Episode #132 Designing Education fit for the 21st Century with Prof David John Helfand
We live in a world where facts are at our fingertips and yet we increasingly live in conceptual silos where ideas are neither broad nor deep. How can we transform our ways of educating ourselves as we grow to adulthood/elderhood in a world where the ground is shifting under our feet?
Professor David J. Helfand, a faculty member at Columbia University for forty-five years, served nearly half of that time as Chair of the Department of Astronomy. He also recently completed a four-year term as President of the American Astronomical Society, the professional society for astronomers, astrophysicists, planetary scientists and solar physicists in North America. He is the author of nearly 200 scientific publications and has mentored 22 PhD students, but most of his pedagogical efforts have been aimed at teaching science to non-science majors. He instituted the first change in Columbia’s Core Curriculum in 50 years by introducing science to all first-year students.
In 2005, he became involved with an effort to create Canada’s first independent, non-profit, secular university, Quest University Canada. He served as a Visiting Tutor in the University’s inaugural semester in the Fall of 2007 and was appointed President & Vice-Chancellor the following year to lead this innovative experiment in higher education. For six years in a row, Quest has been ranked #1 in North America in the National Survey of Student Engagement.
He completed his term as President of Quest in the fall of 2015 and returned to Columbia to teach. His first book, “A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age” appeared in February 2016 and came out in paperback Aug 10, 2017.
In this episode, we explore the nature of higher education in a changing world and the models that could work as we move into a time when what matters is emotional literacy and resilience and the ability to garner ideas and synthesise them broadly rather than learning ‘more and more about less and less until we know everything about nothing.’
Manda: Part of the generative future has to come from how we educate ourselves, whatever age we are, in ways that will maximise our creativity and our capacity to explore alternative ways of doing things. So for a long time I have been wanting to talk to educators on the podcast. And quite by chance. I came across Professor David Helfand, whose TEDTalk, describing the creation of Quest University in Canada, was really very inspiring. So I wrote an email and he agreed to come on. So I need to tell you a little bit more about Professor Helfand. He was a faculty member at Columbia University in the U.S. for 45 years, serving nearly half of that time as chair of the Department of Astronomy.
He also recently completed a four year term as president of the American Astronomical Society. In 2005, though, he became involved with an effort to create Canada’s first independent, non-profit, secular university, the Quest University of the TED talk. He served as a visiting teacher in the university’s inaugural semester in the autumn of 2007 and was appointed president and vice chancellor the following year to lead this experiment in higher education. He completed his term in the autumn of 2015 and returned to Columbia, where he now heads the Committee on Innovative Teaching and Learning. He’s also an author. And his first book, A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age, came out in February 2016. And with all of that under his belt, on his desk, on his plate, he found time to come and talk to us. So people of the podcast. Please welcome Professor David Helfand. So, Professor David Helfand, welcome to the Accidental Gods Podcast. It’s a great pleasure to have you on board. How is life in your part of the world? You’re in New York at the moment, am I right?
David: I’m in New York City and the weather has been delightful for the last week, which is not always the case in the summer in New York.
Manda: Yeah, but you’re not having a drought, are you?
David: No, no. The western part of the country is very, very dry.
Manda: That’s the drought bit. But yeah, never mind. We’re going to fix the world, so then we’ll bring the rain back. So. I got to know of you because I listened randomly…this is one of the few occasions when Google’s done something useful, as they threw your TEDTalk at me, shortly after I’d expunged everything Google from my hard drive. So I’m very grateful to them having left them behind. And I listened with awe, partly to the fluidity of your delivery, and its really quite sharp intelligence. I was delighted. But also listening to someone who was talking about a way of creating higher education that sounded obvious, once you’d said it, and as if it actually worked in ways that my experience of higher education….weren’t like that at all. And I went through a veterinary degree, which was probably more effective than quite a lot of others. But even so, if we’d been taught the way you were teaching medicine in this country would be a different thing. So I’m wondering in the beginning if you can describe a little bit of the university that you were part of setting up and the principles behind it, and what led you to being part of it?
David: Well, my becoming part of it was largely accidental. It was certainly not something in my life plan that I was going to set up a new university from scratch. I had been at Columbia at that point for 25 years or so. And when I arrived at Columbia, I was delighted to see that it was the only major university in the US that had a true core curriculum. That is it had a curriculum in which every incoming student was reading the same book the same night of the week and was discussing it the next day in a 20 student seminar. So I thought this was marvellous, as a common intellectual experience and a wonderful way to impart some skills like rhetoric and writing and reading deeply and things like that. But I was simultaneously appalled that this core curriculum, which was called the Intellectual Code of Arms of the Institution, consisted of seven humanities courses, zero maths courses and zero science courses. And as a scientist, that didn’t seem to me like a complete coat of arms. And so being young and naive, I thought, Well, we have this system of required courses. I’ll just make up some science courses and then we can add that to the core curriculum. So 27 years later, I succeeded in that quest. They move at a glacial time scale in university administration. And the summer that we had affected this, I got a call from David Strangway, who had been president of the University of Toronto and president of the University of British Columbia, who on his retirement decided to set up in Canada the country’s first independent non-profit non-governmental university, on the American liberal arts model.
