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Critical Skill for the 21st Century – Ability to Synthesize

adminbmt November 8, 2013

“Information overload” a term popularized by Alvin Toffler in his bestselling 1970 book “Future Shock”; 40 years ago has taken new gargantuan proportions with the advent of web 2.0 technologies. Today no longer is information creation limited to a few but has become the arena of the many.

While information is exploding, the capacity of the human mind to process it hasn’t been able to keep up. Evolution alas happens ever so slowly.

In the information age the skill that is gaining predominance is the ability to process large quantities of data from diverse sources, sieve the relevant from the unworthy (i.e. curate it) and then synthesize it in order to make sense.

In fact, Nobel Prize winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann has asserted that the mind most at a premium in the 21st century will be the mind that can synthesize well. (Gardner, 2008, p.46)

Synthesis is the ability to join the dots, to see patterns, to sieve the relevant and ignore the irrelevant, to see contrasts.

Bill Clinton, a master synthesizer said, “I think intellect is a good thing unless it paralyzes your ability to make decisions because you see too much complexity. Presidents need to have what I would call a synthesizing intelligence.” (Gardner, 2008, p.75)

This is an ability that not only presidents of the United States of America require but just about anybody who is involved in an intellectual activity. Managers require it, each project executed in an activity of synthesis. Authors need it, each book or paper is an act of synthesis. So do trainers, as each training program is an example of synthesis. Doctors need it; each diagnosis is a synthesizing of years of study. Engineers need it…..

The difference is whether they require “Laser intelligence” i.e. deep probe into one area or “Search Light intelligence” i.e. scanning the environment and seeing connections. A rookie manager needs laser intelligence and  the CEO needs search light intelligence. And the President of USA obviously needs search light intelligence.

Typically, there are 2 types of synthesizers: “Lumpers” and “Splitters” where lumpers tend to see the similarities between disparate elements i.e. connect the dots and splitters tend to see the differences i.e. what differentiates or contrasts. Both types are valuable in making sense of a subject.

Some common methods of synthesis according to Howard Gardner are:

  • Narratives e.g. the Ramayan, Mahabharata
  • Taxonomies e.g. Mendeleyev periodic table, Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives
  • Complex concepts e.g. Darwin’s concept of natural selection, Porters 5 force analysis
  • Rules and aphorisms e.g. a leopard can’t change its spots, no use crying over spilt milk
  • Powerful metaphors, images and themes e.g. Brand logos or tag lines – Kingfisher and    “Fly the good times”.
  • Embodiments without words e.g. Michelangelo’s illustrations on the ceiling of Sistine    Chapel
  • Theories e.g. Adam Smith’s theory of a market economy
  • Meta-theory e.g. Reincarnation and reason for existence

Now the challenge that exists is to deliberately teach the ability to synthesize because the human mind is designed to concentrate on one perspective. However, today the value of interdisciplinary work is immense.

While true interdisciplinary work is hard to replicate we can and should promote multi-perspectivism (the ability to see an issue from various perspectives). People who can see an issue from various perspectives or generate several representations of the same idea are more likely to come up with cogent synthesis. In learning this is absolutely true, the more training methods we use to reinforce a concept the clearer and more memorable is the concept.

In today’s global economy, multi-perspectivism is also required to work synergistically in a team. If people from different disciplinary, ethnic, religious and socio-economic backgrounds work together on a project, it enhances the project immensely.

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Contributed by:

Lovely Kumar, Chief-Projects, Larks Learning Pvt Ltd., “What does the 21st century learning facilitator look like? ”, Retrieved on “01-Nov-2011”, https://larkslearning.com/blog/critical-skill-for-the-21st-century-ability-to-synthesize/

 
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