Learning and Human Futures: My Fall of “Reading”**

As many of you know, I’ve moved from a managerial role back to academia. Perhaps the most perplexing thing about changing tacks is that old habits have to be changed, and new ones developed.   It’s really, really, hard.  So, much of my “reading”** this fall has been focused on understanding the science of making change at the level of the individual (i.e. myself), which I like to think is my zone of proximal development.

But what if the changes to be made are part of a much wider societal shift?  Early in September, I realized that I had lost my ability to read longer texts (those things called “books”) with concentration. There I was, on sabbatical, time to spare –every day struggling to read about the science of human learning for any longer than 15 minutes without distraction.  

Slowly I realized this was not a Karen Mundy problem but something bigger — a problem that parents, schools, communities and workplaces are all facing at scale. Everyone is talking about it (see this from the NYT and this from the CEO of Apple). Happily I stumbled on one of NPR’s most listened-to podcasts, hosted by Manoush Zomorodi and captured in her popular book entitled Bored and Brilliant.” Manoush interviews leading thinkers on the challenges that new technologies and changing work patterns are imposing on the human brain – then she provides a series of “exercises” (she calls them challenges) to help us get things under control.   Nothing too difficult – track and limit your screen time, use the pomodoro method to rebuild concentration, drop all the notification functions on your social media, read more, and restructure your daily habits to maximize productivity (through line to Daniel Pink’s new book “When” /which I also “read”**/ and all the others trying to sell me on meditation and napping)! Ha!  

But re-learning how to read deeply is not a simple process, as neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf documents in her new book – “Reader Come Home– apparently motivated by the realization that she had lost the skill herself. Her book explores the evolution of the brain’s ability to read – showing how the “reading circuit” is unlike genetically hardwired abilities (vision, language), and draws on and builds the brain’s deep seated plasticity.  The book argues – implores – us to protect the reading brain and its capacity for deep thought, even while building out new brain circuits for learning through other media. With some irony I admit to “reading”** this book on audio, a learning modality whose efficacy is rarely researched.  

Now let’s take this problem up one notch – since I’m on sabbatical anyway. How should/can we steer learning systems of today so that kids and adults around the world are ready for a 2050 future?  Let me call this out as an area where “basic research” is much needed and not yet thriving. A vast literature on the future of work is emerging, which I’ll cover in later blogs, and another on using technology to disrupt learning.  But neither of these threads seem wide enough or interdisciplinary enough to me. Such research is delinked from other changes in world order – climate change, new geopolitics, rise of populism and decline of democracy, migration, bio-engineering, all intersecting with what some call the 4thIndustrial Revolution. Nor does it utilize what we are beginning to know about the science of learning and the brain itself.  Most importantly, how to tackle this level of “change” in a world where the ability to read is already polarized between children who are schooled to fail at reading and those who have moved on to digital alternatives.

The irony is that just when we need to think on a world-historical scale and build a basic science for change that stretches downwards to brain science and outwards towards societal structures, much recent funding for educational research has gone down the path of rapid loop experimentation to test “what works” in terms of discreet interventions – (see recent blog by the Curry School Dean, Bob Piantas on this problem in the US experience).  

To think forward I say we need to start by learning from history (I always say that –  history was my first degree) and then invest in basic research. That brought me to my next deep reading challenge of the fall – Yuval Noah Harari’s “21 Lessons for the 21stCentury.” In it he lays out possible futures for humanity based on lessons from his previous two histories of human society, Sapiens and Homo Deus.  Again, guilty admission:  I think I’ve picked up what is is basically a “Harari light” compared to his earlier books (this one is clearly meant for distracted readers); and even so, I’ve shamelessly supplemented the book with videos of interviews and talks by Harari (see Harari on education; discussing the book with IMF head Lagarde; and my favourite, with Christiane Amanpour).  Suffice to say that his futures are framed as extra-ordinary challenges to which only human creativity, deep learning, ethics and story telling (read education – which gets a whole chapter) provide solutions.  And he’s pretty funny about the story telling done by economists in the mix!

All of this “reading”** is helping me as I think through what research questions I will pursue now that I’m back to academe – but also what kind of writing I want to do. Epistolary writing (dear reader) is back in vogue, that’s for sure.

For now I plan to use Harari and Wolf in my redesigned course “Global Governance/Educational Change” (blog and syllabus coming soon here). Feel free to recommend more “reading” to me. 

What to “read”**  (listen, watch)

(**shout out to my dear friends the novelists Nino Ricci and Erika de Vasconcelos for pointing out to me last week we that need a new term for audio reading. For now I am going with “READING”**).

  1. Harari, Yuval Noah (2018). 21 Lessons for the 21stCentury.  Signal Press/Random House.
  2. Pink, Daniel.  (2018). When:  The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.  Riverhead Books. https://www.danpink.com/books/when/or interviewed on NPR: https://www.npr.org/2018/01/17/578666036/daniel-pinks-when-shows-the-importance-of-timing-throughout-life
  3. Wolf, Maryanne. (2018). Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. Harper Collins.  https://www.maryannewolf.com/reader-come-home-1/
  4. Piantis, Bob.  (November 2018) Blog. “Why Education Research Isn’t Improving Education Much.” https://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/rick_hess_straight_up/2018/11/why_education_research_isnt_improving_education_much.html
  5. Zomorodi, Manoush. (2017). Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self. New York Public Broadcasting.



