First interview in Taiwan

[At the end of 2006 and beginning of 2007 I gave two interviews to the press in Taiwan which may be useful in this context. This is the first]

Question 1:
What is a School of the Future?
(Can we say that a school that has many computers is a School of Future? If not, what is a good School of the Future?)

Schools are social institutions: they are created to help us, human beings, perform better some of the functions that we consider important in life. There is nothing sacred about them, that should make us preserve them in their present form. There is even no guarantee that we need schools, as we presently know them, in order to educate people well. Existing to serve social functions, schools must change when society changes.

Our present schools were created in the Industrial Age to serve the needs of Industrial Civilization. But we are rapidly moving out of the Industrial Age into a Post-Industrial Age – which some call the Information Society, the Knowledge Economy, etc.

The schools that existed in the Middle Ages, that in the West were run by monks in monasteries and served only religious clerks, were not capable of performing the education that was needed in the Modern Period, introduced by the Industrial Age. So our present schools were created. That was over 200 years ago.

The present age, however, is not being adequately served by schools created for a previous age. So schools must be changed in order to perform the educational task that society expects from them.

What we call a “School of the Future” is, despite the name, a school desperately needed already in the present. But we do not have it. Our society changed much more rapidly and radically than our schools. So today we have a new age (the society that is erupting in our midst) with schools of the past. When we speak of a “School of the Future” we are referring to a school that will be fit to educate our children – and our adults! — in the Information Society and in the Knowledge Economy.

It is evident that the mere introduction of computers and other technology into present schools will not make them “Schools of the Future”. Somebody one day aptly said that if we bring computers and other technology into schools and leave their other features unchanged, the resulting institution will not be a School of the Future, but a much more expensive traditional school.

In order to have a School of the Future we need to develop first a new vision of education – the education that is needed at the present time — and then design from scratch the sort of institution that will best help us promote. It will certainly have objectives, methods, organizational structures, administrative principles, links with the community and with the larger world that are quite different from the ones that prevail in present, traditional schools. Those that we today call teachers will need to have different functions: they will not teach, as they do today, but they will help students learn. And students will learn through collaborative interactions with their peers, with the school staff and with the outside world (that will no longer be considered external to the school, because every organization in society will be invested with functions that will facilitate learning in its citizens – every organization will be a learning organization).

This sort of School of the Future will certainly not lack technology. But technology, by itself, will not bring it about. If we do want a School of the Future – and there may be more than one template, following overarching principles – we must not be afraid to open the “pedagogical black box”, as somebody one day called it. It is here that the essential changes must be made.

The School of the Future will be new not because it will have technology – but because it will be built on the basis of a new vision of education, a new understanding of learning, and novel ways of promoting learning.

Question 2:
How should school administrators, teachers and students prepare for future learning environments?

Of all these categories, the students are, perhaps, today, the ones best prepared for new learning environments – and beware that these learning environments are not in the future: they are already here today.

The reason I say that students – children and young people in general – are the ones best prepared for the new learning environments that characterize our age is that they have been born in this new age, have used its technology from the day they are born, and feel totally familiar and confident with it. Older people – and here I include school administrators and teachers that are over 25 – are “digital immigrants”, as somebody one day correctly labeled them. They may even know how to deal with digital technology, but they will “speak digital with an accent”. Young people, those born after 1980, when computers became not only “home appliances” but personal tools and toys, are, in contrast, “digital natives”: they “speak digital without any accent”. So they are already prepared for new learning environments in ways in which we, older folks, are not.

The problem is that we, the older folks, are the ones that presently have authority to decide what, how, when and where younger folks ought to learn. And most of us think that they, younger folks, ought to learn the same things we learned, in the same order, through the same teacher-centered methods, with the help of the same tools, at the same time in life, and in the same sort of institution.

Many people tell and ask me: “You studied in a traditional school, and you are doing fairly well. Why should traditional schooling not work as well for present kids?”

To answer this question it is necessary to point to the fact that the world changed in substantive ways between the time I entered primary school (1950) and today. Assuming that what I turned out to be was due to the school I attended (which is a questionable assumption), a school that was good fifty years ago will quite likely be outdated today – unless it changed with the times. The world underwent drastic change, the students changed. The student that enters school today is much better informed about the world than I was when I got out of school – and he has an incredible network of resources to keep him constantly well informed.

So our great challenge is to prepare present and future school leaders and teachers to deal with change: to perceive change and to understand it in order to manage it well. There is nothing necessarily good in change itself. But we cannot prevent it from happening. So we must understand it in order to manage it, using change to promote the educational goals we endorse – which, in my view, must be centered on the task of human development.

This challenge is great because we have millions of teachers in the field, that need to be prepared on the job, and we have hundreds of thousands of people being prepared in Schools of Education and Pedagogical Institutes in ways that are clearly inadequate.

Question 3:
What are the main critical success factors to set up a School of the Future?

It is essential that we place first things first.

