Explore. Dream. Discover. The new principles for education in the 21st century?

Come away with me….

Imagine, just for a minute, that you are an explorer. The kind who is fascinated, curious and excited about the world around them. The kind who is endlessly pursuing new adventures, in new places with new people; who is inspired and inspiring; adaptable and resilient; who is passionate and empathetic, with an appreciation for all forms of life on our planet and beyond…

Sounds just like the explorer I would like to go on an adventure with. Just like the kind of person I would like to work with. And possibly the kind of soul I could, change the world with.

I recently attended a Virgin Disruptors event in London where some amazing people gathered together to discuss the future of education, and whether it is keeping up with the 21st century. It got me thinking about a few things that I’d like to share with you.

Before we start, let’s get one thing clear. None of us know what type of world we will inhabit in 2 or 5 years, let alone 20 -30 years time. For this reason alone, we cannot hope to prepare the next generation for their lives by teaching and testing methods as they stand today.

We must be more clever and creative than that. We must design an education system that equips the next generation with skills, values and techniques, not only for self-understanding, but to thrive in the unknown future of the years ahead. It’s time that we designed education that empowers knowledge seeking explorers.

Can we really design an education system that satisfies everyone?

No one said this would be easy.

For starters there are many different stakeholders, all with slightly different hopes for education. Below are just some that cropped up on the day:

Parents want to know:

“Will my child’s education help my child to succeed in life?”

Educators want to know:

“How do we measure “success in life”?

Companies want to know:

‘Is education providing students with the skills we need for the success of our businesses of the future?’

And for those being educated …

“Am I being encouraged to be true to myself, discover my passions and dreams so I can thrive in life and live my own definition of success?’

(Thank you children of school 21 in London for that, I think it’s a great place to begin.)

There is a paradigm shift required. We need to be the change we want. We will need to role model the behaviours we want to see valued in our future education system; co operation, creativity and communication. We will need to start before we are ready, and learn as we go along. We need to move away from measuring how intelligent students are, and move to teaching and valuing ‘how’ they are intelligent.

The Dreaming Brain

Dreaming is the first stage to becoming. We do it naturally as children. As Buddha said, “life is, but a creation of the mind”. The question is can we build an education system that allows us to dream?

We heard Iain McGilchrist http://www.iainmcgilchrist.com/ talk about the divided brain and the role it plays in driving our attention, which ultimately drives our mental engagement and capacity to learn.

We have two types of attention available to us. The first is linked to the left hemisphere and acts as a filter for us to laser focus. It is concerned with discrete, unconnected information that allows us to make rapid decisions. The right hemisphere has a broader, connected view and helps us to relate to the contextual nature of our world. It is the seat of the “aha’ or ‘Eureka’ moment and is highly active during creative thinking.

Typically our education system has favoured the left hemisphere view of the world — right, wrong, input, output and standardization. Great for some fields, (e.g. medicine) and historically helpful for preparing 19th century factory workers. However it is less helpful for the interconnected, co-operative and unpredictable world that most of our young people will grow up in. So how do we grab our right brains attention in education and start strengthening that mental muscle?

Hello! I’m over here!

Creativity is a big topic. Much like education, everyone has a view on what it is, and also what it is not. For me, it is the ability to make something meaningful from nothing, to connect the seemingly unrelated in a way that creates value.

Albert Einstein said, “Creativity is intelligence having fun”. Steve Jobs said, “Creativity is just connecting things”. Could we then engage and strengthen our right hemisphere attention through creative activities?

The team at Aldebaran Robotics https://www.aldebaran.com/en would say so. They demonstrated a social companion robot called Nao, which can be programmed and used in classrooms in a range of different ways. Results show these little robots capture attention and build engagement — provoking students to ask searching questions of their teachers and provide valuable opportunities for groups of students to get creative in programming and engineering.

Um? Engineering and programming are creative???

Yes. I know.

If ever you needed any convincing that STEM careers (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) could be creative, half an hour with the Virgin Galactic team should do it. After all, they are turning generations of space obsessed artistic visions into reality, through science.

They also made some interesting observations about the effect that space travel has for right brain attentional engagement. Seen from miles above, astronauts report losing the sense of boundaries, distinctions and separateness typified by our traditional left hemisphere education. Instead they convey appreciation for the fragility of this planet, connected by all life — a little blue dot orbiting in space. It is in this compassionate, connected and co-operative mental space that creativity and passion can solve the planets biggest challenges.

Creating creativity

Mary Angelou said, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have”.

So how do we create space for creativity in education?

The good news is we have lots of options available to us, each worthy of further discussion than I can here. ‘Blended learning’ was a buzzword for the day. Using technology as a learning medium and for providing real time feedback allows students to take control of their own learning outcomes. Project based activities aligned to real life context means learning can move out of the classrooms and connect students to projects all over the world. Investing and up skilling teachers so they can act as mentors/coaches teaching values, not just facts from a textbook, would return many to their own love of learning. Raising the profile of well being/meditation, communication skills, compassion and the arts, whilst reducing the numbers of formal exams, all provide an opportunity in the timetables to allow students to flourish at their own pace, in their own way.

Of course, how you teach creativity is only half the battle — how you measure it is the other half.

Promoting the place of creativity in education should not however, be limited to the innovation and investment of the developed nations. Re thinking what we want out of our education system provides us an opportunity to advance the creative literacy of the next generation globally — not to further divide it. Besides, there are many lessons the developed nations can learn from developing nations when it comes to getting access to education — especially the importance of community, resilience and self-belief.

Avoiding a creativity crisis in developing countries

Having been a volunteer teacher in Laos, I know first hand the challenges the education system faces to get a basic level of skills into the population. One of our most urgent questions needs to be how we ensure the educational reform and skills refocus of the developed nations is replicated in low cost and effective ways in developing countries.

Pearson social learning fund and SPARK in South Africa provided examples of the great opportunity that blended learning offers developing nations. SPARK demonstrated a scalable cost effective and successful model using technology to deliver real time student feedback, reduced overheads and reduced staffing costs with high quality results. Google Experiences, the portable virtual reality glasses that take “students to places the school bus can’t” have applications in countries like Laos where internet connection is unreliable and poverty means most people will not leave the country during their education.

Whilst we can always do more, testing these ideas in the developed nations provides a short cut for raising the educational standards in many developing nations.

A student of the future?

And so it is that we return to our explorer.

Educated in values and context. Creative and empathetic, these students have discovered their passions and are driven to succeed in an unknown and ever changing world. They are our future, the dreamers, and the explorers.