Earlier this year, the RSA’s Joe Hallgarten presented striking reflections on the ‘power to create’ and the ‘creativity gap,’ making the RSA’s case for learning outcomes structured around creativity, agency, and well-being.
We were reminded of these points when attending this month’s EdTechXEurope conference in London. We wondered: are new actors entering the education and learning space, particularly those from the tech world, engaged enough with discourses around new paradigms of learning – are we doing all that we can to engage them? And are the established actors who are embracing the promise of new technology so focused on modest tech innovations that they leave aside the more complex business of re-imagining learning more fully – to unleash the creative and constructionist potential that technology used cleverly could enable?
These questions were underlined in the first coffee break when we ran into Mike McGalliard from the Imagination Foundation, who had just been subjected to an uninspiring pitch from a man with a teacherly app. Mike noted: ‘When you have bad pedagogy, and then introduce technology, you’ve got a machine to scale horrible experiences at an amazing rate!’.
A major but familiar theme of this year’s conference was ‘21st Century Skills’. Graduates, we are told, are typically quite happy with their education and often feel overqualified for their jobs. Employers, meanwhile, are deeply unimpressed with the bunch of knowledge that these graduates have acquired, and wish that these fresh employees had been required to spend much more time developing skills such as creativity, communication, collaboration, flexibility, critical thinking, and leadership.
The call from employers for these kinds of skills can be read as a demand to put away the more mechanical modes of learning – getting rid of, say, the ‘online exam tool’ products showcased in the corridors of this conference – and to re-establish the importance of arts and crafts, making things, understanding humans through the humanities, and performance. But those are the activities and topics that are typically being pushed out of the curriculum at the moment, by countries that emphasise the STEM subjects and continuous testing.
A panel called ‘Global perspectives: CEOs Explore and Analyse Disruptive Innovation’, which you might expect to be the most hard-headed technologist kind of conversation, was unanimous in praise of the essential role of good teachers. But curiously the whole discussion on disruptive innovation went by without anyone questioning the ways in which learning is conceived. There was no real push towards building those ‘21st-century skills’ – which are essentially timeless skills – such as creativity and leadership, and questions around agency and wellbeing were absent.
At the higher education level, an obvious reality was summarised by Daphne Koller, president of Coursera, who observed that if a professional in any field, like a doctor or an engineer, went to sleep 150 years ago and woke up today, their professional world would be unrecognisable. Whereas, if you had fallen asleep in a university classroom 150 years ago, and woke up today, everything would be pretty much the same.
The exception to the rule – biases aside as it was curated by the LEGO Foundation – came from the presentation based on participants from the LEGO Foundation / Ashoka Globalizer programme, which supports a very carefully selected set of social entrepreneurs who are doing amazing and innovative things in the area of playful, creative learning. The speakers highlighted the vital importance of play – ‘the brain’s favourite way to learn’ – as learning which is motivated by a person’s own interests, and which is engaged, faces challenges, and is risk-taking.
Kiran Sethi, founder of Design for Change – based in India but now a global movement, this month celebrating its 7th anniversary – presented their four-step process to engage children. Combining the principles of design thinking and play, it gives children the opportunity to recognise that ‘I can’ do powerful things in the world. The four steps are ‘feel’ – where a problem is identified with empathy, and then ‘imagine’, where many possible solutions are gathered. This is followed by ‘do’, where the best ideas are implemented, and then ‘share’, where the work goes on to inspire others. This builds the ‘I can’ mindset, which has led to many moving stories of amazing creative transformations in the classroom and wider environment.
The education technologists gathered at EdTechXEurope conference are doing many clever things. But they could benefit from engaging more with the playful and transformational approach to learning proposed by such social entrepreneurs that support a ‘maker culture’. The Design for Change model – feel, imagine, do, and share, with the learners as the leaders of their learning activities – could find more of a place within ‘educational technology’ innovations, and lead to even greater things. An open frame that catalyses creativity has been the hallmark of tech solutions in other sectors, from Kickstarter to XPrize – what would it look like if we were to harness genuinely new and radical innovation in educational technology too?
David Gauntlett is Professor of Creativity and Design, and Director of Research, at Westminster School of Media, Arts and Design, University of Westminster. He is the author of ten books, including Making is Connecting, and has worked with the LEGO Group and the LEGO Foundation for a decade on innovations in play and learning. See www.davidgauntlett.com.
Zelda Yanovich FRSA is Initiative Manager at The LEGO Foundation. She has written about global social movements in support of access to education and rights of the child, notably as contributing author of Re-Thinking the United Nations for the Networked World, as part of the Global Solutions Networks, and as blogger in her former life for BSR and the UN.