When my children approached school age (despite the legal age being six, most New Zealanders start school at five years of age!), I was finally brave enough to embark on something that really matters to me – revolutionising education, one child at a time.
My research spanned across many different areas but a lot started from being surrounded with super clever people every day. I am fortunate enough to work at a university and thus, I often come across new technologies and trends before the average person does. But even if you are not exposed to things like bitcoin, AI and exponential technologies, you would have noticed that things have changed and at a much faster rate, than ever before.
We hear about how these changes and advances might affect society in the way we work, learn and live. The importance for our tamariki to have future or 21st century skills (also referred to as soft-skills) to deal with these changes effectively really stood out for me. I also learned a lot about the Finnish education system and how ‘learning to learn’ is such an important foundation.
‘Learning to learn’ refers to the ability and willingness to adopt to new tasks, meaning how fast one can and wants to access existing skills and is able to apply them to new challenges. In our fast-paced ever-changing world, this will be one of the key skills required to thrive. The learning to learn framework is deeply embedded into the Finnish curriculum, built on the natural curiosity of human kind, teachers are facilitators rather than imparters of knowledge, and they aid the normal expansion of life. It is suggested that learning to learn, as opposed to learning skills or knowledge, is the most fundamental and needs to be instilled in young minds to ensure that the right foundations are set regarding concepts such as critical thinking, problem solving, and lifelong learning.
I also learned how our ECE curriculum Te Wh?riki is world-leading and even our NZ curriculum is great BUT most schools constrained in the way they can implement it with the child in the centre (most schools have a 1:28 teacher to child ratio, which does not allow deep relationships and individualised learning plans). This was when I had my first epiphany. There is a big disconnect between what an ideal learning environment should look like and what the reality is in most New Zealand classrooms.
It is important to question things, and I started to question one of the most fundamental things we have taken for granted in western countries: access to great education and the way our schooling system works. I also acknowledge that it is incredibly difficult to question something when you do not know any different (meaning that most of us have gone through this very traditional education system ourselves). When questioning the status quo, everyone has slightly different reasons, but my reasons came back to all of the below.
- The future of work is changing
I have come across a myriad of research about the future of work with very sobering statistics such as 60 percent of primary school aged children will do jobs that don’t even exist or the fact that our children might have to retrain every two years.
The concept of having one long-term employer is also slowly disappearing with 34 percent of the current American workforce are already freelance, contingent or independent, and this number is expected to grow to 50 percent within five years. I particularly liked this short summary report by the WEF.
At Ako, nurturing future skills are the main protagonists on the stage, complimented by a supporting cast of content.
2. Schools and the linkage to poor mental health:
The increasing number of mental health issues and highest rate of teen suicide in OECD are very complex issues and of course not all related to education, but research shows that children who are failed by the traditional system are more likely to experience a range of mental health and well-being issues – see NZ Herald, 2018 snf Nathan Wallis on TVNZ.
Mental health is not only important for students, but also for teachers. Being a teacher can be challenging and stressful in the current system, confirmed by a lack of new teachers wanting to start, a forecasted teacher shortage and the recent strikes. Paying teachers more in a current, broken system is a band aid solution but not the sort of systemic solution we will need to address this issue.
Having respectful and open relationships are important to build trust and ensure children are feeling emotionally safe.
In just the a few terms at Ako, children that have come from other mainstream schools seem a lot happier and engaged.
3. Being an active citizen:
A high youth unemployment rate and low voter participation are signs of a very disengaged future generation. Knowing your place in the world and understanding your purpose is often a life’s work, but it all starts with understanding yourself and how you relate to others.
At Ako, our tamariki have a voice – they know that they are respected and heard.
4. High obesity and other health related issues:
Many children these days spend less than one hour outdoors per day. That is less than that of someone in jail. Being outside does not only bring physical health benefits but also gets children to love and appreciate the world we live in. Thus, they are more likely to look after it when they grow up. There are also numerous studies showing the link between mental well-being and time outdoors.
At Ako, tamariki spend a large part of their day outside playing and learning.
5. Lack of unstructured play for children:
Children learn through exploring, trialing and failing, just as they learned to walk and talk. They learn through play. Play is often viewed as a free for all, anything goes, and has to be fun. But that is not how we view play. For example, the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, an American group started by thinkers, researchers and psychologists such as Peter Gray, view playfulness thus: “we see the drive to play as serving educative purposes complementary to those of curiosity”.
While curiosity motivates children to seek new knowledge and understanding, playfulness motivates them to practice new skills and use those skills creatively.
Children everywhere, when they are free to do so and have plenty of playmates, spend enormous amounts of time playing. They play to have fun, not deliberately to educate themselves, but education is the side effect for which the strong drive to play came about in the course of evolution.
Play isn’t doing what we want, but doing what we can with materials we find along the way, These constraints teaches children competencies such as resourcefulness, creativity, collaboration, and problem solving which links to my first point about the importance of future skills.
Thus, children need plenty of unstructured play where they can explore the world around them.
At Ako, tamariki have a lot of time for unstructured play and teachers honour the natural state of play. This is why we do not have bells or strict time intervals in which certain things happen.
6. Lack of support for parents:
Parenting is hard and we don’t live within the same social structures that we used to. Our families are more spread out geographically and we often don’t even know our neighbours, so parenting is frequently just left to one or two caregivers without much additional support or knowledge that has been passed on from older family members. There is also increasing societal and financial pressure on parents and hence most households have both parents working, which in turn has changed the role of schools and teachers.