Learning Planet

I was recently invited to a meeting called “Learning Planet Assembly” –  a sort of assembly of various – and I mean REALLY various – stakeholders in the business of advancing SDGs-based education. The announced goal of the meeting was 

“The launching event for a revolutionary, open-source approach to SDG-focused curriculum design, powered by students and educators alike.”

Here’s what I felt, learned and took home from this meeting, in a non-PC text, devoid of all professional ambition or any official position.

I’ll start with the main conclusions, for anyone who wishes to skip the narrative:

  1. Modern learning is: competencies-based, learner-centred, blended, transformative and uses active methods . Becoming transformative and giving a more important place to emotions, learning will often start from disorienting dilemmas.
  2. Scouting needs to reconnect with the major global actors in education, as well as continuing to learn from the experiences from all other SDG-related initiatives in the field of learning.
  3. We need to address the issue of assessing the progress in acquiring competencies, including a meaningful self-evaluation through reflection, and link them to lives and livelihoods
  4. Taking modern education out of the fringes needs political support; and one way to secure this is to work at grassroots level on changing mindsets and practices to create the need/pressure for change
  5. Art is viral and should be the main way to spread our message.
  6. Modern education should address everyone, not just an elite, not even if the said elite is the most positive group of people available
  7. Scouting needs to measure better the value, impact and sustainability of our projects by comparing and collaborating with similar initiatives from as many sources as possible.


ABOUT THE MEETING

WHERE IS SCOUTING ON PLANET EDUCATION?

I got invited to this meeting by sheer chance, as I learned about it in a Facebook comment and ended up more like a “+1” to the Centre for UNESCO in Catalunya. Though it finally proved that our Scouting educational experience and expertise were highly valuable in the context, the fact that we were nowhere on the radar of the organisers of the event, shows that

WOSM is possibly seen as a major player among YOUTH organisations, but not so much in the EDUCATION field.

Speaking with the guests from UNESCO at this meeting, I realised how little they knew about our work, especially in the area of SDGs which, interestingly, is the hottest topic for them and us in the next 10 years at least.


INDEPENDENCE DAY

The audience was diverse. Very diverse.

We had big international institutions like the Smithsonian or UNESCO, “traditional” Universities like the ones from Geneva, Singapore or Cambridge, “alternative” ones like “the Weaving Institute” from the Netherlands or “Swaraj University” in India, social/education entrepreneurs like the founders of “Digital Africa” in Niger or “Maker’s Asylum” in India, some education-related business initiatives like “e-Maxwell & Associates” in the US or “Constellation” in the UAE, teachers and professors going rogue in providing alternative education networks like the “London Interdisciplinary School” in the UK or “EdTech” in France, open-source tech developers like the ones from “Open Source Pharma Foundation” in India or “labXchange” in the US, physicists, mathematicians, poets, analysts, biologists, neurologists, students from around the globe.

If you are even a moderate sci-fi movie fan you would certainly recall an almost unmissable scene from any alien-attack movie, when the leaders of the world come together to agree on some humanity-scale coordinated response to repel the bugs or whatever the form the aggressive aliens might have. Inevitably they’re shown in a meeting room, with some clearly identifiable Arab, Indian, Chinese and African garments/physiognomies, to underline how this is the whole Earth coming together to defend the common heritage. Humanity putting aside their differences to agree we’re one species, united against a common threat. Generally with an uplifting music as a background.

Well, this is how I felt during my 2 days in Paris. Minus the music. And the aliens. 

The audience was also very broad in terms of ages. For once I did not feel like living fossil having to justify my presence. The bell curve of ages in the room probably peaked at 40-45, which was highly unusual for me, so used with our glorification of youth presence at all events. I felt this influenced the manner and style of discussions.


THE UNCONFERENCE CONFERENCE

The entire meeting was organised as an Open Space, and this worked relatively well. Minimum effort on the Planning Team, a lot of participation before the event and self-management during. We didn’t seem to be needing much guidance to create and then navigate our own programme. I think that if the motivation and interest in sharing and learning is considerable, there is no risk for this not to work.

There were also no ice-breakers, no meditations and no energisers or silly songs involved – I am convinced that this added to the success of the event but it might be just me! 



