Teaching for an unpredictable future?

*Re-posted from the Mentone Grammar blog.

Globalisation and the accelerating rate of technological development provide new and unparalleled opportunities for the evolution of our species. Children entering Eblana at Mentone Grammar in 2019 will be young adults in 2030. What will the world look like? What career pathways will be available to them?

Experts argue that the world of 2030 will be shaped by advancements in Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Computing, Synthetic Biology, Biotechnology and the field of Big Data, particularly as the appliances and accessories that we wear and have in our homes gain greater tracking, storage and analytical power through the ubiquity and accessibility of next generation internet services. Automation is already forcing many industries to rethink traditional blue collar professions. The jobs that were once human endeavours are quickly changing as some jobs become obsolete and new jobs are invented.

As Artificial Intelligence applications become increasingly sophisticated, we are seeing glimpses of the inevitability that one day in the not too distant future, machines will exceed our abilities in many, many areas. Intelligent algorithms have even started to exhibit traits like creativity, traits that we once thought would solely exist in the human domain. Even the way we interact with others has changed dramatically. Everything and everyone has at once become more connected through social media and yet more isolated, as “screen time” takes away from much of our face to face communications.

The young people graduating from Mentone Grammar in 2030 will face some of the world’s most pressing and intractable problems: The political, environmental, economic and societal implications of global warming and climate change, the ethics and morality of our ability to genetically modify our unborn children, an increasing and ageing population that has come about through advances in medicine and increased life expectancy, dwindling natural resources and the merging and augmentation of human intelligence through the use of technology and pharmaceuticals. The call for schools to adequately prepare students for an uncertain future can be seen throughout the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s under the guise of school reform and the risk of irrelevance. Whilst the argument today largely remains the same, we have never before been in the grips of such rapid technological development. Change is now the one known against the multitude of unknowns.

Schools play a critical role in shaping the competencies and capabilities of young people in their care. There has always been debate about the kind of skills people will need to thrive in the future. An in-depth knowledge, skillset and expertise of a particular specialization is still absolutely important, but increasingly major discoveries are happening at the interstices between disciplines and this requires depth in a specific field but also an ability and the capability to see and make connections more broadly. Tony Wagner, an Expert in Residence at Harvard University’s Innovation Lab states that “Young people who are intrinsically motivated — curious, persistent, and willing to take risks — will learn new knowledge and skills continuously. They will be able to find new opportunities or create their own — a disposition that will be increasingly important as many traditional careers disappear.”

Schools need to continue to create the conditions for students to develop this disposition toward learning. These conditions must not stymie or stifle curiosity, should free children’s imaginations and enable them to be resilient in the face of adversity. The role of the teacher will still be to teach, but also to model, mentor, facilitate and assist in the development of character and emotional intelligence. Students will need help in developing a certain comfort with being uncomfortable. They will need to be put into situations where they have to make decisions in order to become skilled at making good decisions. They will need to learn how to navigate the multitude of new technologies at their disposal in safe, effective and ethical ways. If schools tailor their approach to develop students who have a sense of agency, then a variety of teaching and learning approaches must be used that are experiential, project-based and interspersed with purposeful periods of direct instruction. By creating these conditions, students will be equipped with the dispositions, tools and networks to embrace any possible future.

So, is it possible to teach skills for an unpredictable future? Yes. A breadth and depth of knowledge can be gained through a combination of explicit and implicit teaching and via opportunities for students to grapple with complex problems through inquiry. Through community service programs and local and overseas expeditions, students develop an understanding of their place in the world and how they can be leaders, giving back to others and contributing as active, productive and informed citizens. Through programs like the Mentone Grammar RULER program, students are explicitly taught how to recognize and regulate their emotions and how to see situations from the perspective of others. Skills like creativity, communication and critical thinking are developed in a number of ways through the lessons and experiences our teachers develop for our students. And through high expectations, students in our senior years develop a strong work ethic and important habits of mind as they strive to do their very best.

Mentone Grammar produces happy, healthy and high achieving students who are well prepared to enter the world of tomorrow. Throughout 2019, the Executive Leadership team in consultation with the Mentone community, will be developing our next strategic plan that will be future focussed and informed by the latest research, ensuring we continue to be one of the top Independent Schools in Australia, providing a contemporary education that meets the needs of all our students going into the future.

8 Things We Must Change

The inertia of a broken system often defaults to a reason for apathy, despair and inaction. At every crossroad, every junction and every pathway that leads to the future, we have a choice to be opposed by the thousands that guard the past or to push through, take action and create our own future.

