It’s now been a whole week since the Education for a Changing World Symposium… and boy how quickly do we come back down to earth when we step foot into school! Schools are such bizarre places, having the potential to elevate you to moments of pure joy, and then swiftly crush you with moments of cruel reality. That sounds dramatic, but it captures my rollercoaster week!
So, what happened on the second day of the symposium that continued the feeling of optimism about the future of education that was generated on day one? Well, lots of things – big and small – that are probably just specific to me and my experience of the day. I won’t claim that everyone there had the same unwaveringly positive experience that I had of the day (in fact, I know that some definitely did not), but as Che Guevara says ‘these lips can only describe what these eyes actually see’ and thus inevitably this is a subjective account of the symposium so ‘you can either believe me, or not; it matters little to me’ (I’m currently teaching Che’s The Motorcycle Diaries – can you tell? Haha).
Day Two – 9am-4pm, Hilton, Sydney
Opening address – Minister for Education, The Hon. Rob Stokes MP
I’m sure no one is surprised by the fact that I am not a Liberal voter. Well, you would be surprised by that if you knew I come from the Northern Beaches, live within Tony Abbott’s electorate and just a couple of suburbs down from Stokes’ office – because the Liberal party have run this peninsular for as long as there has been electorates to run… but I’m hoping you know me a little better than to assume I would support a conservative party. Seeing that Stokes was opening the second day made me a bit nervous – I understand why it makes sense to have him there, but given Genevieve Bell’s comments the day before about the social structures and systems we need and want for our future, I didn’t feel incredibly confident that Stokes’ values would align with those of most of the educators in the room. I’ll admit right here that I don’t have the depth of knowledge of politics that some of my Twitter colleagues have (like Darcy Moore and Mark O’Sullivan) but I do know that my focus is entirely on the good of the collective, and not the individual, which runs counter to the values of the Liberal Party most of the time, hence my reservations about what Stokes would contribute to the dialogue about the future of education.
Unsurprisingly Stokes spoke from the beginning about ‘progress’ being the goal ‘as we stand on the cusp of a new generation of jobs’ rather prioritising ‘change’ – which makes sense when economic rationalism is your MO. I don’t know Stokes’ background (yeah I could google it and pretend I’m knowledgable) but my guess is that he’s a fan of history, but probably not a fan of a postcolonialism (I’m guessing he hasn’t read Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion) and clearly he’s not a fan of Marx – he mentioned twice that we shouldn’t see history as a Marxist progression (I did google that one on the day, thanks Wikipedia) and what I think he was trying to say is that we shouldn’t focus on history as being linear (very postmodern). However, his repeated mention of Marx made me uncomfortable simply because (as wikipedia helped me understand) Marx’s theory of history focuses on how human society is determined by its material conditions (and these are determined by innovation), which is exactly the point that Bell was making the day before. The way that the economy responds to AI and automation is necessarily going to impact social conditions – we MUST focus on this aspect, and to ignore the impact that technology will have on who and what we become is naive. But of course, I’m sure I’ve interpreted him incorrectly – maybe he was saying we should not see history as a linear progression in which we will move from our current capitalist society into a utopian one where ‘the state will whither away and become obsolete’ (Marx)? Probs. On this topic of capitalism, I found it really intriguing that Stokes reiterated his claim that education is not a product, and that we are ‘progressing from a focus on products to a focus on one another’. These statements certainly seem to run counter to the values of his political party, and it was refreshing to hear from him. Overall I found his speech a bit hard to follow, and whilst he had the appropriate themes (the future isn’t scary, we need to value human relationships etc), for me it wasn’t coherent enough.
Educating for an AI future – Marc Tucker
I really enjoyed Marc Tucker’s second paper Educating for a Digital Future – Notes on the Curriculum where he puts forward his vision for how and why we need to change the way we educate our children in order to avoid a dystopian future. It’s both an inspiring read and a practical read – I guess for me I like it because it was an affirmation of what I have been trying to do in the way I teach, and in the way I (attempt) to lead pedagogy at my school. Tucker’s talk centred on rethinking the learning opportunities that we provide for our students. He used a phrase which will be remembered by all delegates – he said we need to move away from an education system that is focused on ‘stuffing the duck’ to one that centres on designing rich and engaging learning experiences in and outside of school. This isn’t really anything new – even my year 7 students understand the difference between a transmission style of teaching and one which facilitates engaging learning experiences that support students’ construction of knowledge and skills. However, what Tucker stresses about the community as an education ecosystem is powerful, and something that isn’t being done as well as it can be. One of the things that I tweeted on the day, which I firmly believe is true, is that ‘We need to see that school is life and life is school. There is no divide between the school world and the real world.’ The big take-away from this talk was that education and humanity are inextricably intertwined, and that as a result education can be seen as playing a significant role in the stratification of society, in the ability for a child (and thus humanity) to flourish… or not. I thought it was interesting that Tucker mentioned that the non-academic opportunities provided to students at the most elite schools in the world are often the things that can impact the most on future success and wellbeing – such as engagement with the arts, civics and citizenship, and the business world (in terms of internships). I really admire the work that John Goh, principal of Merrylands East PS, does in this regard – he has sought out and sustained relationships with philanthropic organisations, cultural institutions, and businesses, in order to increase the opportunities and skills of his students. We need more public school principals devoting time to nurturing these types of connections, and in order to do this we should have a Department that supports these connections, helps identify them, and does nothing the stand in the way of them.
