‘No need to reinvent the wheel.’ That was fine for the past. But accelerating progress makes reinventing wheels an absolute imperative.
Discovery vs Rediscovery
My children have taken up chess. My 11 year-old goes at it with some aggressiveness, studying books & websites, and playing on-line. He’s getting better, and has started beating me (particularly if I have a glass of wine next to me).
My 6 year-old is still learning the fundamentals, basically learning to see the board, and the immediate implication of a move. The grand master may see a dozen moves ahead, but my daughter is still learning to see just one move ahead.
I try to help her; when she’s about to make a bad move, I try to get her to see what’s about to happen. Sometimes she takes it back, but sometimes she gets irritated with me for trying to tell her how to play. She wants to learn to play the game. She already understands something I constantly forget: that to learn she has to be able to make her own mistakes.
She has to be allowed to reinvent the wheel.
If you think about it, she’s reinventing wheels. The patterns she needs to see are basic, simple things, so why should she have to re-learn them? Why can’t I just teach her those patterns, and shorten the learning time?
Chess is a great example of preparing for the future, and demonstrates why reinventing wheels is so important: chess is endlessly variable. All of the known patterns will not tell a player what will happen in the next game, or even the next move. There is constant improvisation and invention. Even with books and tutors, every player has to reason out patterns for herself.
Wheelwrights vs Rocket Scientists
We have looked repeatedly at the accelerating pace of human learning and progress. For 10,000 years of civilization, progress was very slow and innovation was infrequent.
Today, progress is not only common, but essential. There is almost no industry, nor job, where competition and innovation are not constantly changing everyone’s work.
At one point, wheelwrights made wheels, the same way, with the same materials, as wheelwrights had done for centuries. The only thing that ever changed was the size.
Today, everything about the wheel changes, frequently. The wheels for skateboards, bicycles, cars, and trains are very different. The materials they are made from constantly changes, the designs constantly change, and the way they are ‘manufactured'1)‘Manufacture’ means ‘hand made’, a term we may want to reconsider. constantly changes.
What is a Wheel?
We could argue that wheels have changed so much, they aren’t even wheels anymore. Consider that for almost all of human history, transportation on land was either walking, riding, or rolling. That was it.
If we take the approach that the wheel at its most fundamental is not a round thing, but rather it is a more efficient way of traveling, then we can see all sorts of re-inventions of the wheel: airplanes, rockets, hovercraft, maglev vehicles, perhaps some day even teleportation and maybe something via quantum entanglement.2)These last two are currently science fiction, but they are actually being looked at by some physicists and engineers.
Each one of these inventions could be considered a case of reinventing wheels. And to our point here, we all know at the inception of each of them, they were greeted with ridicule, comments like ‘Man was not meant to fly.’
Business vs Education
The admonition against reinventing wheels comes from business: we have a product to get out, and our profits depend on doing the same thing over and over with maximum efficiency. Be risk averse. Don’t take chances.
Today, of course, business absolutely needs to experiment. And some of the best businesses expect every worker, from the janitor to the CEO, to think critically and creatively about the business. Do we need to do this step? Is there a better way to do that step? Is there another product we could produce from our processes, or even from our waste products?
Which is a circular irony (which also gives us a ‘circular’ pun): we aren’t effective at reinventing wheels in the marketplace, because we don’t encourage reinvention in the learning-place.
And now we are discouraging the reinvention of wheels in the thinking-place. If we can’t encourage teachers to be open-minded thinkers, there is no way they will ever teach students to be open-minded thinkers, and to think creatively.
Biting My Tongue
I have watched so many parents who do not understand the importance of patience, and so many teachers who are not allowed the time for patience, who do not or cannot allow kids to figure things out for themselves. I remember one father who would not let his son enjoy an arts & craft project. He would not allow the boy to do it the way the child wanted to, because the father was too busy teaching him to do it the ‘right’ way.
After all, the father might reason, there’s no need to be reinventing wheels. Continued reading below…
And constantly, while I watch my children trying to solve a problem that has a solution which is obvious to me, I have to bite my tongue, and let them figure it out. It’s important to let them come up with the solution. First, it’s important because they have to learn to solve problems, new and old, that they will encounter all through life.
And more than that, it’s important because they just might come up with a solution that never occurred to me. And perhaps, they will come up with a solution that has never occurred to anyone else, either.
Because reinventing wheels allows for the possibility of something that might be much better than a wheel.
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‘Electrical Bike Wheel’ courtesy of GeoOrbital.