Earlier this month, André Zollinger –our international envoy– attended the Lisbon Investment Summit by Beta-i & participated in a panel on Reinventing Education. His conclusion? “As we decentralize education, we need to make sure it doesn’t become a new factory to simply fill what the market dictates.” Read his take!
"The system is broken"
Upon arriving in Portugal earlier this month to attend the Lisbon Investment Summit by Beta-i, I had the impression of cohabiting two parallel worlds. Leaving the airport, I stepped into Zé da Mouraria and immersed myself into one of the many small family-run tascas in historical Lisbon serving traditional cuisine, while at the same time being surrounded by a group of high-flying investors, thought leaders, and ecosystem builders who are shaping the world of tomorrow.
In between bites of grilled calamari, I chatted with the director of a major stock exchange, who, besides talking about his vegetarian home diet, was proud to point out the many improvements in the Portuguese economy in the recent past: housing reform reviving the center of Lisbon, the growth of the innovation sector and events like the Web Summit, as well the challenges to make that sustainable over the long-term. Given that I was there representing an innovation campus, and that we also happened to be sitting next to the head of a major university, we began talking about education.
One of the platitudes we hear today is that “the system is broken”, whether we’re in Portugal, France, Brazil, or the USA. Information technologies radically altered our access to information and the relationship between the emitter and the receiver, formerly a static hierarchy between professor and student. Therefore the architecture of education needs to be reinvented, both symbolically and physically. Diplomas may not go away, but knowledge and demonstration of certain skills will gain ground. Rankings will cease to dominate education policy (I’m looking forward to seeing that happen!). Spaces should be more modular and holistic.
Schools or factories?
But what struck me is that we (that is, the tech innovation space) often seem to talk about education as a transactional affair between employers and job seekers. In numerous conferences, we hear about the primacy of marketable skills, and above all, the supremacy of “talent” although if you read between the lines what is meant is “engineering talent” or "STEM". Ultimately, the education supply needs to fit the current demand for new skills increasingly faster and in a more flexible way.
Speaking next to me at the “Reinventing Education” panel the next day, Maurizio from H-Farm put it more bluntly, and I paraphrase, “centralized education has been set up like a factory to make people less smart and less able to make decisions for themselves”. I couldn't agree with this more, but as we decentralize education, we need to make sure it doesn’t become a new factory to simply fill what the market dictates, especially as that changes so fast. The capacity for critical reflection, emotion, and artistic expression remain arguably what distinguishes us from the smartest machines.
In creating new inspirational educational spaces and experiences, as we are doing at thecamp among other places like H-Farm and Beta-i, we need to ensure that technology is a means and not an end in itself. That’s why when thecamp launches Bivy Camps for teenagers this summer, our goal is to cultivate eco-citizens. How will that be done? Through teaching how to use low-impact materials to prototype in a fab lab, getting our hands on the ground with permaculture, basic coding, and collaboration between schools of different socioeconomic backgrounds. The end result, we hope, is an empowered individual who understands how and why they are using these tools and methods.
That’s in line with the conclusion made by Svenia Busson, an edtech researcher and investor – and regular contributor to our programs such as the Pass – who authored a report on the most innovative education startups around the world. The technological paradigm shift means that teachers need to change postures from that of a transmitter of knowledge for memorization to a transmitter of competencies for projects. Creativity, problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration and communication. That stands in contrast with educational systems like that of South Korea, that while excelling in PISA scores, the focus is on maintain high-test scores, leaving almost no space for innovative ideas around attention to personal development.
Whether you talk to venture capitalists, elected officials, union leaders, business executives, young creatives, everyone agrees that we need more experimental educational initiatives like thecamp to shake up the way we learn and create. But I’m also confident about the relevance of the traditional institutions, even if they sometimes seem more outdated than ever. Started in 1290, the university of Coimbra just celebrated its 728thyear of continuous operation. Education for critical thought is more important than ever in a digital age of competing realities. But it’s certainly time to experiment with bold ideas that will allow for education to flourish in today’s context.