By: Alejandro Millán Valencia
Alex Beard was a teacher at a school in South London until he began to feel stagnant in the profession and decided to go out in search of alternative ideas.
On a trip that included more than 20 countries, Beard visited schools that develop innovative teaching tools and methods to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
The journey gave rise to the book Natural Born Learners, in which it not only gathers the most relevant examples, but also reflects on what should be the main issues that education will face in the coming decades.
“Creativity, the ability to solve problems and the importance of teachers are the major challenges facing schools. And all this in the midst of the great unknown of how to deal with new technologies and artificial intelligence ”, he said.
Check out the interview Beard gave to BBC News Mundo, the BBC’s Spanish service, during the Hay Festival in Cartagena, Colombia.
BBC News Mundo – What are the worst mistakes being made in education today?
Alex Beard – It is a good question, which we must ask ourselves urgently. Look, I started as a teacher at a school in south London, on Kent Road – which, for you to have an idea, is the cheapest property in Monopoly (Monopoly) – and I realized that I was applying the methods that Socrates used in the agora, about 2,000 years ago, to teach children who had cell phones and lived in the future.
I think this is the biggest mistake we are making today: schools have remained in the past and, with these outdated methods, we spent 12 years in classrooms, so it is very difficult to change our concepts about what the school should be like.
The second challenge facing education today is that it is not clear what to focus on, taking into account the future. When I see myself again in the classroom, I see myself as a teacher who teaches children how to pass an exam.
So that they get an acceptable grade, which is what they need, in practice, to pass the year at school.
BBC News Mundo – And this has nothing to do with training future professionals …
Beard – Exactly, we are training (these students) for jobs and professions that robots will be able to do in the future. It is clear to me that I am not preparing (these students) for what lies ahead. And the mistake we are making is that we place a lot of blame on teachers.
I believe that we must transform the teacher into one of the most important people in society. Because, in the end, they are the ones who will shape our creativity, our social cohesion, which will lay the foundations that lead to creating a strong and sustainable economy.
We must strive to give them autonomy and strengthen their professionalism, instead of blaming them because the younger generations are not up to the expectations.
BBC News Mundo – In this sense, what skills should teachers teach in the classroom to prepare students for the future?
Beard – I think that children demand three things. The first is to learn to think, but in a way consistent with the challenges of the future. They must think critically about the world, about the role they want to play based on a deep knowledge of themselves.
The second is learning to act, but above all, how to be creative people. Now we are facing immense challenges in the environmental area, the increase in inequality, a scenario in which many jobs will be carried out by machines … Therefore, we will need children to develop their creativity in depth.
And that means that children must not only learn to be creative, but also to work with the help of new technologies, together with other people.
And the third is to apply this creativity in solving the problems that the modern world presents. To take care of themselves and the people around them.
As society becomes increasingly polarized, students need to develop emotional intelligence to be able to connect and empathize with others, whether in their community or globally.
But, above all, learn to understand your own emotional development, to be able to manage your well-being in a world in which, every day, it is more difficult to live.
BBC News Mundo – There is a theme present in your book: the role of education in helping to seek ‘the meaning of the things we are doing’.
Beard – One of the things that is transforming the way we understand education is research on how our brain works, in the field of psychology, early development and even neuroscience.
And one of the things that cognitive scientists have discovered is that there is a hierarchy in our experiments, the results of which lead us to learn. If we insist on repeating and memorizing, you will retain a certain amount of knowledge and you will learn to a certain extent.
But if the things you’re learning cause an emotional reaction –
that is, they make you feel excited, sad, confused and so on – you can retain more knowledge than through ‘decorate’.
Most importantly, both researchers and psychologists have come to the same conclusion: when learning makes sense to students, it really happens.
BBC News Mundo – And what does learning mean?
Beard – It may be that a teaching makes sense because there is a specific profession that you want to pursue, and you hope that learning will help you get that job and get it done.
But this is a very narrow view of learning. One thing can make a lot of sense to you because it is something you love to do. It is important to you as a person. Maybe you like math, learning new languages, music.
And when you start doing those things you love, they make sense to you, because they have to do with your identity and the way you express yourself.
People can even find their own expression when creating codes. For example, when that idea becomes a creative search or you can find meaning in what you do, seeing that it is helping to solve a problem about issues that are important to you in the world.
