Frustrating, stimulating, exhausting, exhilarating, infuriating and inspiring – that was my week spent at Canada’s Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics which hosted the Equinox Summit presented by the Waterloo Global Science Initiative. The theme of the summit was Learning 2030 and was the second in a series of summits designed to tackle and provide solutions for the near future. The first summit, Energy 2030, hosted last year was intended to tackle future energy challenges with bold but achievable solutions.
Emboldened by the success of the first summit the organisers at WGSI decided to tackle the subject of Learning given that if we don’t get that right any chance of solving any of the worlds future challenges would be virtually hopeless.
The summit brought together 40 people from 6 continents all with different backgrounds and included a group of young leaders aged 18-22 who had either dropped out or were in full time university education. It’s fair to say that I was amongst the most concentrated group of smart arses that I have had the privilege to be associated with in quite a while. Many were opinionated and self-important – just like me. Together we were given the challenge of living, eating and working together to define the challenges for the global education systems in 2030 and beyond, then propose flexible, context and culturally sensitive solutions that would act as a foundation to define new systems. At times it felt like we were participating in an intellectual version of the Big Brother reality TV show.
I wondered if the organisers might as well have called the summit “Religion 2030”, invited the leaders of the worlds religions and told them to agree on a new religion within 5 days.
I’d argue that whilst solving the worlds future energy requirements is an audacious goal it is a somewhat easier challenge than learning on the basis that energy was at least quantifiable. The problem can be expressed in hard numbers as can the solution. Not so with education and learning although many continue to try. I don’t think we even agreed entirely upon what the problem was let alone what the near future might look like. This rendered the solutions somewhat challenging in the absence of a defined problem to solve but this was the genius of the process and the week.
I had wondered many times during the summit whether trying to quantify the unquantifiable was the result of a process largely devised by theoretical physicists who couldn’t spot the differences between solving a challenge like energy versus a challenge like education. But then I remembered something that Sugata Mitra told me when I interviewed him a week of so earlier. Sugata isn’t an education specialist but a theoretical physicist so I persevered with the process.
The process consisted of closed but filmed sessions of work and discourse that were held under Chatham House rule combined with open public plenaries where the general public were invited to join physically or virtually via the live stream. Each evening the local television station TVO, who had been running a series around the Learning 2030 theme, would broadcast live from the event as part of their leading current affairs programme, The Agenda with Steve Paikin, where members of the summit would take part in discussion broadcast to the nation and streamed to anyone watching without so much as a 5 second delay. The recorded shows can be found on YouTube.
The challenges and solutions were broken down into chunks then worked on by groups who’s membership was fluid as members left one group to join another at will. For me it was counter-intuitive as to how we would arrive at the weeks target of delivering the publication of an agreed communique from the summit that would form the basis of a blueprint for Learning 2030.
The hours were long where each morning we started at stupid o’clock and worked through to the evening. Late nights socialising were hardly an option given that most participants were exhausted by the early evening and repaired to their rooms to mentally prepare for the next days mental gymnastics. Either that or it was our accomodations uncanny resemblance to the Overlook Hotel from The Shining.
It was tough, it was hard, there were tears, at least one participant may never speak to me again, and yet I learned a huge amount in what was a very short time. The process was buoyed along by our ever cheerful, optimistic and skillful facilitator Dan Normandeau (who in my mind was a dead ringer for Dick Van Dyke) with the participants and programme curated by renegade scientist, Dr Michael Brooks, author of the epic book “Free Radicals” (if you’re interested in teaching science please read it).
Whilst sometimes consensus felt like attrition and collaboration like compliance the fact is that by the end of the process I felt like part of a team where genuine, as opposed to socially expected, respect for my fellow cohort members emerged. I didn’t think we’d get there but we did arrive in the closing hours with a communique which, whilst the detail remains to be worked over in the public domain, identifies key issues and direction for radical reform that includes the decoupling of high school level education from examinations and grades so that teachers can focus on innovating for learning rather than getting kids through a set of arbitrary exams.
Upon reflection the process and the output reminds me of a summit that I was invited to in 1989 hosted by Bangor University in Wales themed Education 2010 where we accurately predicted the rise of personal mobile devices and public private initiatives leading to academies supported by commercial interests designed to get students through tests as efficiently as possible (High Tech High). That event too was full of robust debate, disagreement and minor fallings out but nevertheless left everyone with the satisfaction of producing something meaningful and indeed the work was commonly found within teacher training programmes within the UK and further afield. That document had an impact on the discourse around learning, teaching and education and I’m confident that the work that my fellow participants and I contributed to over the past week plus the work that must now be done by the wider community will have an even bigger impact.
My congratulations to WGSI and the organisers – I was genuinely impressed and found the entire experience valuable, thanks for having me.
It’s good to talk but even better to do!
Resources from the Equinox Summit can be found online here.