2. SOME DISCUSSION POINTS

THERE’S A LOT HAPPENING

There is loads happening in the area of SDGs-based education. All 100+ people in the room had examples and experiences related to this, as diverse as their backgrounds. Some of the things I’ve heard were truly impressive and quite distant from my own Scouting-related SDG experience. Talking about the science behind the SDGs, about frugal engineering, about citizen science, about systemic changes, Open Social innovation, data-driven initiatives or digital innovation took me way out of my comfort zone but, for once, challenged me in ways very few occasions did recently.


ARE WE EXPERIENCING A CRISIS IN EDUCATION?

This seems to be a paradox, taking into account that basic literacy percentages are increasing across the globe. However, the crisis is generated by the fact that education seems stuck in a place that does not resonate with the current needs and expectations of people and societies. Knowing how to read and write is no longer sufficient for people to be happy, to appreciate life and the world around them. Modern education needs to progress so that it becomes truly: 

  1. Learner-centred
  2. Competencies-based
  3. Blended
  4. Using active methods
  5. Transformative

I quote from a draft document UNESCO shared with us during this meeting, as I think it summarises very well the point above:

“First of all, transformation necessitates, among other things, a certain level of disruption, with people opting to step outside the safety of the status quo or the “usual” way of thinking, behaving or living. It requires courage, persistence and determination, which can be present at different degrees, and which are best sourced from personal conviction, insight, or the simple feeling of what is right.

Second, there are different stages of transformation.

  1. With the acquisition of knowledge and information, learners come to be aware of the existence of certain realities.
  2. With critical analysis, they begin to understand the complexity of those realities.
  3. An experiential exposure to the realities provides them with a deeper connection with the issues, which can also lead to an empathic connection to those affected by the said realities.
  4. Empathy can turn into compassion if the exposed realities bear relevance to the learners’ own lives and their sense of identity. A tipping point arrives where a compassionate mind is set on the path of empowerment.”

UNESCO is currently working on a proposal for all its member states that details its recommendations for a framework for the implementation of Education for Sustainable Development beyond 2019 which revolves entirely around SDGs.

This decade-long initiative will shape the way educators look at learning and I think this is a wagon Scouts SHOULD ABSOLUTELY be in. Even more so after I realised, during the meeting, how many serious actors in the field look at us as potential leaders in spearheading this work at community level!


LEARNING IS THE KEY WORD, NOT EDUCATION!

It was made clear during the discussions that we should strive to focus more on learning, as a personal endeavour, life-long process with multiple entry-points, instead of education, seen as a system/structure.     


A LEARNER-CENTRED PEDAGOGY IS LESS AT RISK OF MANIPULATIONS

In the era of fake news and information overload, critical thinking and analytical skills are paramount in selecting what is true, relevant and meaningful. Giving the learner a more central role will allow them the freedom to pursue what really motivates them in their learning process. And, as for the risk of following paths their educators might not necessarily agree with, some said:

“We do not want young people not to become Nazi because we tell them it is bad, but because they themselves reach an understating of the world that prevents this from happening!”.


MOVING TOWARDS AN SDGs-BASED LEARNING REQUIRES A SHIFT IN THE ENTIRE PARADIGM

There were 0 examples of SDGs-based competencies learning based on the traditional education methods. They all proposed revolutionary ways to equip young people with competencies allowing them to meaningfully tackle SDGs-related challenges. Unfortunately, this also meant that most of them were and will remain at the fringe of the educational systems. Getting them mainstream needs very much my next point.


THE ONLY REAL CHANGE IS POLITICAL.

“When right is in power, we’re all hippies; when left is in power, we’re neo-liberals”

There is no real and durable change unless it is political. As seen until now, by staying at the fringes and relying on some enthusiastic innovators we did not achieve much. Too many excellent ideas die young because they do not trigger a political response, at whatever level. Even the force of a 50’000’000 strong movement means nothing if it does not result in policy changes.

It is one of the reasons I am so much in favour of any meaningful alliance we can form to advance this agenda.

