Thinking beyond: Some thoughts from the Global Education and Skills Forum

Last week I attended the Varkey Foundation’s Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates. The centerpiece of the forum was the 2017 Global Teacher Prize (#teachersmatter), which was awarded to Maggie MacDonnell of Canada who works with students in a small Inuit community above the Arctic Circle. This year’s forum theme was “How do we make ‘real’ global citizens?” and the overarching values espoused, such as cultural respect and openness, gender equity, and access to quality education for all, were certainly ones I stand behind.

Educationalists at the Forum criticized the notion of retreating behind defensive walls at this moment. Instead, they believe that our interconnected and fast-changing times demand that we prepare all students to grapple with the complexities of the world, including engaging with people who have different backgrounds and perspectives to their own. The passion for these values at this truly international gathering served as a somewhat reassuring counterpoint to the kind of populist, xenophobic rhetoric that has recently gained attention in many countries. And it was powerful to hear a commitment to these values at such a geographic and cultural hub as Dubai.

The organizers had created a thoughtful combination of talks, workshops, debate sessions, lessons, and other activities. For this blog post I highlight three ideas from three different sessions that struck me as interesting and relevant for the work we’re trying to collectively achieve through Out of Eden Learn. With a nod to my colleague David Perkins’ book Future Wise: Educating our Children for a Changing World,  I frame them as “thinking beyond”.

Thinking beyond the small black box of current school curricula.

Andreas Schleicher, Director for the Directorate of Education and Skills at the OECD (the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, based in Paris) and coordinator of the triennial international PISA reports on student achievement, spoke to the need for us to re-imagine education as currently configured to meet the real needs of today’s students. He lamented the slow pace of change in educational practices, practices which in our hyper-accelerating and inter-connected world seem increasingly irrelevant and outdated – or limited to a small black box, a metaphor which in this case refers to a rigid and constrained approach. Most school systems, Schleicher claims, are still about “sorting” students rather than preparing them for meaningful engagement in the world.

Laudably, the OECD seeks to conceptualize and then measure attributes that they think today’s youth need to develop, including collaborative problem solving skills and “global competency” – a new measure they hope to implement in the 2018 administration of the PISA tests. That is, they avoid narrowly focusing on attributes or skills that are easy to assess and instead try to advance thinking about valuable but hard-to-pin-down phenomena which, by dint of being included in the PISA assessment, are then more likely to be incorporated into teaching and learning among the 72 participating countries and economies. Their definition of global competency is of particular relevance to Out of Eden Learn because of its emphasis on the capacity “to engage in open, appropriate and effective interactions with others from different backgrounds on the basis of a shared respect for human dignity”. Its focus on understanding multiple perspectives and “how differences affect perceptions, judgments, and ideas of self and others” also resonates with Out of Eden Learn, in that our activities and very platform structure invite students to reflect on how their own stories and perspectives compare to other participants – be they close to home or very far away.

Thinking beyond the development of analytic skills.

Sadhguru, a charismatic and life-loving guru from India who runs the Isha Foundation, invited us to reconsider our very assumptions about the purpose of education, which according to him should ultimately be “to give life full expression”. In a metaphor that I heard many delegates return to during subsequent sessions, he claimed that training young people to analyze or intellectually “dissect” the world with a knife should not be our primary concern as educators: instead, we should focus on the hand that holds the knife. In other words, we should concentrate on building the larger identity of the child and foster experiences that will enhance their sense of connectedness to the world at large, including to the natural environment. Education systems that focus uniquely on developing children’s intellects are effectively stifling their development by not tapping into different ways of being in the world or deeper wisdoms. While I cannot pretend to fully grasp all of Sadhguru’s yogic philosophy, his words were a helpful reminder of the limitations and potential myopia of Western paradigms for approaching education – not to mention our own ways of existing in the world. The ultimate yogic goal of “absolute boundlessness” or the breaking down of barriers between oneself and the world stands as an interesting ideal by which to compare Western-constructed notions of cosmopolitanism or global competency, not to mention the more immediate aspirations of digital exchange programs such as Out of Eden Learn.

Thinking beyond the lawlessness of cyberspace.

Meanwhile, Thomas Friedman, referring to his new book Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, laid out the three key reasons behind the exponential acceleration of change we are currently experiencing in the world: the overlapping and mutually reinforcing phenomena of globalizing market forces, climate change, and Moore’s Law – that is, an exponential growth in the rate of technological innovation and microchip capacity. Friedman refers to 2007 in particular as the biggest technological inflection point since Gutenburg’s 1439 invention of the movable type printing press: it was the year when the iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter all made their debut, not to mention GitHub, Kindle, the Cloud, AirBNB and Watson. In fact, Friedman posits that we are currently living during a period when technological change is outpacing our human capacity to adapt: the title of his book refers to our need to pause to take stock of what is going on.

In this new, unchartered landscape – which is creating great upheaval in all aspects of our lives including how we work – we have to ask ourselves “Is God in cyberspace?” or “Is there anyone in charge anymore?” For practical purposes Friedman says no. He believes that in fact we have never been more godlike as a species, with the capacity “to do unto others things that are further, faster, deeper, and cheaper than ever before”.  In this age, digital civics – that is, how we talk to, interact with, and treat one another online – is vitally important as we seek to prepare our youth to navigate the digital realm. In Out of Eden Learn, we are arguably corralling one tiny corner of the internet and creating a space that stands as a counterpoint to the lawlessness that may exist in other places – a space in which students are encouraged to take the time to listen attentively and respectfully to one another’s stories and viewpoints and to open themselves up to the world at large.

#teachersmatter more than ever.

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