In the past
I recently asked my 94-year-old grandmother what school was like for her in the 1920s and 1930s. She reflected that what she learned at school was to be quiet (unless asked to speak), to do what she was told, and always stay between the lines when writing on her slate. I asked her what a slate was and she described it as an early form of tablet technology.
In the future
Soon after this conversation, I had a futuristic dream that I was being quizzed by my great granddaughter for a history project she was doing about what school was like when I was a teacher. In the dream, she asked if it was true that students could only be in the same class as other students their own age. She also wanted confirmation that computers had been around for 30 years or so, yet the senior secondary assessment was largely done by hand. She was confused by the fact that in 2014, most students had their own personal mobile digital devices, yet many schools saw them as a learning distraction and banned them. She also wanted an explanation as to why information sharing resources and video streaming tools were banned at many schools.
When I woke up, I was in a cold sweat, it was like a nightmare. How will we justify to future generations how slow most education institutions have been in keeping up with the technological developments that are commonplace in modern society?
The conversation with my Grandmother made me realise that schools were originally established to deliberately not encourage creativity. The dream I had confirmed to me that we are still tied to traditional 100-year-old mindsets of teacher focussed teaching and learning centrally controlled.
Schools were not designed to be creative
As my Grandmother reflected, her teachers were very strict, and students were not encouraged to talk or collaborate. When the teacher talked, the students were expected to the listen and learn. Students were not encouraged to think outside the square or express themselves in creative ways. Creativity was an unnecessary distraction to developing societies where the priority was to fill factories full of workers to do menial tasks that would help develop nationhood.
In my current job as Adobe’s Senior Education Advocate for Asia Pacific, I have the opportunity to visit schools and universities across the globe and see first hand the legacy of these traditional teaching approaches. Although there are pockets of real change and innovation, most education systems are still based on a traditional teacher-centered model where standardised testing and large classes of students at similar ages is dominant.
Best environment for learning
We know so much more these days about how the brain works best for learning. Dr John Medina, the author of Brain Rules, is a developmental molecular biologist and a Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He recently keynoted the Australian Council of Education Leaders conference in Melbourne and explained to a large group of school principals and other education leaders what he and other leading researchers are discovering about the optimal environmental settings for the brain to develop. He summed up the findings by saying that the human brain appears to have been designed to solve problems related to surviving in an outdoor setting, in unstable meteorological conditions, and to do so in near constant motion (http://brainrules.blogspot.co.nz).
So, it appears the best conditions for learning to take place involves problem-solving activities in an outdoor environment when weather conditions are unstable and students are consistently on the move. In Medina’s address to the school leaders, he said that if we applied all that we currently know about the brain and used this knowledge to design the most perfect anti-brain learning environment, it would look like what we see in most schools around the world, students sitting inside on individual desks focussed on a single teacher.
A prediction in 1980
In 1980, well before personal computing was the norm, the Godfather of ICT integration in education, Seymour Papert, made a prediction that no one knows how computers will be used in the future, but what we do know is that they will be everywhere, like pencils, everyone will have them all the time. That prediction certainly came true, most people, including students, carry at least one form of computer with them all the time. However, in the same speech, Papert made another prediction that I do not think has become a reality:
“And with everybody having computers all the time, it is inconceivable that learning will be like it’s been in the past. There will be new ways of learning. But it’s up to you, and me, and all of us, to invent that future.”
The reality is that, in most cases, schooling systems are still very similar to what they have been in the past. Yes, the technology has changed, but the mindsets are still much the same. Blackboards have been replaced with interactive whiteboards, and slates have been replaced with digital tablet devices; however, crowded curriculums, same age classes, teacher-focussed content delivery approaches, and timetabling restraints make innovation a very gradual process and creativity a luxury.
It dawned on me that Sugatra Mitra, when doing his 2014 keynote address at EduTech in Brisbane, was right when he said that schools were not designed to be places of creativity. Sir Ken Robinson verified this observation in a video interview for Adobe Education when he said that our traditional schooling system was not designed to teach creativity, and transformation is required.
Why focus on creativity?
It is no longer about getting good grades at school to get into a good university course. It is also no longer about getting good grades at university to get a good job. The mandate from industry for education is clear, encouraging students to enhance their creative and critical thinking skills as well as their collaboration skills needs to be a vital part of the education process. With the world’s collective data doubling every 18 months, and virtually the sum of all human knowledge available to most people through their personal handheld devices, remembering facts and figures for an exam is not as highly valued a skill in the general 21st Century workplace.
