Bill Gates initiates the brave new era of “Instructors of Practice”

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  • A game changer for hands-on purposeful education

Advancing Ghana from third world depravity should be in everybody’s interest. Other countries have shown how to avoid poverty, disease and lower life expectancy through the glorious mix of intellectual commitment and actual hands-on work. In the previous column, “Education for the world of work”, I indicated that for a developing nation like Ghana, academic pursuits and the ability to solve practical problems should go hand-in-hand in the traditional universities as well as in the new technical universities evolving out of the nation’s polytechnics.

How to groom the various teachers – from the elementary to university levels – with the appropriate mindset and continuous training to merge academics with applications may be a hard nut to crack: People stuck in the old mode tend to be in a state of denial. The rate at which technology changes these days make continuous learning a lifelong necessity for anybody desirous of meaningful progress.

Bill Gates (Photo: Russel Watkins/DFID

The Harvard Business Review (June 2011), in a report, The Paradox of Excellence, showed how high achievers often undermine their own professional growth by being afraid to show their limitations. The report posed these questions: “Why is it that many smart, ambitious professionals are less productive and satisfied than they should or could be? Why do so many of them find their upward trajectories flattening into a plateau?” In citing a business school professor and a medical doctor (among others included in the study), the report said that such professionals “tend to shy away from assignments that will truly test them and require them to learn new skills [and] would rather do the wrong thing well than do the right thing poorly”.

To know when one needs help is wise; but to be contented – when indications support change – is to be patently passive or reactionary. The flexibility of great institutions and the people who lead them reside in the ability to recognize when and what to change. Unfortunately typical African institutions tend to remain dormant for too long. But just as the status quo and creativity are rightly divorced, so frigidity and innovation don’t mix.

Cambridge University faculty – some years back – was quite proactive in humbly requesting Bill Gates to help them out of their old ways. And to think that institution is one of the best in the world.

The young American’s technological innovations were sought to help the Cambridge professors glean a new horizon; they were sought to create the digital tools that could magnify the unique powers of the human mind through how to think; how to articulate thought; and, lastly, how to act on the thought by working collaboratively and seamlessly with others.

Miracles will never cease: To think that without so much as half an academic degree Bill Gates set the professorial and academic world out for better and greater things. And, that insightful new stance should incite the question: Who should teach the youth? Will it always be just the double breasted masters degrees and doctorate types or “Instructors of Practice” as exemplified by the very hands-on people one finds in every single nation, in the fashion of bold thinkers and doers?

I believe that colleges and universities need both kinds: what the Chinese I Ching may classify as the Ying and the Yang of human thought and progress; that is, the academics on one hand, and the practical hands-on thinker, on the other. And, this is the dicey issue: for a developing nation like Ghana, possibly more of the practical kind will help more sincerely.

Frankly, the youth – both the half educated and the unemployed – are caught between a rock and a hard place. The linear type colonial education is exactly the type that skips what I often call “The Affective Competencies”: curiosity, creativity, perseverance, audacity: the sort of competencies that moulded some of the most powerful game changers in the world: Jay Zee (entrepreneur), Gore Vidal (writer), Mark Zuckerberg (a social media icon), Charles Branson (the Virgin brand), Duke Ellington (jazz composer), the Wright brothers (aviation), and the great icon, Steve Jobs.

It is bad enough to be obsolete and not know it; but it is worse when the youth are persistently afflicted by some dull tutor’s ingrown inhibitions and obsolescence. “The Unknown Gaps” (in the topology of knowledge) may be defined as “Knowledge that you don’t know you don’t have.” Those gaps are serendipitous in their nature; they can only be seen and earned in the process of meaningful engagement, at the intersection where an idea meets action. One would never know what they don’t have till they start something new, something daring, something brazen – where new thoughts or processes begin to unveil themselves like a new bride dripping with spasmic smiles.

It just happens that those who fill “The Unknown Gaps” are instinctively the game changers. They possess the soft skills: They happen to be curious, visionary, authentic, dynamic, unconventional, and uncommon. And, my goodness, aren’t these the very traits we need for this brave new world of technological innovation, potential, and prosperity?

The bigger question persists, though: How can we ever teach the youth to aspire to dream big dreams and be great? Quality education hinges on quality experiences – a void often filled by a breed of “Instructors of Practice”, people who themselves have excelled through powerful hands-on learning experiences. And those are exactly the competencies the youth emulate and take into the real world, to the people they live and work with; that is, the tangible proof that they can launch their own service or product start-ups. Purposeful education has taken such a wide turn; and we need to embrace it.


One comment

  1. Excellent article. But would this be applicable in Ghana. Are we too poor to allow education for the sake of education. Looking back to those who taught me at the primary level, they had a certain breadth of knowledge that was very refreshing that one hoped would be adopted to help grow Ghana – a strong liberal arts tradition. should we not be enforcing that? Of course the institutions of further education should then be allowed to shape people for the job place. Very few of us are involved in what we studied at university and the deficiency for some of us is that we lack the grounding in the liberal arts that makes us more rounded professionals


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