I started writing this on my way back from Kuala Lumpur on 25 November but it has taken me a few days to begin to collect my thoughts.

To attempt to summarize ‘School of Tomorrow: Empowering Lifelong Learners’ (20-21 November 2012, Kuala Lumpur) in a few blog posts would be an injustice – perhaps as unfitting as my ‘vote of thanks’ at the closing of the conference in which I cleverly forgot to thank the most important constituents in the room – The Student Superstars – but I’ll talk about that later!  For now, I’ll just say that this oversight was caused partly by my heightened consciousness to ‘wrap up’ before the 37 long minutes I took in Lahore (2010) but equally due to frazzled nerves: just before I was due to speak, I noticed a giant stain (which was probably visible from the moon) on my suit jacket, causing me to rush upstairs to my hotel room and change into a blazer – which, ten minutes later, ended up missing its most visible button – thus prompting a second wardrobe change!

So it was that I stood before the august gathering of 500 educators at 5 pm on 21 November, literally a ‘changed man’, trying frenetically to bring together the multiple and multilayered threads of thought generated by the 35 amazingly talented speakers and panelists at our latest SOT conference.

Through this blog, I shall aim to present a few snapshots of the conference in the form of a series of vignettes (a fancy word I like to use that basically means ‘pointless little stories without plots.’).  Hopefully, this should prove to be a smarter (and less taxing) strategy than attempting an ambitious summary.

KL: 19 November

Vignette 1: The most important meal of the day?

Anyone who knows me will readily agree that I am anything but a morning person.  It was thus a shock to my system to find myself in the deserted studios of TV7 in Shah Alam (on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur) at 6.52 am on 19 November, the day before the conference, for a breakfast show (in which ‘breakfast’ proved to be myth).  I was joined on this ‘breaking dawn’ expedition by Dr. Kathryn Riley of the University of London’s Institute of Education (one of our speakers) and her daring husband Roberto, along with our handlers Tabraiz Bokhari of Beaconhouse and ‘Pandora’ of Group M (our media relations agency in Malaysia) – the two eager beavers responsible for our red eyes and foul moods.  At about 7.30 am, the silence of the studios was finally broken by a shattered-looking man (one of the show hosts, we later learnt) who looked alarmed to see us there so early.  I glared again at Pandora, who slid a bit lower into her seat.

Dr. Riley and I were finally called onto the set at 8.20 am by the now-perky hosts (make-up does wonders) while they aired, as the intro to our interview, a pre-edited video segment in which random young people on the streets of Kuala Lumpur had been “polled” on whether they preferred “traditional vs. modern methods of teaching”.  Wonderful, I thought – this is their sum total understanding of the school of tomorrow.  Sure enough, one ‘pollee’ after another waxed eloquent on the wonders of modern technology and its apparently magical powers in the classroom.  It was a good thing I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, otherwise I might have started to feel a little unwell.  When the painfully repetitive montage was finally over and I was invited to comment, I tried to explain that the school of tomorrow and ‘empowering lifelong learners’ extended beyond Yahoo Answers and Wikipedia. I spoke of experiential learning and project-based learning, of the excessive focus on exams and the consequent shift from learning to teaching.  Later, Dr Riley explained how a child born today in Kuala Lumpur would not enter the workforce for another 22 years and, therefore, we needed to be very thoughtful about preparing the said child for a future that we knew very little about, hence underscoring the importance of acquiring the skills necessary for lifelong learning.  Our very amiable hosts seemed temporarily convinced but their interventions soon returned to scholarly thoughts like ‘But don’t you think that traditional studying leads to, like, more permanent knowledge?’

This interview, my first on Malaysian television, reminded me that, on the whole, we don’t really know what we want from our schools – whether in Malaysia, the United States, or Pakistan.  We are, on the other hand, quite clear that we want our hospitals to deliver cutting-edge healthcare based on the latest research.  Nobody is likely to conduct a public poll on whether you prefer “traditional vs. modern methods of surgery” (sure, let’s perform that heart bypass using unsterilized tools, an out-of-date doctor, and crude anesthesia) but we get all nostalgic when we think about “traditional education” and start dreaming of teachers with clipped English accents and perfect lesson plans.

More Vignettes?

In my next blog post (which I pray will be soon), I will write about the first day of the SOT Conference – from keynote speaker Richard Gerver’s story of Gary (which left many in the audience sharing moist tissues), to Dr Alma Harris’s matter-of-fact but impactful closing of Day 1, and finally to ‘Curry Spice’, a politically incorrect but riotous entertainer who made some laugh till they wept while others walked out!

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