That is, you wouldn’t go to study history or just study physics. You would go to educate yourself over the first four years. And he said, David, I’d heard (I’d never heard of this person, of course) and he said, I’ve heard what you’ve done by integrating science into this liberal arts curriculum at Columbia. We’re starting a brand new university from scratch. So we want you to come out to British Columbia to tell us all about it. So I said, you know, I’d devote one day to this. I thought that was interesting. The idea of starting a university from scratch was very interesting to me, being in a 260 year old one, which, as I say, moves on geological time scales. And so I went out for a day and effectively I came back about ten years later, because it was such a riveting possibility to start literally with a blank sheet of paper and think how one would design a university for the 21st century, for today’s students not miniature versions of ourselves 50 years ago. And to have freedom to set up a curriculum and a culture, as important as the curriculum, to attempt to educate students who could address some of the rather serious and certainly global problems that we face today.
Manda: It sounds wonderful. I’m curious to know what happened to the rest of your life when you spent ten years in Canada having been in New York. But let’s leave that for the moment and come back to it. So you’re establishing a curriculum and a culture. What were the core principles or values underlying both that you all agreed on? I’m guessing you did all agree, however many of you there were. And I’m also guessing there were more than two of you doing this. It wasn’t just you and David Strangway. How did you decide on what the core principles were and what were they?
David: Let’s start with the culture, because that’s so important. The first thing we were determined to do was to not repeat the error that I think many universities are structured around, which is the 19th century model of subjects and therefore departments. The idea of getting a PhD has been characterised as learning more and more about less and less until you know absolutely everything about nothing. And the problem, what we do in universities, is put everybody who knows the same everything about the same nothing in a building. And that’s the economics department or that’s the physics department or that’s the English department. And they rarely talk to each other. Whereas the problems that we face clearly cross these 19th century disciplines in a variety of ways. And therefore we didn’t want to reify this kind of structure that isolates people, but rather one that brings people together. And so this was built into the concrete, and we had a circular academic building where the offices were assigned to faculty by lottery. And so music professor would sit next to a maths professor who’d sit next to a poet who’d sit next to a physicist, and they’d actually talk to each other. Academics like to learn new things, usually, that’s why they became academics. But here they were learning things from other people. And so we ended up with our largely innumerate music professor and our largely tone deaf maths professor, teaching a course together on the mathematics of music, where they could model learning in the classroom because they were actually learning for themselves. So no departments, that was number one.
Number two, another I think terrible mistake we make in universities is to set it up as a competitive process. When I went around Canada in the US talking to people in the private sector, in the public sector and NGOs, about what they were lacking in the university graduates that they were hiring; number one was always their inability to collaborate with people from different backgrounds and different experiences to solve problems for my organisation. And so we determined to set this up from the beginning as a collaborative environment, not as a competitive environment. And so most assignments, not all, people wrote their own essays and things, but most assignments, most activities in class, most activities outside of class, of which there were many, were done in groups of three or four or five people working together in the same class. So that was also very important.
Thirdly, close contact between faculty and students is essential for effective learning. And so we built classrooms that only held 21 chairs, 20 students and one faculty member, or in some cases, 19 students and two faculty members. And we had oval tables. We spent a week arguing about the tables we were going to put in these classes, and it was a week extremely well spent. Because we got these oval tables that divide it into either six or eight sections on wheels, and the chairs were all on wheels. So you could easily reconfigure a classroom in 30 seconds to be groups of three people working together, or everybody sitting around discussing something. And across the hall from each of these 20 student classrooms, were little breakout rooms with a white board and three chairs and a table. And so if you were dissecting some essay or something, you could assign various pieces of it to groups of three. They’d send them off for 40 minutes to come back and report to the class or develop a debate position or whatever. So that kind of physical structure really makes a difference in the culture.
Manda: Is this physical structure that you derived new? Or is this based on something that already existed that you kind of crowdsourced it?
David: Well, there’s been a lot of evidence on the maximal class size, and that’s where 20 came from. That anything bigger than 20, it’s too easy to become anonymous and sit in the back. But. Yeah. The building was actually underway when I got involved with this, so the architects had already designed the system and we did spend a lot of time arguing about the tables. But the concrete was mostly in place at this time.
Manda: And did it work? Did you find that in the 20 people, nobody became anonymous, that it was possible to really get input in the length of time that you had from each person? And then the question following that is, so you got your 20 people and one member of staff were 19 and two. How long in a day are they spending in each other’s company?
