What should children be learning in schools today?
What we understand about the way the brain develops is that in order to be a critical or creative thinker you first need to be steeped in the knowledge of a particular field. You have to have gone through the difficult steps of learning how maths works or learning how to read and write; there don’t seem to be any shortcuts to that. So that core knowledge is always going to be part of it.
Then we need to ask how we can make more room for children to continue to develop their ability to be creative and think critically – which means you can’t just rote learn and memorise a bunch of content. Creativity comes partly from content, but also from being given freedom and space to play, to fail, to experiment and to explore.
The last thing that is missing is a sense of communal wellbeing. In education systems worldwide the driving principle is one of competition. It’s a race to the top. That value is serving some people well, but if we want to have education systems that better prepare children for a world that is increasingly globalising, running out of space, threatened by climate change, then we need to do a better job of ensuring our schools are built on an ethic of collaboration, mutual care and solidarity.
You travelled to more than 20 countries looking for the best teaching practices, what impressed you the most?
I saw some schools that are very good at developing strong content knowledge. They teach in very intensive ways, give lots of time to practicing core knowledge and are very good at that sort of “mastery” learning.
Then, if you want to develop more creative skills, you have to give children the time and space to practice that and you see that happening a lot in Finnish classrooms, where they are often left to their own devices. I went to a Finnish primary school, where a class of seven- and eight-year-olds had been set the task of shooting a short film. The teacher gave them some instructions and they ran off into the woodlands while she remained in the playground. To me it seemed a bit dangerous – and it wouldn’t work in every location – but that is freedom and it has to be unstructured.
The best example of learning to collaborate was at High Tech High – an amazing network of schools in San Diego – where I saw a class of 16-year-olds engaged in a project. They spent half the day in more traditional classes, the other half doing this term-long project to do with climate change. The children had broken themselves up into three groups: one was looking at ways to make biodegradable artificial seed pods; another was building drones, completely from scratch; and the other was planning the filming of a documentary.
They were going to end the project by taking a five-day hike into the Californian wilderness; fly the drones over the national park to survey the degradation of plant species; use their biodegradable seed pods to replenish the ones that were missing; while the documentary crew filmed it and put it on YouTube to raise awareness of environmental issues.