Sugata Mitra, Sir John Jones and Frances Valintine headlined the Leading Remarkable Learning Conference in March this year. Convened by Westmount School, the conference aimed to redefine and refresh views of education and to inspire the education community for the future.
Mitra’s ‘Hole in the Wall’ research, to develop the learning capacity of slum children in India, inspired a movie (Slumdog Millionaire) and is propelling the shift worldwide to Schools in the Cloud.
Sir John was knighted for his services to education and is a speaker who inspires teachers to think about why they are in education, and the impact they have on young people.
Valintine is the founder of The Mindlab by Unitec and the Tech Futures Lab. She is listed in the Top 50 Ed Tech thinkers globally and challenges us to think about the purpose of education in the context of a digital future that is changing exponentially.
Q1 What is the biggest challenge confronting education at present?
Mitra: The biggest challenge to education is its view of its own purpose.
Education is meant to help us understand the world and human beings. Its purpose is to enable people to live happy, healthy and productive lives. Very few would argue against that. However, what is it that people should know in order to fulfil this purpose?
Years ago, the UNESCO said the four pillars of learning were fundamental principles for reshaping education:
- Learning to know: to provide the cognitive tools required to better comprehend the world and its complexities, and to provide an appropriate and adequate foundation for future learning. Is present education doing this? Does school enable you to search and find what you need to know? Does it help you understand the complexities of an immensely connected world?
- Learning to do: to provide the skills that would enable individuals to effectively participate in the global economy and society. Do multiplication tables help you participate in the global economy? Did you learn how to text properly in school? Did school teach you what social media is good for? Will school help you own and use a driverless car?
- Learning to be: to provide self-analytical and social skills to enable individuals to develop to their fullest potential psycho-socially, affectively as well as physically, for an all-round ‘complete person’. What is a ‘complete person’ in a connected world? What are social skills on digital media? Does school help you learn these?
- Learning to live together: to expose individuals to the values implicit within human rights, democratic principles, intercultural understanding and respect and peace at all levels of society and human relationships to enable individuals and societies to live in peace and harmony. Do individuals and societies exist in isolation anymore? Do robots have rights? Are animals self-aware? Do they have rights? Do you learn these in school?
In other words, present education is still very much meant for people growing up in the recent past. It has little relevance in the present, and no awareness of the future.
Education is full of knowledge and skills that are ‘just in case’ you ever need them. But you never will need most of them, and if you do, a machine or a network will teach you instantly – or, better still, do it for you.
Jones: We live in a rapidly changing world – a world in which, statisticians claim, 80 per cent of the jobs our children will do have not yet been invented. In order to thrive and succeed in such times, Thomas Friedman, in his visionary book The World is Flat, warns that we are all going to need four key qualities: creativity, ingenuity, portability and flexibility. This has huge implications for schooling in general, and teachers, in particular.
McKinsey research (2007) examined the top 10 performing global education systems and identified three things each system does well:
- They get the right people to become teachers.
- They develop these people into effective instructors.
- They put systems in place to ensure every child can benefit from this instruction.
- Politicians must support and promote the growth of an educational system that will deliver these three things. They must set the right priorities, by:
- paying teachers well
- avoiding the use of education as a political football
- championing teaching as a great career path (in Finland, one of the consistently highest performing global education systems, teaching outstrips medicine and law as the most popular career choice, although it is not the highest paid)
- relieving teachers of unnecessary bureaucracy
- granting extensive statutory time for professional development and lesson preparation (in Singapore, another PISA high-performing system, teachers teach far less than in the UK and are given generous preparation time).
Valintine: Globally, I think the challenge is that we are preparing children for a world that is completely different:
There will be massive population growth (from three billion in 1950 to nine billion by 2050).
There will be growth in the middle class. There will be a much larger number of highly educated, self-educated youth who are going to be competitors for jobs and champions for new ways to work, communicate, live and learn.
Business models are being completely disrupted by technology. Every industry requires its workforce to have an understanding of technological advances, new business models and the new drivers of the global economy.
The challenge for New Zealand is to develop a long-term strategy for education.
National policies treating all learning communities the same need to be personalised and contextualised to better respond to need. We underinvest in teacher professional development and technical capability. Our teachers are our greatest assets and we need to ensure they are confident, capable, open to progress and highly informed.
We haven’t identified the real value of STEM in New Zealand, which is that it is underpinned by problem solving. It develops the mindset as well as the skills our children need for the future. We have to think much more broadly about the benefits of STEM and move away from narrow views of technology and science.
Q2 What is the most compelling piece of educational research you have encountered and why?
Mitra: It is hard to point to one piece of research. There are many – that animals have a sense of fairness, that trees can communicate, for instance. Educational research needs to move out of sample studies of learners answering exams. Educators need to read research outside of traditional ‘educational research’.
Jones: Carol Dweck’s work on Fixed/Growth Mindsets. Fixed mindset thinking has held back so many. Both teachers and parents need to readjust their thinking on high performance.
Some decades ago as a young teacher and parent, I thought that being clever was more important than working hard; that ability was fixed – some have it and some don’t; that being correct was good and failure was bad and, more crucially, that you are who you are and changing is difficult. I was comfortable with words like gifted, talented, natural and prodigy.
How wrong I was.
In my sixth decade I have come to realise that effort and hard work should be praised more than being smart; that learning how to handle failure is a key life skill; that all of us possess that inner spark and finding your genius is more important than being a genius; that in the right political system, in great schools, working in new ways with brilliant teachers and supportive parents, anything is possible and is there for all and not just a select few. It’s called ‘learning without limits’.
Valintine: Research in education is tricky because it is a backward-looking process. Reviewing what has happened and assessing a legacy activity will only ever be part of a solution. Research in itself is limiting. We have to think about research differently. We need to take more into consideration the global macro trends in much shorter time spaces as well as the local impact. We need to make it about the past and the future – what can we learn from the past that will benefit the future?
Q3 How can educators ensure that their teaching practice remains effective in the face of changing learning environments, assessment practices, curriculum priorities and other variables?
Mitra: Ask the learner, every step of the way. Listen to them and live in their world, do not try to bring them into yours. If you are over 40, the world you know and believe in is obsolete.
Jones: For decades, education has taken the option of repeating itself, comfortable in a culture of standardisation and compliance.
Teachers need to break free of their comfort zones and let go of traditional methods on the journey from controlled to free, self-directed learning.
Valintine: This is the problem we were trying to solve with The Mind Lab by Unitec Postgraduate programme. We had to consider:
- How could we deliver a postgraduate programme to teachers so that they didn’t need to attend during school hours?
- How could we scale the programme so every teacher in New Zealand could access it?
- How could we make it affordable?
- How could we ensure all aspects of the programme were reflective of contemporary practice, evidence-based and impactful?
Nearly three years on, one in every 30 teachers in New Zealand has undertaken the digital and collaborative postgraduate programme. This has had a very large and positive impact for teachers and their students.
Our curriculum approach is highly iterative. There is a constant focus on improvement and responding to teachers’ feedback, new knowledge, data and insights.
The Mind Lab is a partnership with Unitec. The model is a Public Private Partnership, which is rare in education. It is a transformational model for teaching practice and development.