It’s all about youth

Across Sub-Saharan Africa, policy makers are paying attention to education and skills for youth. The coming crisis has at least four dimensions:  a large bulge of youth (the Economist); poor quality of learning in the primary cycle (WB); high demand for free universal secondary education; and a future in which non-formal employment and the gig economy remain the norm for most young people (CGD).

Embed this all in an uncertain future, one where the fourth industrial revolution threatens to make traditional pathways for economic growth through manufacturing and services difficult for Africa, and where climate change and conflicts will take their toll, and Africa has a youth challenge on a scale no other country or world region has faced in human history.

In Ghana last week, I had a special chance to look at these challenge up close. Hosted by CAMFED, I met with girls and young women supported to go to school and to engage in a range of leadership and community development activities. I also worked with an advisory panel on a report that the MasterCard Foundation will release in 2019 on youth, skills and secondary education in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Here’s what I learned.

First, we must and can support the imagination and resilience of the young people themselves to craft their futures, and in doing so change the culture of schooling itself.  More prescient than the experts on the MasterCard advisory panel, the secondary aged girls I spoke with asked me cutting edge questions: will artificial intelligence replace our future jobs? How much will we suffer because our library has no computers?  Do you think free secondary education will help our country or will schools get worse? How does what we’re learning compare to other countries?

Remember these girls are selected for scholarships based on need, not academic merit. CAMFED’s model offers them training in budgeting, time management, leadership skills and community development. Alumnae of its programs become community “guides,” a fundamental part of the CAMFED ethos of giving back.  This community-focused model has been shown to be highly cost effective: for $100 USD, it delivers the equivalent of two additional years of learning to those children it supports with ripple effects to others at participating schools and communities.

At university level, I joined a room of young CAMFED women with an amazing range of propositional ideas about learning and the future of work.  Tagged initially as “poor scholarship girls” they told me they now sit in student leadership positions across the University Cape Coast. And they are using the leadership and self-management skills learned from CAMFED activities to identify problems they can solve – not tomorrow but today.  From retooling early grade learning by setting up literacy boot camps in primary schools to starting Ghana’s first network on mental health for young people, these girls are stepping up as social entrepreneurs – and creating pathways to a new economy .

Sources

The Economist on Africa’s youth bulge https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2018/09/22/africas-high-birth-rate-is-keeping-the-continent-poor

REAL Centre’s evaluation of CAMFED’s cost-effectiveness http://www.educ.cam.ac.uk/centres/real/downloads/REAL%20Policy%20Brief%20Cost-effectiveness%20Camfed%20A4_FINAL.pdf

The World Bank (2018) report –  Facing Forward: Schooling for Learning in Africa. https://www.worldbank.org/en/region/afr/publication/facing-forward-schooling-for-learning-in-africa

The Centre for Global Development’s new brief on the informal sector, gig economy and the future of work in Africa https://www.cgdev.org/publication/lets-be-real-informal-sector-and-gig-economy-are-future-and-present-work-africa

 

Education Aid and Creativity

What to read in global education this week.  CGD on IFFED and new podcast on Creativity and why schools kill it off.


Aid architecture: See this critical article on the  education aid architecture’s new international financing facility (IFFED). Note: one author was among the original proposers of IFFED. On the education impact fund authors argue that impact funding should be for governments – not only private providers – I agree.  However, I am skeptical about the drive to use multilateral aid for outcomes. The political economy of multilateralism makes true COD/results based financing unlikely (more in a later blog); and wide use of financial and other material incentives can undermine human motivation (except in a few settings).

I see other routes to same end:  make sure all multi-lateral aid is aligned to country plans  that are owned by governments; and that what is funded from the plans includes stronger accountabilities to national publics. Evaluate education aid properly and make sure that there is a go/no go for second stage funding based on results. Lets fix the fundamental problem in our own back yard: multi-laterals are still driven by spending pipelines –  not by longer term, consistent delivery of results.

Science of learning:  see the new Freakonomics series on creativity. I’m fascinated with the new sciences of the human brain, of human motivation, and what this can tell us not only about individuals but about how to get systems and organizations to change. I’m also crazy curious about how this is being used in popular media. Curious fact:  more 30 year olds are writing popular books, and other media  on human motivation than in any previous decade.   I will tell you more about this and my new mantra for foreign aid in coming blogs…. “autonomy, mastery, purpose.”

 

I’m back

I’m back from four years in my dream job (as Chief Technical Officer at the Global Partnership for Education). Except I have a second dream job, which called me back to Toronto:   professor, presently on sabbatical, mother of three adolescent boys. I see myself as a wide ranging bricoleur who’s busy trying to find out why humans procrastinate (indeed!); and understand how we can improve our capacity to learn in ever larger and more complex systems – systems that seem to work against us at least some of the time.

Watch this blog sight – I’ll be rolling out a serious blog series come January 2019! In November and December we will just be having fun.  As I like to say for now:

“Gone swimming!”IMG_0420