This is an article based on an interview with ed tech entrepreneur Gi Fernando on technology’s role in changing how education works. Gi Fernando is an investor in Freeformers, a company that trains young people from disadvantaged backgrounds alongside companies looking to learn digital skills.
I think we need to work harder to build a curriculum that unlocks students’ passions and enables them to solve problems they care deeply about. If you get them involved in projects where they can sort out problems by building things and making things, they are passionate to learn more. School panders to academic people who like learning for the sake of learning. But 90 per cent of people aren’t academic and they actually just want to be able to solve problems that they care about.
Creative does not just mean you’re good at drawing, and you can learn to be more creative. Some would argue the UK is number one for creativity for a whole number of things across the world. I’d say we’re almost creative despite ourselves! But we are a massively creative society – despite the curriculum, despite everything else. Creativity needs to be at the heart of curriculum as it comes out of passion.
Something like Apps for Good is a great model for this. The kids create an app around an issue, like a tool to help someone with learning disabilities learn better through the use of tech. The participants learn about building a successful business, hard skills like maths, soft skills like communication and the history of the problem they’re trying to solve.
Kids are told to turn off their phones when they get into the classroom. But like it or not, that is their communication device, making it more efficient for them to stay in touch with a bigger audience. With devices like this, kids also have the potential to learn larger volumes of stuff more quickly. Surely it’s better to incorporate this powerful computer into lessons, enabling the teacher to engage with students before, during and after?
The problem with teachers’ traditional knowledge transfer role is that knowledge is all there already, in real-time and always being updated. What a teacher now has to do is help young people distinguish the truth from untruth, ensure they know how to use knowledge effectively and also how to create knowledge. Of course the basics are still really important, but you have to embed that rote learning into something creative.
Teachers can actually start to have more one-to-one interactions because they are acting in more of a facilitation role; teaching assimilation skills, usage skills, interrogation of information and drilling down – not just rote learning. They also need more power to be 100 per cent inspiring kids, working with kids and getting the best out of them, which means they have to do less paperwork. Admin should be reduced by tech – automate it, or just don’t do it. Schools should make their own decisions, do it locally and be as creative as they can, and transfer best practice.
This actually doesn’t require as much of a shift for teachers as it does for those who build the curriculum.
Vocational versus non-vocational
People are really quick to say ‘or’. It should be ‘and’ not ‘or’ for vocational and non-vocational subjects. The division of them is a systematic thing from the past that deemed that doing something vocational meant you were ‘a bit thick’. Splitting people like this does both sides a disservice.
Freeformers participants learning by doing, do online digital missions, volunteer to transfer their skills to others, learn in the local coffee shop, do face-to-face stuff with mentors, as well as working in a dynamic startup-style classroom environment. A mix of vocational and non-vocational, human, not isolated.
MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses piloted by tech teachers, which have become very popular – are still done by learners largely in isolation, even if a lot of people participate, which again only suits some people. You learn differently when you’re learning with other kids, you actually learn things from them, in the same way hanging around with friends at university is actually massively valuable.
The value of centralisation should be around economies of scale, where you collect taxes and deliver a cheaper and better education. In theory the best education you should be able to get should be government doing it at scale. But free schools mean it’s easier than ever to set up a school or an adult education facility. You see industry getting involved in education and competing with the government – and unfortunately, I know where I’d put my money.
Tech shifts the focus to demand-side from supply-side – the demand from learners and industry for the right skills for people to get jobs and unlock the potential they have. What if Google starts to offer the best education? Part online courses, with face-to-face delivery through community buildings. And it could be free. People would vote with their feet.
Future campuses? I see different hubs with meeting spaces where TedX-type events are beamed in, with clubs and communities grouped around MOOC-type things and people work on projects they’re getting paid for.
I’d always tell people to study something they’re passionate about at university even if you’re not going to get a job directly from it. My parents made me do science because frankly I couldn’t make up my mind. Ancient medicine and French – whatever – go and learn something creative and then start making stuff at home. Doing art? Build stuff around art, solve problems you see using tech. If you do that, you’re more likely to be able to get a job you’re passionate about and have an advantage over other people in the industry.
What we’re seeing in the tech industry and other areas are moves towards a ‘micro-work culture’ – so learning something very specific with the idea that you’ll be working for the same company and picking up a pension just aren’t that relevant anymore. You might do four different things for eight companies or a number of different jobs within the same organisations.
Academic is not the same as bright. There are a whole host of people who’ve change the world that are not academic. But everybody from startups to the civil service to the corporate world judge people by how academic they are because we don’t really have another way to judge them. At Freeformers, you can actually see the corporate guys twig when they realise these kids are bright, they know their stuff, hey, they’re actually teaching us. At that point, any qualifications become irrelevant. And in digital, tech and creative industries more generally, a degree is not so important. I believe we really need another evaluation system about what ‘bright’ is.
Future of work
Knowledge and creative workers are the new factory workers, blue collar workers. Solving problems, using assets – that’s the future of most of the workforce. All levels in a company will have to be more creative and more tech-enabled. Tech will have massive effects – removing the need for performing automated tasks and driving competition – which will then call for really creative skill sets to be creative in serving the customer.
Space is already becoming high-premium stuff on the high street, for example. In many cases, you already pay ‘more for in store’, so to have that edge, the shop assistant really has to be able to offer a mix of digital and face-to-face skills. Suddenly, the job becomes quite skilled, transforming your typical ‘boring’ job into a skilled servicing job.
There needs to be more creativity in government about thinking what the future’s going to be like. It’s all well and good ‘backing startups’ but they actually need to change behaviour in terms of embracing change. Doing a big project with lots of risk management is actually riskier than doing lots of small projects, some of which fail. What’s a few £10,000 failures compared to a huge $13bn one? Trying things with less money means your chances of success will be much higher and it will give a more diverse group of people access to government project work.
Government projects breed selection bias because they are so worried about making a mistake, they always choose the same people. There is a massive issue around diversity that also massively inhibits your ability to succeed more and more. There are those who know they have a selection bias and those who mean well but don’t actually know they have a selection bias.
Getting a job and being able to earn is still very important – in tech, people say ‘learn, earn and return’. You need to learn by doing all sorts of skill sets, learn how to interact with society, then earn respect, earn money, hopefully get a regular income and then give back and support other people. Tech is democratic and you will earn more money so we have to support people by teaching them skills to earn more.
Tech founders are working hard to find the right talent – largely imported from outside the UK – but you should only do that alongside educating the local population to fill those roles. It really doesn’t take years. If we don’t sort education out and look to immigration to fill these role, we’ll get to a point where we’ll have an uprising because local people will feel the country is ignoring them. Particularly because they’ve had skills training overlooked because of inherent selection biases that exist.
Otherwise it just becomes a whole bunch of hipsters who are moneyed, it is a class thing that ceases to become about colour. I certainly don’t want the tech industry driving cliques and class barriers in the UK – we don’t need to do it.
Given its creative history, we have a very exciting opportunity to be a very British tech industry which is inclusive, driven, massively creative, highly experienced and less wasteful of talent – which is why I’m doing what I’m doing.
Written for Compass as part of its Education Inquiry http://www.compassonline.org.uk/a-new-curriculum/