What will make education modern?
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What will make education modern?

These are my notes from two conversations about the future of education. A follow up to this article, a June 2021 Boma Global Studio conversation with Aape Pohjavirta, is here on Fireside.

Throughout the Boma Global Education Week, Boma teams in Poland, Brazil, China, New Zealand and Germany conducted interviews with education thought leaders in their own countries and elsewhere. This is the Boma Poland perspective, presented mostly as quotes from our guests.
Zuzanna Lewandowska spoke to two trailblazers of Poland’s education landscape, while yours truly invited two people who had been thinking for quite some time about education and learning from different perspectives, including the difference between the two terms and how to reconcile it.

We spoke to:
Paula Bruszewska, who runs the foundation Zwolnieni z Teorii (Released from Theory, site in Polish) — the largest educational NGO in Poland, founded as a response to a rapidly widening gap between the needs of the job market and the inadequate graduate competencies in team work and communication.
Jakub Bochiński, who is an astronomer and science communicator, and leads Rzecznicy Nauki (The Spokesmen of Science) a multidisciplinary team of science communicators.
Marcel Kampmann, a Dutch designer and strategic creative advisor who has been interested in the question of what makes places conducive to human happiness. Out of that desire for building places that bring about happiness, came the Dream School (site in Dutch) in his hometown in the Netherlands.
Aape Pohjavirta — the founder of Funzi.fi, a mobile learning system which over the last few years has been gaining a lot of traction in East Africa and and other places.

In order to be able to lead a sustainable life on this planet we have to radically change the way we behave, and we have two decades to do it in. If we are to, for example, achieve anything like the Paris Accord regarding limiting of our greenhouse gas emissions, our very idea of education needs to change since right now we are not teaching the right things in the right way.

That process of change is now well underway, though its pace is still far too slow. There is, however, an emerging sense of optimism in the human ability to adapt. If there is one lesson to take out of the current crisis is that we have entered a period of transformation more rapid than we could have ever imagined, and this transformation is going to affect our educational systems in dramatic ways, up to and including rendering them irrelevant.

“To ask, ‘What is going to happen to the education system?’ is to ask the wrong question. The education system per se will not contribute to this change, because of how slow it is to change. That’s kind of blunt, but I think it’s the truth. I started working with mobile learning in 2009 because I understood that the speed of change of the educational system was too slow to cope with the changes that were required. In 2011 I lost my optimism. I did not believe that using the current mechanisms we could, or would, survive. But the pandemic has proven to me that we are able to adapt when faced with a crisis. If we compare what has happened over a period of eight weeks with what happened over the previous eight years, we can see that we humans can react.” (Pohjavirta)

Reaction, however, is not proactive action and deep structural changes are required. The very appropriateness of current models of education is now on the table, and a measure of its success will be whether or not education allows people to develop their ability to self-direct. In a world where distributed work and constant learning are the norm, self-direction will be a key competence. And the choice is stark — successful ongoing learning for people, or increasing economic exclusion. The models need to change.

“I have a challenge with the words education and learning, so let’s just like get the terms right. Education is where someone, typically not an individual but a society or an organisation, has decided what a certain part of the society need to learn or to be skilled at doing something.” (Pohjavirta)

Was that the 19th century model, we wondered?

“It is actually the 2000 BC model. In education everything is about controlled outcomes and controlled thoughts and controlled skills and knowledge, so education is a mechanism of control. In emerging markets, people have noticed that there is no such thing as control, or control is negative. And that is why they’re focused on learning. Learning is access to things, things that have enabled them as individuals, and as parts of the community, to act in a better way.” (Pohjavirta)

Do the “developing nations” have a thing or two to teach the rest of us about the will to learn and the methods to gain that learning?

“In those emerging markets, in places like rural Nigeria or Bangladesh, people understand that no-one else will give them a better future. They need to build it themselves. They need to equip themselves with the skills and the attitude that they are themselves responsible for building that better future, and they can’t each do it alone. That is also quite clear to them, so they need to build it together. As a result, the people in emerging economies have a far better view on how the future of humanity will be shaped. We have to remember that this future of education, the future of our planet, is actually not about our children. It is us, the middle aged men, who especially need to learn to unlearn things and to adapt. It’s not our kids, it’s us.” (Pohjavirta)

“The key question about education, anywhere on Earth, is what that education ought to lead towards. It is only from answering that question that we will be able to formulate any appropriate future educational solutions. We have to take into account economic factors, needs of the labour market, the future of the planet, and to design education so it creates the right conditions for individual self-expression.” (Bochiński)

As with all things exponential, change will not happen overnight but when it does come it will be “sudden”, eventhough it had been coming for some time. So where’s the space to aim for? What are the gaps that we need to fill?

