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This is What I Mean by Innovative Thinking: Part 1

Stanley Feld M.D., FACP, MACE

The public education system is just as broken as the healthcare system. The concept of “No Child Left Behind” is in reality empty rhetoric. In my opinion, it is a well intended but simplistic concept. It is a naïve view of the meaning of education.

In my view the purpose of education is to teach children how to think. The goal is not to memorize material to pass a standardized test. Once you understand the concepts effective reading, and arithmetic, reading comprehension and mathematical abstractions are easy. In our world we should be teaching people how to think in order to prepared them for our knowledge based economy.

Alvin and Heidi Toeffler nailed it in their recent booke “Revolutionary Wealth” which explains the nuances of education in the knowledge based economy.

“In the early 20th Century, business in short had a crucial stake in massifying armies of young to help build the mass-production economy of the industrial age.”

“Sir Ken Robinson, senior advisor on educational policy to the president of the famed Getty foundation in Los Angeles and author of Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative stated” The whole apparatus of public education has largely been shaped by the needs and ideologies of industrialism…predicted on old assumptions about the supply and demand for labor. The keywords of this system are linearity, conformity and standardization.”

“There are many forces that are for changing the dysfunctional public education system. They are the teachers, the parents, and the students who all recognize that our public education system is broken. They are the ones, the consumers of education, which are going to have to force the controller of public education to change the system.”

Does this sound familiar? It also relates to the healthcare system.

The Tofflers’ then quote Bill Gates who they say finally laid it on the line in 2005:

“America’s high schools are obsolete. By obsolete, I don’t just mean that our high schools are broken, flawed, or under funded. By obsolete I mean that our high schools-even when they’re working exactly as designed-cannot teach our kids what they need to know today… This isn’t an accident or a flaw in the system: it is the system”.

When I was at Columbia College the courses were very different than those at William Howard Taft High School in the Bronx. The high school curriculum in the mid twentieth century taught facts. It was up to the student to figure out how to integrate and abstract these facts into the real world if he had any chance of being successful and creative. The same was true when my children were in high school in Texas in the 1980s. All of us went to public high schools. These high schools were considered excellent public high schools at the time. The same obsolete teaching methods prevail in excellent public high schools today.

At Columbia College in New York, I was not taught any specific facts. I was taught concepts. Even in the pre medical courses we were taught concepts and few facts. I believe the facts are easily figured out if one understands the concepts behind the facts. When I was in medical school the same thing was true. The concepts were critical to learning the facts. It has little to do with memorization of facts. An excellent example is our final exam in pathology. The only question on the final pathology exam was a request to write ten important pathology questions and then answer them. I wrote ten questions that I thought were the most important questions about pathology. When is came time to answer them I was stumped. I wrote the best answers I could. I walked out of the test convinced that I failed my own test. Some of the people in the class were bragging about how easy the test was. I kept chiding myself for being so stupid as to ask such hard questions.

It turned out I got honors in the course and most of the others got a passing grade. Some failed their own test. Subsequently, I discovered it was a test of understanding the concepts and not regurgitating facts. I wrote the best questions in the class. The concepts had to be concepts that prepared you to be a competent critical thinking clinician.

Thursday August 16th was launch day for TechStars at the Atlas Institute on the campus of Colorado University. I have been talking about the need for innovative thinking in healthcare in this blog. David Cohen, Brad Feld, Jared Polis and David Brown developed the concept of TechStars. They published a call for applications from technology start up companies on their blogs. They received applications from 300 start-up companies from around the country. TechStars selected 10 teams from the 300 applicants. They provided funding of $15,000 per team, free office space, operational support, and a three month mentorship curriculum with Boulder Colorado venture capital firms, entrepreneurs and business leaders. The course content taught the start up entrepreneurs how to think about, execute and get funding for their new start up company.

TechStars Inc. received 5% equity position in each company for the educational process and ability to relate to these successful Boulder mentors. If the companies failed the venture capitalist lost $15,000. The goal was to stimulated smart young entrepreneurs to think critically about the development of their company. They were also taught to develop street smarts by entrepreneurs that have been through the start up process. If one or two of the companies succeeded TechStars Inc would more than make its money back. David Cohen did a magnificent job leading the troops and developing the course curriculum.

This morning’s presentations included Eventvue, Intense Debate, SocialThing, J-Squared Media, MadKast and Searchtophone, StickyNotes, Villij, FiltrBox , KBLabs, and BrightKite. I bet you will hear about these companies in the future. If a couple of these companies do not succeed you will hear from its entrepreneurs as they develop other companies.

The lecture hall was packed with venture capitalist from as faraway as California and entrepreneurs, mentors and friends from all over Colorado. Each presenter did a great job in pitching his company. The presentations were crisp and clear. They all knew what they wanted and made very compelling cases to get the funding they needed. Brad told me when they started putting their presentations together almost all of them did terribly. They were all fast learners.

I spoke to most of the founders of the companies after the meeting. They all felt this was the best educational experience they have ever had. Most were in their 20’s, and many had completed business school. The overriding theme that excited them was they learned the concepts necessary to develop a successful business. These concepts plus the mentors’ practical experience was not available in business school.

Every one of the companies has a great idea. However, that is not the point. These young entrepreneurs have learned an incredible amount about how to start and run a business in the trenches from mentors who are and were in the trenches. Every person has been energized. They have also energized the mentors.

This is how our public education system, which is just as dysfunctional as our healthcare system, needs to function in order to be effective in our knowledge based economy.

The people who control the healthcare system have to start thinking of concepts that will benefit all the stakeholders and not simply the stakeholders in power. I am certain the stakeholders in power are threatened by the potential for change just as the controllers of the educational system are. We now live in a knowledge based economy. The legacy thinking in healthcare has to change. It is presently proprietary and opaque. It is dominated and controlled by the insurance industry. It has to be transparent and beneficial to all.

Only the consumer will change the healthcare system. It will start with the demand to change the insurance paradigm to the ideal medical saving account.

We have seen the failures of the government as a single party payer in the VA Healthcare System. I suspect we are only seeing the tip of the ice berg. I cannot understand why politicians think it will be any better when a single party payer system is applied to the entire population.

I know the consumer does not want that system.

I believe it will not be the baby boomers that change the system. It will be young people who were brought up on computer technology such as the Tech Stars and their mentors who will make the innovative changes necessary to establish a new paradigm for medicine in a knowledge based economy.

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