Lifelong learners

Bett 2015 speaker Gabriel Rshaid, headmaster at St. Andrew’s Scots School, discusses Sir Ken Robinson, the GPS and educational change

March of 2009 was both the beginning and the end of an era in my life. I attended a conference in Orlando where the highlight would be listening to Sir Ken Robinson live.

And Sir Ken did not disappoint. He delivered one of his trademark speeches, alternately having us roaring with laughter and on the verge of tears, as he moved with that unique wit and charm of his, from the hilarious one-liner to some profoundly touching truth about the need to completely rethink our school system so as to better serve our students to uncover and rise up to their full potential. It was our strongest emotional experience ever in a conference, and to this day I remember how we felt moved and inspired when leaving the massive lecture hall.

I say it was the beginning of an era for me because never before could anyone verbalize with such expressive strength what we all knew: that we had it all wrong and, unwittingly, school systems had deprived many of a chance to blossom and damaged their all too fragile child self-esteem irreparably. Sir Ken’s ability to resonate with so many unspeakably traumatic school experiences was able to capture the general public’s imagination and he became a beacon for many of us who tried to do things differently. He was the voice that allowed us to unapologetically work towards a more inclusive, less rigid and structured school.

And, even if in a more trivial dimension, it was also the end of an era for me. We rented a car so that we could do some sightseeing in the big playground that is Orlando and I remember vividly that I refused to rent a GPS. Despite being a technophile, I prided myself in my sense of orientation, so, unbeknownst to me, for the last time ever, I just relied on the venerable street map of Orlando. In my next road trip a couple of months later, because I was at an unfamiliar place and landed late at night, I converted to the GPS and never used a paper map again.

In a couple of weeks we will all be mesmerized again by Sir Ken. More than five years later, the gist of his message will be the same, and the sense of urgency undiminished. The need to completely reform our school systems is as current now as it was in 2009, and, despite some well-intentioned efforts by some leading schools, the educational landscape remains largely unchanged.

Things could not be more different on the technology front. Now I don’t even need a standalone GPS, since my smartphone can even do navigation with preloaded maps without a data signal. The mere idea of reading a map and following street signs seems to me laughably anachronistic.

It dawned upon me that this story of Sir Ken and the GPS was an apt, albeit if somewhat sad, metaphor about educational change. Despite the overwhelming popular support and consensus that a learning revolution is needed, advances in making them happen have been almost imperceptible. In that same period, developments in technology and connectivity have been breathtaking and unstoppable, literally changing our lives. We can rationalize why this is so, and we educators are very good at finding explanations for everything, but we need to understand, for once and all, that unless we tackle educational reform with boldness and vision, the gap between real life and what happens in our schools will inevitably grow into a chasm, so much so that we will miss out on this opportunity to become a generation of joyful lifelong learners.

Gabriel will be speaking at Bett at 10:00 on Wednesday 21 January in the Schools Learn Live: Primary theatre, presenting a talk on ‘The 21st Century Classroom’.

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