“Instead of earning a living, you should be learning a living — understanding that through learning, you’re also able to earn. You could have access or subscription to any kind of learning environment for your entire life, instead of only that period between your fourth and your 20th year. You would never be an alumnus because you would never finish.” (Kampman)

“That is interesting because we have also been prototyping a concept of “earning by learning”, where we worked a lot with entrepreneurs and employability services, looking at grants available around the world. There are massive non-governmental organisations checking whether someone has completed a course, and then giving them a grant or a loan. How about making it all digital and accessible instead? So, Marcel, if you have completed a particular course with three stars, you automatically get this hundred dollars into your bank account. Why can’t we build a mechanism like that? These are the questions where we see the existing establishment becoming defensive, because that would erase a lot of jobs. These organisations are asking, what will happen to all of our employees who are now managing these systems? And the answer is the same as what happened with the monks in the scriptoria when Gutenberg’s movable type printing came along — they all got new jobs.” (Pohjavirta)

But then, for the longest time, we’ve been conditioned to believe that learning was something you did in a room with 10, 20 or 30 other people, with someone delivering the knowledge. The responsibility has been on the side of the deliverer, and the students are sitting there, being the the passive receivers of it. Now, being innovative is ranked as a requirement, but there is a problem.

“We expect of people that they will do new and innovative things, yet through their education they were not allowed to do any such thing. The system is designed to tell people what they cannot do.” (Bochiński)

If we are to speed up the pace at which education systems adjust to the requirements of our civilisation, this needs to be reversed. Indeed, taking responsibility for oneself was a central theme of our conversations, mirroring sentiments expressed decades ago by the American poet and public intellectual Adrienne Rich, in a college commencement address:

“You cannot afford to think of being here to receive an education: you will do much better to think of being here to claim one […] Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you (…) [It] means that you don’t fall for shallow and easy solutions […]“

So, where do we begin?

“Goal setting is a skill which today’s education seems to be ignoring. This leads to repercussions since we are creating a generation of people who do not know what they want from life, or indeed who they want to become. Through setting of goals we are able to learn more, since the point is not always to reach that goal but for it to be sufficiently ambitious, or difficult, so the very process of getting there is a learning experience. In Poland, right now, we do not teach anything like that. It is the teacher who sets the goal, explains how to get there, and gives a mark based on how well the student was able to follow the instructions. One of the most important things we can change in education right now is to allow young people to set their own goals, so they actually learn to do it. That way, we may end up with people who will hold agency over their own lives.” (Bochiński)

But goal setting has been the staple of “motivational speakers” for a generation and attaining goals has somehow become a goal in itself. Instead, we need to see goals as milestones in an ongoing process of constant becoming.

“You get born at some point and then you go to primary school, secondary school, then maybe tertiary and finally there’s a graduation. When you’re born you have 100% potential, but depending on where you’re born, who your parents are, the music you listen to, and so on, your potential might drop.

So we draw this “potential line” going down like this, really simply to say, here you have all the choices and potential in the world, and here you became a bookkeeper. The area between your potential and when you become is the dream gap.” (Kampman)

But then, not a lot will happen unless the student is driven to discover. Sir Ken Robinson and many others have argued that children have plenty enough of drive, and it is our schools that systematically kill it. So we need to reignite that curiosity, that desire to learn — or simply stop killing it as part of “schooling.”

“Curiosity is central to education. If students are not interested, they will not want to learn. It is curiosity that builds a desire to learn, to discover new things and to gain an education.” (Bochiński)

Of course, a desire and a healthy curiosity are not, in themselves, enough. A firm grounding is required.

“Lately there has been a lot of talk of future competencies being defined as creativity, ability to communicate, problem solving, critical thinking, curiosity. Basic competencies such as reading comprehension, numeracy or ability to manage finances have been less in the news but it is important that we do not neglect those. Crucially, we have to remember that such basic competencies are fundamental building blocks of how one builds up one’s understanding of the World, otherwise we will be educating a generation of people who will have no solid basis for their thinking processes — creatively inspiring people into not comprehending how the World works. The consequences of such dramatic skills gaps can be already seen today in, for example, how few people are able to understand the exponential nature of the growth in COVID-19 cases.” (Bochiński)

”This crisis and it context gives people a reason to want to learn FOR something, which is new and difficult. Traditionally, instead of good reasons to learn a thing there have been boxes to tick, lists to complete and tests results to compare. It has been impossible to quickly see any cause and effect there but with this pandemic we can now certainly see such cause and effect in action. With all of the graphs, infographics and flattening curves we can see with only a small delay what the impact of our efforts is. That is not the immediate feedback of traditional education. This is one positive aspect of this situation as is really the first time you maybe see this direct relationship. Those are the kinds of feedback loops that need to be designed into curricula to enable people to know how well they’re doing, and what they’re doing it for in the first place.” (Kampman)

New forms of delivering and discovering of knowledge will become the norm. Learning for fulfilment of potential and not for filling of workspaces in offices and factories will become a central principle. Technology will be important in this process, of course, but this is more than a matter of introducing new technolgies into classrooms — be they physical or virtual — and suggests that a redefinition of the role of the teacher is also needed.

