because most don’t). Second, academics must write for non academics. Since tenure is growing ever more elusive, this is practical because it’ll help academics secure jobs beyond the academy. Those scholars seeking to spread messages and educate the public broadly through MOOCs and/or social media (blogs, video blogs, Twitter, Facebook, radio programs, etc.) democratize education and include the global masses by using language that is easily understood. Third, seek professional viability beyond the academy — please.

You’re on your own!

According to the Guardian article, students in Norway were told by professors, their role was to offer “an analytical framework” for the material and students themselves would “have the rest of [their] lives to learn about current affairs.” This is such a cop-out. The aura of elitism is used to obscure poor pedagogy, lack of creativity, or just plain laziness. However, as hierarchies go — “‘pure’ research is more prestigious than applied or policy-relevant research, and research is more important than teaching. So, the more detached from the real world your work is, the higher up in the intellectual hierarchy you are.” Higher Ed is responsible for its own marginality, is doing its part in maintaining the status quo, and is abdicating its responsibility to prepare students for the future.

The Necessity of Mess  

This is no surprise. Our cultural quest for increased efficiencies (think Six Sigma), has led to hyper specialization, the mechanization of human beings, and the devaluation of emotional connections. We seek linear explanations and simple dichotomies to explain complex phenomena. Regarding education in economics, the Guardian writes, “In the past, economics was taught as a series of interrelated debates about competing theories and the different policy recommendations of those theories. Imprecise, even messy, but useful.”

In economics, the most popular reform proposal is “The introduction of mathematical models of complex nonlinear systems – the kinds of models which, at least with hindsight, might have predicted the 2008 financial crisis.” This is great but without practical application, this will be — yet another — theoretical model. Lively debate, interactive class assignments, collaborative projects that involve field work, and actively engaging social media to disseminate and test ideas are just some of the ways that will make the experience of learning economics (and all fields) meaningful and practical. Let’s transfer this pedagogical approach beyond the classroom to the workplace and boardroom.

The swing of things

John Coates wrote a really insightful NYT Sunday Review article, “The Biology of Risk.” In a nutshell, he likes the idea of uncertainty in markets because it teaches us — via practical experience — to be agile and creative. If our bodies are physiologically conditioned to respond to stress such as that caused by volatility; then, reducing change leads to a reduction in our ability to respond effectively to stress. The result? More and more devastating bubbles.

Coates explains, “Under conditions of extreme volatility, such as a crisis, traders, investors and indeed whole companies can freeze up in risk aversion, and this helps push a bear market into a crash.” StressCompanies, however, have no coping mechanism. Fortunately, we have the blues and jazz — cultural coping mechanisms with built-in features like call and response, swing, and improvisation that endow practitioners to manage change confidently and even gracefully.

MurrayAccording to Cultural Historian Albert Murray, “what is ultimately at stake” in a moment of crisis “is morale, which is to say the will to persevere, the disposition to persist and perhaps prevail; and what must be avoided by all means is a failure of nerve.” (Stomping, 10) Seizing up is not an option. Coates notes, “risk aversion” [amongst traders and the like] “occurs at just the wrong time, for these crises are precisely when markets offer the most attractive opportunities…” Indeed, we need people who are agile, who can respond reflexively and creatively to changing conditions. Murray’s explanation of a musical break is relevant to, at least, those working in finance. On dealing with uncertainty, he writes: it’s a matter of “grace under pressure, creativity in an emergency, continuity in the face of disjuncture. It is on the break that you are required to improvise, to do your thing, to establish your identity, to write your signature on the epidermis of actuality which is to say entropy.” (Blue Devils, 95) But you can’t just read Murray’s writing, you have to apply his theories practically and develop a trained, reflexive, response to change. If you want your business to swing, develop cultural competence.

The similarity in thinking expressed in Coates’ 2014 NYT article and Murray’s 1974 nonfiction text belies the 40 year time difference. There’s been a gap between theory and practice for decades, at least. What’s more, the notorious racial segregation in the United States is compounded by the segregation of ideas — science and technology are necessarily divorced from music and culture — and this hurts us all. What we need is an integrated approach to educating; the practical application of Murray’s 40 year old ideas in realms beyond the art and humanities and in forums beyond the traditional classroom and stage. We must mind the gap between theory and practice, bridge it and (perchance) close the skills gap. Educate holistically and move from crash to swing.

