School curricula will soon become obsolete, says Charles Leadbeater, a leading expert on innovation and strategy and a keynote speaker at OEB 2010. He advocates “disruptive innovation” and radical transformation. In the digital age, students should be seen as “users” of education rather than “recipients” and teachers should, therefore, focus on skills, motivation and peer-to-peer learning, rather than on detailed educational programmes.
The author and strategic adviser to corporations and governments is a senior associate of the London think tank Demos, where he explores the dynamics of innovation in various parts of the world. His most recent work includes a report on “Learning from the Extremes,” which highlights new approaches to learning in slums, favelas and other challenging living conditions, providing insights into how the developed world should reform its education systems.
At OEB, Charles will examine the learning strategies that may be needed to change our approach towards a sustainable knowledge society.
OEB: Mr Leadbeater, in recent years many countries throughout the world have implemented educational reforms. Why do we still need new learning strategies?
Education systems are very impervious to reform. They often resist reform or, even more, incorporate new ideas into traditional practices. Yet we know that schools are often failing to educate adequately everyone who goes. Often many are left behind, demoralised and demotivated. And even when schools do a good job, they may be hitting the target but missing the point, teaching well skills that are not so relevant to the economy and society children will face.
OEB: From your research into schools, what are the best strategies to energise students? Can you give us examples?
I think motivation is key to learning and motivation generally comes in two forms, intrinsic and extrinsic. As far as intrinsic motivation goes, learning has to be enjoyable, fun, playful but demanding and stretching. Go to the best schools and you see people working hard and having fun at the same time, like High Tech High in the US. But also you see learning as fun in projects like El Sistema in Venezuela where children learn through playing classical music.
As far as extrinsic motivation goes, it means learning has to have a pay-off. Often for children from poorer backgrounds, who do not do well in academic subjects, the pay-offs from academic education are too little and they take too long. So practical forms of learning which lead to problems being solved or money being earned or products being made is vital. I’ve seen learning of this kind all over the world in projects like CDI in the slums of Brazil.
OEB: How can digital technologies support sustainable learning?
Well, I think it can make the delivery of learning, of course, more flexible, in more places and forms. But the real advantage is when children can use technology to learn themselves, with one another and the support of a teacher or mentor. The real benefit of new digital technologies is more learning with and by peers, not just from teachers. The best examples of this include the work that Sugata Mitra is doing with self-organised learning with computers in India and the UK.
OEB: You argue that learning should start from challenges that learners face and not from a formal curriculum; and peer-to-peer learning should be key. Will the curriculum become obsolete? And who is going to guarantee the standards?
I think the idea of a curriculum will become obsolete, at least in any detail. I think we will need to shift much more to core skills, capabilities that people will need to find challenges, pose questions, interrogate information, question sources, collaborate creatively. In a world of information and misinformation on the web, we need people to learn how to search, question and think, rather than copy and memorise.
Of course standards will still matter. But I think more of this will be evident in what people can do as well as what they can remember for an exam or the box they can tick. We need new forms of assessment which are more rounded, more continuous and probably more adaptable as well.
OEB: On behalf of Cisco you compiled the report “Learning from the Extremes” (together with Annika Wong). It explores new approaches to learning in extreme circumstances, for example in favelas, slums or other informal settlements. What lessons can the developed world learn from these approaches?
I think the most important of many lessons is that learning is most effective when it pulls people to it, making itself attractive and motivating. Our education systems are largely push systems. We push people into schools, and then push knowledge at them. Pull systems are in the long run much more effective.
OEB: To get learning at scale to the hundreds of millions in the developing world, where do you start?
I think you start with the huge hunger for education. But you need new ways to make learning available at scale, which is low cost, flexible and which can be available in very poor, even hostile environments. To be honest I would not start with schools, I’d probably start with mobile phones.
OEB: Mr Leadbeater, thank you very much for your time.