And the first thing of them all is pedagogical vision. The School of the Future will not be characterized by its building or by its technological infrastructure: it will be characterized by its pedagogical vision, that includes a new view or concept of education, a new understanding of learning, and novel methods for promoting learning.

The second critical success factor – and it is closely tied with the first – is people. It is essential that we find people who are more than willing – who are eager! — to embrace this pedagogical vision and are dedicated to promoting it. And then we need to give them freedom, incentive and tools without which it is virtually impossible to reinvent schooling.

It is only after these two factors are adequately faced that issues relating to curricula, technological infrastructure and buildings ought to be raised.

Question 4:
Will the School of the Future change the way we learn now?
What sort of change can we expect and how will it happen? Will these changes be good both for students and teachers?

I have no doubt that there will be enormous changes in the way we learn in the future – and the School of the Future will have to assimilate them. These changes can be classified in the following way:

· Changes in what we learn

· Changes in how we learn

· Changes in when we learn

As we will see, these three things are interconnected.

Most of the learning that present schools try to promote involves assimilation of information. I do not even say “acquisition” of information, because acquisition is an active process – and what takes place in school is not an active process from the student point of view. What happens at school is that students are expected to assimilate – mostly in a passive way — information that teachers deliver to them.

In the School of the Future learning will not be identified with assimilation of information. Even though all learning involves the acquisition of information, that is not the most important element of learning. The most important element of learning is capacity building, the development of competencies. To learn is to become capable of doing that which one could not do before. Every learning involves a doing – even if the doing involves acquiring some information in the process. The object of learning is not a mere “knowing that” (“savoir”), but a “knowing how” (“savoir faire”).

So, the curriculum will not be a set of subject matters (academic disciplines) organized by grade: it will be a mosaic of competencies, in which each competency will be linked to the skills, to the attitudes, to the values and to the information required to develop it.

And the curriculum will not be “one size fits all”. There are, of course, some basic competencies that everyone will need to develop (communication competencies, interpersonal competencies, management competencies – including managing priorities, managing time, managing resources, managing negotiations, managing conflict…). But human beings have different talents, interests, goals in life (life projects). It makes no sense that everybody ought to develop exactly the same sort of competencies in life.

This brings us to the second set of changes I mentioned: change in how we learn. Since competencies involve “knowing how” (“savoir faire”), learning must be active, learning must basically imply doing. But this doing is not doing what other people tell us to: it must be self-generated and self-directed doing, a doing that is related to one’s interests.

This is the essence of what some people call today “project-based learning” (or “problem-based learning”, or “inquiry-based learning”). However, this approach to learning is not effective if the projects, the problems, the inquiries are determined by the teacher for the student. That is why I emphasize the need for learning to be self-generated and self-directed.

So, we, the learners, ought to choose not only what we are going to learn – what sort of competencies we will need to develop, given our talents, interests and goals in life – but also how we are going to learn – what sort of learning projects are most worthwhile.

It goes without saying that learners, or students, do not live and choose in a vacuum. They are born into a family and into a community and learn all of what they learn by interacting with others. Learning is essentially a collaborative endeavor (but collaboration can take place at a distance). Human beings are quite curious and inquisitive, and they very early develop talents and interests of their own, that must be allowed to flourish. These talents and interests will eventually be consolidated in a life project.

Some people – mostly parents and teachers – worry when they hear me defending this view. What if a child does not choose to learn something that is important for him? My answer is: if the “something” is really important for him, he will inevitably choose to learn it, and quite early – and will learn it quite effectively.

Many people are under the impression that children do not like to learn things that are difficult to learn. This is a false impression. The opposite is true: children love challenges, they love to learn things that are difficult to learn. Many times, in playing a computer or video game, they lose interest in a game once they master it!

The truth of the matter is that children do not like to learn things the learning of which does not seem to carry any point or purpose – even if they are easy to learn.

Finally, the third the second set of changes I mentioned: change in when we learn. Children – and adults, too – have not only different learning styles but also different learning rhythms. Learning is something we do during our whole life – that is the essence of “life-long learning”. There is no sense, therefore, in demanding or expecting that young folks learn everything there is to learn between the ages of 6 and 17 – or 6 and 21. Many of them do not even know with precision what their life project when they are this age. And interests change as they come across new environments and realities. And society changes – and changes very rapidly. Many of the very interesting professions that exist today did not exist twenty-five years ago – and many of the professions that will exist twenty-five years from now do not exist today! Professions that existed and even were important, no longer exist or are no longer important…

So schools in the future (that is, in the present) must take seriously the fact that we will be learning throughout our lives and be open for people of any age who are interested in learning a new competency. This means that schools in the future will not need to pack everything there is to learn into 12 years of a kid’s life. Children, young people, and adults can learn things when they realize they need or want to learn that – and this facilitates learning tremendously.

A corollary of this is that learning can be, and often ought to be, piecemeal, structured in small modules. For some of our learning needs a two hour chat with a specialist will be enough – there will be no need to take a semester-long course! In other cases, we need somebody’s help only to get us started, or to help us overcome a hurdle.

