Every Sunday morning I have the unique opportunity of coaching an under-8’s football team on Tynemouth beach. I am always fascinated by how people learn, and this opportunity to watch kids playing and learning provides a fantastic insight into what is so wrong with many training programmes. Working with some great kid’s coaches, I constantly see how children learn by watching, mimicking, testing and understanding. I am mesmerised by their learning through play and by how quickly that learning is translated into action. When I reflect on the broader learning picture I continue to be challenged by how organisations have such high expectations of people and such low understanding of how they learn. The general mantra appears to be ‘stick them on a training programme or swamp them with top down communication and all will be well with the world.’
‘Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.’
– Fred Rogers
Why is learning so important? Well, we are all living in very precarious and interesting times. We see significant changes in our geological, biological, and technological worlds. The actions we take now will profoundly change the literal and metaphorical landscape for the generations to come. How we teach our children now will have a profound impact on the future we create. The constant landscape change around us will also have a profound impact upon our children and their children. Their future is one of unbelievable opportunity that carries with it potential on a staggering scale. Education is at the centre of the legitimacy of our world and our society in particular. Parents send their children to school with the best of intentions, believing that formal education is what kids need to become productive, happy and successful adults. That is what we all seek for our kids. Many parents do have qualms about how well schools are performing, but the conventional wisdom is that these issues can be resolved with more money, better teachers, more challenging curricula, or more rigorous tests. But what if the real problem is school itself?
‘I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something.’
– Neil Gaiman #mindset
The unfortunate fact is that one of our most cherished institutions is, by its very nature, failing our children and our society.
Go into a primary school and speak with permission as I do to a group of five year olds. Ask them who can draw, and all will put up their hands. Ask them who can sing and most will put up their hands. Ask them who can dance and many hands will go up. Ask them who can read and you will get a couple of hands going up.
Now go into a secondary school with 16 year old teenagers. Ask them who can draw and you will get a couple of hands going up. Ask them who can sing and again a few will put up their hands. Ask them who can dance and one or two hands will go up. Ask them then who can read and everyone will put up their hands. We train out of our kids the very competency that we seek so badly in business now: creativity.
Picasso said: “Every child is born an artist. The problems begin once we start to grow up.” We know the problems begin in a very specific time frame: the years covering the latter part of secondary school. It is during this period that many kids conclude that they are not creative, and this is in large part because they start to realize that that their drawing is not quite as pretty as they would like, that they can put the brush in the wrong place, that their short stories don’t live up to their expectations, or they are told by a key influencer, be it a teacher or a parent, that they are not good at something. They become self-conscious and self-aware, and then they shut themselves down. Parents and teachers must intervene during this crucial window to ensure that children’s creativity doesn’t wither.
‘There is no end to education. It is not that you read a book, pass an examination, and finish with education. The whole of life, from the moment you are born to the moment you die, is a process of learning.’
– Jiddu Krishnamurti #mindset
Yes, I do believe we implement a learning and educational curriculum that is flawed. I have listened to and read Sir Keith Robinson’s works and many of my thoughts are directly linked to the fantastic insights he offers on the educational system. Sir Keith is British author, speaker and international advisor on education in the arts to government, and one of the great thought leaders on education in my opinion.
Why do I say this? Well if I was to bring back a Victorian teacher and ask them what is different about the schools of today what do you think they would say? Sure, they would find differences such as the ubiquity of information, the access to technology, and the distractions of the modern world. However, there are many things they would draw comfort from: the regimentation of learning, standardised curricula, the exam process, the structure of the system, the focus on the three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic), outdated pedagogy, cookie-cutter assessments, the use of blackboards, and of course school assemblies with a Christian theme.
In the industrial age it was enough to master the 3 Rs. That is no longer the only requirement. Many will cry out for a renewed focus on the 3 Rs but this focus is to me a relic of an earlier time. Australian journalist, author and mother Lucy Clark wrote a fascinating book, Beautiful Failures: How the Quest for Success is Harming Our Kids, about her daughter’s struggle to navigate the pressures at an Australian high school that provided the springboard for a general critique of the way children are taught. For Clark, who describes the Australian National Assessment Program in Literacy and Numeracy as “a blunt political tool and instrument of torture for many children, parents and teachers”, the tendency of our education system to excessively measure and rank children comes in for particular criticism. This is because, in Clark’s view, the concentration of education to a final mark encourages children to be ego-oriented rather than task-oriented. In this way, the task itself, the learning itself, becomes less important than the actual mark.
‘Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.’
– Benjamin Franklin #mindset
When you look at schools today what do you see? Buildings with classrooms and rows of desks. Sure we have some more creative rooms but the majority are still a replica of that which we have used for hundreds of years. The fact today is that learning environments are surrounded by walls which are a hindering factor to potential conversations, interactions, knowledge, information, insights and perspectives one could have. In other words the traditional model of a classroom is outdated; it limits our access to other people, other content and other means of learning. It further limits the future we need to shape, and is insufficient and incapable of delivering the divergent thinking, critical reasoning, and innovation necessary for that future. In my opinion, our school systems and educational institutions tend to herd us into similar type groups and age ranges and then drive us in a production line like a method to a specific outcome (memorisation, multiple choice selection, repetition etc).
