Learning {Re}imagined

By Nick Walker - Mar 27th, 2015

Interview with Graham Brown-Martin

A conversation with Graham Brown-Martin wanders freely from Punk music via Noam Chomsky to the fragile future of the human species, but it finishes where it started, with education. It is the 26th of March 2015 and we are at TEDxAmsterdamED, a few hours before Graham’s TED talk. 

On the table between us lies a copy of his 325-page book ‘Learning {Re}imagined,’ a lavish publication that took Graham and his team 120,000 miles, across 18 countries and nearly two years to produce. On his travels, he met with educators and leading thinkers in the field of education. In his book, Graham comes to the following conclusion: the purpose of education is to provide our children, and their children, with the skills to redesign society. 

On the road to change there are many obstacles to overcome and nearly every educator that Graham met on his travels said that the culture of testing in the education system was standing in the way of innovation. Assessment is the tail that wags the dog of learning, but the qualities that we value most, innovation and creativity, simply can’t be tested.

Abolishment of testing would certainly not happen overnight. It would be a slow process of phasing out, simply for the fact that we are all in collusion with this culture of testing. As long as our children are getting good grades we are happy and if they get bad grades then we tend to blame them, rather than question the foundations for assessment. Add to this the fact that testing is big business and the education economy doesn’t lobby for less testing, but rather for more expensive forms of testing. With this in mind, a slightly different analogy of tail and dog comes to mind.

Graham’s recent publication received critical acclaim from the National Union of Teachers in the UK. This acknowledgement seems a bit strange because Graham has always been an outsider to the education establishment. His personal journey was one of self-directed learning. As a teenager he was a bit of a scallywag. He used to frequent Foyles, a bookshop in London, where he would shoplift for scientific books on physics and chemistry. 

At the age of 15 he was expelled for creating a laboratory on the school premises that churned out all sorts of lethal substances, but it was those same homespun chemistry skills that got him his first job at a genetics lab in Milton Keynes. Later he moved to Oxford to work for a company, writing educational software. He then worked for Next Technologies, one of the first interactive software companies focussed on CD-ROM technology. Clients included Apple, Microsoft, IBM and Philips. In short, he was in the midst of the pioneering days of the digital revolution.

Over the years, Graham has maintained friendships with renowned thinkers such as Noam Chomsky and Sir Ken Robinson. One of his best friends and mentors was the late Malcolm Maclaren, founder of the Sex Pistols. The whole Punk attitude had a profound impact on Graham. The notion that anyone can pick up a guitar and start a band shaped his thinking. So in retrospect he took a very unorthodox path to get to where he is now: a leading light in the field of education. 

Having spoken with Seth Godin and Sugata Mitra on his travels around the world, Graham learned that the education complex is still stuck in the industrial age, in a time when we needed factory workers and office clerks, but we don’t need those kinds of workers anymore. So what kind of jobs should education be preparing for in the 21st century?  Well, we inhabit an industrial capitalist society and…that is the conundrum: we tend to value education in terms of Gross Domestic Product. 

Google needs mathematicians to sell advertising space; Uber has neuroscientists working for them; the NSA is the largest employer of cryptologists who are being paid to read your emails. But none of them are working on solutions to the important challenges we face. We need those creative minds working on innovation and solving bigger problems, because if we look into the future we can say a few things for sure.

First of all we know that there will be 11 billion people on our planet by the end of this century. Climate change is going to cause massive displacement. Diseases will become increasingly resistant to antibiotic drugs. These are just a few of the challenges that lie ahead. In short, the future of our species is at risk.

A sense of dystopia looms, but as a species we always have dialogue. We also know that the world is only worth saving if there is joy, love and peace in it. But our political leaders, who are of a bygone era, want to uphold the system. They continue not to talk about the elephants dancing in the room. So what we need is a massive movement of the people. 

When we consider what the purpose of education is, then surely it must be linked to these global challenges. We need to give our children the opportunity to reimagine, rethink and redesign society so that we can solve these global challenges together. And if it turns out that we were wrong about these challenges, and we design a better world in the process, then what have we lost?

Find Learning {Re}imagined here.

Watch Graham Brown-Martin's TED talk here.

Photography © Kerry Reinking - www.kerryreinking.nl

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