And though the fastest way to achieve meaningful political change is to be directly and actively involved in it, we, as community-based movement, could also have an impact by engaging in a 3-step process of:

  1. Changing mindsets
  2. Changing practices
  3. Creating the need/pressure for changing policies.  

SCOUTING HAS A CONSIDERABLE ADVANTAGE IN DELIVERING SDGs-BASED LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES.

We have a complex structure and global, regional and national levels taking responsibilities to create tools and resources, facilitate funding and supporting our volunteers. When comparing with the challenges some of the social entrepreneurs and new networks have to face to advance their work, we are in NGO Heaven.

I heard of some extraordinary life stories of sacrifice and dedication to convince stake-holders, obtain funds and create documentation for some initiatives which puts to shame some us, so used to receive ready-made leader-friendly materials, programme frameworks and practical tools to support our work.

I know it’s not the same thing and not the same profile but, nevertheless, I sometimes felt that the efforts and sacrifices I thought I was making to make Scouting great were dwarfed by some of the people in the room. For many, this trip to Paris meant a huge burden on a personal budget and yet they were ready to invest in this, in the hope of advancing their knowledge and expertise.  


CHALLENGES AS DIVERSE AS PEOPLE

The broadness of challenges people face in promoting SDGs-based education and actions proved as diverse as the audience: if in the US Smithsonian is struggling to incentivise young people to do something, anything, in this area, in Côte d’Ivoire the challenge was to connect SDGs-related actions with people lives and livelihoods, and in India they were searching for ways to fight against the “diploma disease”, the run for often meaningless papers which would facilitate employment without actually guaranteeing any relevant learning. 


PROGRESSIVE EDUCATION AS A WAY TO INCREASE INEQUALITIES!!!

Whatever we are catalogued as, we’re always “something else”. And that, curiously enough, means that promoting a new, SDGs competencies-based education, may create or deepen inequalities. As some examples shared in this meeting have shown, there is a risk, when advancing this agenda, to inadvertently address only a sort of “elite”, SDGs-sensitive youngsters who will create their ivory tower, increasing their alienation from the rest (and majority) of their communities.

On the other hand, properly implemented, active education makes learners in the most difficult circumstances thrive. Experiments in slums, refugee camps or prisons have proven, yet again, not only that the competencies-based, learner-centred, transformative learning is a suitable way forward , but that it is THE ONLY way forward.


THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE OF ALL – MEASURING FLUFFINESS

One of the most interesting topics discussed (for me) was the challenge of assessing the acquisition of exactly those competencies we believe are most needed now: critical thinking, collaboration, resilience, communication, creativity. As it’s difficult to imagine grading someone a B+ in leadership or an F in systemic thinking, we tend to revert only to those areas we CAN evaluate (the traditional literacy) , and this makes the integration of a competency-based education even more difficult.

Furthermore, traditional diplomas and certificates represent a sometimes unfortunate filter for any employment, as they are the only efficient way to already sort the number of applications for any job. It’s significantly easier to select only among those who have a BSc in whatever domain for a job, rather than sifting through thousands of applicants who might feel they have the competencies but lack the formal proof.

Whereas this system was useful and relevant in the traditional job-market it is deemed to become less and less so in the future, when technical jobs might be covered by AI and the ones left for humans would rely more on the capacity to learn and adapt once in office rather than whatever you memorised in the University. Even today, I wonder if any serious company looking for coders is looking at what high college they have graduated from or more at their ethical hacking portfolio.

Economy will react to this new reality, there’s nothing we can do. We need to work with the business sector in order to set-up systems and metrics that can allow employers to test competencies like critical thinking or leadership skills. Ideas already exists and we saw a few presented in Paris (ex: online games like the one presented by the Institute for the Future: http://www.iftf.org/what-we-do/foresight-tools/collaborative-forecasting-games/ ) In the future there will be more and more people employed based on their experience, portfolios, interests, talents rather than diplomas.

I hope the future will see less and less people in dull, demotivating, soul-crunching jobs and more and more in positions (hopefully in relation to advancing some SDGs) that would make people thrive, feed their soul, make their community become alive and the planet become a better place. What are these careers and how do we prepare for them, these are the real questions! 


WHY DID WE NOT COLONISE MARS YET?

The tragedy of education today is not only that it impacts each individual’s chance to a happy and fulfilled life. It does not stop at just preventing people to get rewarding employment and access to meaningful social life. It has an impact on the entire human race, even if we can’t directly see it.

