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Procrustean systems – The bed of Procrustes. Back in the old Greece Polyphemon offered travellers a nice dinner and warm bed to stay the night. He wanted all the travellers to exactly fit the bed he offered; Polyphemon chopped of the feet of travellers that were too tall and stretched the travellers that were too short, which brought him his nickname: Procrustes (the stretcher).

Although we have stopped cutting of limbs many of our systems are procrustean; we try to control paramount, complex processes (with much volatility) all in the same way. In school or skill acquisition i.e. we try to adapt the individual to the framework we invented, despite the big, significant differences between individuals.

In school we try to adapt the student to the curriculum despite his specialties and weaknesses. To me the student with ten A*’s but two F’s is maybe more competent than the student with twelve C/D’s, but big chance he won’t graduate. Are we educating students to make an impact in their field of specialty or are we putting people in the bed of Procrustes and modify them to a framework? (Which we should eject) We should not forget that the best inventions are designed in a way thats works WITH the organism or product it is made for, not against. (Plus the people who invented it would never fit the standard framework, probably!)

Another problem, quite in line with procrustean thinking, is the top-down organization of learning. Schools and trainers teach from limited books and a bit of research and tell that is the way it should be done and all students are procrustean examined. The problem is that most of those books and research come from smart, creative people that did NOT follow the top-down information stream 1:1 but were masters of trial and error which developed their philosophy and methods.

Don’t get me wrong; we should learn from errors and successes from others experiences and information in books and good research. But I think we should encourage creative thinking more and stimulate new methods and ideas, even if it is not in line with current information. Be aware that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence!

I believe we must shift to a more bottom-up system i.e. skill acquisition and school, with plenty of room for exploration by trial and error and creative “no box” thinking. We must get rid of the rigid frameworks and curriculums we have and create more flexible solutions that foremost adapt to the individuals ambitions, characteristics and specialties!

For more on “The bed of Procrustes” see this animated summary of the book of Nassim Taleb.