Creating this future requires that;

  1. We change our attitude. By suspending our biases and disassociating with the way things have always been done, we can break free of the apathy and excuses bred of a broken system.
  2. We change the idea that one school should be just like another. Schools should be unique, not uniform. The system then exists not to strengthen itself, or to instruct others on what to do, but to strengthen the courage of the individual school in making itself a place of distinct identity.
  3. We change the notion that the school is a closed institution by breaking down it’s walls and having it come into direct contact with people. Real people. This includes parents so that we can all move beyond the thought of school as a place where children obey and memorize.
  4. We change our attitude towards the child. We are all teachers and all learners.
  5. We change the concept of having to cover the curriculum. A curriculum isn’t something that you pick up off the shelf and rigidly enforce or impose on kids. The value of any curriculum is as a framework for creating memorable learning experiences that are real, relevant and authentic. This changes our obsession with trying to assess everything. We don’t need to.
  6. We change school discipline ideas so that it gives place to self-discipline.
  7. We change the belief that the senior years of school are more important and that the teachers of older students are superior teachers. Every single year of education is important. None more so than another. This will be increasingly true as formal education models will morph and change in response to societal and environmental factors.
  8. We be confident in our “product” and not bow to external pressures whether they be real or perceived.

A difficult but not impossible task.

The Rising Billion

Imagine a world of nine billion people with clean water, nutritious food, affordable housing, personalized education, top-tier medical care, and non-polluting, ubiquitous energy – it’s a not an issue of scarcity, its an issue of accessibility.

Peter Diamandis in Abundance suggests that exponential advances in robotics, AI, synthetic biology and infinite computing, means that something is only going to be scarce until we use technology to make it abundant. Clean water? Energy? Environmental issues? All problems that will be solved in the coming decades.

Ubiquitous connectivity will see another 3 billion people gain access to the web by 2020 and with it, provide many the opportunity to break the cycle of unending poverty, violence and despair through access to education, banking, communication and finance. For the first time ever, the “rising billion” will have the power to identify, solve and implement solutions to their own problems through unparalleled access to information, expertise and finance (think Kiva, Kickstarter, Freelancer) and this is creating opportunities for collaborative thinking, innovation and entrepreneurship. We are seeing this every day and not just in the developing world. For instance, it’s mind blowing to think that in 2012 Instagram was acquired by Facebook for a billion dollars. A billion dollars! Uber has turned into a 40 billion dollar company within 5 years. Occulus Rift raised 3 million on Kickstarter and then sold to Facebook for 2 billion dollars 18 months later. It has never been easier or cheaper to take an idea from concept to reality.

What does this mean for schools? Students must have an empowered mindset – not one saturated with notions of conformity, passivity, compliance and control, but instead one that is liberated, critical, curious and exposed to contemporary ideas and models of business. Students who think that they can change the world will be the ones that will.

Schools still discussing social media policies are missing the point. Not only is Cognitive Load Management going to be an important skill in an increasingly digital world full of wonderful distractions, but the reality is that many of our students are going to be involved in social entrepreneurship, creating the jobs, tools and platforms that will lead to a world of Abundance.

Peter Diamandis spoke at Creative Innovation earlier this year.


Paraphrasing Peter Diamandis in Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think,

Imagine a world of nine billion people with clean water, nutritious food, affordable housing, personalized education, top-tier medical care, and non-polluting, ubiquitous energy – it’s a not an issue of scarcity, its an issue of accessibility.

The inevitable, inexorable, exponential march into the future, where yesterday’s crises is tomorrow’s opportunity, reminds me of Isaac Asimov’s The Last Question. You read enough science fiction you get used to the idea that science fiction quickly becomes science fact – it is incredibly exciting, scary, empowering and strangely dis-empowering all at the same time.

Give it a listen.

Children as Makers

In the MakersCory Doctorow paints a picture of a not too distant future, where a global economic downturn has led to an explosion of tinkering, innovation and creativity. This explosion is coined the ‘New Work’ movement and draws similarities to the dot-com boom of the 90’s. This ‘New Work’ movement empowers the average person and inspires a renaissance of sorts, almost removing the idea or paradigm of the centralized working environment. It creates a new culture, one of joyful discovery and inquisitiveness, of collaboration, and one where innovation is not only valued, but necessary to remain competitive in a fast-changing world.

This culture, dominated by amateur creators, no longer values corporate hierarchies or structures. People evolve with an ever-changing, and increasingly sophisticated technological world and are not tied or shackled to institutions that try to maintain the status quo, and they in turn, create new economic models and ways of doing business. This new movement is fuelled in part by the 3D printer. Wikipedia describes 3D printing,

“3D printing is a form of manufacturing technology where a three dimensional object is created by laying down successive layers of material. 3D printers offer product developers the ability to print parts and assemblies made of several materials with different mechanical and physical properties in a single build process.”