David: So that was another critical point, which was also decided just as I was arriving. And that is that we would adopt a system that was adopted 50 years ago at one college in the US; Colorado College; Which is called the BLOCK. And so this is a system that is designed to abolish the fanciful notion that we multitask really well. We don’t multitask well. We have one processor, my laptop has four processors, but my brain only has one processor. And multitasking really means switching quickly from one thing to another and back again, which is demonstrably highly inefficient and ineffective. And so the Colorado College BLOCK System, which we adopted wholesale, is that one takes four courses in a term, but one takes them in series rather than in parallel. That is, one takes one course at a time. So for an entire month one is focussed on one class. The schedule is such that we have 3 hours minimum in class a day, so three hour blocks, 9 to 12 or 1 to 4. And assign approximately 5 hours of work outside of class per day. So 8 hours a day, five days a week, it’s 40 hour week, right? It’s a full time job this class. And the class runs Monday to Friday, Monday to Friday, Monday to Friday, Monday to Wednesday. So three and one half weeks and then nothing can be due after 5:00 Wednesday and nothing can be assigned for the next block before 5:00 Sunday evening. And that gives a real four day break, which is very intensive and it becomes a very intensive system. Is really necessary to intellectual renewal, that period of time.
Manda: And did the students just go and hang out in a beach somewhere for those four days, or did they find that they were engaged in other stuff?
David: Some of them sleep for four days. Some of them go hang out on the beach. Specifically, we had a beach that they went and hung out surfing usually or skiing in the wintertime. So, yes, they they took full advantage of it.
Manda: Beautiful. So I have at the top of my pad, who paid for this? Because it sounds like this building in itself is is not cheap. And I’m wondering, this is a non-government, secular, not for profit. You must have had one or more really interesting philanthropists who thought it was a really good idea to educate people. Is that an avenue we can go down?
David: We had one donor who gave a gift that funded most of the campus construction and the initial Start-Up costs.
Manda: Yes. Goodness. Wow. And it sounds like the kind of thing that if Elon Musk wasn’t trying to send rockets into space, that would be a really good thing to do.
David: Oh, we only need a tiny fraction of Elon Musk’s net worth.
Manda: Well, quite. Yes, a small corner of Twitter would do fine, although I did read today that he’s threatening to back out of that, so maybe he’ll have some spare money. So how did you choose the staff and the students for this? Because it strikes me, having worked a little bit in academia, that there are some people who are very safe there. I remember there’s some kind of sea cucumber that is quite mobile and has a brain when it’s in its larval form. And then it buries itself on the sea floor and loses all its cerebral cortex because it doesn’t need it anymore because it’s inanimate. And that this was a perfect analogy of getting tenure. That people would think a little bit, learn more and more about less and less until they knew everything about nothing, get tenure, and then they would just erode their brain because they didn’t need it and they were really comfortable like that. And I’m imagining some of the people I know, who if we threw them into what you’re describing, they would have had an emotional meltdown. But presumably you were able to pick the people for whom this level of interactivity and excitement and continuous new input was what they genuinely wanted out of academia? How did you find them?
David: Yes, I love that analogy. I’m going to use it frequently in the future.
Manda: I’ll find out exactly what it is that loses its brain.
David: So I was working with Strangway and he had a few other people, none of whom had been in the classroom for quite a while. They were all retired university administrators and they were laying out this curriculum, which we haven’t discussed, that we should. And then they started saying what was going to be in each of the courses they were laying out. And I said, Wait, wait, wait, guys, you don’t give lesson plans to university faculty! That’s what you do with second grade teachers. You know, you have to let the faculty develop this curriculum. And they said, Oh, well, we advertised for faculty. And I said, Oh, good, you know, what happened? They said, We got 700 applications. I said, That’s fabulous, where are they? They said, Oh, they’re in the boxes over there. See those boxes? So I said, Let’s open the boxes! So we opened the boxes and we identified a three midcareer faculty who had been teaching at liberal arts colleges in the US and two young science faculty who were just out of postdocs. And we thought maybe two of them would be crazy enough to come to a university that didn’t yet exist and had never offered a degree, etc., etc. But all five of them instantly said Yes.
David: So there are people out there who are frustrated and trying to avoid the sea cucumber state, I guess. So we spent about 15, 17 months, something like that, working together to design the curriculum. Now, the curriculum had two major portions. The first was a general education curriculum, which was based partly on my experience, equally balanced amongst science, social science, mathematics, humanities, arts and language. And so this consisted of the first two years, the entire first two years or 16 courses in the students curriculum. Then rather, since we didn’t have departments, we couldn’t have majors per se, because there was no set of majors because there were no departments. Each student at the end of the second year, in April of the second year had to come up with a question about which they were curious. Not a question that could necessarily easily be answered, but a question that could lead them on an exploration of a topic. And they would have to design which advanced courses they’d need for this. They had to have an experiential learning block or two, out in the real world, an NGO in a government office, in a law firm, in a business, in a lab or whatever.