How many of the millions of children who currently have NO access to basic education would have grown up to become new Hawkings or Darwins? How many Faradays and Plancks lived in died in some slums of the Third World without us ever knowing? Even more, how many Teslas’s or Dirac’s extraordinary but highly unorthodox views and ideas were crushed by an ankylotic school pedagogy before they even had a chance to fully form in people’s mind?

As (sometimes) opposed to arts, in science talent is not enough to guarantee fulfilment. Because of its extraordinary complexity, science requires access to a vast array of information, opportunities to test and fail and critical exchanges with minds alike. Schrödinger’s equation was not something he developed at the age of 6 in the same way Mozart did his music creative skills.

With a fairer and global access to quality education, we could have already colonised Mars by now and I would have been transferring this text directly into your brain via telepathy!


WE NEED ARTISTS

Art is either revolution or plagiarism!

The world seems hopeless at the moment. The mood is rather gloomy, the news is bad and the whole thing seems to be going down in flames. Like literally! Now, what I have seen in Paris is far from this. The projects presented by the students as possible solutions to SDGs-related challenges and the sheer amount of work done by thousands of unknown innovators and practitioners in education should paint the situation in some brighter colours.

True, we’re too damn late to do much to stop climate change, but we might limit it and we might get better in adapting to live in the future, warm world. True, our social life is going to places we’re not biologically equipped to deal with and depression is increasing among young people, but there are so many ideas already to fight this. And many more would come if the environment allows them to be scaled up. Education is key for all this to happen. But talking about education is boring. No one wants to hear about some new, obscure document from UNESCO, about competencies and assessments.

If you ask me, what we need are stories. They has kept this human race together until now and this is going to be the case in the future (at least until we go extinct or evolve into a different species altogether). Behind iPhone screens and space flight, our brain is still essentially Cro-Magnon. We need stories of good and hope, and we need story-tellers, or artists. Art is viral, and we need viral. If we want to make what we do popular, it can only be done through art, in its broadest understanding.

I am convinced that the most horrible acts but also the greatest achievements humankind was ever capable of, were made possible because someone rallied people behind some metaphorical presented concept ( a “shared myth, as Yuval Noah Harari calls it) which, in the cold light or reason, would make absolutely no sense. How else then to explain wars in the name of nations or gods but also the Enlightenment or the ISS. It’s scary to realise that it was way much easier to find examples for the first part of the statement rather than the second!


FEELINGS, NOTHING MORE THAN FEELINGS!

Across various discussions, the one element in learning that tended to come back on the table again and again was the importance of self-assessment and reflection. Indeed, most of the people made the point that this specific area is even more important in the SDGs-based education than in other circumstances. I could certainly relate to this as I think this is a huge area of improvement in Scouting activities, as well.

Indeed, there is little else that differentiates our activities from those of a leisure club or a community association than the type, quality and depth of the reflection before and afterwards!

Linking personal feelings and emotions to the field of learning is a good way to motivate and encourage reflection. And, here, again, I see the importance of good story-telling, of metaphors and, in general, of an artistic mind at work!

There is a “cold side” and a “warm side” to learning a subject. Learning a new language certainly involves memorising rigid rules for grammar and pronunciation, but the language also entails a specific way to understand the world, its words and expressions often encode a unique cosmology, ethics or view of the world and, through its evolution, is a witness to millennia of exchanges among human beings.

No one should claim to have learned French if they stopped at just mechanically memorising some rules and master the nasalisation (which, by the way, is impossible!).


SDGS DO NOT SHARE THE SAME STATUS

There are 17 SDGs plotted in the now famous multicoloured circle. But, like people, they’re not really equal. Some are closer to people’s hearts than others and the awareness about some is greater than about the others.

I think we need to reflect on bringing all of them up, at the same level of interest.

If SDG 13 (Climate Action) is already visible in mundane actions like booking a plane ticket (where certain companies inform you about the amount of CO2 your trip entails and even offer the possibility to compensate it), and if SDG 5 (Gender Equality) got people to the point when the days of panels composed only by men are almost gone, I feel some of the others are either less visible in our daily life or not really understood. I guess I want to be able to see what impact my flight has on “Life on Land” (SDG 15) or how come that the same distance route can cost from 200 to 2’000 EUR depending on the company (SDG 8 – “Decent Work and Economic Growth”).


