Why education needs more fuzzy thinking

29th May 2015 at 01:00
As the future becomes increasingly unknowable, we must abandon a rigid hierarchy of subjects for a flexible yet ambitious approach

I've just finished planning a new course. Students will begin with what could be described as a fuzzy goal: "create something that will transform the lives of a billion people". There are also success criteria: "change the world" and "build the first prototype within a few weeks". Our students will not be told what to produce or how. They won't take an exam but must instead start a new company to make their idea actually happen.

It's been a decade since I first heard the education conference clich that we are preparing our kids for a future we don't even understand.

Ten years ago, that wasn't really true. In fact, the immediate future was pretty predictable between 2005 and 2010: the internet remained slow and some kids didn't have it at home, most didn't use Facebook, smartphones were still far too expensive and the iPad wasn't launched until January 2010. Even terrorism was mostly still "over there", and wars likewise, rather than recruiting from comprehensives in the Home Counties.

Since then the world has learned what "exponential" really means. The normal trajectory post-school is no longer a linear certainty but a struggle with what a new breed of thinker and doer embraces as "fuzzy goals". This emergent group of young people, activists and senior industry leaders spends most of its days grappling with unknown unknowns - technologies, jobs, ways of thinking and, yes, even terrorist groups that we didn't even know we didn't know about.

At the same time, our understanding of "what matters" in education hasn't budged beyond a few pockets of relative daring. We still operate within our hierarchy of subjects, overcharged curricula and an expectation that teachers will stand and deliver it. There is little room for fuzziness here.

Indeed, the "students" on my new course are not actually at school. They are the top bosses, engineers, marketing and human resources specialists at mega corporates in the industrial powerhouse of Northern Germany. And planning for fuzziness is a lot harder than planning for a world of certainties, targets and bullet-point knowledge we know we need to know.

The fuzzy world has no clear goals such as making a presentation or writing an essay; the success criteria are endlessly ambitious and totally negotiable - what does it look like when we "change the world"? - and the plan is no more than setting aside time for teams to research and collaborate on potential ideas. There is almost no content, other than activities that help students to learn for themselves, synthesise complex information, generate large numbers of ambitious ideas and build prototypes. In fact, it's the job of the students to find and curate the content they need, to understand how they might turn a fuzzy goal into a more concrete one.

We've created fuzzy curricula for communications, technology and fashion businesses, and even a mining company: in the past five years, "knowing you cannot know" has become the norm.

The CBI business lobby group regularly makes teachers' eyes roll into their heads with statements about the unemployability of today's students. Part of the group's complaint is the perceived inability of young people to deal with the ambiguity of this new breed of fuzzy problem. The public and private sectors don't need geniuses who can cram maths or biology facts; they need people who can think like mathematicians and biologists to code and design for a planet growing beyond its means. We don't need people who know about history; we need people who can think like historians to help us prevent future conflicts.

Self-directed learning

Although most government policy concentrates on improving teachers' capacity to teach a fixed curriculum, some inspiring educators are taking the fuzzy goal by its ill-defined horns and refocusing their efforts on improving students' capacity to learn.

Brazilian entrepreneur Ricardo Semler created the not-for-profit Lumiar schools a decade ago to enable students to learn stuff that's not taught in traditional subjects. The model does away with teachers who teach. Instead, adults' role is half pastoral and half to infuse passion and support students' self-directed efforts.

Instead of subject-based curricula, Lumiar has 10 "threads" for children aged 2 to 17, such as "How do we measure ourselves as humans?" A big question like this opens up exploration of maths, physics and psychology. "How do we express ourselves?" leads to discussion of music, literature and grammar.

To keep track of learning, the schools use an app with 600 digital "tiles", representing the elements of learning to which every school-leaver should have been exposed. These are the 600 elements of the Brazilian curriculum. When a student isn't interested in a particular tile, they can leave it for a few months, or a year, until their inherent interest brings them back. How they put those tiles together to create their own learning journey is entirely up to them.

Lumiar is having a positive effect, helping students to achieve twice as much as their peers in the state school system.

In Scotland, Newlands Junior College allocates only a third of its efforts to traditional "core" subjects. The free-to-attend private school funded by billionaire Jim McColl expends most of its energy on developing a passion for learning and collaboration through hands-on vocational courses.

Finland, the world's go-to recipe book for educational excellence, has made more systemic change: in March, the government announced plans to abandon a subject-by-subject curriculum in senior high schools, moving towards "phenomenon teaching" where topics cover several subject areas.

If "phenomenon teaching" isn't fuzzy, I don't know what is. But it is in helping our students to grapple with the ambiguous, audacious and sometimes frighteningly ambitious goals of our planet that we will prepare them for a future we cannot begin to understand.

Ewan McIntosh is managing director of global consultancy NoTosh and former national adviser on learning and technologies futures for the Scottish government. He is the keynote speaker at Practical Pedagogies 2015, a not-for-profit event hosted by the International School of Toulouse on 15-16 October. For more information, see bit.lyPracticalPed

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