David: And in the final year, they had to present this major piece of work, usually writing, but in the case of the arts, sometimes something else. And then on the last week they were in university, deliver their project to the entire university. So this it made central another key point of our philosophy. And that is what education should do is to teach you to ask good questions, not to just provide answers. And so that’s why we called it The Question. And the donor, this is a funny story. The donor who gave most of the money for the institution came to the first graduation. And he was very impressed with these these presentations. But we called them The Capstone Presentations and he said, I don’t like these capstone presentations. And I said, Oh, but Stuart, I mean, they’re central to what we’re doing! Oh, I like the process, he said, I just don’t like the name. And so thinking quickly, David said, How about Keystone? You know, it’s under the arch and you walk out into the world. He said, Yes, I like that better. So now they’re called Keystones instead of Capstones.
Manda: Okay, that’s very cool. And what kinds of questions did people have in that first one? Do you remember any of them?
David: Yeah. So there was an enormous range. There were people who had a question ‘what is need?’ And then means exploring what is need to someone who lives in British Columbia as opposed to someone who lives in Uganda as opposed to someone who lives in…. Another one was ‘what is happiness?’, deep exploration of the Bhutanese Gross National Happiness index. But then there were some very specific ones. So one of the strikingly good graduates of the school, her question was ‘How do local cultural norms affect the delivery of public health services in developing countries?’ So she went to a Spanish language immersion programme in Buenos Aires and then came back in the summer and worked in health clinics in Costa Rica, both in a rural and urban setting, and then and took courses in epidemiology but took courses in anthropology and sociology, etc., and then stumbled onto this brilliant topic for her final paper. There was an outbreak in the Bolivian Amazon of haemorrhagic fever, not Ebola, but a similar haemorrhagic fever, which was devastating. So the World Health Organisation helicopters in the doctors to figure out what’s going on and they quickly did and that is the local shaman for thousands of years, had these big white rats that they would rub on your naked skin to cure you a fever. Except the rats contained…
Manda: Carried the fever.
David: And so what she documented was the negotiation between the World Health Organisation doctors and the shaman, to stop this practise and stop the spread of this disease. So that was a direct. She went on to graduate school in epidemiology and is now doing several things working for the Gates Foundation, working for the CDC in epidemiology.
Manda: I’m thinking also listening to that and remembering your TED Talk. Very briefly, I’d like you to reprise the bit of the TEDTalk of your experience of, outside of Quest, going to the fourth grade. I don’t even know what age fourth grade is. But school, where everyone sticks their hand up; and then coming back to a standard university. Because I’d like to leap off from that into more about your students.
David: Yeah. So that was while I was at Columbia in New York City, and I was invited to speak to a bunch of fourth graders, which are ten year olds. And I talked about the universe, as I am wont to do, since that’s what I study. And at the end of this talk, you know, everybody had two hands up in the air. They didn’t have one question, they had two questions each, and they went on for at least half an hour. And by the time it was lunch time and they were getting dragged away by their shirt collars by the teachers and they were still asking questions about black holes and quasars and pulsars. So that was, it’s a very inspiring experience. The curiosity is still there in fourth graders. And I came back to teach my afternoon seminar at Columbia, which is in this science course that’s required of all first year students. And so I had my 20 students sitting around the classroom and I was about to talk about an extremely, to me at least, exciting article. Where scientists had spliced green fluorescent protein and red fluorescent protein genes into this rabbit embryo, and then magically a third splice that randomised the expression of the other two. So instead of getting two colours, you’ve got what’s called the technicolour brain, you’ve got dozens and dozens of colours. And when the rabbit grew up, the rabbit was perfectly fine, you can trace like from the visual cortex, from the eye back to the visual cortex, how the electrical signals move is these neurones light up sequentially and all these different colours. So I thought this was so amazing and I was really excited to talk about this. And I come into class and you know, four of them are on their phone texting with their thumbs and two of them are asleep and the other ones are sitting in the front.
David: They’ve got their paper at the right angle and they’re pen ready to take notes, even though it’s a seminar. So we don’t actually lecture. And I looked at them and I said, Why aren’t you more like fourth graders? So not recognising a rhetorical question, five of them raised their hands, like fourth year students. So the first one says, Well, Professor Helfand, you have to understand that when you’re in fourth grade, you don’t know how much there is to know. And so if you’re curious about something, you ask a question. But by the time you get to our age, this is 17, then you know there’s sort of an infinite amount of stuff to know and it’s all on Google anyway. So why would you ask a question? So that was pretty painful. But I nodded and I said okay and went to the next person who said, Well, Professor Helfland, you have to understand this is a seminar. And I said, Yes. I said, We spend a lot of money to provide these small classes for your first year students. And he said, Oh, but the point about being at Columbia is to beat everybody else and come out on top. And asking a question is a sign of weakness. So in a seminar you never ask a question, you only make statements. In a lecture where you’re anonymous you can ask a question, but in a seminar you only make statements. Anyway, it went on. It got worse until the fifth person: Professor Helfand, what you don’t understand is I’m paying for a degree, not for an education. And that was a light bulb. I was like, Ah, now I get it! They’re paying for a degree. Not for an education.
