Educating for the Future: Lessons from the Desert

Drue Kataoka
Dec 14, 2017 · 9 min read
The day I arrived in Abu Dhabi, visiting a Bedouin village. Behind us but not shown is the sparkling modern skyline.

Harvard Business Review first published this article in Arabic on December 7th.

There I was, eye to eye with a friendly camel…fresh off the sixteen-hour flight from San Francisco to Abu Dhabi. Surrounded by a few dozen teachers from about that many countries. We were visiting a historic Bedouin village as part of a cultural learning journey on the eve of the Qudwa Global Teachers’ Forum in Abu Dhabi. Our location was a paradox, just like the United Arab Emirates itself. Surrounded by hyper-modern architecture, we were in an oasis of decades past in the middle of a global metropolis — a reminder of life just over half a century ago.

I am an artist and technologist based in Silicon Valley, and nurturing creativity is one of my key interests. For several years, I have been a juror of the Global Teacher Prize (an initiative funded by the Varkey Foundation to promote creative teaching globally). With a few dozen other experts in various fields, I was invited to Abu Dhabi to speak to a global audience of 1000 educators from 80 countries. My talks focused on creativity, virtual reality, and STEAM education (integrating the Arts into STEM).

The U.A.E. has experienced one of the most break-neck speed transformations in history, from nomadic roots a bit over half a century ago, to the sparkling futuristic skylines of today.

Part of their forward-leaning momentum is driven by the realization that the oil revenue will not last forever. But more importantly, there has been a core desire to give the next generations, and their children, the opportunities that the current generations and their parents never had. Bring the best architects to the U.A.E. Bring the Louvre and the Guggenheim. Bring top Western universities. Create two of the best airlines (Emirates and Etihad) to connect the U.A.E. to the world.

Now, the top initiative of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, is educating the U.A.E.’s youth. The approach is humble — learn from the world, invite the best, and create an exchange of ideas. Do not spare resources in the process. Hosting the Qudwa Forum, a flagship of this vision, was a gargantuan task. It’s not easy to coordinate such a selection process on a global scale. Assisted by the Varkey Foundation, the OECD and other institutional partners who had already built education networks, the Qudwa team sought out the world’s best educators and speakers. The venue was Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace, which is not really a palace, but it could as well have been.

One of my sessions at Qudwa Global Forum on Education. Several dozen speakers presented sessions to 1000 educators from 80 countries across two days. Moderated by Tyler Dewitt.

The theme of the Qudwa Forum was aptly titled “Teach For Tomorrow.” In my estimation, it speaks exactly to the biggest problem we have with our education systems worldwide. They are bogged down in the past. As the world throttles forward into a future of exponential technologies, we are burdening our young people with an educational system that is preparing them not for Tomorrow but for the Yesterday of the Industrial Age.

Alvin Toffler’s 1970 classic Future Shock is incredibly relevant today.

Futurist Alvin Toffler eloquently articulated this in 1970, in his classic Future Shock. He observed that schools were modeled after the industrial assembly line. Students moved en masse from room to room, at the ring of a bell, force-fed the same information in an undifferentiated and impersonal way. Such students, of course, would be the perfect fodder to be swallowed by the voracious factory assembly lines of the industrial revolution.

But “Houston, we have a problem.” The education system we’ve inherited is not producing workers for a rust-belt factory anymore. These jobs are few, and ever-decreasing in number and pay. Rather, we are raising employees for a super-dynamic globalized job marketplace, where creativity, agility, lifetime learning, initiative and entrepreneurship are rewarded. The irony is that even car manufacturing today has evolved beyond the Taylorist anti-utopia. Yet, somehow, we allow such an early 20th-century process to have its way with our children.

So how do we change this?

This was a question at the crux of many of the conversations at Qudwa. Three major themes stood out: nurturing creativity, preparing for a VR and AI world, and achieving a greater meritocracy in teaching.

1) Nurturing creativity: Breaking down the siloes across disciplines
One of Toffler’s key observations was: “The very organization of knowledge into permanent disciplines was grounded on industrial assumptions.” Indeed, still today, if a teacher teaches physics, they teach physics. If they teach history, they teach history. If they teach art, they teach art. Yet, this siloed approach is handicapping all of us. A major study by Dr. Robert Root Bernstein of Michigan State University found that for scientists, the higher their accomplishments, the higher the probability of them having a serious artistic avocation. Consider this: Nobel Laureates in the sciences are twenty-five times as likely as the average scientist to sing, dance, or act; seventeen times as likely to be a visual artist; twelve times more likely to write poetry and literature; eight times more likely to do woodworking or some other craft; four times as likely to be a musician; and twice as likely to be a photographer. In my talk at Qudwa, I outlined how artistic endeavors played a key role in the contributions of geniuses like Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, the Wright Brothers and Steve Jobs.

Therefore, I proposed The 10% Rule: teachers in the sciences should spend 10% of their instruction time highlighting the artistic links to what they teach. Conversely, teachers in the arts and humanities should spend 10% of their instruction time explaining the scientific connections and underpinnings of their material. The goal is to nurture more creative minds who can make major leaps in the service of humanity.