 

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Cultivating Creativity in Classroom, Jazz & in Business

Creativity is not a skill but cultivating it is. As an educator, I facilitate the student’s learning process; identifying, bringing out, and pairing the student’s creativity with whatever “lesson” needs to be mastered. This journey begins with hearing the student’s voice, forming a rapport and developing trust so that the environment is one in which the student can share information and ideas freely. Master Drummer Michael Carvin shared his approach with me in a discussion on Trading Fours. He noted, “I allow [my students] to be free.”

Freedom don’t come easy.

Freedom to deviate from the rules of play must be earned. How do educators figure out how much “freedom’ to give students? By actively engaging students and conducting real-time assessments that let the educator learn what the student brings to the classroom and then determine what needs to be done to move the student in the direction of mastering a given lesson. The educator’s role is to prepare the student for self-guided learning, for self-sufficiency, self-reliance. The assessment process is ongoing, it’s a continuous feedback loop and requires the educator to guide — not dictate — the process. This also means students cannot be passive receivers of information transmitted by the educator. Instead, students and educators are participants in the process of co-creating the learning environment and so owners of the content discovered. The educator’s role is to keep the process on track.

Carvin at the drum set

Pedagogy

Michael Carvin’s pedagogical practices are instructive. He says, “As a teacher, you have to lead that student. As a bandleader you have to lead the guys in the band. The way I decide whose going to be in my band is to ask them to call and song and play it. That way when you hear my band play, you can hear the urgency” of co-creation. Dictating to the student is a signal of the educator’s inadequacy for the task at hand. Carvin notes, “If I have to show you, then I’m not fit to teach you. Then I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s not about me doing it; it’s about you doing it.” In this way, educators develop self-reliant and self-guided learners and simultaneously refine their own pedagogical skills. Carvin’s humorous take on this drives home this point. “You’d be outta your mind to pay some drum teacher to play an hour in a lesson. You’re paying him to practice. What are you learning? Do you go to a restaurant and order steak and have the chef eat it?” He notes, “Some may argue that some people need to be shown. No they don’t. The only time they have to be shown is when you [the educator] can’t articulate it.”

The assumption here is that students enter the learning process, not as beginners, but at an advanced stage. Michael Carvin does not train beginners. This is important to note because the novice must learn the basics, the rules of play, before s/he can articulate, explore, and develop an individual voice. The novice has limited freedom; rules are for beginners or as Jazz Code Founder Carl Stormer notes, “control is for beginners” — and that applies to both the student and educator.

It also applies to businesses

I could replace the word “educator” above with “business leader.” If we demand creativity of our workers and want them to innovate (because we realize this has a direct impact on revenue); then, we must create environments where creativity can flourish. Business Model innovator Karl Burrow of Tokyo-based Karllestone Capital noticed that when he played jazz in his workshops, the energy in the room changed. He explained, “When we were going through the design session, the [clients] picked up the speed, the speed really increased… it really turned the workshop around.” He noticed, “When I put on the music… it really [got] the creative juices flowing and [clients] could really grasp the content.”

Karllestone_image

No surprises here

People like jazz and like talking about the music. Sharing experiences of concerts attended, music collections, and such helps establish a rapport between colleagues, breeding familiarity, and developing trust (in musical taste and judgment, at least). The velocity of work increases, as Karl notes, because the speed picks up; and the ideas shift direction, becoming a complex amalgamation of project or task-specific “work” and creative interplay with music, associated commentary and perhaps some finger snapping, head bopping and foot patting along the way. Work begins to feel like jazz and if the creativity is really flowing, work — like jazz — will swing.

Communication styles can prohibit creativity. Call-and-response isn’t just a necessary component of the blues and foundational element of jazz; it’s a requirement for creativity. Hierarchy and deference can stifle creativity by keeping workers from voicing their ideas. This means, of course, leaders can’t hear new ideas and that cross-pollination of ideas with coworkers cannot occur. Karl Burrow notes that in emerging market economies there is great enthusiasm for workshops on innovation. This is true even in established companies in emerging market economies where Karl notes, the “audience jumps right in at the start” exuding “eagerness, enthusiasm and drive.”

This means a couple of things, including:

  • Hiring competent people who already know the “rules” of play
  • Actively engaging employees, encouraging them to share ideas, opinions, etc.
  • Guiding, not dictating, project completion
  • Fewer rules

Greg Satell’s recent article, “How Jazz Can Transform Business” is instructive. One of the most important takeaways, often hidden in discussions with musicians and business leaders is the need to “practice, practice, practice” because only through repetition can work look like play. While one workshop may lead to welcome breakthroughs, it won’t substantively change the culture any more than one practice session will create a master musician. When success looks easy, it’s because the hard work has become reflexive, rules are submerged, and the practitioner has learned to “play.”