Manda: Yes. And that was the bit, of the many bits that stood out. And I wondered, partly I wondered, whether it’s different… I went through a system where I was towards the end of the age where the government paid for everything, but I didn’t pay for anything. And I really wanted to be educated. Do you think that that experience, staying at Columbia, was that a universal concept, first of all, that you don’t ask questions in seminars, you just make statements? Was that your experience, that that’s what the students did? And do you think it was universal, this idea that they just want the degree? Because it’s another tick in the box to earning huge amounts of money? Or did you, even at Columbia, noticed the ones who were just interested in learning stuff?
David: Yes, there’s certainly both kinds at Columbia. Unfortunately, the way the system works in the US, I mean, we have 61,000 applications for 1100 positions. And so if you don’t start when you’re in fourth grade with the extracurricular activities and the violin practise and the sports teams; the odds of your… Or if you’re in science, you know, getting your parents to hook you up with someone at the age of 15 for some research lab where you’re going to get a paper out before you get to college.
Manda: Oh, God.
David: You have very little chance of getting in. And so, unfortunately, they’re socialised into this resume building mode and then they get here and it’s certainly not all of them, of course, many of them are desperate for an education here, but a non-trivial fraction of them, this is just a box. And even if they’re sort of interested in what they’re doing, the point is to get to the fourth year and get that box, that new line on your resume that says you have a Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia University.
Manda: Which is, given the way the world is going, kind of sad. But is it different at Quest? You have a very different kind of university which advertises itself very differently. I will put a link in the show notes for anyone who’s interested. Are the students that you get at Quest much more interested in having an education and sparking their minds in ways that they haven’t been sparked before?
David: Yes. So obviously, we don’t have 61,000 applications for Quest. The first year, I think we had 80 applications and accepted 70 of them. It got a little more competitive after that. But yes, I mean, these are students who are clearly not buying the prestige name of a 250 year old university, because the university for the first four classes had never offered a degree. At graduation, there were many graduations in which it was noted that more people had flown in space than have graduated from Quest University.
David: And they ranged from people who were truly lost. I mean, fell out of the K through 12 system. We had people who didn’t graduate from high school and we had people, quite a few people who were not coming directly from high school. That is, they taken one or two or three or four or even five years off to do something else, to work, to travel, to do something else. And that also raises the maturity of the discussion in the classroom, by having people that have done something other than be in school for their whole life.
Manda: I was thinking that. That’s going to make a real difference to the quality of the conversations. And I’m hoping and guessing that some of these people from either end, the ones who didn’t even come from high school or came without having qualified, to the ones who’d been out for quite a while; that both sets would end up with really interesting questions that are not standard academic questions. I mean, already you had what is need? It sounded like a Schumacher question. I did a master’s at Schumacher College, and that’s exactly the kind of question we were asking there. But that was a college where we did yoga every morning. And I’m guessing Quest is probably not a college where you do yoga every morning?
David: Oh, our dean of students is a yoga master.
Manda: There we go. Right. Well, that makes a lot of a lot of sense.
David: But again, not everyone at Quest at all does yoga. We had soccer players and we had artists and we had a wide variety of people. Very, very few people who had followed a very traditional path to university.
Manda: Right. And do they then go on… You mentioned the lass who asked the really interesting questions and ended up with the shaman and the rats and is now working in the Gates Foundation. Are they tending to go off and do the really exciting leading edge stuff, do you think?
David: Well, there’s a very wide variety of paths into Quest and a very wide variety of paths out of Quest. There are people that go to graduate school, to medical school in a more or less standard way, although they often take a year or two off before they do that, because that’s what they’re used to and they have other things to explore. There are people that work for the National Park Service of Canada. There are people who run restaurants. There are people who do very high level cybersecurity stuff in the States. So it’s a very, very broad range of potential outcomes. People who teach high school.
Manda: Okay. And so one of the aims that you had, was to create students fit for the 21st century. And last week, I was talking to a lovely man who’s a child psychiatrist – psychotherapist. And a lot of what he’s getting now, is children of school age (So your 10th grade and up to 18) who are basically not interested in education anymore because they think they’re being gaslit by the education system which is telling them that they’re going to go out and get a mortgage and a house and a steady job in a world that they can see is on the verge of a lot of tipping points. And he’s finding himself being confronted by super bright kids who are going, I read the science, there’s no point. And I go into class and my teachers just smile at me and give me more calculus homework and and why am I doing this? And I’m wondering at the undergraduate level that you’re teaching at Quest, how you and the students are perceiving the world that they are stepping into and whether that has changed in the ten years since your TED Talk back in 2013?
