Cross Pollination – Traversing the heartbeat of Learning & Innovation!

by Arun Kapur


Take a moment to look at the world around you today. What do you see? Do the challenges, opportunities and pathways around you fit nicely into predefined packages or silos? Can we move forward as individuals, communities and societies by considering only one aspect of our life? If not, then why is it that we direct children to learn in silos? Why are we not encouraging cross pollination of ideas and processes in our schools? Being an expert in a particular field or area of study is important but to unfetter its potential, one needs to sow its principles in and borrow ideas from other areas as well. What triggers the initial insight varies from one person to the other. For example, the assembly line popularised by Ford Motors in 1913 manifested in the world after Henry Ford visited a food processing plant, saw lines of workers packaging the food, and decided to borrow that idea and implement it in his car factory. This process, a direct result of cross pollination, reduced time to make a car by over 70%, skyrocketing productivity. At its core, cross pollination can be identified as the heartbeat of Innovation.

The world is a complex, chaotic and beautiful place. It is dynamic, with the different elements interweaving and flowing around, between and through each other. As humans, we have continually strived to enhance our understanding of the world around us but in doing so we have stopped seeing the world in all its magnificence. For example, looking at the structure of a leaf — to understand how carbon dioxide enters and oxygen leaves — helps us understand better how a leaf is adapted for carrying out the process of photosynthesis but what happens to the oxygen once it leaves the leaf? What is the role of the leaf or plant in its environment, or in relation to the animals it sustains or the habitat it provides? What would happen if this leaf could no longer photosynthesize? A student can be taught to memorise the equation for photosynthesis in a Science lesson and still have no real sense of the importance of the leaf or plant that carried it out. They may have no idea as to why it is important that we understand the processes that occur in plants or, if by knowing this, the lives of humans have changed. One of the things missing in our current education system is the emphasis on making connections and deriving meaning from lessons for our own lives. This is hindering the process of cross pollination and the subsequent understanding, innovation and creativity that could ensue. 

Photo by shraga kopstein on Unsplash

Many students will never know how, or by whom, the process of photosynthesis was discovered as we don’t teach them to ask these questions in a Science classroom. And it is quite possible that if they ask these questions, their teachers wouldn’t know either. So why does this matter? Our education has stopped us from seeing the world in its wholistic glory. True appreciation of the beauty and awe of the world around us cannot come from dissecting it into smaller and smaller parts. Yes, there is beauty in these parts but not nearly as much as when we view them all together forming an even more beautiful whole. Think of the parts as being pixels; they are important and represent a crucial part of the puzzle but it is only when all of the pixels come together that we can finally decipher and appreciate the image. Aristotle rightly observed that, ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’. I like to think of learning as a journey in which we are able to zoom into different aspects of life and the world around us but never forgetting to also zoom out.

Learning is an experience. It is not a one-dimensional process and does not always follow a linear path. To fully engage in a learning experience, there has to be the freedom to explore and reflect in order to follow one’s train of thought or digress to the unknown. This requires cross pollination to occur. The ideas and boundaries that have for so long existed within education and learning dictating what should be learnt as Maths or Science or Art or Language must change. Again this is not to say that being well versed in one particular strand of knowledge is not useful but that the cross pollination or sharing of ideas and concepts from one area of knowledge to another will strengthen the experience of learning and the knowledge one accumulates.

Let’s examine a pressing problem in our world today — climate change. Our current strategy for overcoming this challenge seems to be minimizing the use of fossil fuels. While that is a good start, it is never going to help the planet thrive again. At best it is limiting more damage. Climate change is complex as it involves numerous disciplines – History, Geography, Economics, Chemistry, Biology, Politics and International relations – to name a few. This challenge is further exacerbated by these disciplines working in silos with very little interactions with each other, let alone cross pollination. There are innovators who are experimenting with carbon engineering (to convert CO2 to a carbon neutral fuel), plastic eating enzymes, solar geoengineering and offshore windmills.

Closely linked to cross pollination is cross assessment, or assessment across domains or subjects. While individual domains may be in place for administrative reasons, it should not dissuade us from extending our reach. The purpose of assessment is to drive progress, for students as well as teachers. By cross assessing, interconnections between subjects become more visible and prominent. Not only will this help consolidate the skills, processes and concepts better but will ensure that conversations are carried forward beyond a specific classroom. There are many ways by which cross assessment can take place. Teachers can begin by collaborating with a colleague from another subject. They can then either individually assess the learners or do it jointly. This has the potential to drive greater insights for teachers and learners. To demonstrate how effective this can be, here is an example question that tests learners in multiple ways.

  1. The monsoon forecast has heavy rains for the whole of next month. Last year, the weather department had issued warnings, but we did not prepare adequately and the lab was flooded resulting in heavy loss of equipment. As your science class representative, you and your team have been tasked with protecting the science lab from flooding. You can source the materials from the local village. Draw up a safety plan to be submitted for review.

Assessed on: design, arts, geography, history, research, writing, communication, collaboration, engagement, material science, leadership, aesthetics, geometry.

For cross pollination to successfully occur, we will need individuals with deep knowledge in their respective fields to collaborate with others from a different field with an open mind. In doing so, not only are they bringing fresh perspective to the matter at hand but also constantly learning new ways to do things. What I find very attractive about the idea of cross pollination is its applicability across different roles and facets of our lives. Cross pollination can as easily occur between a student and a teacher as it can take place between one’s professional and family life. Amazing ideas can be found in the least expected places if one knows how to look for them. In this day and age, when there is an abundance of information, the skills and processes that we equip our learners with will help them sift through this information. They can then identify what is worthwhile and see how to connect the dots. For learners, finding a good mentor can prove invaluable. Not only can a good mentor give you direction, but she knows that she can learn from you, displaying the benefits of cross pollination in the process. A mentor can also help with wholistic assessment and provide feedback across a wider range.

Finally, it is important to get started. Put in those first steps. Read about the topics you are interested in, join forums and discussions, and volunteer. Gain traction. If we had asked the Swiss watch industry in 2010 who their biggest competitors were they would have talked about other watch manufacturers or designer watch makers. Apple computers would not have made the cut. However, by cross pollinating technology with the watch industry, Apple sold more watches than the entire Swiss watch industry in 2019. This initial cross pollination has proliferated even further today to combine timekeeping, communication, fitness and medical aid, literally making the Apple watch a wearable computer. The power of cross pollination is boundless and we need to tap into its potential.


This article was first published on September 2, 2020 on Thrive Global.