Quantum Victoria has a Dimension Elite 3D Printer that will be used for engineering processes such as proof of concept, functional testing, product mockups etc. and whilst the current costs of these devices is prohibitive, already we are seeing low-cost solutions entering the market. These printers are basically used as rapid prototyping devices at present, but not for much longer. Neil Gershenfeld, the Director for the Centre of Bits and Atoms at MIT, has been working on personal fabrication labs or ‘Fablabs’ for a few years now. These machines are still currently in their primitive stage, but Gershenfeld predicts that within 20 years every home will be equipped with a ‘Fablab’.

In 20 years, imagine not going to a jeweller to buy a new watch – but instead designing your own and fabricating it in your own home. Imagine being able to build anything you ever need in your own home, then imagine the effect that this will have on society, economics and industry.

New and emerging technologies like 3D printers are radically altering the landscape in which we live. By harnessing the potential of these technologies we can ensure systemic and fundamental restructuring – but to take full advantage of the opportunities this paradigm shift affords, we need children to have a passion for new ideas and creative tinkering. If innovation is seen as the successful implementation of creative ideas, then play is an integral part to the development of these passions we require our children to have.

Whilst most adults recognize the importance of providing young children the opportunity to play in educational environments, the connection between play and learning is often talked about dismissively, referred to as ‘just play”, and discussed as if in a dichotomy with learning. The ‘back to basics’ movement should be about reconnecting pleasurable emotions with learning and encouraging a playful environment – one that is not clinging to romantic notions of nostalgia but instead suited to the needs to the 21st century. This new approach would enable learners to develop the creative-thinking skills that are critical to success in todays society – in other words it would encourage children to be makers.

The Makers is technically science fiction, but really could be a commentary of society in the early 21st century. It resonates with many of the themes that are current in today’s society such as open source v proprietary, the individual v the corporation, intellectual property and out of date copyright laws and infringement in the age of the remix culture. 

Download your own free copy of Makers by Cory Doctorow here.

Change and a Better Future

As part of the scholarship application process for Creative Innovation 2011, I was asked to respond to the question,  “In this super-connected world, what is your idea for change and a better future?”

This is my response.

Catalyzed by technology and fueled by creativity and innovation, fundamental and exponential change is now a common part of the super-connected world in which we inhabit. In this rapidly changing world in which we live, technology is driving change and is increasingly a means for empowerment, a method of communication and socializing, and a ubiquitous, transparent part of many people’s lives.

A better future can be achieved by harnessing the potential of technology to provide equitable access to quality education thus ensuring systemic and fundamental restructuring and economic prosperity for all. By leveraging open content and the idea of having the entire sum of all human knowledge at your finger tips, barriers of geographic isolation, socio-economic status and disadvantage are removed. Young people now have the ability to learn what they want, when they want and from whom they want and are not constrained by their location or the knowledge and quality of their teacher. Young people now have a voice and can be a contributor to peace, economic and education reform, the improvement of public services and many other aspects of society.

Traditional schools currently face a challenge unprecedented in our history. How do we adequately prepare students for a future that is yet to exist and constantly changing? How do we ensure students enter the workforce with the most important skill of the 21st century – learning how to learn?

To meet these challenges, I have been part of a team establishing a new initiative, Quantum Victoria.

Quantum Victoria is a new centre of excellence and innovation in science and mathematics which is currently being built in Melbourne, Australia. Quantum Victoria aims to re-energize science and mathematics education across Australia by:

  • Increasing students’ interest, participation and engagement in science and mathematics, and encouraging more students to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)
  • Expanding the knowledge base of teachers and increasing teacher capacity to engage students

Our blend of in-house and online outreach programs will embrace cutting edge, aspirational technologies with a particular focus on games technology, providing virtual reality experiences, augmented reality, CAD, 3D Printing, robotics and mechatronics.

We are currently involved in International consortia that are investigating:

  • New and best practices in online education for STEM students and the professional development of teachers
  • New models of student-driven STEM learning that are engaging, lead to higher retention rates and promote learning how to learn.

With the increasing pervasiveness and ubiquity of technology the physical, social and virtual worlds are colliding, merging and enabling us to form new ideas about teaching and learning. At Quantum Victoria, we believe that all children can excel in STEM disciplines, including computer science, which they will need to work in the multi-disciplinary, high-tech industries of the 21st century.

The obstacles we currently face as we implement our initiative include old mindsets and resistance to change. Quantum Victoria believes that new, innovative forms of teacher professional development are the cornerstone to building teacher capacity in the 21st century. To excite the next generation of STEM students, Quantum Victoria will offer educators a unique opportunity to re-envision their curriculum in ways that are relevant for today’s learner.

Students with STEM skills, combined with innovation and entrepreneurship, will be equipped to find solutions to current and future problems such as clean and renewable energy, climate change, poverty, health, etc. and this will lead to changes that ultimately improve the world.