In conversation with: Marc Tucker, Catherine Livingstone, Attila Brungs
Moderator: Leslie Loble
There’s no doubt that UTS is doing some cool stuff in the space of innovation, technology and education. Having both the Chancellor (Livingston) and the Vice-Chancellor (Brungs) on the panel with Tucker, led by Leslie Loble, was a boon for us attendees. Brungs spoke about his passion for breaking down the divide between schools and uni, and uni and workplace. He also advocated for greater connections between schools and the world of work, where he wishes to see internships/apprenticeships/cadetships/work-experience for students from as young as year 7. Now, that might seem young, but I know that John Goh has his students doing work experience in year 5! I was, and am, intrigued by the work at UTS around entrepreneurship, and will be seeking out connections with their team for our year 10 ILP students who choose to work on entrepreneurial projects.
Related to the focus on school to work, the panel began discussing the skills young people need to flourish in the future and I was pleased to hear that teaching coding is not more important thank teaching children to think. This goes back to the comments made the day before about coding being a poor proxy for thinking. If you haven’t already read it, you should read Peter Ellerton’s excellent paper On Critical Thinking and Collaborative Inquiry which gets to this very point beautifully. The discussion then turned to wellbeing and the impact that technology can have on wellbeing, especially that of young people. I think this is an area that definitely needs greater attention in this discussion – once again the pertinent point is the relationship the individual has with technology,. If the relationship is passive, where the individual views technology as a product inextricably tied up with personal identity then this becomes a problem. We need to look closely at the spaces where we find really positive relationships between young people and technology – in spaces where creativity and connection are central. As always I remind the adults that the kids are doing some cool stuff, often hidden from us, and that what we need to do is acknowledge, celebrate, facilitate, these spaces and activities rather than simply condemn them. We must accept the fact that both school (with its associated pressures and expectations around assessments and results) and a society that champions materialism and consumerism have a big part to play in the wellbeing of young people.
Two big things I took away from this panel – we need to confidently and consciously build a strong ecosystem of education (school, home, community, business, cultural institutions, the natural environment, Indigenous histories and cultures) for our young people to thrive, and we must remember that when it comes to young people we must connect with their hearts before their minds (Tucker). I quite enjoyed this panel, but really would have liked it to have gone longer as I think we missed an opportunity to really hear about what UTS is doing and how we as educators can ensure our students are ready for the world of university as well as how we can emulate/adopt some of their successful innovative approaches to teaching and learning.
Whilst initially I was disappointed that Marc Tucker was not physically present at the event (he missed a flight or something and was presented via video and then later via Skype) because I really wanted to meet him and talk about his paper. However, egged on by a dare from Briony Scott and a desire to beat Lee, when it came time for Q&A I shot up my hand and asked Tucker if he would be keen to have a beer with me and Lee when he was next in Australia so together we could design the dream public school. To my surprise he did the double fist pump and said yes! Haha. It seems silly, but moments like this – human moments – made day two of the symposium very important for me. I hope the beer and chat happens because (thanks to Darcy Moore) I have come to learn a bit more about Tucker and his involvement in the current state of the American education system, so I know I would enjoy chatting about his motivations for past decisions, and his commitment to the vision outlined in the occasional paper.
Responding to the challenges of an AI world: Design Thinking Part 1
Facilitator: Gauri Bhalla
I’m not going to spend too long describing these stages of the day, because they were very hands-on and collaborative (we were given a series of design thinking style challenges to work through as a table team) and therefore sort of hard to articulate. I really liked Bhalla’s energy and delivery style for this session – she is obviously an excellent teacher and made sure we weren’t spending the entire day sitting and listening. I found her overview of design thinking was appropriate to the event – it was pretty rapid-fire, but I know that the people on my table could see the benefits of using that approach to problem-solving in school. Let’s face it, we are all at the end of our first three year school plan and starting to think about what the next plan will entail, and that can be a pretty overwhelming activity. Bhalla made the prospect of solving complex problems as a team seem achievable. This first session was all about identifying shared understandings in response to this question: What will young people need to thrive in an AI enabled world? From our ideas we then had to visualise how an ecosystem to support these needs might look. You can see my table’s vision in the photo below.
