Educating the deep generalist for tomorrow’s world

In a recent classroom experiment, we wrote the abilities, talents, skills and interests of each student on different sticky notes and ordered these to visualise a future educational path for each of them. The inspiration for the exercise came from the Japanese concept of Ikigai and some psychometric tests. It did not result in any clear educational or career path – just an unchartered road with the need for different skill trees.

It also revealed the need for new specialisations for which courses do not yet exist and highlighted an array of looped domains for which mono-specialisations are insufficient, as well as unexpected disciplinary connections for which our curriculum is unprepared.

This led to a realisation that our education system cannot afford to remain limited to narrow specialisations.

The exercise reminded us of the old debate between specialists who have expertise in a limited area versus generalists who have divergent skills in a variety of areas. Mainstream society generally favours specialists over generalists, partly due to their perceived expertise and educational credentials.

But the real dichotomy is not generalists versus specialists, but whether we have learning choices that enable us to experiment across different domains. This stems from a new debate on what skillset we need to navigate an uncertain future.

Deep generalists

No one specific skill will be enough in the future. Instead, we need a way of thinking that connects multiple fields, says Vikram Mansharamani of Harvard University.

Authors like David Epstein argue for learning by doing a variety of things to develop an intellectual range – something that will create deep generalists. The coining of the term deep generalist is attributed to the leadership scholar Warren Bennis and has been popularised by the corporate leader Aytekin Tank.

Most of the top scientists of the past, from Johannes Kepler through to Isaac Newton, were polymaths. Innovators and artists have always combined knowledge areas – the most significant feature of a deep generalist. Leonardo da Vinci was adept in art and engineering; Richard Feynman, the Nobel laureate in physics, was a polymath who was also inspired by music. Steve Jobs blended design and technology.

Deep generalists are modern-day polymaths, whose knowledge is deeper than that of generalists and broader than that of specialists.

The idea is not to discard specialisation; on the contrary, it is to blend knowledge units from different fields and make each one of us a cross-disciplinary thinker. Most of our educational choices are currently guided by the logic of the past, which favours specialisation. We need to overhaul this and create new tools to address an uncertain future.

Tools for diversified learning

How can we develop expertise in multiple areas within a limited time span? The artist Jake Chapman shows one way of doing this. To create a deep generalist, we need diversified learning. He created a ladder of five levels of expertise: layman, beginner, apprentice, journeyman and master.

By applying the Pareto principle, it is assumed that mastery takes 20 years of practice, but to reach journeyman status will take only 48 months. Journeyman is the stage just below complete mastery but with unique insights into a particular field. It takes only 10 months to attain the level of apprentice.

If we structure our learning around this approach in parallel ladders, learners can move across two or three fields with cross-learning possibilities in a limited period of time.

If we permit youngsters to explore diverse domains, interests and passions, that will open up their choices when it comes to moving across knowledge territories. Liberal arts education has long realised this: physics and philosophy are taught simultaneously in many institutions. From Oxford to Indian Institutes of Management, engaging with the humanities is an important part of the business curriculum.

The secret is in acquiring a learning habit, focused on solution orientation rather than grades. Learning a new language or skill or taking part in a community initiative can ignite the learning gene in novel ways.

Another tool is signal spotting. A signal seeker has an interdisciplinary mind and can link unrelated developments in new discoveries, news items or events and predict their impact in a variety of fields. This makes for theme-based or problem-centred learning and comes in handy for design thinkers.

In an age of open courses, web resources, learning communities and social networks, it is not hard to create deep generalists, even within the constraints of current syllabi. Once a broad foundation has been developed, additional skills can be added by choice. This provides novel forms of skill trees and pathways.

Why now?

Automation continues to wipe out many jobs and algorithms are taking over much of the routine decision-making. That frees humans up to engage more with creative problem solving, innovation, systems thinking and emotional agility – all of which relate to the skills required for deep generalists.

We need deep-thinking humans in addition to deep-learning artificial intellience, observes venture capitalist and author Scott Hartley, whose extensive works show that liberal arts and technical literacy complement each other. And these are the skills needed to solve the problems plaguing the world, from climate change to terrorism and from resource depletion to unemployment.

More varied education and training will better equip people to face unexpected challenges. Businesses value multi-functional experience in their employees and prefer synthesis, not merely analysis, of issues and expect team members to be self-directed learners, all of which call for more than what is currently offered by single-track specialisations.

Skills shortages and unemployment in developing nations need to be addressed more holistically. If we channel students towards specialisation with the sole objective of getting them into the jobs of tomorrow, they will most likely end up unemployed the day after tomorrow. Instead, let’s prepare them for whatever they may face in the future – as deep generalists.

Dr Salil Sahadevan is an education officer with the University Grants Commission in India. The views expressed are personal. An earlier version of this article appeared in The Hindu.