Another corollary of this is that, with technology-mediated communication, we can learn anytime, anywhere… So schools in the future may need very strong technological infrastructure, but they may not need a lot of fancy buildings…

Question 5:
What is the difference between technology-based learning and traditional learning?
Will students be different?

I think we began to touch on that in the last paragraph of the previous answer.

If learning is active and collaborative, if we learn by doing things and we learn to do things by interacting with other people, then the issue that this question raises is rather whether the doing and the collaborating that is mediated by technology is essentially different from the doing and collaborating that happens in “face-to-face” environments.

I think it is not – but I am willing to hear the arguments of those who say that it depends on what it is that is being learned.

You see, I am a philosopher by training. Socrates would probably disagree with me (he was even against the use of writing in philosophical discussion!), but I am convinced that technology-mediated interaction (discussion, collaboration) is a much more effective environment for learning philosophy than “face-to-face” environments. (But this is not the place to argue for this view). But I recognize that learning to do a heart bypass surgery may not be quite as effective without “face-to-face” contexts.

So our challenge is double: first, to help our students realize the active nature of learning and the essential collaborative nature of most of our activities; second, to help them develop the competencies necessary to communicate, interact and collaborate in virtual environments. The second challenge is, I believe, easier to meet than the first.

Question 6:
How are Schools of the Future doing in places other than Taiwan?

I would say with all confidence that no country in the world has jumped ahead in transforming their present school system into a system of Schools of the Future. Sometimes we see in a country a school that was built from scratch and labeled School of the Future. In some of these cases the school has some advanced innovative features, in other cases the innovations are purely cosmetic. It is very difficult to build a totally new school – even if we are dealing only with one.

The challenge is much greater if we try to change an entire school system, beginning with the schools we presently have. In this case we have great obstacles. People resist changing. Changing the way we work implies developing other competencies, modifying our attitudes, sometimes adopting new values – and all of this has an important counterpart: letting some old competencies fall into disuse, giving up some attitudes that were dear to us, parting with values of which we have become fond…

So, no country has jumped ahead in the undertaking of creating a system of Schools of the Future.

Question 7:
There are many Taiwan schools interested in becoming a School of the Future.
Please give them some suggestions about what to do first.

The first step is to do some strategic thinking and ask:

· Where are we today?

· Where do we want to be?

· How do we get from here to there?

This is the first step. It is not an easy one.

First problem: most schools may not be able to agree on where exactly they are – much less on where they want to be…

Second problem: some schools may analyze where they are and quickly conclude that they are fairly good and do not need to change much (only in some minor aspects)…

Third problem: some schools may conclude that they are far away from where they ought to be – but may not reach agreement on exactly where they ought to be…

Fourth problem: some schools may conclude that they are far away from where they ought to be, and may reach basic agreement on where they would like to be – but do not know how to get there…

So this exercise in strategic thinking is essential – and that is where any process of change must start.

Question 8:
What is the most important meaning of having Education?

Well, thank you for asking this question at the end. I said earlier that we need a new view or concept of education. I will try to sketch what, in my opinion, this view or concept ought to be.

There are many people that think that education is the process whereby a given generation transmits to the next the culture heritage of a given social group. Education, in this view, is something older people to do younger folks, to prepare them for their place in society.

I disagree with this view.

I think that education is a process of human development. Differently from other animal species, human beings are born quite unprepared for the task of living – even if living is understood merely as surviving. We are born totally incompetent, and, therefore, are absolutely dependent on the care of others.

But we are born two important features:

· First, an incredible capacity to learn;

· Second, with a “hardware” that requires “software” to run…

That the human beings, including very young human babies, have an incredible capacity to learn I find it unnecessary to argue here.

I will, therefore, concentrate on the second feature – apologizing for the “technological analogy”…

The young ones of most animal species are born quite ready for life. Most everything they need to know in order to survive is “wired” into their brains. Their brain is basically “programmed” by the time they are born.

This is not the case of human beings. We are born with an excellent piece of “hardware” – our brains – but it comes with minimal “programming”. The rest of the “programming” we have to do ourselves – and we do it through learning.

So, this is what education is all about: a process of human development that allows us not only to survive (become competent) but to choose a life for ourselves (become autonomous). Education is the process through which the incompetent and dependent beings that are born become competent, autonomous adults.

Technology must not be understood only in terms of high (or most recent) technology. Technology is whatever we, human beings, invent to make our life easier or more pleasurable. Sometimes life is difficult, other times it is dull. That is why we invent tools and toys – that is, technology. Art (literature, music, painting, sculpture) is technology. Its function is not utilitarian: it is to make life more pleasurable – to make life worth-living. It is a toy, not a tool. Technology is the product of our problem-solving ability. It helps us survive by making life easier – and it makes us want to survive by making life more pleasurable.

Eduardo O C Chaves

Oporto (Portugal), the 12th of November, 2006, transcribed here from Salto, on the 5th of October, 2007

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