A demonstration of mixed reality at Drue Kataoka Studios (www.Drue.Net)

2) Preparing for a VR and AI world: Visual literacy and moral soundness
Today, we are at the brink of a transformation comparable to that introduced by the Lumière Brothers when they invented cinema over a century ago. Virtual reality and augmented reality will be an important part of our lives in the not-so-distant future. Just last month, Mark Zuckerberg set the goal of having 1 billion people in VR soon. Both Facebook and Google are making major bets that VR will be the environment for us to work, play, communicate, recuperate and create. In a matter of time, it will swallow what we call today the Internet, and what we call television, becoming even more pervasive than either.

How do we educate our children for this VR world? How do we ensure they become creators not just consumers? How do we ensure that they are a part of the new global creative class? These were top-of-mind questions for everybody at Qudwa, from the Minister of Education and the Minister of State for Public Education to the Director of Education at the Crown Prince’s Court and the incoming Minister of Culture, to every teacher and thought leader present. Besides the obvious need to educate interdisciplinary thinkers and to break the educational siloes, there are at least two key considerations: the importance of visuals in VR, and the importance of values in this new medium.

Virtual Reality is an immersive experience of visuals, sound and eventually — all the other senses. Yet, like our “real reality,” it is visual-first: visual perceptions play a disproportionate role. So humanity’s future creativity and even humanity’s future sanity lies in the visual IQ and good visual taste of those who would create these future VR environments. Never, perhaps since the Renaissance, have artists faced a challenge of such magnitude — to build massive new worlds, atom by atom, pixel by pixel, where we will spend the majority of our lives. We need to educate our youth to be up to this task.

The other major implication of the VR world is that its values will be extremely important. Some of my fellow technologists may bristle — technology has no values. Yes, it does. The algorithmic underpinnings of human interactions, the ways in which we access knowledge, what is readily available and what is not have tremendous implications for the values of the VR worlds. In turn, these values will shape our society. With social networking and collaborative filtering algorithms, we were not very conscious of the ways in which they promoted echo chambers of ideas, thereby creating problems that will weigh on us for decades to come. Furthermore, in a new virtual world, laws are elusive — and global legal authorities like the US Supreme Court (with an average age of 70 years) are hardly positioned to understand, much less regulate them. The social values of VR need to be imparted to its future creators from an early age.

The Emiratis have a major initiative to address this values gap. It’s a program they call “Moral Education,” a concept borrowed from the Japanese educational curriculum. Its four pillars are Character and Morality, The Individual and the Community, Civic Studies, and Cultural Studies. At its core, the goal of moral education is to instill social values like compassion, empathy, fairness, tolerance, equality and appreciation. “Our ambition is that every single teacher, whether you are a biology, chemistry or physics teacher” will teach Moral Education classes, according to a Sr. Associate of the Crown Prince’s Court. I believe that highlighting these intersections of education and moral values can be a source of competitive advantage in the coming decades for nations.

3) Meritocracy in education
Here’s a paradox: Educators are entrusted with the most valuable piece of code in the universe — humanity’s DNA. They are also in charge of the fastest learning machines we have — our children. Yet these teachers are treated and compensated like early 20th century factory workers, not like the information technology workers that they effectively are. Our future, and our survival depend on the work they do. Yet, a study presented at Qudwa Forum by Andreas Schleicher from the OECD Education Directorate, highlighted that only one country in their study (China) put the prestige of the teacher’s profession on equal footing with prestigious professions such as physicians and lawyers.

Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard after her session.

Also speaking at Qudwa, Former Australian PM Julia Gillard made an important observation: while for health care workers, we have different terms to indicate different levels of expertise and professional accomplishment (nurses, physician assistants, doctors, etc.), in k-12 education we call everybody a teacher — regardless of their academic degree or level of accomplishments. Our language needs to evolve, and we need a way to recognize and reward merit.

The Varkey Foundation, one of the strategic partners of the conference, has played a pioneering role in elevating the role of teachers. Every year, they grant a $1M award to a select teacher of the year during a celebration treating the world’s leading teachers like the rock-stars that they are.

In conclusion, by this point you may be wondering…what does “Qudwa” mean? It means “role model” in Arabic. This is what teachers have been for centuries. Yet, we face a critical juncture today, when the value of education is being challenged on multiple fronts. Every country urgently needs to adapt its educational methods, so that its teachers can remain role models for the next century and beyond. How well nations do this will impact their global competitiveness, and ability to lead in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

A child in a classroom dreams about the future.

About the Author:
Artist & Technologist Drue Kataoka is the Creative Director of Drue Kataoka Studios (www.Drue.Net). A Young Global Leader & Cultural Leader of the World Economic Forum and member of their Steering Committee on VR/AR/AI for the Creative Economy. Drue is Artist-in-Residence for Google Virtual Reality (Tilt Brush). She established a yearly education scholarship for youth in 2001, and is a juror for the Global Teacher Prize.

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