A few days ago, I met with the core academics team at Beaconhouse to review our progress since the last School of Tomorrow conference in Lahore two years ago.  I think it would not be incorrect to say that the general consensus was that, while we have made considerable progress in a number of areas, it is still a ripple in the ocean that is Beaconhouse.  The 8,000 soldiers of Beaconhouse are undoubtedly our teachers and unless each of them understands what it means to be a school of tomorrow, we have little hope.  So, while there has indeed been a paradigm shift in the thinking of people in the corporate offices of Beaconhouse since 2000 when we started organizing these conferences, our key challenge remains how we are going to cascade this new understanding to the front line – our classrooms.

The good news is that we do not have unrealistic expectations and appreciate that such fundamental change takes time.  A great deal of strategizing (followed by carefully planned implementation and change management) is required to mainstream the pockets of excellence and best practice that undoubtedly exist in many of our schools.  Let us take one such example: project-based learning at TNS Beaconhouse (established 2007), an IB school in Lahore that is the outcome of the School of Tomorrow conference of 2005.  However, it has not been an easy journey.  Even though TNS is now in its sixth academic year, it has taken time for the understanding of project-based learning (and indeed its underlying philosophy, experiential learning) to take root.  And, with due respect to the good people of TNS, the roots are still growing in strength and connectedness.

So what exactly is experiential learning – and what does it have to do with schools of tomorrow? Experiential learning is an intuitive way of learning that is timeless (certainly far older than the modern school that we all know) and encourages learning through experiences, or learning by doing.  I find that the simplest way of explaining ‘experiential learning’ to people is to offer the example of learning to drive a car.  You can read a 1,000-page manual (or textbook) on how to drive a car with detailed calculations of how much pressure to exert on the accelerator in order to attain corresponding speeds, animations of how to effectively manipulate the steering wheel to make the car turn left, and so on, but until you go through the ‘experience’ of driving a car and make a few (hopefully not fatal!) mistakes, you don’t learn to drive a car.  ‘Learning to drive a car/driving a car’ is the perfect example of learning by doing.  Indeed, Aristotle had the right idea in 384-322 BC when he said: “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”  (I suppose that’s why he was Aristotle… and we’re still figuring it out 2,334 years later.)

So, even though the School of Tomorrow conferences sometimes evoke fleeting images of androids teaching human children in high-tech, virtual reality-equipped environments (and indeed some of that may be a part of it), that’s not necessarily the driving thought here.  What, then, are we talking about?

I cannot pretend to possess a blueprint for the school of tomorrow (if I did, we probably wouldn’t need to organize these conferences).  What I do know is that a school of tomorrow probably should not organize its teaching days purely on the basis of 45-minute compartments of disconnected knowledge (i.e., subjects) that are delivered in a manner devoid of any real-life context, where children learn things without knowing why they are learning them (i.e., studying complex equations on how much pressure to apply to an accelerator or a brake without ever stepping inside a car) and are ‘examined’ soon thereafter with mind-numbing questions like “If the vehicle is going at 60 miles per hour and you wish to decrease its speed by 18%, how many degrees of pressure do you need to apply to the brake?” What, I wonder, is the relevance of such decontextualized question-mongering if the child is never going to drive or, as it were, ‘do’?  (I can think of one reason: so that he may pass an exam and then wipe his memory clean.) This simple metaphor of ‘learning to drive by driving vs. studying the theory and mechanics of driving’ applies to the modern curriculum as a whole because we provide very little opportunity for application of knowledge but much emphasis on the transmission of abstract concepts.

Often, when I say things like this, people ask: “Excuse me! Aren’t your schools doing the same thing?”  My answer to this is always the same: this is not about Beaconhouse, it is not even about Pakistan.  It is about a global education system that developed in response to the industrial revolution and hasn’t changed much since.

To be continued…

 

I’d like to thank everyone for the overwhelming response received to my inaugural blog post.  I never imagined that my next post would actually take me beyond Eid ul Azha/Hari Raya but, since it has, let me take this opportunity to ‘hope’ that you all had a very happy Eid (assuming you celebrate it).  Moreover, I hope it was a happy occasion for the underprivileged and the unpossessed who are all too convenient to forget on joyous occasions.

I also want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who commented on my blog post.  I have read and appreciated all your comments and, though it is difficult to reply to everyone individually, I want you to know that I am grateful for your feedback – whether you agreed with me or not.

I realize that my next post was supposed to be about the politically desirable but otherwise elusive ‘common national curriculum’ but I’ve decided to defer that to a later date – also, I may fall asleep writing it. I am also now going to scrap, with much regret, a blog post I wrote but never managed to complete (and thus publish) on Malala – because the moment has passed – though I continue to pray for her complete recovery.

For now, I want to focus on something closer at hand because, as I type this, I am about to start descending into Kuala Lumpur and am pretending not to have heard an annoying announcement about having to switch off all electronic devices.  (As you may have gathered, I am on an airplane – much as I might want to descend into KL on my own wings).  I am here on an ‘advance trip’ in connection with our forthcoming ‘School of Tomorrow’ conference in Kuala Lumpur on 20-21 November.  (Amongst other things, I will be groveling before local media representatives in the hope that they may cover the conference.)

(Landed without laptop jamming the plane.)

End of next day… The School of Tomorrow is a journey that started in November 2000 when, on the 25th anniversary of Beaconhouse, we organized a conference in Islamabad called ‘Rethinking Education’ (more importantly, I was still in my 20s at the time!).  While this was by no means the first Beaconhouse Academic Conference, it was perhaps the first time that we recognized that people outside Beaconhouse might also know a thing or two about education and invited, as our keynote speaker, Dr Roger Schank (www.rogerschank.com), learning theorist/artificial intelligence pioneer/outraged educator, along with a few other non-Beaconhouse speakers and delegates.  Under the presiding gaze of General Pervez Musharraf (who was our chief guest as well as ‘Chief Executive’ of Pakistan at the time), Roger Schank recounted a little story that has since stuck with me: “Many years ago,” he said (or so I imagine), “my son got an A+ on a Chemistry test.  He was very pleased with himself and showed me his test paper.  I took a hard look at it.  Now, I’ve been a professor of computer science at Yale and Stanford but I couldn’t answer a single question.  I congratulated my son cautiously but kept the paper.  A year later, I showed it to him.  He could not answer a single question.”

Although the crowd laughed appreciatively (though I suspect several people didn’t really get the point) and General Musharraf, uncharacteristically hanging onto the keynote speaker’s every word, smiled knowingly, Dr Schank’s story was anything but funny. It was Tragic and lies at the Heart of all our education conferences.  It is, in fact, stories like his son’s that have led us to a continuing journey that has become the ‘School of Tomorrow’ conference series (as I explained to a mystified journalist in KL today, it is indeed a journey, not a destination…because we won’t suddenly decide on Sept 1, 2015 that we are Now a school of tomorrow [this was, of course, just before I remembered that the academic year in Malaysia starts in January, causing my ‘semi-joke’ to create further confusion.])

The School of Tomorrow conferences challenge our subconscious and deeply ingrained notions about education.  They may even make some people shift a little uncomfortably in their seats.  Nonetheless, these conferences are important because they confront us with hard questions such as Why is it that, when we all went to some school or another (presumably), most of us don’t remember much (if any) of the physics, chemistry, biology, calculus, algebra, history (etc.) that we learnt…even those of us who got 450 A grades in our O and A Level exams.

Think about it.

To be continued… (this one really will be, because the School of Tomorrow does not put me to sleep!)

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