Lightning Talk: Transformation in complex organisations – Commodore Chris Smallhorn
I definitely thought it was weird that we were going to be spoken to by a guy from the Navy at a symposium about AI (like, was he going to talk about killer robots?) but I was pleasantly surprised by Smallhorn’s impressive knowledge of change management, and leadership. Interestingly one of the main tenets of his discussion was the need for regulation – well, a balance between regulation and innovation. I liked his point that we need individuals who know and value the rules, and then know how to step outside of them. This is very much how I have always engaged with the ‘rules’ of education – such as our syllabuses, NAPLAN and the HSC. Curriculum is our regulation, and pedagogy is our innovation – and as was mentioned the day before, pedagogy is always seen as more fun because it is flexible and dynamic, however, the best pedagogy is grounded in a deep knowledge of the curriculum, and education research. Smallhorn was an excellent storyteller, and I think that’s why I enjoyed his talk so much – he has been instrumental in running a course on innovation and creative thinking that has assessment in the form of a ‘shark tank’ pitch session. Smallhorn is clearly an exceptional leader who values the warmth of human relationships and supporting his team to achieve their very best – we need educational leaders like him.
Lightning Talk: Implications of AI for teaching & learning – Rose Luckin
After lunch we were treated to a talk by Rose Luckin, Professor of Learner Centred Design at UCL Knowledge Lab and Director of EDUCATE: a London hub for EdTech StartUp. I had heard about Luckin from Jane Hunter, who was very eager for me to meet her (I didn’t manage to, sadly – for one I am a bit socially awkward/anxious at big events like this, and secondly she was always talking to others when I found her) because she knew we would have a lot in common. Also Jane championed her because she is a former teacher, and we teachers love it when the experts have actually been in the classroom! You can tell from Luckin’s title that she knows her stuff, and her talk was welcomed by the teachers in the room because to this point we hadn’t really had a specific focus on the role of teachers. Unfortunately it turned out that Luckin was only going to speak for a very short time – it seemed a much shorter talk than Smallhorn’s. She focused on the genuine need for us to change the way we teach now in the face of an AI future, and that we must design a curriculum which focuses primarily on developing students’ self-efficacy. This is a capability that comes up a bit in discussions about preparing young people for the future (because, duh, the future is uncertain) and Luckin unpacked it nicely, saying that self-efficacy is an all-encapsulating term for metacognitive knowledge and appropriate confidence and motivation. I like it! Luckin argued that students could be assisted in the development of their self-efficacy by AI, especially in regards to data collection and analysis. She said that teachers’ capacity to understand the ‘whole child’ and their specific needs would be enhanced by a sort of AI teaching assistant (what my team later joking called Siri Goes to School) that could make learning visible for the learner and for the teacher. This is something that Jane Hunter was telling me about in our chat about Learning Analytics a couple of weeks ago. It really is an exciting field of education work, and I am so keen for teachers, students and parents to be part of the designing of these types of applications. This was the focus for the last part of Luckin’s talk – the need to move away from relying on innovation solutions to come from the big tech corporations (Microsoft, Apple, Google, Intel etc) and to begin embracing and working with smaller start ups to problem solve and design solutions with us. At my school we already have our super smart and talented students designing the platforms and apps we need to support teaching and learning as part of their lessons, but also as passion projects – I’m looking forward to this continuing as the tech gets more integrated into our school.
Closing remarks – Mark Scott
After another design thinking session (where we worked in our teams to design tech solutions to identified problems related to our AI future, which culminated in the winning pitches being presented in front of the room of delegates – PS: My team was a winner, lol) the day was closed by Mark Scott. Kudos to Scott for reading the room, and keeping his talk short and sweet – it was Friday afternoon, and as awesome as the symposium was we were all mentally exhausted. Scott spoke of the day as having been ‘serious play’ (which did capture my experience of the design thinking session – I had fun but also felt challenged by the big problems we were trying to solve) and acknowledging that many from within the room (and a lot from without) would be wondering ‘but what are you going to DO?’ as a result of the two days. My response was (and is) this: that you is YOU, so yes, what are you going to do?’ Thankfully Scott reminded us that innovation and creative problem-solving are contextual – we must not rush to one solution and try to impose it on all schools, teachers, students, communities. As I tweeted on the day (and which has had many responses): We must not fall for the myth that what works beautifully in one school will necessarily be as successful in another school. As Scott said: there is no one solution, we need a more agile approach, more rapid prototyping, and then (perhaps) scale from there. I added the ‘perhaps’ in there because I think ‘to scale’ has some possibly harmful connotations (I simply don’t like that phrase as to me it touches on capitalist ideas) and I would rather have a focus on showcasing, celebrating, sharing of knowledge through thoughtfully constructed networks between schools within the Department… heck, even not within the Department. Going back to John Goh as an example again, his ability to connect with and learn from education leaders and innovators within the private sector (including Catholic diocese) is something we can aspire to. Scott’s concluding metaphor was an appropriate closing of the symposium: The flight isn’t over until the debrief is done. The debriefing of the symposium will take place from now.
Well, that’s it for my debrief… which was actually more of an annotated summary, oops. Where to from here for me? Opening myself up to the visions of others, freeing myself from the tyranny of my desire to ‘do things now, now, now’, a commitment to never ‘turn down the volume’ even though others might try to make me (thanks, Briony), and an eagerness to head back into my classroom carrying with me all of the collective wisdom about how to best prepare my students for a future which is going to be awesome.