David: Yes, I would say the change is quantitative, not qualitative. The urgency of the situation and the severity of the situation has become more apparent to students today than ten years ago. But of course, the students we have at Columbia, you know, they’re there on that resume building path and so to the extent that they do, and many of them do feel a real obligation to address issues of social inequality, climate change, etc., etc., etc.. They want to do that by getting to the top of some pyramid, you know, politically, medically, whatever, so they can have an influence. Whereas the quest students are a little more, for the most part, a little more bottom up. You know, they wanted to start local community organisations or something like that. Or work for start up companies that are engaged in environmental issues or something like that, rather than thinking they’re going to become the governor or the senator or the head of the hospital system or something like that.
Manda: Okay. Yes. So from the sound of things, with my particular perspective, which is not necessarily mainstream, it sounds as if Quest is creating people who feel to me as if they’re more likely to be at the edge of solutions than the standard education system is. We end up with two similar but distinct models of teaching young minds how to think, how to engage with the world, how to be in the world. The Quest model, which is block based and feels to me as if it’s really engaging people at the level of edges. That edges are where unique things happen and that you’re creating edge people. That probably could do with a bit of unpicking, but let’s leave that at that. And that the standard education model is much more creating people who are, as you said, aiming for the top of the pyramid. And they’re probably aiming by whatever is the most direct route and they’re not exploring the edges. And I live in a belief system where edge people are likely to lead all of us to the edges where emergence into a new system might happen. Because the current system is crumbling and is not sustainable in its current form. I think, we need total systemic change and that just evolving the system a little bit is probably not going to work. Given that premise, and you don’t have to necessarily accept the full premise, I’m wondering how we go about creating systems of education across the world, but definitely in the dominant culture of the global north, that will create the kinds of people that we need. To help us evolve into a new system.
David: Yes. Well, I think the first thing I’d say is there may be a difference between edges and boundaries. So I would I would use the phrase boundaries now. Within the academic system, there are boundaries that are inimical to solving the problems that we need to solve. And dissolving those boundaries or smashing them down, preferably, is an important way to go. So, for example, I have developed a model which I doubt will ever be implemented because I’ve done my one thing here in 45 years, right. And the glacial pace of things such as it is, suggests it won’t. But we bring in students who might have some interest in science. And what do we do? We put them in a class that teaches 19th century chemistry and another class that teaches 17th century physics and another class that teaches 17th century mathematics. That is the calculus, right? Those are the three courses they have to take if they’re going to go on a science trajectory. This is not something likely to either excite students who have other options. They’re very bright students. They could do lots of different things. It’s not likely to engage students who feel they come from, say, a disadvantaged community and want to give back to that community in some way. And it doesn’t foster anything other than competition because these are huge lecture classes graded on a curve. So the model I developed is partially based on the Quest idea, but working within the system that we have, where we have departments and people have to learn things; that students come in and they’re given a problem in the first eight or ten weeks that they’re here; let’s say the problem is climate change.
David: Well, you have to learn a lot of chemistry. You have to learn a lot of physics. You have to learn some oceanography. You have to learn what an algorithm is and to build a little computer model so you can see how climate interacts in various ways. And so you have a team of faculty who include a chemist and a biologist and a physicist and a mathematician and a computer scientist. And they work collaboratively to address some small aspect of this. And then you switch. Then maybe it’s interest in messenger RNA vaccines, right? If that’s a relevant topic. So the next ten weeks you spend exploring that. So you have to understand the biochemistry, the chemistry of biological molecules, and you have to understand maybe even a little sociology as to why vaccine resistance is so great in the current culture, etc., etc.. And so you build a cohort of people who are used to working together on disparate problems that are relevant to themselves and to their community and to the future of the planet. And in the process you teach them all the same material you would teach them in calculus one physics one and chemistry one. It’s just done in a more engaging way. I asked the person who teaches the big introductory chemistry class How much does a student in the first semester of general chemistry, how much of that semester do they need to succeed in subsequent chemistry courses? And she thought for a minute and she said, Two weeks.
Manda: Yes. And you think, well, why has nobody redesigned it? Because really, do we need to know 18th century chemistry? This is ringing quite a lot of bells. When I was involved in teaching anaesthesia at Cambridge, we were looking a lot at the Harvard Medical School, I think, where the students would come in the first year and instead of having anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, they’d be given diabetes. We’re going to study diabetes. And you have to get to know all of these things. So it feels…
David: Yeah, it’s called project based.
Manda: Yeah. And you can do it in teams. And I’m also remembering a book I read probably about ten years ago called Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal. Is that are you familiar with that?
