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When I first got out into the work force, I was a pretty popular guy to have at meetings. It wasn’t because I was super smart or because I was funny or had a great sense of fashion…it was because of my mutant super power. 

I think that every one of us has a secret mutant super power. Sometimes we don’t acknowledge it, because it’s not what we want to be good at, but deep down we all know our individual strengths. I have a friend whose mutant power is finding parking spaces. It doesn’t matter when or where we go, even if it is 6 p.m. on Friday night in downtown San Francisco, my friend Frank will find a parking space less than a block from our final destination. EVERYTIME! 

My mutant power was memory. I was always fascinated by math and how mathematical models simulated physical phenomenon around us and for some reason I could always remember equations and constants that feed into these equations (I also remember faces…but not names associated with them). 

Young’s Modulus for steel? No problem. 

Voltage output from a Wheatstone Bridge when a custom shunt resistor is applied? Sure. 

Conversion between degrees F and degrees C and degrees K? No sweat. 

Recommended linear temperature range for Type T thermocouple? Got it. 

Having facts at your fingertips was very convenient in technical discussions, because the rhythm of the meeting never slowed down, and engineers never got bogged down in details or got distracted because they were looking up constants in their old text books.  

In fact, in the 1980s it was easy to mistake a collection of (seemingly) random facts as “knowledge.” You were “smart” if you could name Stanley Gets’ first jazz album, or could rattle off the correct chronological sequence of all books written by Kurt Vonnegut, or knew the published year and the title of the comic book with the first appearance of Spider-Man. I actually remember whole conversations that centered on the sequence of James Bond movies and the actors that assumed the 007 identity. 

Something like that seems trivial now, but think what it was like when you couldn’t got to a movie site (or a dedicated James Bond site!) to find the information. You, either watched all the movies and knew, or you didn’t. Period. 

For the longest time the definition of “knowledge” in human society meant knowing facts. The hunters (even though they though the night sky was a curtain that covered the sun and only let the light through little pin holes) knew the celestial patterns and could tell when the moon will be full for a night hunt. The healers (when they failed to trap the evil spirits in a jar) knew which herbs to boil for brews that reduced headaches. But they didn’t know the “why,” all their knowledge came from trial and error, from experience. The closest you came to an understanding of a system that could describe the physical world was the shaman who knew which spirits governed the sky, the rivers, and the forest and which of them had to be appeased for success in any individual enterprise. 

Even as human understanding of the physical world developed and technology advanced, there always was an emphasis placed on knowing facts and solutions rather than a deep systematic understanding of all the systems, how they are related, and why things work the way they do. 

A perfect example is the Soviet educational system, which I was in up until the 5th grade. It was all about memorization (so maybe my secret power is not really naturally mutant…it was drilled into me through training). Times tables, sine and cosine tables, vocabulary, poems (revolutionary anthems were very popular), maps, historical dates, names of generals, etc. I got good grades. I was “smart.”  

But was a just memorizing facts?

I believe a shift in the definition of “knowledge,” spurred on by technological advances, started in the late 1980’s and is continuing today. More emphasis is placed on understanding whole systems and much more emphasis is placed on working as part of a group. I see that in the curriculum of my teenage son who is currently in high school. In his Math class, he is part of a group of four students who work as a group to solve problems based on the new material being presented to them. In the group, everyone has to contribute to the discussion, but also every individual has an assigned task: a record/notes taker, a time keeper, a manager of the process, and a speaker who presents out the solution arrived at by the group. The roles are switched around every few sessions and the membership of the group switched around, so the students get to experience different responsibilities and work with different people. 

There are of course some pitfalls in this approach. Some are obvious: testing is still done on an individual basis, so even if you are well integrated into group dynamics, unless you truly understand the material and the principles being studied, you can fail in the class. Some are not so obvious: there is always a possibility of having one individual who will “carry” the group, and thus leave the other members unable to solve anything when left to their own devices or if they are transferred into a different group. But regardless of this, what is fascinating to me is the shift of focus on what is considered important in the educational system, what is considered being “smart.” 

To me this is definitely a different approach than the one that I am accustomed to (the approach that was used during my education), however I see it as part of the evolution of the definition of “knowledge.”

Being “smart” now, more than ever, involves a deeper understanding of the overall principles, a holistic approach to seeing the whole system, that spans different disciplines and rejects compartmentalization of subjects like Math, Physics, Statics, Materials, and Electronics. I think that is reflected more and more in the new graduates coming out with four-year degrees, who truly are more of generalists, versed in multi-disciplinary understanding and who are primed to specialize once they get out in the work force. 

Also, now being “smart” means being able to work with your peers, being able to report out your findings for review and being able to supervise the implementation of your processes. The ability to work together in a group, allows solving bigger problems than just the set of equations in a text book. This is interesting, because in school and at work, I have encountered individuals who, even though they had a deep understanding of their chosen fields, were not good at working with others. While sitting at their desks, they could absorb vast amounts of information and develop clever solutions, but they couldn’t deal with changing requirements and/or interactions with other technical staff to implement their own solutions. I think that there will always be folks like that around, but I also feel that more and more emphasis will be placed on group dynamics and that will become a bigger focus of educational establishments. 

As the ability to find facts and information becomes common place and everyone has a vast amount of information right at their fingertips, the ability to quickly “filter” through pages and pages of data to pluck out the information that is needed, becomes vital.  

Given all of that, does that mean the days of going to an interview and be given a sheet of paper with problems to solve (and being timed while you are doing it) are over? Probably not. BUT, there are now whole HR departments that evaluate young engineers, freshly out of school, to see if they would “fit” into their corporations. It is more common to be asked about your hobbies and about your passions, than 20 years ago. The grades you got in Communication and Philosophy have a greater weight now than when I went to school and took those classes (let’s be honest) as “filler.” Group interviews, where multiple candidates are interviewed at the same time, are coming into fashion. In this scenario, candidates would be interviewed together, in a group, and are given a work simulation or problem-solving exercise, in which they have to work together as a team. 

So, apart from a deeper understanding of principles, which was always desirable, the definition of “knowledge” that is valued in a work place has less to do with memorization of facts and more with the ability to work in groups, and quick eyeball scanning skills that help you absorb information and allows you to filter out the “noise.”  

My curiosity is peaked about what the next update to the definition of “smart” will be 20 years from now, and how education will adapt to that.

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