So, you may be interested in climate change, care about the growing inequality in society, and if you can apply learning in classrooms to try to solve problems related to these themes, then you will find meaning in learning and application of that learning.
BBC News World – The book talks about the connection between learning, technology and artificial intelligence. Is it possible that the teaching profession will be considered obsolete in the future?
Beard – Well… one of the reasons I made this trip is that, when I worked as a teacher in London, I felt that I was stagnant.
I saw how new technologies, social networks and the emergence of big data (analysis of large volumes of data from internet use) were dominating everything around us and, from one moment to the next, my main interest was to know how these new technologies, including artificial intelligence, were applied in the area of education. Whether these new technologies can really transform the way we learn.
So if the premise was that robots would steal our work, my first destination was Silicon Valley. I thought that after Gary Kasparov’s (former world chess champion) thunderous defeat to (supercomputer) Deep Blue in 1997, artificial intelligence would end it all.
But my visit to Silicon Valley taught me something else. There, I first saw a robot teacher. And it was not an android in front of a classroom: it was, in fact, artificial intelligence software within an internet learning environment.
BBC News World – How did it work?
Beard – They had a teaching laboratory where there was a teacher and about ten children aged five, each in front of a computer, with headphones. All the children were silent, focused on the computer, where there were programs developed to help them learn languages or solve math problems.
The interesting thing was that, while the program helped the students, it also “learned” from the data obtained in each session what were the weaknesses and strengths of those children, and automatically adapted that experience for the next lesson.
Thus, in the end, it offered an almost personalized learning program, while these data were passed on to teachers, who, in turn, had more information about each student.
This is an example of what happens: artificial intelligence has not surpassed teachers, but it has become a useful tool, a much-needed complement.
Another example: in 2013, a study by the Oxford Martin School revealed that 700 professions could be replaced by robots in the future, but none of the teaching-related jobs – that is, elementary school, preschool, high school and even university teachers – the days were numbered. And it’s true. This is because teaching is definitely a human process.
BBC News Mundo – And there are no risks in living with data and artificial intelligence?
Beard – Although artificial intelligence or robots exist, education depends on human interaction. We learn naturally, but we were born to learn in society. In the future, we will see many technological advances, but they will be incorporated and used by teachers.
The great risk is that this artificial intelligence may be better than the worst teachers in some regions of the world. And the risk exists because artificial intelligence is cheap. And it may not be better than the education that a teacher can offer, but at least it will be cheaper. And this is a big danger.
But this is my pessimistic version of the future. AND
I believe that we can avoid it if we invest more in teachers, in their training, which will result in more specialized teachers and much more capable of dealing properly with technological tools.
BBC News World – You have said several times that teachers are quite reluctant to accept these new forms of teaching. Why does this happen and how can it be resolved?
Beard – I believe, first of all, that teaching will be the most important job of the 21st century.
We are living in an era when Earth’s resources are running out, we are running out of nothing.
And the only thing that is unlimited, the only unlimited resource that we have, is human intelligence, human ingenuity, our ability to solve problems. Teachers are those who cultivate this human potential.
Thus, I argue that teaching will be the most important job of our century. I have no doubts, but at the moment we are not preparing teachers to be successful in this work.
We can take the example of Finland as an example: the most difficult course to pass is that of a primary school teacher. And if you do, the course itself is quite rigorous. It is difficult to pass and graduate.
In my ideal world, I would train teachers in the same way as doctors. In other words, teachers would graduate from university and then spend three years combining teaching with the knowledge of other, more experienced teachers.
Thus, on their first day as teachers, they would not only apply what they learned at the university, but would also continue this process in the company of another teacher who would help them improve their skills.
BBC News Mundo – What are the main education challenges in Latin America?
Beard – The main thing is the issue of inequality. I believe that the educational system in Latin America is significantly uneven, if we compare the highest level with the lowest level.
There are excellent schools, but the vast majority of them are accessible only to the wealthiest sectors of society. And when you look the other way, you have schools that are really fighting for survival.
This inequality is much more evident between urban centers and rural areas. And this is a challenge that we must pay attention to not only comprehensively, but urgently.