David: I think I’ve heard of it.
Manda: It’s about gamification. Where her stats were that the average child would spend something like 10000 hours in school in their kind of school life, but they would spend 200000 hours on their playing games. Something, that it wasn’t quite like that, but it was a phenomenal amount, so, therefore we have to turn school into a game. And instead of coming in and having your maths class or whatever, you come into school and you go into the library and there’d be a magic spell hidden in a book and you’d have to sort the spell, solve the spell, and in order to solve the spell, you’d have to go to someone in a class above you to get them to explain a bit of maths to you. And you’d have to go and get chemistry and make all the ingredients and learn ratios and all of that stuff. And you would come out knowing all the stuff about chemistry and maths and physics, but you’d have done it as part of a game. And you’d go home and play school instead of going home and playing World of Warcraft, which struck me as an incredibly bright idea, and I can’t figure out why we’re not all doing it! Except that politicians would probably get terribly upset with the idea that children were actually having fun at school, because they seem to think school should be horrible. And I’m also thinking, is it possible to gamify what you’re doing and that that might be quite an exciting thing to do.
David: Well, so just for the political reason you suggest we don’t call it gamification, we call it Simulations. So we do simulations. So here’s an example from Quest. One of my most favourite moments at quest. So we were talking about planets, finding planets around other stars. This is a major new development. 25 years ago, we didn’t know there were any planets outside of our solar system. Now we know there’s hundreds of billions of planets in the galaxy. They’re everywhere. And so how do we do that? It’s really hard because stars are really bright and planets are really faint and they’re right next to each other. That’s why they go round, right? So it’s really, really hard. So I said, What do we need to know? Well we need to know how planets move. And I said, So you have to figure out how planets move. I didn’t tell them that Kepler existed. I didn’t tell them there were three Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. I just gave them the simulation, which was fairly elaborate, in that it allowed two orbiting things and you could change 10, 12 different parameters. So the issue is determining how planets move, and there are ten or 12 different parameters you can vary in this simulation. One of which is what’s called the inclination of the orbit, where the planet is coming towards you and away from you as it orbits the star, or whether it’s going around in a circle perpendicular to that, as it orbits its star. And this one student didn’t get it, but her other three compatriots did. And so one of them was the sun and the other one ran around like a planet and the third one put her on the floor, and then gradually raised her up. So she saw her perspective change and see how it would make a difference to the orbit. Anyway, they went on like this. And I gave them a series of questions of try this, try this, try this. But I didn’t tell them anything else. They went on for 3 hours, for the entire three hour class, and then it was time for lunch. And I said, Well, you know, it’s 12:00. And they said, No, that’s all right. We’re almost done. We’re almost done. And at 3 hours and 40 minutes, one of the groups got up and they wrote Kepler’s three laws on the board, not knowing that they were three laws, not knowing they were Kepler’s laws. But they figured it out the way Kepler did, by looking at data and had advantage of a computer simulator, which Kepler didn’t have. But nonetheless. And the point is that they won’t remember, a year from now or 20 years from now, where the big G and the four pi squared goes in Kepler’s third law. And who cares? Because you can look that up pretty easily. What they will remember is that you can take observations, cast them in a mathematical form, and then use that mathematics to predict other behaviour, to see if it works, and to see if your model is correct. And that’s the essence of what you need to do to solve problems. Again, you need to learn to ask the right kinds of questions.
Manda: Yes. And they will remember forever that they were able to workthat out. That must be… That’s the huge dopamine serotonin hit thatwe all get when we’ve solved a problem, that felt intractable. And then you can come back and go, hey, look, this! Some guy centuries ago did the same, but he probably took 20 years and only had a slide rule.
David: Didn’t even have a slide rule.
Manda: Yeah, possibly. That’s true. Not even that. So you said about dissolving boundaries though, which struck me as really interesting. And leaving aside that there’s an obvious boundary of someone as bright as you gets their one big idea in 45 years and they’re not allowed to have anymore. That’s a big boundary. Seriously, David, how do we dissolve the boundaries that seem to be quite locked in our limbic systems, their boundaries that keep people sheltered and safe within known parameters? And they need to go if we’re going to get the creative flow that we need, to imagine our way and then walk our way forward. You seem to me to be a person who’s thought quite a lot about dissolving boundaries.
David: Yes. Well, my standard critique of university faculty is that they think the system must be perfect because it produced them. And that’s why nothing changes in academia. And the reason that that’s a disaster, is because 98% or so of their students don’t want to be like them, aren’t ever going to be like them. They’re going to be out in a different world where they have to solve actual problems by collaborating with people from different backgrounds and disciplines. And so that to me is the central problem of universities. Now, there are other kinds of boundaries in society that are equally pernicious, but my expertise is within universities.
