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A Genius Factory for Good – Atlas Academia on the education system

Anthony Mai

7 min read

Mar 16

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3

“Study hard at school but make sure not to become too smart for your own good!”


We cannot teach students properly if we cannot clearly communicate the purpose and goals of education. We unfortunately live in a society that has a paradoxical relationship with excellence, and this is a paradigm that has been intentionally created. Many groups benefit from this misinformation, as they are the ones who gain from exacerbating inequality.


Fighting this culture war and unpacking their deceptions will require a gargantuan effort. This article is not able to do that. This article is a standalone piece to help you understand one of the core beliefs at Atlas about the value of education.



Do you think you're a genius, right now?

  • Yes

  • No



 

1.     Why ‘genius factory’ makes us uncomfortable


The term ‘genius factory’ is incredibly provocative and we need to begin by unpacking why that is the case.


I first came across this term as a student at a high school that had dominated the state’s academic rankings for over twenty years. I had a strong personal conviction to study to reach my highest potential so that I could use what I had learnt to best contribute to society. I wanted to be in the most challenging environment to foster my development and so the unanimous labelling of this school as a ‘genius factory’ was a huge positive for me.


However, when I spoke to other people in both private and public settings, ‘genius factory’ almost always took on a derogative meaning. I think there are two reasons for this:


The first reason presents itself in almost every discussion about excellence in an Australian/Western context, and that is ‘tall poppy syndrome’. Tall poppy syndrome is a strain of anti-intellectualism, which references the act of pruning the poppy flower that grows too tall compared to the rest of the plant. While some may argue a historical or cultural origin to this phenomenon, I believe it primarily resides in the innate human jealousy and resentment towards those who have more than others. Tall poppy syndrome is very real and should be addressed in our society, but not without acknowledging the second reason.


a tall poppy flower amongst shorter poppies. scissors are aimed at the tall poppy.


The second reason that people see ‘genius factory’ in a negative light is because they are right to do so. Very rarely do I see people voicing a fear that they will be denied opportunities due to the exports of this genius factory going out into the world and being too successful. Instead, the criticisms are more often about the inadequacies of these ‘geniuses.’ There are claims that they have scant social, critical thinking, and soft skills. While I acknowledge that many of these criticisms have a racist undertone, there is some truth here that cannot be denied.


As a student of a so-called genius factory, I struggled to reconcile what I saw. I believe that genius needed to be nurtured in an empowering environment, yet there I was instead surrounded by students facing anxiety and an inability to work under pressure, maladaptively masking this with an unhealthy workload; brute forcing their way to a passable assessment mark. I saw knowledge that was taught and learnt in such an artificial, unhelpful way that after blindly recalling it in an assessment, it could be simply discarded as worthless. I scoffed at the fact that every year at school assemblies, we would be told that we would be the ‘leaders of the future’ while none of us knew the first thing about leadership besides pinning a badge to a blazer. Society criticises us not out of jealousy, but because they themselves can see what the ‘genius factory’ puts out into the world.


But, this is where I start to push back against the criticism. I think about how there are two groups of people in the debate on our education system. The first is the general population, who were once products of the education system, and likely know some students currently going through the system. They have some lived experience but are not intensely involved in education in their daily lives. They are entitled to their freedom of opinion and their freedom to criticise. While they can be one source of feedback, they are not experts and therefore do not understand the nuances of the system. They are unable to offer the solution for an effective and equitable education system.


The second group of people are the practitioners of education; the teachers, executive, bureaucrats, and academics. They are deeply involved and should know better than to criticise the ‘factory’ and its students (inadequate geniuses, for lack of a better term), yet offer no alternative. Many take no responsibility to create a discourse on equal terms with students and the wider community about what the purpose of education should be. To fail to either provide nuance to the discussion or advocate for a better system is to be either ignorant or dishonest. You can decide which is worse.


Does it mean students should never be challenged in the classroom? Does it mean students should never receive training on how to perform under pressure? Does it mean that both gifted students and students with special needs should be isolated from specialist support for the convenience of a school running smoothly?


The ‘genius factory’ should not be criticised for the geniuses it creates, but for the fact that what it creates are not geniuses at all.  


At Atlas, we have a different perspective on what true genius is, and why Science education is the pathway to it.

