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Thought Thursdays
Education like Lego

TT49.pngMy son, now 17, stopped playing Lego a couple of years ago. I miss playing Lego with him. I miss having an idea – without a clear plan of achieving that idea – and then starting to build, refine and iterate in order to achieve that goal; or, sometimes, achieving something else that I did not necessarily set out to build. I miss looking for a particular size of building block, only to make a compromise regarding size, by combining smaller blocks, or making a colour substitution by removing and replacing blocks already in place to retain colour symmetry. I miss the completed structure that was merely an idea minutes or hours ago.

In the business world, we accept methods and practices that follow the Lego approach. In software development we have iterative approaches; in establishing new ventures we have Lean Start-up methods. Organisations are striving to become more agile and our modern innovation processes are often iterative in nature. It seems that the business world is slowly but surely embracing agility and being iterative as necessary traits for future success.

In education we have not been very successful with the ‘Lego approach’. We have certainly adopted technology to develop MOOCs, and have hence significantly lowered the opportunity cost to learn from Harvard (see HBX), or even Stellenbosch University’s latest MOOC (see Teaching for Change: an African Philosophical Approach ). One of the local success stories is no doubt Getsmarter that continues to go from strength to strength by adding more courses and partnering with globally reputable universities. However, this does not necessarily solve the two fundamental problems plaguing education, and higher education in particular, namely batch processing and relevance.

Education started with grand masters teaching those sitting at their feet asking very specific questions. In dealing with those questions, new questions were raised, and the answers were in turn reflected upon – in a collaborative and collective search for the truth. There was never a rigid designed ‘learning for the day’, but merely a desire to learn what was relevant in a flexible manner. Over time, this morphed into the formal education system we know today where groups of learners sit in classrooms from Grade 1 to Master’s level at university and are processed as a batch. 

In order to make education affordable, we have to process learners as homogeneous groups that follow the same learning process, and therein lies a fundamental problem – namely treating all learners the same. Although many children may have constructed the same house, boat and plane from Lego, they did not necessarily follow the same path. They figured out, on the basis of past experience, what works and what does not. They learned from practice which were the correct blocks to use in order to assemble the house, boat or helicopter, learning through different experiences to achieve the same end goal. 

If technology is set to transform education, let us think beyond creating bigger batches at lower costs, such as MOOCs intend to do, and truly embrace the ability of technology to break down the batch size into a unit of one. Let us use technology to enable us to be flexible in our learning processes and to acknowledge inherent differences and learning styles. Let us use technology firstly to truly measure, understand and adapt; rather than just to lower the real and opportunity costs for even larger groups.

The second challenge of relevance is particularly noticeable in the formal education systems. Changing the content of an existing degree at university in South Africa is inherently slow and complex. The typical steps of approval at department, faculty, institution and ultimately national level are bureaucratic in the extreme. I appreciate good governance, but the challenge of controls at national level, requiring a lead time of more than two years for new programmes and 18 months for significant programme changes, are killing relevance and innovation in graduate programme design. 

I recently had a look at an undergraduate programme in engineering and found it mind-boggling that one of the most important skillsets required is simply absent from the design. The challenge, according to those in the know, is a clinging to the past by those that did the programme 20 and 30 years ago that believe the current outdated modules should still be taught, and the subsequent lack of space to then incorporate the new. Universities are notorious for adopting the new without letting go of the old.

In Lego, when changing one structure to another, you have to let go of the old – not because the old is bad, but because the old that was appropriate at a particular time is no longer relevant in the current desired future. Relevance leads to engagement in the classroom, and engagement is the cornerstone of learning. Only when the education system, like Lego, is able to remove that which is no longer relevant, and add content that is, will we increase relevance, engagement and learning. 

It is not all doom and gloom, however. There are elements of flexibility moving into classrooms and, no doubt, educators have sufficient space to manoeuvre and differentiate between the different learners in their batch. Good educators supplement the mandatory with elements of recent reality and differentiated learning within fixed module designs. 

What really gave me hope for the future of education was when my first-year engineering student daughter sent me a picture via WhatsApp (a great educational tool) of students playing Lego in the Industrial Engineering classroom. There is hope after all!

Martin Butler is the head of the USB’s MBA programme and is a faculty member at USB-ED, where he lectures in innovation, project management and all things digital. He also lectures in these disciplines at Asian and European business schools and consults extensively to industry. Martin has a well-documented affinity for local innovations, especially Pinotage. He was instrumental in establishing the USB’s glocal classroom to enable online synchronous learning for students beyond the walls of the Bellville Park campus and continues to advocate for innovation in education.

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