The changing world and workplace mean students need both emotional intelligence and creative skills to thrive, and educators need to rethink how they reach these students.
Nonprofit EXPLO is at the forefront of an education revolution. Since its founding in 1976 as a summer program for high school students, the organization has encouraged curiosity, independence and exploration in more than 70,000 students around the world. It’s also expanded to serve younger students and launched EXPLO Studio, a learning innovation lab that works with schools interested in preparing their students for a uncertain future.
We recently chatted with Moira Kelly, EXPLO’s Executive Director and President, about the organization’s approach to transdisciplinary education, how the education field is evolving to meet new economic challenges, and the future of individualized learning.
“We need more smart, playful, interesting and engaged people to seriously consider a career in teaching. Helping human beings become better is an incredible thing.”
How would you describe EXPLO's approach to learning?
We start from the premise that learning can and should be engaging — that learning for the sake of learning is valuable. We don't give grades, we don’t assign a lot of homework and we de-emphasize testing. For most children, that's just not what happens in school. We make it fun. We concentrate on skills like creativity, critical thinking, complex problem-solving, and giving concrete critical feedback to peers. Tying concepts and lessons to the real world is important, so we do a lot of hands-on simulations, case study analysis, prototyping and building. There is lots of choice, experimentation and collaboration. We ask “why” all the time and aim to put students’ natural curiosity into action.
Let’s talk about the current state of learning. What are the educational challenges facing teachers and students today?
The world's changing pretty rapidly. We're looking at serious structural shifts in the economy creating a pace of change so fast that it's very difficult for teachers, companies and the government to respond fully. Those developments are going to affect deeply every single child in school. Engaging with this kind of world will require students to develop different skills and competencies than what we’ve concentrated on in the past or they’re not going to thrive. More broadly, if we don't prepare them sufficiently, as a nation we won’t be able to address the most pressing national and global problems.
Gallup recently conducted a study that showed student engagement in a classroom falls off precipitously after grade five. If students aren't really engaged, they're not involved in deep learning and moving things from their short-term to long-term memory. That means they’re far less likely to transfer their learning to situations outside of class. They learned something for a test but not for life after the test.
The World Economic Forum has come up with a list of 10 skills that are going to be necessary to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution and many are not things that schools work on, unfortunately.
Tell us more about the Fourth Industrial Revolution and what it means for education.
The Industrial Revolution really changed how the world operated. We are now entering a period many are calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution in which computers and technology are quickly becoming more capable of handling routine — and not so routine — tasks that have traditionally required human input.
The question is, then, what jobs are left? It's going to be jobs that computers can’t tackle — tasks that require the exercise of creativity, cognitive flexibility, emotional intelligence and the ability to manage people. Are these things that we are successfully working on in most schools? Not enough schools. Unfortunately, those not prepared for this kind of change are going to find the world of work daunting and anxiety-provoking.
How is EXPLO addressing those challenges?
At our summer programs, we’re doing transdisciplinary work that addresses the skills children will really need in the future, and we're taking the lessons we learn there and designing curricula that teachers can use in schools.
How do you think classroom-based learning will change? What skills do you think will be in demand for the workplace of the future?
Many people are saying that in the future, more and more workplaces are going to look like Google where people move around freely and teams change frequently based on the project. If that is the direction things are moving in, then we still have way too many schools where students spend too much timing sitting in rows looking at a board at the front of the room.
Also, most schools are set up as a collection of many different departments: an English department, a math department, the science department. One of the problems with that structure is that people aren't working across disciplines. I think that's going to change over time because solving complex problems means we have to learn to approach them from many different perspectives and looking at things from one disciplinary angle is too limiting.
As technology adoption increases, there’s going to be a greater focus on individualized learning, and I think there's going to be more recognition that one size doesn't fit all. Yes, there are some academic skills and knowledge that all students should have, but the way in which they go about learning is going to be different for each child.
The workers who will be in demand will be the people who wear their curiosity on their sleeves and then act on it.
What advice do you have for future educators?
I really believe teaching is one of the noblest and most fulfilling professions. It's also one of the most impactful. At its best, teaching is intellectually rigorous. It engages your creative muscles and encourages you to ponder the diversity of humanity — how each person needs something slightly different to thrive. Truly great teachers understand the interplay of the life of the mind with the life of the body and that of the heart. That's why the work of a great teacher can be so profound.
Simply put, we need great people to go into teaching. And, despite the doom and gloom that folks put out there about education, there are actually great things happening in a lot of schools. I want more smart, playful, interesting and engaged people to seriously consider a career in teaching. Helping human beings become better human beings is an incredible thing.