Forging ethical and entrepreneurial agents of change – An experiment in socially-orientated school-wide enquiry at Garden International School Kuala Lumpur

Please note: this post is not about modern language pedagogy.

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A few months ago I asked my teen-age students : “Have you ever asked yourselves : How can I change the world for the better?’and thought long and hard about how you could do it?” The unanimous answer I got was a dispiriting ‘No’. My heart sank. Somewhere along the line someone had failed them; and I, as one of their teachers, had my fair share of responsibility, too. Yet our school has a highly developed, wide-ranging and proactive community service programme – one of the best in South-east Asia – and we regularly stage social- and environmental-awareness campaigns!

Not inspiring young men and women to ask themselves that question means failing to fulfil one’s most important mandate as a 21st century teacher: to forge the next generation of effective ethical world-changers, the most fulfilling of missions, the reason why I still choose to stay a teacher.

‘World-changers’ NOT ‘global citizens’ – as the trendy label ‘global citizen’ does not capture the full scope and urgency of the role that the current generation of teenagers will have to take on as they come of age. Today’s world rampant terrorism; racial and sectarian hatred; reckless planet exploitation and abuse; ecological disasters; institutionalised corruption; pathological levels of social injustice and myopic individualism… all of these call for a generation of visionary, entrepreneurial, ethical, empathetic, innovative, globally aware and, whether we like it or not, technology savvy world-changers bent on making our planet a better place for everyone, with no ethnocentrism of sort.

Visionary. Entrepreneurial. Ethical. Empathetic. Globally aware. Technology savvy. Designing a 21st century curriculum which lays emphasis on these six attributes calls for an approach to education which goes beyond the typical awareness-raising sessions provided in the traditional European (global) citizenship or PSHE (personal social health education) lessons – as they call it in England –  staged at tutor time or on a one-off monthly basis. An approach that currently every single Educational system around the world falls short of providing.  Why?

Because, as cognitive psychology clearly posits, awareness-raising alone does not lead to skill acquisition and habit formation. Extensive practice and deep cognitive and emotional arousal and investment do. Lessons, assemblies and trips that raise student-awareness of socio-economical, educational, health-related or environmental issues do help no doubt in shaping attitudes and beliefs. But, ultimately, in order to acquire the skills that refer to those key attributes, the next generation of world—changers need more than awareness-raising and community service trips where they feed the homeless or donate to orphanages.They must receive extensive practice in solving problems – real or simulated – which refer to today’s societal (local and large-scale) issues.

Hence, unlike the typical current school curricula, a world-changing curriculum should not simply aim at giving rise to a ‘Need to know’, but also, and more importantly, to a ‘Need to act’ and become innovative agents of social change. This entails an important mind-shift on the part of education providers and classroom teachers, as their role – in this paradigm – becomes one of inspirers and mentors of ethical global change. A role which requires knowledge and skills (e.g. social cognition and entrepreneurship) that not all classroom practitioners possess.

The biggest challenge for curriculum designers and school administrators is to find ways to integrate and implement a strong component of ethical world-changing education in the traditional curriculum. A tough challenge as some of the key stake-holders may not feel the same sense of urgency vis-à-vis the social and environmental plagues that afflict our planet. Not to mention examinations…

A group of visionary and socially engaged educators at the school I work at – James Wellings (the school’s director of innovative learning), Colter Watt (the Principal), Andrew Rankin (Drama Teacher), Alex Turner (Integration Coach leader), James Abela (Head of ICT), the school administrators and others – do share this sense of urgency and have had a go at implementing this pedagogy of ethical, visionary, technologically-supported, socially-engaged entrepreneurship in a whole-middle-school experiment.

They did so last week by staging a three-day large-scale socially-oriented enquiry event in our school called ‘Be the change‘ . The main goal: for students (aged 9-13) to address, working in teams of three or four, one of the 17 UN global goals (no poverty; zero hunger; quality education; affordable and clean energy; etc.) by creating an entrepreneurial solution which would be actionable by children of their age. The solution was going to be presented to (adult) judges who would assess the final product and the process that led to that product.

The process, obviously more important than the final product – as it is the process that shapes the six key attributes referred to above – was framed as follows:

Feel – During this stage, after being given access to a vast array of digital and hard-copy resources, the students chose the UN global goal(s) they were most interested in; the ones that aroused the strongest emotions.

Imagine – They then, in teams, had a go at brainstorming solutions whilst searching the Web  high and low for information and ideas to draw inspiration from. At the end of this stage they compiled a solution proposal.

Do – It was time then to come up with an actionable solution. In teams, often having to work through the perils and challenges of team work and having to find mature and productive compromises, they were to come up with a business plan through and through which would translate their idea into reality.

Share – Finally, the students – helped by their mentors –  set up and expo in which they presented their project to adult judges who focused on the process as much as they did on the product. The questions they asked referred to the feel stage (e.g. why did you choose this issue?); to the imagine stage (e.g. how did you come out with the proposal?; how did you deal with disagreement in the group?); To the do stage (e.g. How will you do it? What are the obstacles? Have you thought about problem ‘X’ and ‘Y’?).

At the end of each stage of the process, the mentor leaders and myself (one of four mentor executives) received live data on our iPads painting a picture of each and every student’s cognition vis-a-vis the task-at-hand. A clever program devised by our colleague James Abela – last year’s winner of the 21st century learning teacher award – made this possible. The most technologically innovative feature of this event. These data enabled us to have a clear idea as to which child was not coping well and needed further mentor assistance.

As you can imagine, the children were exhausted at the end of the process. And so were the teachers who facilitated the Feel (the free flow team) and the Imagine and Do stages (the mentor team). As one of the four mentor executives I had the privilege to oversee about 40 groups of students and their respective mentors, the adults (teachers and business people) who coached them. This gave me an insightful overview of the whole mentoring process – an educational researcher’s dream!

The mentors were obviously pivotal to the success of the event – as we know from scores of research studies how decisive the influence of a charismatic  and inquisitive adult can be in shaping an adolescent’s beliefs, inspiring them and modelling metacognitive processes.

Those three days have been an eye-opener for me. As an educational researcher with Metacognitive strategies as the main area of interest, the first thing that jumped to my eyes was the amount of self-regulation that the tasks elicited. As a teacher, it was the passion for the world problem they chose to address and the creative solutions they came up with – some quite naïve, as one may expect at this age – that moved me.

I had seen and taken part in Product Based Learning / Inquiry Based Learning initiatives before; but it was the marriage of visionary entrepreneurship with social and ethical concerns at such an early age and the high levels of metacognition, creativity and collaboration it fostered that blew me away. The planting of the seeds of positive and ethical world-changing attitudes and skills in my favourite Garden.

Creative ways must be found by international governments and education providers to embed activities of this kind in every school’s curriculum. The 21st century world needs an ethical revolution in order to survive its deep socio-political, economic and environmental crisis and chaos. A new generation of highly creative, adaptive and technologically adept humans  is needed, bent on saving mankind from self- and earth-destruction. Not angry eco-warriors with a grudge against the Establishment; but highly informed, passionate,  innovative and entrepreneurial peace-mongers who want and know how to fix it.

Do ask your students: “Have you ever asked yourself  How can I change the world for the better?”. And if the answer is ‘No’  try and do something about it.

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