Category Archives: global outlook

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….

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Bigotry and how to combat it.

It is quite shocking to witness the unfolding drama in Nigeria where over 200 girls have been kidnapped from their boarding school by a militant group called Boko Haram. Initially a barely reported story, it is now attracting headlines from across the world. Indeed the American First Lady, Michelle Obama, taking the place of her husband in the weekly presidential address, has condemned the kidnapping of the schoolgirls in Nigeria as an “unconscionable act” led by a group of men “attempting to snuff out the aspirations of young girls”.

However, the First Lady spoke not just for the kidnapped school girls but the 65 million girls worldwide who are not in education. It is indeed unconscionable that education, taken for granted as a birthright for so many, is unattainable for so many more. She singled out for particular praise Malala Yousafzai. Mrs Obama observed that Malala spoke out for girls’ education in her community, and as a result, she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman while on a school bus with her classmates. But fortunately Malala survived and hugely impressed Mrs Obama with her passion and determination to champion girls’ education which is still her life’s mission.

We are fortunate indeed to live in a country where education for all is a birth right. Whatever the rights and wrongs of political debate about the purpose of education, it captures without any fear of contradiction the vital importance of education for us individually and for our society. This is why the fate of the girls in Nigeria should matter to us. Indeed a member of our school community whose family are Nigerian felt moved to present the plight of the schoolgirls in assembly ensuring that everyone in our community understood the bigotry behind the kidnapping and the importance of education for these girls – after all, education is the most powerful weapon against such bigotry.

This dimension of our school’s life is essential for our young learners. Growing up in a world which is interconnected in so many ways necessitates a global awareness and understanding. We should all care what happens in other countries. Certainly global citizenship is an integral part of our vision for education. Growing up in today’s world our youngsters need a nuanced understanding of so many different cultures and societies. In my view, the outrageous kidnapping of the Nigerian schoolgirls highlights the importance of global citizenship. The race for grades can sometimes place pressure on that part of school life not so easily measurable. Yet young people in this country will only appreciate the horror of this incident if they understand the context. How education is so fundamental to the life chances of their contemporaries in countries in other continents; why it is that the education of girls is particularly important because of its power to transform a society’s demography.

So when we reflect on our values in education we must ensure that our learners have the capacity to view the world around them with a critical and informed eye. Their education must encompass the world beyond our country’s shores. After all, without a critical citizenry we risk intolerance and prejudice prevailing; a dangerous place to be in our interconnected planet.

Language learning – why bother when you can speak English?

Gary Lineker, famous footballer and pundit, is one of many people bemoaning the decline of language learning in this country. As someone who learnt Spanish while playing for Barcelona, Lineker believes language learning is a critical part of a young person’s education:

“There’s an attitude abroad and sometimes it’s understandable that we’re a bit pompous or arrogant and we think everyone should speak English. I don’t think it really does us any favours in terms of how people see us,” he said. “There is no question in my mind when you speak someone else’s language, certainly in their country, they’re normally pretty appreciative of the fact.”

Perception is everything and there is a measure of truth in Lineker’s observation. Yet I believe it is not so much arrogance which is the barrier to language learning but rather the reality of English being the lingua franca of our times. Indeed, on language exchange programmes our students often have to be persistent in speaking the language of their partners who themselves desperately want to take every opportunity to speak English.

So how do we persuade young people to learn a language when all the world appears intent on speaking English? Gary Lineker commendably focuses on the cultural dimension. To interact with people in their language enables the speaker truly to understand cultural signifiers where there invariably will be nuances of meaning. Speaking English is inevitably a barrier to this. English allows communication but does not necessarily facilitate understanding and in a world where cultures clash and misunderstanding is rampant understanding people has never been more important.

Another driver has to be the benefits of speaking another language in the global workforce. This is clearly illustrated by the careers of our alumni. As part of the European Day of Languages we contacted alumni who were linguists to ask whether they would be prepared to share their experience. So many stories revealed how languages opened up opportunities in ways conventional careers guidance could not anticipate.

Yet ultimately my view is that these very grown up reasons for studying languages don’t cut much ice with young people. They speak English so why work hard at another language? As the Head of Modern Languages observed in assembly, learning a language requires effort and then there are all those grammatical exceptions. Mark Twain, a giant of American literature, was happy to share his experience of learning German:

“When a German gets his hands on an adjective, he declines it, and keeps on declining it until the common sense is all declined out of it.”

Which is why a school needs to think differently about language learning. In addition to offering a menu comprising seven modern foreign languages, Year 7 students study linguistics and in Year 8 we have introduced a new Global Outlook course. The objective of these non-examined programmes is to encourage students to engage culturally with the wider world in creative ways. One topic for Year 8 is based on the concept of “globish”, and other activities include deciphering runes and creating runic sentences.

In this way we aim to encourage a genuine interest in the world providing a context for why language learning matters. It is important that everyone engages with languages and not just the naturally gifted linguists. With technology shrinking our world, the imperative for language learning is more important than ever. We may be globally connected through a device, yet we are still interacting with human beings. And it is all about understanding and not just communicating.

Leipzig, BMW and Learning.

I had the joy of listening to choral music by the great Tudor composers Thomas Tallis and William Byrd this weekend. What made this experience of the Elizabethan Renaissance so special was the location. The performance was in a church in Leipzig, Germany.

The cultural vitality of Leipzig is a hallmark of its greatness. Not even the post-war German Democrat Republic, toppled by popular revolution in 1989, could muzzle the creative life of this historic city.

Yet, whilst revelling in the history of Leipzig, it is the future beckoning the inhabitants of the city and its environs which I found most compelling. A tour of the award winning “state of the art” BMW plant built outside of Leipzig is an education in future thinking. The principles under-pinning the production line of Henry Ford’s Model T are recalibrated to create a very modern working environment. The car remains the star – however, configuring each car for the individual is the guiding principle of the BMW approach. Form and function are harnessed in a very twenty first century way. This holistic approach to manufacturing represents to me creative thinking of the highest order. The process I witnessed in this inspiring building – to call it a factory is too twentieth century – demanded design which transcended convention.

Why does this matter? It matters because this manufacturing plant outside Leipzig is arguably a beacon for future learning. BMW, like other global corporations, understands that to succeed tomorrow it must push the boundaries of invention today. The reason I am so struck by this is because the education debate in this country is stuck in a past paradigm where discourse has become mired in arguably an old fashioned factory model with emphasis on process. In my view this is a very limited vision of what the future may hold for young people. So how does this compare with Germany?

Given I was enjoying the hospitality of an old university friend and her family whilst in Leipzig, I took the opportunity to find out more about her personal experience of the German education system. First I learnt that Germany, the great economic powerhouse of Europe, is also obsessed with its position in the PISA table. However, because of the decentralisation of education to the states, this particular hobby horse cannot be wielded by central government to effect change in schools (even if they so wished). Secondly, both academic and vocational education are genuinely valued within schools with university and apprenticeships offering equally valid routes for young people. And thirdly, and apposite in the education of my friend’s children, the importance of curriculum breadth until 18.

Inevitably the Saxon education system is not Nirvana. For example I also heard grumblings about limited digital resources in school. And I am aware that there is more general debate taking place about the German education system and whether it is fit for twenty first century purpose. The all too familiar discussions about the Asian education system and the much hyped success of Finland are part of the German discourse too.

My brief sojourn in Leipzig was interesting on so many levels. On a personal note, I have returned home culturally invigorated. Professionally, I remain convinced we must continue our debate in this country on what matters in education. What is best for young people is too important to become a hostage to political posturing of any persuasion. In our globally connected world, what can matter more?