It is like ‘here is the book, follow it from page one, the answer is at the back – but don’t look – and make sure you do not copy anyone else’s along the way’. Schools still operate as if all knowledge is contained in books, and as much relevant knowledge from that book must be stored in each human brain to be used when needed. We cannot solve today’s problems with the learning agenda that created these problems in the first place.
The school of the future will need to be more electronic with a capital E. Technology is a perfect vehicle for facilitating a new way, but this isn’t about learning how to use technology or even teaching with technology tools; it’s about students creating and constructing with technology. It’s not just about the computer; it’s all about the learning. To engage our children we need to create an environment that is action-based, engaging for all the senses, collaborative, online, vigorous, empowered, creative, and where solvers of real-world problems are allowed to grow and flourish. They need to be skilled and informed to do so, but they need to be challenged, motivated, and engaged in doing so. I also say that as the ever increasing pace of technological innovation drives changes in the world, educators must re-evaluate whether the skills they teach truly provide their students with the best opportunities to succeed in school, the workforce, and in life overall.
Since we were great apes, the best learning has always been about practicing, experimenting, mistake-making, and overcoming obstacles as we have used the finest tools available in doing so. Aristotle wrote that we learn best by doing, and it has always been true. Yes, it is wonderful sometimes for students to listen to a compelling lecture told with passion, perceptive insight and compelling interpretation. Yes, it is dynamite for kids to participate in intellectual discourse and debate, sharing and discussing ideas and appreciating fine dialogue. And yes, there are fine pieces of writing that still happen on paper. We do not need to abolish or abandon any of these things.
Now I do not purport to be an expert on how our educational system should be structured, however as a father of a seven year old I am desperate to ensure that we allow our children to learn how the world is, and think about how the world could be. Furthermore, as a business coach I see a real lack of capability in thinking beyond the “known” and a real lack of innovation and creativity within our leadership cadre. We will only change this by introducing a curriculum that embraces creativity and divergent thinking, kills the insane desire for mass production of exam stamped graduates, and moves towards free diverse intensive schools that have a bias for the new world rather than trying to extend the past into the future.
To shape the future we need better communicators who can interact on a multiple of levels from face-to-face speech to the virtual world; we need better collaborators who are equally at home in both the physical and cloud world; we need critical thinkers who question relentlessly the world about us and see a multitude of possibilities to develop, innovative and explore; we need creators who can travel beyond their own and their customers’ imagination; and we need cloud learning which enables universal access to learning by all through the fact that our learning environments, content, services and devices will be digitally distributed and context aware (as in physical location, physical environment and learners themselves) so that students anywhere, anytime can tap into and un-tap their fertile imaginations. Learning will resemble more of a cloud than a cathedral which is a relic of the past.
I am therefore suggesting three Rs plus the five Cs:
Communication, Collaboration, Critical thinking, Creativity, Clouding
I am not at all suggesting dropping the foreign languages (as this is virtual driver in the communication world), or subjects such as geography and science, etc.
Our future depends upon our children. The innovation and creativity they can apply to the many problems this world faces, from energy to famine, from global warning to abuse of power, from tribalisation to democracy, from capitalism to trust-based leadership will shape all of our futures. Without a cohesive, thoughtful, and comprehensive answer to how best to educate our children – which combines the purpose of education with a vision for our children’s future – any efforts to address the systemic issues in our society will be in vain.
‘The more that you read, the more you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.’
– Dr. Seuss
‘The role I have now was not given to me by someone else, it is something I have chosen for myself.’
– Malala Yousafzai
Things we should be growing in our kids that will make them stand out from the crowd:
All images sourced from https://pixabay.com unless otherwise indicated.
MAURICE DUFFY – Maurice is the founder and CEO of Blackswan, a business transformation and coaching consultancy that operates globally in over 30 countries. He is a pioneer of executive coaching and is cited as one of the top global coaches.
Prior to Blackswan, Maurice was SVP, EVP and Head of Function for many organisations such as Nortel and Manpower. He is respected for his work and thought leadership on ‘Strategy’, ‘Mindset’ and ‘Change’ in which he practises and consults around the world.
Maurice personally coaches and mentors many CEO’s and board level Directors of FTSE 100 and Fortune 500 companies, whilst sitting as Chair and Non-Executive on a number of advisory boards.
He is an author and poet, and is passionate about the positive role that changes can bring to people’s lives. His last critically acclaimed book ‘New Mindsets for New Times’ sets the scene for much of his work. He is Irish, married to Karen with a home base in North East England and he has four children.
He is a keen half-marathon runner and Liverpool fan, and is regularly involved in a number of charitable events and challenges, including being co-founder and CEO of the renowned ‘Green Carnival at the Coast’, a major fun-filled community weekend at the spectacular headland location of Tynemouth Priory and Castle.
For more information on Maurice and his work, see www.mauriceduffy.com.
For more information on Green Carnival at the Coast, see www.greencarnivalatthecoast.com/.
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