 

 

2.     Genius is not what everyone thinks it is


Contrary to many depictions in popular media, science is not about memorising trivia, but rather the universal principles of inquiry. In both the natural world (physical sciences) and the human world (social sciences), science attempts to apply inquiry to understand complex systems, and importantly, use that understanding to further humanity. It cherishes the work of those who came before and a student of science is constantly reminded of how new concepts are derived from previous ones. I find it unsurprising that the stereotype of a scientist as a humanist, one who turns their nose up at material gain and status, is subconsciously influenced by the nature of science.


Science views a complicated system as something to investigate by reduction into simpler parts. Through asking meaningful and specific questions, and investigating the relationships between variables, each part is better understood until they can all be combined to create a whole-system picture.


Many people will have their own definitions for certain terms, and I want to provide mine for this discussion. I define talent as a specific ability that a person can possess. This goes beyond the intellectual domain and can include physical or artistic ability. Being talented at something means you are so highly proficient at it that you can do something that ordinary people together cannot. This could be because your output is so much greater, or that there is something unique or distinguishing about the output.


I think the transition to producing talent in schools and acquiring talent in workplaces was the beginning of when our society diverged from providing a true education for our students. The student and their learning process was disregarded. Instead, if you want a math genius, you make them do endless practice. If you want an athletic genius, you make them train all day. Not only does this often fail, but this tunnel vision approach produces people who can do one thing well but lack the ability to laterally upskill to meet the ever-changing opportunities in the world. For more on this, see ‘Generalists vs Specialists


I contrast this with genius, which I define as the ability to solve problems and make new discoveries. A genius can completely visualise a complicated system and see both its simpler parts, as well as the emergent interactions that come from putting the parts together. This means that they can acquire many talents. Alternatively, a genius has a talent for learning.


Critically, genius does not need to be innate nor esoteric. There is no IQ threshold that limits this form of genius, claiming it to be unattainable for all but the select few;  nor is genius a magical superpower that manifests as hyper-intelligence that cannot be understood by others.


a group of students sitting at a blue table, happy

At this point, I will make a confession that may surprise those who are familiar with my deep passion for science. When I started learning science, I was not interested in Biology, Chemistry, Physics, or any particular field. Instead what I was drawn to was the systems approach to understanding. What captured me was the idea that this philosophy could be applied to understanding everything. I used the skills I learnt from science to excel in every other subject at school. Then I used it to try and understand the education system and its flaws. Whatever I tried to learn, I applied my science brain; ranging from entrepreneurship, to writing, to sports.


This is the type of genius that the current education system fails to create.


This is the type of genius that we envision when we think ‘genius factory.’


This is the type of genius that we believe science education is the stepping stone towards creating.


Do you think you could ever be a genius?

  • Yes

  • No


 

 

3.     A Genius Factory for Good


Genius for freedom

When students are overwhelmed and overworked in their studies, they don’t have the mental energy to reflect or plan for the long term. It is important to point out that this is an intended feature of work in a capitalist society, and thus the current education system plays the role of instilling obedience in future workers at an early age.


Our education goal is not to make superficial gains like raising an assessment mark. When students are given the tools and environment to develop their abilities far beyond previous standards, they will regain control of their time and energy. This is important for long-term academic development, and more importantly for their holistic personal development.

 

Genius for all

Everyone can be a genius. In fact, we cannot rely on natural genius to meet society’s needs. Unless we create a system that can elevate students who do not already have access to an ideal learning environment, educational outcomes will remain grossly inequitable.


If one believes that everyone deserves the opportunity to lead a fulfilling life where they are nurtured to become skilled and meaningfully contribute, then one must also believe that genius must be accessible.

 

Genius for good

Lastly, it is my core belief that the motivation to act toward the betterment of humanity is the natural conclusion when seeking to understand the world. An individual needs not to be preached to if they are encouraged to pursue the path of education. Once a genius begins to grasp the nature of the world, the structural inequalities and obstructions built by the tyrants hoarding over their ill-gotten wealth (of all forms) become undeniable facts.


“The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.”


If you ask anyone who solved a major problem or dedicated themselves to a noble cause what their motivation was, they will often say that the problem was simply something they couldn’t take their mind off. Their logic is often not grounded in an objective calculus of societal benefit, but retroactively built off the uncontrollable desire to act, because there is no other way that they could imagine living their life.


The world would be a better place if there were more of these people around.

 

- Anthony Mai (Co-founder)


Learn more about what we do at Atlas:

www.atlas-academia.com/our-why


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