Keep your heart with all vigilance,

for from it flow the springs of life.

Innovation: Diversity & Recombination

Solution Landscape.png

This week's lecture on innovation is of particular interest as I'm a Project Work Tutor. In summary, to solve any problem, the aim is have as few local optima as possible. A metaphorical representation is a landscape where fewer local optima means fewer peaks. The ideal landscape resembles Mount Fuji with a distinct peak - a single local optima.

The difficult part isn't the concept but the how and its application. Before we move on, here are three key terms that serve as a framework for problem solving: 

  • Perpectives: How do you represent/encode the problem?
  • Heuristics: How do you solve?  
  • Recombination: Combining several solutions to get better solutions

In short, innovation is the result of recombining diverse perspectives and diverse heuristics. The reason why groups work better at problem solving is because the local optima for the group is found at the intersection of the local optima of individuals. A simple illustration is to imagine a team of two where both individuals, after much thought and research bring 3 ideal solutions each to the table. The end result isn't 6 ideal solutions. It will become apparent which are better and which can be eliminated. The remaining solutions might be combined into a single, more holistic solution.

Key to the strength of groups is diversity. Typically, after the problem is revealed, students are told to work together in groups right from the start. This is a poor practice that removes the very thing that makes groups powerful. Individual students need the time and space to develop their own unique perspectives and heuristics to the problem. Working together from the start produces group think; perhaps more likely in our Asian context where avoiding conflict and disagreement is part of our cultural DNA. 

To protect diversity, my practice in Project Work is to ban students from discussing with their group mates about the Project Task until the Preliminary Ideas stage has concluded. This simple change has had dramatic results. There is greater variety of ideas and the quality improves as students are no longer copying one another. 

While I'm thankful that this lecture affirms my classroom practice, my thoughts are centred on education. Do we have diverse perspectives and heuristics to improve education? There is some degree of diversity evident in the adoption of practices from business corporations, other ministries and the latest fad, design thinking. However, I think we can afford to be more disruptive and allow for more diversity. For example, here's my dream team for curriculum design: 

  • UX Designer
  • Advertising Consultant 
  • Poet
  • Philosopher
  • Graphic Artist/Illustrator
  • Statistician
  • Game Designer

I'm reminded of a story about Blackett's Circus that I first heard from Russell Ackoff. Back in World War II, Patrick Blackett was commission to improve the air defense against German attacks. His team comprised of Physicists, Physiologists, Mathematicians and a Geographer - none of whom had any experience with air defense. Hence the term, Blackett's Circus. Yet within a few months, this team came up with ideas and solutions that improved British air defense effectiveness by 300%. 

Perhaps we should stop looking at the problems in education as a problem of teaching and learning. The next big idea will probably come from outside the field of education.









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