I think the other big challenge is access to education for many children. Not to mention quality education: there are places where children only have access to five years of school, and nothing more.
And the third point, I think the most critical, is the teachers. That is also the biggest challenge in the world. We have to solve the problems of training, but not only that, of training, of promoting the profession, so that they do not change the classroom for better paid jobs.
I believe that we need to ask ourselves several questions: how can we train better teachers within schools? How can we make teaching an attractive profession for people?
BBC News World – Many schools in Latin America are religious or denominational. Is this an obstacle to an ideal learning process?
Beard – Well, I think there are two elements that are fundamental in the work that the school does today.
On the one hand, it helps students understand who they are as citizens, as members of a community. And it conveys the values of that community.
On the other hand, there is the objective of forming creative people, committed to society and who wish to access as much knowledge as possible.
Religious schools, in most cases, play the first role very well, but they cannot fall into the error of limiting the execution of thought-provoking educational projects that help to develop the skills needed to face the 21st century.
I am convinced that they can do this. I also know that it is difficult because it requires a cultural change, but if you can separate these aspects, you can develop wonderful projects.
For example, there is a school in Barcelona called Escola Nova 21, run by religious, but which at the same time is one of the most futuristic and interesting schools I have ever visited to document in the book.
There, they are really connected with the theme of technology, students carry out projects based on real life issues, where they learn to collaborate with each other to solve problems in a natural learning environment.
But at the same time, all teachers are nuns. And they travel the world talking about education in the 21st century, about how to prepare young people to face current economic and social challenges, such as inequality and global warming.
BBC News Mundo – Another project that you mention in your book is that of Khan Academy, which in Latin America works, for example, in some places in the Amazon.
Beard – Yes, one of the challenges that regions like Latin America face constantly is that there are some places where access to urban centers is
For this reason, new models must be created, so that young people and children can receive a good education in places where the arrival of teachers is very difficult.
And Khan Academy’s example is very good because it manages to properly use new technologies to create distance learning projects, which work very well and can contribute to the good performance of students.
But the fact is that the Khan Academy concept requires an internet access infrastructure to function. And, in addition, even though it has the infrastructure, one of the great challenges that these places face is the low retention in distance education courses.
Therefore, what they are doing there is revolutionary, because they understood the process of distance education, but they did not forget the importance of teachers to optimize the education offered.
BBC News Mundo – ‘We are moving towards a society that shares its ideas, from an unrestricted source of knowledge’. This is your phrase, how does this concept translate into the education of the future?
Beard – One of the biggest problems that the current educational system has is the fact of establishing a kind of constant competition among students.
In South Korea, one of the countries I visited to write the book, there is an extreme example of this: students take an exam at age 18 to establish a national ranking that practically decides what job you can have and which university you can go to.
Basically, all your health, wealth and happiness, and the entire educational system up to that point, essentially translates into a race to reach the highest possible position.
And that causes a series of terrible behaviors. Four or five years before the test, young people spend 15 hours a day studying during the week, and 12 hours at the weekend. They become very competitive in educational institutions.
They do not share knowledge. There is no collaboration. The idea of developing a side project terrifies them, because it means that while they are dedicating themselves to it, the other students are preparing for the exam.
And that creates a closed environment, with little creativity, without collaboration. And now we know that these three values: openness, creativity and collaboration, are fundamental to today’s world.
We are facing challenges that can only be overcome through collaboration and human imagination. This forces us to have people able to develop collective intelligence, in addition to individual intelligence.
But we still see that students do not share knowledge in our educational systems, nor is there collaboration, because they are competing. There are even teachers who do not accept anyone telling them how they can do their job better.
One of the things that impressed me most when I was a teacher is that no classmate came to my classroom, and I didn’t go to other classrooms either. It seems that what we are doing is so shameful that it does not deserve to be seen by anyone. Personally, I think we need to open our classrooms.
There are several very serious studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of open systems, where creativity is encouraged, where more ideas are generated. This is what nature teaches us: as an animal grows, it can be much more effective when it comes to realizing and channeling the energy it needs to survive.
This article is part of the digital version of the Hay Festival Cartagena, a meeting of writers and thinkers held in the Colombian city between January 30 and February 2, 2020.
News published by the BBC on February 12, 2020, at https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/geral-51457665