Time to change the way we teach

A revolution is needed

It is not uncommon for us to keep doing things the way we have always done them. The definition of the force of habit is exactly that: “if someone does something from the force of habit, they do it without thinking because they have done it so often before.”

The academic setting is one of the many areas in our lives where the force of habit applies. We have been teaching the same subject, in the same way, for decades. The props we use have changed: we have technology gadgets now. Rather than the blackboard, we use PowerPoint (which can more often than not be called “death by PowerPoint”).

Apart from technology, however, the concept of teaching has remained unchanged. The teacher passes down hard facts and information to the students, who are expected to digest it and articulate their views in an essay. Some more progressive universities are starting to substitute essays for presentations. Still, that is all that has changed in the last century. Broadly speaking all academic teaching follows a standard format.

Quite a number of people don’t get the real meaning of Einstein’s famous quote: “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school”. This quote is often misinterpreted and it is not about trashing education systems. That would be throwing the baby out with the bath water. What Einstein meant was that the core value of education is not in the subjects taught but in the learning of mental skills, i.e. the acquisition of the ability to think well.

Yet, over and over again, we place more emphasis on the subject rather than the act of thinking. This is not a phenomenon exclusive to universities. As creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson advocates in his TED talk: we need a radical rethink of our school systems, to cultivate creativity and acknowledge multiple types of intelligence.

Quoting Einstein again, the issue is that “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” After all, the context in which we live has changed dramatically over the last century. Everything became more complex and faster. We often hear that people need to “think outside the box”, to “think laterally”, to practice “diversity thinking”. For me, the question is: how do we expect that from people, if we do not teach them the skills to do so?

I have been working with sustainability and climate change for over 20 years, and I have been a Guest Lecturer for the past 10 years. In the early stages of my career, I simply followed the force of habit and I copied my teachers, bombarding my students with information. More recently I have realized I was doing exactly what I thought I should not do. It took courage on my part and from the Universities I work with to bring new methodologies to the classroom.

It all started with the partnership between Oasis and the Northern Institute of Technology (NIT) in Germany under the umbrella of the Global Responsible Leadership Initiative (GRLI). I took over from Claire Maxwell and joined Chris Taylor in teaching Corporate Social Responsibility and Governance for MBA engineer students using the Whole Person Learning approach. Every year Chris and I push the boundaries further and every year we are surprised with the results.

Given the success and warm welcome we receive from students and staff at NIT, this year I have brought the Whole Person Learning approach to Birkbeck College. I have worked with Birkbeck as a Guest Lecturer since 2006. Due to agenda clashes and travel commitments, however, for the last three years, I have only been supervising dissertation students. Bringing new ways of teaching certainly made my return to lecturing refreshing.

At first, the students were a bit surprised and suspicious. I have started the seminar on environmental policy and regulation talking about the importance of deep listening. And to illustrate my point, what better than a video of Placido Domingo singing ‘No puede ser?’ Students enjoyed it but were clueless about the relationship between that and the information given to them in class and in the readings.

As the seminar went on, students were challenged further and asked to use a creative card they had randomly picked to articulate their position on environmental issues. The ones listening deeply to the other student’s argument had to suspend their judgment and try to listen with the highest level of empathy. What followed was an amazing account from students realizing for the first time, or remembering something that was long forgotten: the power of the argument was stronger when it involved our emotions and personal stories, rather than intellectual hard facts.

In an era of despair and injustice, if we are to see more collaboration for the emergence of a better world, it is time we change the way we teach: a revolution is needed.

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