Our Community

Big questions on education from our NEO Community

November 30, 2021

This year, we have been writing a lot about our hopes for what education might look like, to be fit for purpose in a challenging and uncertain world. We have also had conversations each and every week with people working in education, innovating and raising questions and ideas about its approach and purpose.

Certain beliefs we held at the start of 2021 have become firmer, some have shifted, evolved, adapted. That is what being a lifelong learner is about; we hold our opinions lightly and keep the door to conversation wide open. There are, however, certain themes and questions that run through what we hear from almost every person pushing for positive change in education, whether they are within the traditional system now, or have planted their flag outside it.

As you read these, we invite you to reflect on what you believe, and to what extent your institution is asking or seeking to address these questions.


Why are we doing this? 

This has come up a lot in our #NEOchats series this year. People like Raheen Fatima, Bertrand Laborde and NEO's own Alejandra Otero made it clear that the core of everything they did in life, came from asking "why?". How often do we ask ourselves this as organisations? Why is it we live and work the way we do? Who is it for? Are we really opening ourselves up to reflection? 

In one of our most recent #NEOchats, Paul Haras said that getting to "why" was the most challenging part of his job to lead pedagogical innovation in his school. It is a question we rarely ask ourselves; perhaps because we think the answer is obvious, but in fact is buried beneath layers of experiences and routine thinking that need to be unpacked.

As Simon Sinek said in his book "Start With Why":

"If a company does not have a clear sense of WHY then it is impossible for the outside world to perceive anything more than WHAT the company does. And when that happens, manipulations that rely on pushing price, features, service or quality become the primary currency of differentiation.”

It is not just about making sure your purpose is clear and your administrators and teachers are on board and feel part of it, but that it can be communicated to other stakeholders; learners of course being at the very centre.

Are our learners ready to thrive in life and not just in exams?

Jennifer Groff told us that many schools are aware of the OECD framework of "future skills" but are struggling to innovate towards them within the current system. The world ahead needs us to be creative, adaptable resilient, critical thinkers and all the rest of it, but these are skills we ourselves perhaps learned through experience. So how do we support their development in education?

One thing, for sure, is that exams don't help. As measures of who we are and what we can offer, we could barely conceive of a worse way to demonstrate this than an exam. Innovators like Lift Learning are supporting institutions to understand how skills and competences can be developed within curricula, and also meaningfully reflected as evidence of learning.

Learners will not get the skills to thrive in the future by facing a lecture, taking summative exams with no feedback, being asked to regurgitate knowledge to claim mastery of it, or generally by having no say in where they take their own learning next. Learners of all ages can be leaders, and can captain their own ships, according to Katrin Mengardon.

We should ask ourselves if what we are doing truly helps learners develop the skills they need. And then, we should ask them.

What does success look like to us? 

Money? Job title? Good grades? 

What is it we are holding up as an ideal? Kimmo Kuorti told us the education system requires a wellbeing culture at its heart. If we do not prize our own wellbeing and that of others first, then learning cannot thrive. Being able to prioritize these things is surely a measure of success, in a world that erroneously prizes overworking and busy-ness.

We might also ask "who" does success look like? The levers of power seem to be held overwhelmingly by older white men, but yet that is not the way the world looks. Marc Hamanna told us that there is such strength in diversity, and the most successful organisations recognised that and built teams that prized neurodiverse, culturally diverse, gender diverse environments. Katrina Walker told us that she wanted to change the male-dominated culture of tech by starting with equity of access to education.

Can your learners see people who reflect them as ideals and role models? How can you ensure not only staff and student diversity, but also equity of access and a curriculum that reflects diversity too?

Are our learners supported to find connections beyond the silos of "subjects"?

Education institutions often project the benefits of their courses and offers, by saying things like "helping you succeed in your future career" or "equipping you with the skills for tomorrow".

Really? Really really? That was a bit easier 30 years ago when career paths were a little more linear, and the world (in the developed economies at least) was fairly predictable. Mainstream education is set up to favour specialisations, where we build towards a narrowing area of deeper knowledge in a subject. Degree-masters-PhD.

But what about the generalists? The people we need to connect the dots and make connections outside linear paths of learning? Louka Parry told us that he feels the world needs such individuals, but does education support this? Interdisciplinary programmesLike those at the London School of Economics are not the norm.

Alex More told us that he feels transversal learning should begin at University level, and he may be right. But even in High Schools, we find innovations like The Socratic Experience, which has been able to de-silo subjects and create cross-disciplinary learner-directed enquiry and still operate within the metasystem of SAT's and all the rest of it.

The walls between subjects are artificial and do not exist in real life. Are we doing enough to reflect that truth? 

What are we doing about the most pressing issue of our time?

Climate change is not threatening the world... the world will be just fine. Humans, however, will disappear. We have only been here for a short time, and we have made a real mess of things.

But yet climate change and sustainability are only lightly peppered through education. A workshop here, a campaign there, a mention in this class, and maybe a project in that one. Komal Shah tells us that we need more consciousness in education, and we agree.

Being conscious of how climate change will affect every single aspect of our lives in the years to come is something we must develop. And where is this in the core of education? How can we develop a conscious connection with our biosphere and an empathic bond with future generations? Where lies the responsibility of education in supporting this to flourish? 

Climate change education is something we will explore more in 2022, but we can say here and now that the next generation of learners will expect us to be talking about this, embedding sustainability in all aspects of education and the operation of our institution, so we must ask ourselves now: what are we doing about it?

Learning together

We have learned so much from our community this year, and more on this to come! However, there is more to explore, more voices to amplify, and more questions to ask. To talk to us about arranging a #NEOchats with you (or just a regular chat), please reach out and we will be in touch.

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