Edelman Berland, a leading US research company, surveyed 1,068 hiring managers in July 2014 to find out what skill sets they are looking for in young people as they leave the education system and enter the 21st Century workforce. Nearly 90 per cent of them said students need to be tech-savy, 82 per cent said they need to be skilled in communication through digital and visual media, and 76 per cent said creativity was vital. When asked if students were being well prepared for the 21st Century workforce, 70 per cent of the hiring managers said no. Nearly 95 per cent of those surveyed agreed that creativity is key when evaluating candidates for a job (www.adobe.com/go/edu_creative_study.html).
Change is a constant
Professor Mitch Resnick from MIT, disciple of Seymor Papert, the father of constructionism and the Godfather of ICT integration in education, was a guest in a recent webinar for Adobe Education. He reflected on how rapidly the world is changing, faster than ever before, and on how concepts that were important to teach today may well be obsolete tomorrow. He said that the one thing that will always be needed to be taught is the ability to come up with creative solutions to a rapidly changing world (bit.ly/mitchresnick-adobe14).
Resnick’s research group at MIT is called the Lifelong Kindergarten group because it takes its inspiration from the way children learn in their early years of schooling. It is in these early years that children are constantly making and creating things in collaboration with others, and learning at an incredibly rapid rate in the process.
Stamping out creativity
It is not long into the primary education when school often turns from a place of creativity to a place of authoritarian content delivery. Making things in collaboration with others becomes less as important as preparing for a test soon into the traditional school experience. Competing against other students for marks becomes more important in most schools than working in collaboration with others.
Steve Jobs, one of the most influential individuals in modern history, when being interviewed by Walter Issacson for his biography, said about his early schooling experiences “… they really almost got me. They came close to really beating any curiosity out of me” (Issacson, 2011 p.11).
This statement shocked me when I first read it. It appears that the very young Steve Jobs was a very bright boy who got bored very easily because there was very little challenge provided for him at school, and he was always in trouble. It made be wonder how many other potential Steve Jobs’ have sat in my classrooms. It also made me wonder how often we try to force young children to fit the system, even to the point of medicating them so that they conform to the rules of the system.
I was very pleased to turn the page and read about Jobs’s Grade 4 teacher Mrs Imogene Hill who appeared to be his saving grace. She saw something very special in young Steve and provided him with a hobby kit to build his own camera. Of Mrs Hill, Jobs said, “I learned more from her than any other teacher, and if it hadn’t been for her I’m sure I would have gone to jail … She saw something special in me” (Issacson, 2011 p.12).
Pockets of innovation
I recently had the great pleasure of spending some time with Professor Stephen Heppell at the Bett Asia conference in Singapore, and finding out about some of the work he is doing to help the transformation process in schools. He challenges the idea that students need to be restricted to a standard curriculum framework. He is working with schools and universities around the world, setting up opportunities for students to follow their passions. He believes that when and if students discover that have a talent and interest in a particular field they should be allowed to pursue it and not be restricted by curriculum boundaries. He argues that there is no reason why some students cannot start their university studies when they are at school, and universities and schools should be much more aligned.
As I travel around Asia Pacific and other parts of the world, I am seeing pockets of innovation and a real desire to make our education systems more relevant for the 21st Century workplace.
My hope is that creativity, which is so highly valued by industry, will be more recognised as vital in higher education, vocational education and K-12 schooling. I would love my Grandmother to be able to walk into any classroom and not have that experience bring back direct correlations to what she experienced as a child.
Issacson, W (2011), Steve Jobs, Simon & Schuster, USA, pp. 11
Papert, 1980s – [online available Jan 2013] http://www.papert.org/articles/const_inst/const_inst1.html
Following 23 years teaching in Primary, Secondary and Tertiary sectors, Dr Tim Kitchen is currently working as Adobe’s Senior Education Advocate for Asia Pacific. He regularly writes and presents for a range of national and international journals, workshops, seminars and conferences. Join close to 180,000 innovative educator’s in Adobe’s free online resource and professional learning portal The Adobe Education Exchange (http://edex.adobe.com). You can also read Tim’s blog at http://timkitchen.net
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