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Teaching, disrupted

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ILab Notes
Learning is not what it used to be.

Note from our Editor:

In his last blog post of this series, Innovation Lab's intern Marc Velten-Lomelin takes us on a journey to explore how his generation sees education. He centers his article around Tim Brown's (IDEO's CEO), design thinking quote: "the essential ability to combine empathy, creativity and rationality to meet user needs and drive business success." In his view, education is a partnership between the teacher and the student. This generation views passive education with the same sense of disbelief with which we saw our parents' stories of physical punishment at school. His thesis is that education has not been disrupted by technology as much as it has been by his generation's demand for a collaborative approach where the teacher/student hierarchies of the past no longer make sense.

Written by: Marc Velten-Lomelin, marc@ilab.dk

Education, disrupted

Learning is not what it used to be. The days of passively sitting down while being lectured for hours are counted. The times when the ability to memorize facts and data was confused with the mastering of a skill are gone. Uninvolved students are on their way to extinction. Education, disrupted by a generation that was brought up in the give-and-take world of social media and gaming, will never look the same. 

That's good news for all...

Just as our parents saw the days when teachers physically punished their parents with a sense of disbelief, we see the days when our parents sat in classrooms for hours listening to an uninspiring teacher while taking copious notes with the same sense of incredulity. My generation demands to own our education by taking an active role in what we learn and how we learn it. Thankfully, schools and teachers all around the world are cooperating. 

design thinking education
It's all about design thinking for education.

Design thinking for education

Tim Brown, IDEO's CEO, defines design thinking as "the essential ability to combine empathy, creativity and rationality to meet user needs and drive business success." This is genius: rather than clouding this ever-more used term in an aura of academic jargon, he brings empathy to the forefront and bluntly tells us design thinking starts there.

A few weeks ago, two executives from Lego came to visit my high school and my engineering teacher gave them a tour of our maker space. Their visit also included a tour of Stanford University's famous D-School (Design School), which is just a few blocks away. To my surprise, they were more impressed with our engineering, architecture and design facilities than with Stanford's. This is not because our shop, while impressive, is bigger or better than that of the D-School - they're famous for a reason. Their awe had to do more with, as they indicated, the fact that they were not expecting to find a space like this in a high school.  

Our engineering shop empathizes with the way my generation wants to learn. Our maker space is designed under one simple principle: flexibility. The entire shop can be quickly re-purposed to fit any project. Everything has wheels and the space is never the same. We have every tool you can imagine, including tools invented by students. Our teachers act as mentors and coaches, we're never lectured and we have no textbooks. The engineering space acts as an extension of our physics class, so when we learn about the laws of energy conservation, or the parabola formulas, we get to build stuff to learn what they mean. I bet that if past generations had learned this way, there would not be a shortage of engineering talent because more students would have learned - like us - to love physics by tinkering with stuff rather than taking formulas for granted.

Innovative learning starts with organized teachers

It would be naive to say that re-designing the learning space does the trick when it comes to teaching. It takes empathetic, innovative and hard-working teachers to leap us into this new era of learning. Happily, Tim Brown's definition of design thinking applies to teachers as much as to spaces and to everything else: it starts with empathy.  

Empathy can be as simple as being organized so that students know what to expect. Teachers who are organized are well liked and respected among students and faculty. Nobody wants to be around someone who has no idea what is going on in their own classroom. When a teacher is not organized the class does not function. Teachers who forget to do simple things like set up the schedule for the week, arrive on time, or even remember a student's name lack empathy, which translates into lack of organization, and results in unengaged students. 

A teacher must know everything in their curriculum and plan innovative ways of teaching it. For example, my Engineering teacher, Marc Allard, is the most organized teacher on the face of this Earth. Everything in his class is planned out. Nothing is forgotten or misplaced. The grading system is impenetrable. I've had a class with him for three years in high school. The first year I had him for Freshman Physics, where his strict deadline policies and testing schedules morphed me into what some sort of super efficient learning machine. The next year he was no longer my science teacher but rather my engineering teacher. Even though it was a different environment I was prepared to take on whatever was thrown at me, only because I knew what he expected of me and what I expected of him. His empathy resulted in better learning that motivated me to understand a tough subject like physics.

Inspiring teachers are 'optimized' around design thinking 

My dad once told me that the most ineffective and uninspiring teacher he ever had was at Harvard. This teacher was no small academic guy with a safe teaching career: he had won the Nobel Prize in Economics. What this teacher had in brilliance he lacked in empathy, one could say that he was not optimized for teaching around design thinking. Even Einstein, arguably the most brilliant academic of his generation, was famous for zesty, inspiring lectures at Princeton that made students understand complex concepts like relativity and quantum mechanics. 

Time and time again educators forget how to empathize with their students because they're too focused on being eloquent, efficient, or simply keeping their jobs. No man is smarter than machine. If education was about ensuring pupils record the information they get while idly listening in a classroom, machines would already rule the education world. My generation asks things like: why shall we learn by memory the capitals of the world when we can Google them from our mobile whenever we need to know them? Human teachers, those that inspire rather than feed us information, will not become obsolete because true empathy, which we demand in this partnership, can't be delivered by artificial intelligence.

Technology was not the disruptor

Apps and e-books have undoubtedly changed the way education can be delivered. However, the new way to learn, where teachers and students talk, joke around, and learn from one another, is the real culprit of the wave of change you're about to see in this area. Pupils not only become students to the teacher, we become their partners in our education. A dominant teacher lecturing passive students is a postcard from your past. The next time someone tells you that education is being disrupted by technology, bear to correct them: it is my generation who disrupted your old ways of learning.

Photo courtesy of friend of Innovation Lab and photographer Christopher Michel.