ERASMUS? DON’T KNOW THE GUY!

I was surprised bordering shock that, during the meeting, there was no talk about EU funds. As someone for whom Erasmus+ funding application language is like Python for a hacker, I was surprised that those potential funding opportunities were not even once mentioned.

Almost all initiatives presented were funded via business incubators, foundations, inter-institutional programmes, philanthropy or crowdfunding. 


SDG PROJECTS INSPIRATION

As a side event to the meeting, I participated in the presentation and awarding of some student SDG-based projects. Groups of 3-5 students from 4 University programmes (generally summer-schools) created international groups and presented various projects outlining solutions to SDG-based challenges. Biopolis, a collaboration between Harvard, the Center for Research and Interdisciplinarity, SciencesPo, and the City of Paris, the Geneva Tsinghua Initiative, the SDG School in Paris and the STEAM School in India were the 4 institutions presenting projects (about 30 in total).

I saw a broad range of proposals, from an app for young people confronted with depression to a Crowd4SDG initiative, a tool that allows volunteers to collaborate on solving complex data classification tasks and to a project tackling passive bystanders in sexual harassment circumstances. I was personally impressed by a few projects from Biopolis, a summer school which coaches students to develop innovative solutions to urban problems, inspired by the notion of the city as an organism. I thought my friend, João Armando, would have really appreciated this.

Most of the winning projects were exceptional, such as “Allume Paris” (from Biopolis which, as you have guessed by now, is my new favourite summer school 🙂 : a game based on the biological idea of neural plasticity in which users scan street signs throughout the city. Scanning a sign unlocks an augmented reality version of the historical figure that street is named after. These animated characters then entertain and educate users, teaching them about the history of the surrounding area. 

As a youth worker, I was not quite so surprised to see creativity and imagination in young people. But I was surprised to see that this was the result of a rather short time spent together, by students coming from different countries. 

Could these have been Rover projects? Without a doubt. Even more so, as our Rovers form much more stable groups and, therefore, would be able to develop far more complex ideas and solutions. And probably they already exist in many places that I do not know of.

The difference? Difficult to spot, but if I would venture to guess:

  1. Firstly, the students here were looking for proposals that have scalability potential – in other words that could be replicated and implemented at larger scale.
  2. Secondly, the student groups were clustered around shared interests and talent, rather than social ties, like often in Scouting.
  3. Thirdly, those of them involving technology were based on the principle of frugal science/engineering, meaning that they would be applicable with minimum effort by untrained interested parties.
  4. And fourthly, the groups were international, allowing for a more diverse approach to the problem and bringing together a larger range of experiences.

I hope to be able to use a similar system for longer Scout events, instead or alongside the usual workshop-to-workshop learning path usually developed at Jamborees. 


THE NEXT ELON MUSK IS PROBABLY INDIAN AND AFRICA IS BUSY CODING

The most inspiring proposals and most creative projects are not happening in the Western World, but in India and China. Being there students or educators, I felt moved and more in tune with the ideas coming from the East rather than the ones from the West.

Where the American proposed an app, the Indian spoke about the University of Grandmothers, to preserve community knowledge and where the French spoke about open-source platforms, the Chinese presented a subjective map of feelings.

I also was taken aback by the progress made in Africa in the digital arena. I listened to a few initiatives which convinced me than my old-fashioned view of youth in Africa needs a serious facelift. Where I was expecting some Ubuntu-style indigenous knowledge sharing, I was hit by coding bootcamps, citizen science and frugal engineering.

Driven by the sheer motivation of ensuring a happy life for themselves and their families, young Africans put their fantastic creativity in projects which require little resources, are easily scalable and, most importantly, have the potential of supporting their livelihood.

I watched with great interest a project presented by some chemistry students for easily produce dry soap, for the regions were water is scarce and hygiene is vital to prevent diseases. 

We should pay attention to those solutions, as they are often down-to-earth, common sense and simple ways to tackle SDG-related challenges.


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