“Closing the gap between reality and potential involves a lot of different responsibilities and more people than only the students — it involves the teachers, the local community and there is a massive effort to be done by parents. Learning to learn new things is complicated and the same goes for learning to teach new things in a new way. Teachers are taught to be teachers, so each teacher goes to teacher school to be taught to be a teacher by teachers who are taught to be teachers. Before they are able to teach differently, there’s also a big process there and we need to design for this.” (Kampman)

Teachers’ motivation is to see their pupils thrive so providing spaces for professional development for individual teachers is probably one of the wisest investments that any education system anywhere can do. This will enable them to, indeed, become more facilitators of knowledge rather than “teachers.” If we give teachers tools that enable them to do the tedious, routine things more efficiently, so that they don’t have to focus on control, we give them the opportunity to train themselves to support their development as individuals.

“Technology could also take over some of the more repetitive aspects of exercises in, for example maths or physics, through gamification. In turn, at school we would be able to concentrate on building relationships, on coaching young people towards discovering where their interests may lie, and in the process of self-observation.”(Bruszewska)

“One of the greatest takes on learning technology came from Issac Asimov, talking about the future of education back in the 80s and predicting how every one of us would have access to good quality teachers, to learn about things that we’re passionate about. That is what we should start discussing. Every one of us individuals on this planet, should start with the diagram that Marcel drew. Each one of us has these passions and in the future we should be fully focused on developing those passions, and giving skills to people to become better at those passions while giving them tools to build a livelihood on top of that passion and to develop an understanding that you’re not good at everything, so you need to collaborate with others by becoming better at being you. That is what we should focus on, not learning skills that can be replicated, but actually developing the skills that are unique to you, and making them your assets.” (Pohjavirta)

“In the Netherlands, education is organised around educational goals which students have to fulfil every year, but no-one says how they should get there. All the schools are using same methods provided by the big publishers and so they all use the same books. There’s nobody saying the schools have to use those same books, but it’s McDonald’s convenient to learn everything about Napoleon, except nowhere does it say to go outside and play, or go to England to learn English. The only thing that you have to fulfil as a school is to test to see if the kids learned the proper amount of English, but it is something of a discovery that you are actually free as to the methods.” (Kampman)

“We can envision that in the near future we should be able to hand over some of the general knowledge subjects to online learning of the type carried out by Sir David Attenborough and his natural history programmes. Netflix is a valid source of knowledge in that way.” (Bruszewska)

Schooling in such a way as to reach the prescribed goals but to do it in a way which engages the students and builds their curiosity and desire to learn… Enter, the Dream School.

“It started with me giving a talk about the impact of technology on children some years ago. It somehow grew into a large global conversation which we then condensed again into a local plan. We were determined to cook up this ideal school and now it has been built — a school for kids from twelve to eighteen years old, from below 70 IQ to pre-university, 2000 children and 300 staff, and it’s amazing. My daughter started there last year. She loves it that dancing classes are weighted in the same way as maths. If you’re not good at maths, you can balance your overall score by dancing well. We had to find a process to build a creative place where we would invite children to learn, and to make manifest the best possible version of themselves. And how do you design for that? How do you architect a building for that? How do you create a culture that reflects these principles? What kind of symbolism does it need?” (Kampman)

Reorienting our methods of schooling to build up teamwork and collaboration appears to be a way forward.

“Project work in teams, designed so as young people learn to solve real problems is, largely, how education of the future should look. Project-based learning addresses does two things. To begin with, it answers a direct economic requirement through the education of people able to solve problems and find gaps in societal needs, which need filling. In addition, it helps to bring up happy, fulfilled people, who are able to learn and work while satisfying their interests and feeding their passions. This kind of education sparks in young people a certain curiosity about the World, and often results in students ending up in far better relationships with their peers, built up through mutual support.” (Bruszewska)

Such an approach ought to make it easier for both the students and the teachers. But what of the underlying economic problems? We already had a growing economic gap between different different socioeconomic classes, which both stemmed from a growing educational gap and then translated back into one. So now with remote education, are we learning that a large percentage of the developed world’s population is being altogether left out because people can’t afford computers for their kids? Is this situation only going to make the gap larger?

“No, that’s really the wrong way to be looking at this. Everyone on the planet has access to a mobile device and that’s the whole idea why we started Funzi. If mobile has changed the way the world consumes music, games, has given access to communication to billions of people who could not communicate, now we can use that tool to also deliver learning.” (Pohjavirta)

So, which way the future?

“Don’t focus on the boundaries. If you think something is impossible, reconsider, because you’re not really pushing yourself. If you’re in the field of education, you’re always with other people. And you may be feeling like you are playing a small role in a large life but that don’t feel restrained or limited because to find people around your means you don’t have to fix everything yourself.” (Kampman)

“We can’t change our past but we do build our future and the biggest impact that we have on our future is to learn better things. Everything is in our hands and it is our own responsibility and this is the point in time where we can learn anything we want. There is no one who can come and say “don’t learn that” or if there is then you have to you have to seek support. There are individuals like myself or organisations like Funzi or Boma — reach out to those and seek support, and you will find it. This is actually the moment of liberation where the education system needs to focus on the family’s needs, to focus on learning. It’s not about passing the test. It’s about having, and teaching, that empathy and compassion and responsibility to those future learners.” (Pohjavirta)