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SXSWedu Part 1: go back to school!

SXSWedu Part 1: go back to school!

A couple of years ago, I put my name on the list of signatories of a text by Laurent Lapierre, entitled « Gérer, c’est créer » (translation: To manage is to create), which denounced the scientific drift of higher education institutions. 


In the same vein, a colleague recently brought my attention to a paper, recently published in The Economist, entitled « Those Who Can’t, Teach ». Ten years later, from one article to the other, the same observation highlighting the inability to foster change, even though the predicted storm is currently sprawled in the sky as a telltale sign of a nearby future.


Yet, if there is a domain where creativity should be applied it is certainly education and training ! And that is particularly true in developed countries, where we cannot depend on economic rents anymore. 


Indeed, our future largely depends on the ability of generations to come to create unique value: in short, they must do better, differently. To achieve this value, the mastery of knowledge and know-hows is non-negotiable. It is this mastery that imagination, an essential component, feeds first.


I spent some time looking for answers at SXSWedu and came to some peculiar conclusions. With very few exceptions, no universities and very few large private groups, have presented educational innovations that are both strong and relevant.


Creative seeds are not there.


While academics present brilliant studies, they do not question their own institutions in a significant way. We then gloss over others, slipping away from a debate that could lead us to uncomfortable conclusions. Private groups, for their part, are trying to take advantage of the wealth of a certain education reform, with no delay and often letting technology lead them astray.


Elementary and secondary level teachers brought the truly novel ideas forward. They are the ones who best described the "job" and led me to wonder about my own practices. First, by bringing me to ask myself the question every professor should ask himself: "Why do I do what I do?"(Jeff Charbonneau, professor of the year 2013!).


Furthermore, these teachers brought me to question my own vision of teaching: "If you think your job as a teacher is to speak for x minutes before a group, you are dead. We don’t need people like you anymore."


This resonated as a strong message. Like all of my colleagues or nearly so, that is exactly what I do: I summon a group of 50 people, once a week, and speak "at" them for 165 minutes...


True innovation in education, which is somewhat convincing, seems to share the following three characteristics; it is: (1) associated to primary and secondary, the foundations of our education system, (2) public (3) and often takes root in the most trying socioeconomic contexts.


Primary and secondary education? Indeed, that is where you find teachers who still ask themselves questions pertaining to education. Something that Professors, those with a capital P, have not done in a while; something they often call their workload and which is seen as a task to reduce in scope.


In general, popularity is enough to satisfy us.


Learn? Figure out? We aren’t there yet!


As for the public system being the source of the most successful innovations, this is probably best explained by the fact that the questions asked there are generously considered beyond a mercantile setting. This is also explained by the longer time these institutions are given to correctly answer the questions. To real questions, real answers; an iterative discovery process which is often a matter trial and error.


One where it is still possible to be candid.


Why, finally, do the most disadvantaged classrooms seem the most fertile? Of course, we can consider that the need dictates creativity. But there is also something else. In these environments, students are surprisingly engaged, which we unfortunately can hardly count on from students with affluent backgrounds.


Students have not become "clients" (they are not solvent!).


This reminds us that a school is not the classroom, nor the buildings, the interactive whiteboards, or the over-equipped laboratories that make up today's paraphernalia. A school is the encounter between teachers and students. Students are not customers or consumers of the school; they ARE the school. In these environments, the testimony of teachers tends to finally show us that parents are not likely to be act as a substitute teacher for the sake of their "precious little geniuses", summing their teachers to follow the "program" or some line of the administrative code to ensure excellence.


More than twelve years ago, I accompanied my daughter Jeanne on her first day of primary school. The class I saw had round tables made of plastic, multiple communication supports, it was deconstructed: all of it surprised me. My childhood classroom was a whole other environment.


"Students are not customers

or consumers of the school;

they ARE the school!"


All of these features I discovered, ten years later, in HEC Montréal’s newly renovated Decelles building.


You want to predict the pedagogical future of the best post-secondary programs of 2025?  Your best bet would be to visit some of today ‘s public primary school classrooms, in small cities or in some of the most needy neighborhoods of our sprawling metropolises.


So you want to conceive the training program of tomorrow? Start by going back to school!

This article is one of a five-part series by Pr. Pierre Balloffet. Read all of them right here

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