Teaching technical and practical disciplines

Educating people for technical disciplines calls for academic rigor, objective grading and precision execution of formulaic procedures. Factory models of production processes can make educational processes within Research Institutes more efficient and effective, as the books Disrupting Class and The Innovator's Prescription have detailed. The current academic institutions with advanced degree programs embodied most of these premises. Yet they have drifted away from scientific precision as their basis for excellence, losing sight of their mission and settling for bureaucratic governance.

Educating people for practical disciplines calls for repeated practice, diverse evaluations including self critiques, and insightful exploration of possible strategies. Artistic models of theatrical productions can make educational processes during Perpetual Pro Practicums more effective as Artful Making proposes. Athletic training models for mastery of physical disciplines can add to the efficiency of those processes as The Art of Learning explores. Yet, institutions of higher education have compromised this approach by the time limits of formal degree programs and the staggering expense of their massive overhead.

These two approaches are based on distinct sets of premises that I've highlighted in the chart on the left. To help you visualize the difference between these two disciplines, here's a few examples:

A physician with a technical bent regards his/her patients as biochemical specimens on a microscope slide to be analyzed dispassionately. A physician with a practical bias exhibits a wonderful "bedside manner" which puts patients' minds at ease, shows them respect and comforts them amidst their crisis. A scientist with a practical urgency will corrupt the data gathering with the need for immediately applicability. A scientist with a technical outlook will produce findings that have been statistically verified and can be trusted with confidence.

An educator with a technical bent will cover the material and test the students for the accuracy of their submittals. An educator with a practical orientation will work with students' confusion to offer other perspectives, analogies and examples that lend to deeper and more varied understandings. An engineer with practical priorities will get mired in political pressures and lower design standards to comply with vested interests. An engineer with a technical focus will deliver specs and designs that will perform as safely and reliably as expected.

The conceptual differences between these approaches are contrasted in each of the four rows that characterize these educational models.
  1. Newtonian science deals with an objective reality that can be observed without influencing it. Double blind experiments filter out the biases that could warp the objective outcomes. Objective reality appears to be causal and consistent which enables us to rely on formulas, procedures and analysis. Technical disciplines embody expertise based on these premises. Quantum physics frames "Newtonian physics" as a "special case" among a universe of phenomena that exhibits recursive patterns. Quantum indeterminacy, action at a distance and observer dependence dismantles causal explanations and presumed objectivity. Yet this opens up a wide range of other possibilities like self fulfilling prophesies, desirable placebo effects, remission without treatment and virtuous cycles of beneficial side effects.
  2. Formulaic precision applies well to mechanistic processes. The same result can be achieved by conforming to procedures. Organic, social and ecological processes frustrate formulaic approaches. The recipe turns out differently each time. The objective fix becomes part of the problem, a provocation of an unexpected backlash or the source of harmful side effects. More effective approaches are designed to fit the unique circumstances of each incident. The larger context and underlying dynamics come into consideration.
  3. Open courseware is a natural outgrowth of technical disciplines. The educational experience is not given away with the content offered for free. The disseminated content offers countless side benefits I explored in Sustaining innovation done right. Practical disciplines are much more dependent on closure and spaciousness. Working directly with people immerses a professional in their stories, narrative structures and growth processes. Their lives have taken on meaning that will change when the intervention proves to be effective. The work at changing lives calls for providing others with space to find alternatives, significance, and even themselves. Their findings bring closure to personal doubts, fears, guilt, indecision, chronic anxieties and hesitations.
  4. Technical disciplines serve specialized interest groups. Their expertise can be applied industry wide and disseminated through conferences of colleagues. They provide value to production processes, technological developments and systemic revisions. Practical disciplines serve individuals with problems. Their expertise gets applied on a case-by-case basis. They provide value to decisions being made, changes being considered and personal issues getting resolved. They work with clients, patients, customers, students, cast members, employees, owners, and the like.
As institutions of higher ed get disrupted into these two different ways to cultivate discipline, each will find their unique market demanding the value being offered. Each market will be better served than the institutional morass can provide by muddling the two approaches into one methodology.

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