A journey to the Googleplex – a new way of thinking?

Should we bring the mammoth back from extinction? Can we enable a colour-blind person to hear colours? Did Charles Darwin blunder his way to his seminal “Origin of Species”? Fascinating questions which represent but a snapshot of the discussion, debate, hypotheses which filled a weekend at Science Foo Camp 2014. Sci Foo, as it is affectionately known, is now a well-established annual event hosted at Google HQ in Palo Alto, California. The hub of innovation and enterprise on the Bay offered a uniquely twenty first century backdrop to a very twenty first century gathering.

An invited audience of 250 individuals from primarily science and technology assembled to create a weekend where the audience determined the content of the event. Session after session (failed to make Science and Beyoncé but looked intriguing!) were offered spontaneously by individuals across a range of specialisms at the cutting edge of their area of expertise. The fast-fire five minute lightning talks gave the flavour of the day to come. There was more than a hint of a Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney musical – the guests at Sci Foo put on a show but a show where everyone had a speaking role.

Arriving at the Googleplex, I was acutely conscious that I was not a scientist, had not made some mind-shattering discovery nor was likely to do so. Yet I knew my presence at Sci Foo was designed for me to learn and to share the experience of teachers who have the responsibility to educate young people to thrive in the world imagined by those around me. Unsurprisingly the participants talked about a reality which had more than a hint of Science Fiction about it. A breakfast conversation about the potential for cyborg technology to change our lives and the ethical dimension of allowing technology to replicate our intellectual capacity touched on the very essence of our humanity.

The contrast between the world of futurists and the world of education is more than stark – it is as if two worlds existed alongside each other yet with little if any regard for the reality in either. It was fascinating that participants from the States felt that the move in their country to introduce more standardised testing was creating a learning environment which was contrary to the free form thinking they displayed. Indeed I joined one session where the debate about the challenges facing schools in both the USA and UK felt depressingly similar. There was a very strong sense that the education system in both countries was failing to educate young people in ways which prepared them for their future. The facility to be resilient, nimble thinking, persistent were deemed as important as examination results. Yet several American colleagues commented on the strong sense of failure which pervaded their school system because of the testing culture.

Sharing a coach journey with a gentleman on the last morning to Sci Foo, I learnt that – in addition to being a retired Professor of Engineering – he advised the US government back in the 1980s about how best to prepare young people for the world of work. Our discussion reminded me of the the debate in this country about how to address the needs of many young people in our country as we moved from our mighty industrial past to a post-manufacturing age. The short-lived Youth Training System (YTS) of the ’80s was an attempt to provide appropriate training yet, as with many such schemes, proved but transitory. The retired Professor is still grappling with this challenge and how best schools can prepare young people for future employment.

Reflecting on Sci Foo and many conversations which often spun off into education, it is manifest to me that we are not without ambition for our young people nor for schools. Where we appear to be failing is in our imagination of how schools can offer a crucible of learning for all. Whilst we continue to view school through the prism of our own experience, whether here or in the US, we shall never be free to think differently about education. Perhaps a healthy dose of Sci Foo thinking would help….



One thought on “A journey to the Googleplex – a new way of thinking?

  1. Cordelia Doo Spalding

    Hi Tricia

    Thought i would google you now we have had a chance to meet! Always prefer to meet a person first….

    Having read the blog above I can see we definitely are sharing the same soap box!

    Having worked in a wide variety of environments where education was the main theme/aim, I have come to realise how a misplaced belief in order and segmentation has somehow extracted all the enquiry and epestemic curiosity that we are naturally born with, and the joy that learning and finding solutions can and should bring from education and the learning experience. Not just for the students but for the teacher too!

    Somewhere in the difference between our aim to “educate” and a students need to “learn” lies the problem. One does not necessarily directly translate into the other. As “teachers” the current education system put us in a position where the layout of our duties, the scope of subject in terms of depth and width is already pre-determined and unfortunately our “maturity” and the effect of our own “factory conveyor-belt” education, means that many teachers submit to these restraints all too readily. That is not a criticism of any teacher, it is just the way it has been for too long…..due to a lack of empowerment and support from Gov, DofE etc.

    Therefore for a learner, what is being fed to them is already often “double homogenised”, once by the system, and secondly by the teacher, all be it unconsciously.

    By this time the dry leftovers of a subject are rarely “edible” and do not provide the nourishment required to sustain further enquiry or interest.

    Even though beautifully packaged, with luscious illustrations of what could lie beyond this learning “feast” are what a learner is initially presented with, the reality is a buffet of over processed, dehydrated and unappetising plates stretching as far as the eye can see, but with no dips, relishes or garnishes to make an appetising and fulfilling meal!

    That may be an analogy too far, but nourishment of the self must be the basis for the wish and want to learn, to discover and to question. It is what makes a toddler battle with two bits of lego, it is what makes dizzy 7 and 8 year olds make up dances and it is what makes a 15 year old draw and sketch into the small hours.

    Learning is holistic, it is about a 360 degree experience, whereas teaching has been reduced to a series of factory moulded hoops, that both teacher and student are forced through.

    Hope it improves!

    Anyway finished my rant, hope to see you again and great to meet a like minded soul!
    Doo ( Cordelia)


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