Is this the death of education & the dawn of learning?

“You can’t be too ambitious with your expectations of children” – Stephen Heppell

“Play is part of the process – play isn’t for recess and then you get back to work.” -Brendan Boyle

I am currently attending the Creative Innovation conference and had the pleasure of sitting in on a Deep Conversation with Professor Stephen Heppell, Associate Professor Brendan Boyle and the Chancellor of LaTrobe University, Professor Adrienne Clark.

Stephen Heppell is perhaps Europe’s leading online education expert, the CEO of and is one of the global leaders in learning space design. The conversational style of Heppell is enchanting, fusing personal anecdotes with humour – he kicked things off by sharing a story of when he was an undergraduate with his wife, when they first met Edward DeBono. This story was a reflection on the change he has witnessed since he was in University to the present day. To get a first-class honors degree in Stephen’s time, you had to produce a surprising, astonishing paper – now to get a first-class honors degree you have to produce the least surprising paper – for me, this touched on a number of issues such as academic inflation or the worth of a post-graduate degree, especially in education, peer review, open access versus pay-walls and the constant nature of accelerating change – but that is another post in itself.

Reflecting on projects he has been part of in education over the last twenty years or so, Heppell can’t remember one that he was scared of – and he definitely didn’t stop because of roadblocks.  In fact he stated, “If the bureaucracy try to stop you, it is likely to succeed.” Many early projects that Heppell was involved with were funded not by education, but by industries. I, personally, would like to see more of this. Many high-profile bloggers and leading educationalists would argue that this is a bad thing, but I don’t think so. If schools and education systems around the world are facing budget cuts, where does the funding come from? – granted this does lead into the privatization debate…

Heppell’s main points:

  • Have high expectations of students. 
  • Why does their have to be an age when you are supposed to be able to do something? Why should age be such a factor in education? 
  • Where is the research that says kids learn best when kids are grouped according to age? 
  • The madness of ringing a bell and expecting all kids to be hungry at the same time is absurd – timetabling needs radical rethinking. 
  • Kids, no matter what age or background, are capable of amazing things. 
  • Allow kids to take their shoes off (Seriously – A great deal of research has led Heppell to believe that young boys store their testosterone in their shoes) 
  • Instill a sense of play in your learning community 

A story was shared about a group of bankers in a pub on the Thames on their hands and knees playing with some concrete materials that Stephen had bought with him – a sense of inherent playfulness is part of what it means to be human.

Play, has long been identified as an integral part of childhood development but many educators and parents differentiate between a time for play and a time for learning without seeing the vital connection between the two. Too often, proponents of a more playful environment are shot down by traditionalists that argue that for learning to be rigorous; it should be something that is akin to a chore. Something that is hard work – Dean Groom would tell them to get over it – learning can and should be fun and enjoyable. The moment you invite children to see the world in a playful way, it connects pleasurable emotions to learning, and this is what the back to basics movement should be all about.

Universities and education departments move too slowly – Heppell states, “it’s a pedagogical Egypt out there” – the things we know work well, we can’t make policies for. But it doesn’t matter, the real change is happening in the classrooms.

Brendan Boyle was also super-impressive in talking about design thinking. Brendan is a Partner at IDEO; co-author of The Klutz Book of Inventions; has invented & licensed more than 150 consumer products; Associate Professor at Stanford University’s d. School and Board Member National Institute for Play.

Brendan spoke at length about the importance of multi-disciplinary teams and discovering your creative confidence. In supporting the notion of multi-disciplinary teams, Brendan stated that “I shaped people don’t play well with others. T shaped people have both breadth and depth.” To me, this was the highlight, because if you think about it a majority of important discoveries now and in the future, will be made in the interstices between disciplines – we have almost gone full circle from the great polymath’s of Newton and Da Vinci, to very specific specialization, and now back to the importance of having a breadth of cross-disciplinary knowledge.

Brendan also spoke about the idea of reverse mentoring – having students be a teacher’s mentor – a big shift in mindset for many.

A great start to the conference.

*UpdateA graphic view of the Deep Conversation

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