In just a couple of years, The Mind Lab has become the nation’s largest teaching environment and the host of New Zealand’s biggest postgraduate programme.
The growth of the nationwide facility is driven solely by demand from teachers who want to educate their students using best-practice contemporary knowledge. Founded in Auckland, the technological institution now comprises four national complexes and two virtual sites from which 40,000 kids and 1000 teachers are taught each year.
“It dawned on me watching a two-year-old girl at an airport, how intuitively she worked on her iPad,” says Mind Lab founder Frances Valintine. “However, it also highlighted that in the process of making technology smart, we’ve actually made people less technically capable. People are no longer tinkering or figuring things out; we no longer explore ‘under the bonnet’ to see how technology can make things better, more creative, more impactful.”
“Older generations were forced to become experts at problem-solving, as technology had to be cobbled together to make it work, but now everything comes pre-loaded, and all you need is a credit card to find an app for every possible problem.”
Frances has two decades worth of experience in education. In her former role as CEO of Media Design School, she worked across the world, where she came to the realisation that the plummeting number of curious and technologically innovative minds was creating a global problem: “Where were the young people who tinkered away to discover new ways of doing things? What happened to those who used to code games for fun, or build prototypes of new concepts? Something had gone wrong.”
Having witnessed massive technological advancement in the past ten years, Frances commented on how unfortunate it was that her teenage boys are learning the same subjects, from the same type of text book, using the same teaching techniques that she was taught with 30 years earlier: “By the time you get to high school, unfortunately techology becomes a subject in its own right, rather than a tool across all subjects.”
“Technology can create music, bring history to life, develop complex 3D models or programme the automation of tasks. Technology should be invisible, it should be a tool to resolve things. If you’re studying ancient history, you should be able to go to Google Earth and explore historical sites, you should be able to Skype an expert historian, create 3D models and 3D prints of that site.”
The problem with, “digital kids learning within an analogue school system” is finally beginning to be addressed at primary level. “An Inquiry Learning model has been adopted over recent years at most primary schools, and it helps to develop children who look for solutions and not just recollect answers. Failing and finding out how things work is an important part of learning that may also trigger the discovery of another passion.” It is this system from which Frances draws much inspiration.
The Mind Lab was set-up to enhance and encourage the technological skills of Kiwi kids, but, as increasing numbers of teachers began sitting in on the classes, it became apparent that there was an older, eager group of passionate educators who were also wanting to understand more contemporary teaching practices. “We’re not reinventing education,” Frances says. “We’re just re-examining how people learn and discover. Rather than using a teacher-directed ‘chalk and talk’ it is important for students to take ownership of their learning and understand how things work within a real-world context.”
Students from all backgrounds attend The Mind Lab and, interestingly, Frances notes the lower socio-economic communities are more willing to embrace new educational approaches. “Professional communities that have done well under the traditional education model, such as doctors, bankers or lawyers, are less likely to encourage their children to develop new skills for tomorrow’s jobs,” says Frances. “They are less impacted by technological advancement, as other industries who have had to reinvent themselves in light of massive disruption.”
As for technology gender-equality? “Unfortunately there is an imbalance in attitude based upon dated perceptions. Our experience is that young girls are just as interested as boys in technology, science and innovation, but parents do not always understand the need to develop this capability for today’s world and steer their daughters to more traditional subjects. Mothers make most of the subject decisions, and they often presume that their daughters are unlikely to be interested in electronics, coding or robotics.”
Knowledge of robotics will be a significant part of ‘tomorrow’s jobs’. “This sector is already advancing at such a rate and demand for graduates will just keep growing,” Frances says. “Science fiction is fast becoming science fact. Artificial intelligence is making huge advancements and the point at which a computer can out-think a human is now not so far away.”
I asked Frances, might we not reach a point where robots might be capable of doing all of our jobs? “No, because robotics and automation will mostly focus on repetitive, mundane roles, or high-risk roles where humans should not be working. Having someone sitting in a factory assembling things all day, is not great use of human capability.”
“There will be a transition period as we all learn to upskill for new roles and industries, but long-term I believe that being human becomes all the more important.” Frances believes that jobs will increasingly be about creative thinking, ideation, social discourse and that roles requiring human interaction such as counselling, teaching and physiotherapy will become more highly valued.
As technology becomes more available to more people — such as Google’s plan to give free WiFi to the world — Frances says there will be an incredible benefit for children in developing countries: “It will be no longer just about wealthy kids getting the best education or individuals in developed countries holding all of the power. It will become all about global education equality.”
Closer to home, Frances also holds great hope for the future. “Here at The Mind Lab we can see just how the next generation have got it worked out,” she says. “These young students are so much more collaborative and so willing to share their knowledge and ideas. This collaborative approach to education makes learning far more engaging and enables the teacher to take on more of a role of a facilitator. We call them self-educating kids.”
Frances and her team have made such progress that she is now invited to advise at a governmental level. “It has taken nearly 20 years of working at the pointy end of education to get to that position and it’s so helpful. There is now a real willingness to change. Our postgraduate programme for teachers only started just over a year ago and nearly 1,400 teachers have signed up. The postgraduate programme is now the biggest in our country’s history, and the course didn’t even exist 18 months ago. Teachers are desperate to make a difference and to make education as impactful for these students as possible.”