Thursday, March 28, 2013

A tale of 3 TED talks and their collective irony

Some seven years back, Sir Ken Robinson delivered a landmark speech at TED, citing how schools kill creativity. It's one of those talks that sparked my own interest in public education. In his inimitable, humorous style, Robinson launched a scathing attack on schools. Some of his quotes remain stuff of legend.
I believe this passionately, that we don't grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out if it.
If you think of it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they're not, because the thing they were good at at school wasn't valued, or was actually stigmatised. 
When I was a student, if you had a degree, you had a job. If you didn't have a job it's because you didn't want one. But now ... you need an MA where the previous job required a BA, and now you need a PhD for the other. It's a process of academic inflation. And it indicates the whole structure of education is shifting beneath our feet. We need to radically rethink our view of intelligence.
Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won't serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we're educating our children.
More recently, Sugata Mitra made his inspirational TED prize talk, following up his landmark speech about his hole in the wall experiment. Mitra made a case for a school in the cloud - self organised learning environments (SOLEs) where children can explore and learn from one another. And while he helped us look ahead to a time of joy and amazement in learning, his subtle attack on the system of schooling was fairly evident.
We don't even know what the jobs of the future are going to look like. We know that people will work from wherever they want, whenever they want, in whatever way they want. How is present-day schooling going to prepare them for that world? 
The reptilian part of our brain, which sits in the center of our brain, when it's threatened, it shuts down everything else, it shuts down the prefrontal cortex, the parts which learn, it shuts all of that down. Punishment and examinations are seen as threats. We take our children, we make them shut their brains down, and then we say, "Perform.
I think what we need to look at is we need to look at learning as the product of educational self-organization. If you allow the educational process to self-organize, then learning emerges. It's not about making learning happen. It's about letting it happen. 
There was a time when Stone Age men and women used to sit and look up at the sky and say, "What are those twinkling lights?" They built the first curriculum, but we've lost sight of those wondrous questions. We've brought it down to the tangent of an angle.
So after watching these amazing gentlemen speak about how school and the public education system is the perfect killer for the joy, amazement and self directed learning journey we call childhood, the third talk is ironic to say the least. A young Maasai boy, Richard Turere from Kitengala in Kenya had found a solution to lion-human conflict at Nairobi National Park. A child from a cattle herding family, Turere often lost his cattle to lions from the park. As is Maasai custom, an act like this has no forgiveness - the marauding lions have to die.

Through his own journey of self discovery, Richard learned that lions were afraid of moving flashlights. A few experiments and failures with his electricity supply and a few games with LED lights gave fuel to his invention - Lion Lights. Richard's now fitted a series of LED bulbs facing outwards from his cattle enclosure. He's wired them to a box of switches and a solar powered battery panel. Every night, these lights flicker intermittently just as a flashlight would if a human were patrolling with it! Ever since, his family hasn't lost a single animal to lions and Turere has now become a mini celebrity amongst the Maasai at Nairobi National Park.

What this boy did, was a consequence of the natural joy and amazement of childhood. No one taught him electronics. He learned it himself. He just had a big challenge, his own little quest, "I had to look after my dad's cows and make sure that they were safe." This seems to resonate with what Ken Robinson and Sugata Mitra seemed to say about creativity and learning in their respective talks.

So where is the irony? Richard's reward for his natural genius is that good people with great intentions have now placed him in one of Kenya's top schools. So Richard wears a fancy uniform everyday and will join the rat race of academic achievement alongside several other children who are learning to be cogs in an industrial economy. I hope for Richard's sake that he retains his genius despite school. Chances are though, that as Robinson laments, he will get educated out of his creativity. And when the lions figure out the lights, the Maasai won't have Richard there to figure out what to do next. I hope I'm wrong. I want to be wrong. I can't help but lament the irony of this case. If I get the time, I do want to meet Richard on my trip to Kenya in June. I keep my fingers crossed that we hear more about his astounding achievements in years to come.

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