Manda: So yeah, yeah, let’s deal with with where you’re at. So yes, so how would we create exactly? You said, I think quite near the beginning that one of the problems was that universities kicked out people who didn’t know how to collaborate and we need to create people who absolutely want to collaborate and know how to do it. And I’ve just a while ago finished reading David’s Graeber and Wengrow The Dawn of Everything. One was a social anthropologist, one was an archaeologist. And pretty much in the first dozen pages, they’re saying, you know, we both had to keep very, very quiet about the fact that we were collaborating outside our fields because it would have been catastrophic for our academic careers. And that’s just insane. So have you thought of ways that we can shift this quickly enough to make enough of a difference? That perhaps this system survives, or we can evolve into a new system before we all drop off the edge of the cliff.
David: Quickly enough, that’s a big challenge, I’m afraid. Well, as you know, I’m an anti tenure advocate. I don’t believe that universities should have tenure. But more importantly, I think, is the reward system in universities. And it’s embedded in the language. We talk about teaching loads and research opportunities. We never talk about teaching opportunities and research loads. And so the reward system is so skewed in the major research universities, not everywhere of course, that one actually is punished for investing energy in teaching and rewarded for investing energy in research, which has nothing to do with undergraduate students. Or sometimes does, but peripherally has to do with undergraduate students. So the reward system is a major problem. Now, I must say, I don’t know if you know this, but in the last three years, since the beginning of the pandemic, two and a half years, the number of college students in the United States has fallen by 1 million. There were 1 million fewer college students in university today than there were two and a half years ago. As a result, a lot of (we have many colleges in this country, as you probably know, many of our universities, too) and they are closing at the rate of two a month.
David: And you might say, well, those are the weak ones, so not a great loss to the system. But those are the ones that gave people opportunities from communities that are not like Manhattan or Los Angeles and had an opportunity to open their horizons a little bit and learn something else. And the biggest fall is in community colleges, which is our two year institutions, from which one can then either go on to a career or go on to a four year institution and make up the last two years. Something like 50% of that million people has fallen off from those colleges there. And so at some level, if we believe in a market economy, you don’t have to, but the market will tell you it’s not going to work. And while we elite research institutions which have multibillion dollar endowments are not going to go anywhere soon, the vast majority of people going to universities will demand something different or they just won’t go. And so that, one could argue, is an encouraging sign. But I think it’s incumbent on the well endowed large research universities to lead rather than follow in this, and that is not to preserve the 19th century model tha we’re so comfortable with, but to innovate in ways that they have the resources to do. If we could just nudge the culture and dissolve some of the boundaries within them.
Manda: Yes. So if Elon Musk were to decide not to buy Twitter and instead to fund a new university, could be on the Internet, it could be in person, or it could be both. And he said, Professor Helfland, I would like you to come and help me design it. In a relatively brief container. What would it look like now? Would it look like QUEST exactly? Or would it look slightly different? And if so, how different?
David: Well, the good thing about Quest is we did some experiments. And I think experimenting, as a scientist I think experimenting is crucial. And so the first thing I would say is we’re not going to define this like an engineer from top to bottom, in the beginning, before we open. We’re going to take some principles like collaborative learning, like boundary free learning. No departments. Like faculty who don’t necessarily have exactly the credentials a standard university would require but can contribute to the education of our students. We’re going to start with some principles like that, but we’re going to set up structures. And maybe if we’re dealing with Elon Musk’s money here, we could set up several experiments simultaneously and see which one worked best.
Manda: Yes. And I have to say, I would crawl over broken glass for a job at a place like that and I would, you know, tweak my CV so it sounded really, really useful and that you definitely needed me because it sounds so much fun. Okay. I think that’s probably a really good place to end. Unless you had any particular final word for people listening, that’s going to encourage them to believe that education has the solution to the crisis of the moment.
David: Well, I think education has a contribution to make to the solutions of the crisis of the moment. It’s certainly not going to solve all of our social inequities that contribute so seriously to the problems. I think it is going to, it has the capability of educating people, that is not training them but educating them to think broadly enough to address the issues that we face.
Manda: Yeah. Professor Helfand, thank you so much for coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast.
David: It’s been my pleasure entirely.
Manda: And that’s it for another week. Enormous thanks to Professor Helfand for his erudition and fluency and great breadth of understanding and thought. Talking to Louis Weinstock last week really helped me to realise the extent to which our current education system is wholly unfit for purpose and utterly unfit for the future that we’re facing. And it seems to me increasingly important that we find ways of learning the best that we can be in the best possible ways. And I know that there are a huge number of really dedicated educators who are looking into this all day, every day. And I am going to explore and find more of them and bring them to the podcast, because this feels like quite a big gap that I haven’t been filling as well as I should have done. So we’re heading off out in that direction, and this feels like a really good first step. So, we will be back next week with another conversation. Not yet on education, but they will be coming.
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