Efficiency doesn’t change the world

By Richard Gerver on behalf of Bloomsbury Education

This is a series of occasional blogs by BESA members and is part of their paid membership service. These views are not necessarily those of BESA and a published blog does not constitute an endorsement.

I am well aware that I am a lucky, lucky man; my job means that I get to meet many amazing people. A couple of years ago, I met a man who has, quite literally, changed the world and I have to confess that I was in awe.

I was in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for a conference on education and new technology. There was a fantastic line-up of speakers and over 3,000 participants. It was a big deal and shows just how seriously Saudi Arabia is taking the future of its education development.

I love listening to other speakers; I learn so much from their insights, their wisdom and their experiences, and I was more than a little excited to hear the thoughts of the conference’s opening speaker. I was even more excited to find myself sat next to him in the speakers’ room before the event began and then to have time with him after the event both at the airport and indeed on our flight to London.

Steve, as I like to call him, was the co-founder of Apple; not Jobs, the other one, the one who actually designed the computer. Steve Wozniak is a relatively shy and unassuming man, a gentleman actually, a man who, unless you knew his background, would pass you by in the street unnoticed, much like you or I, with no show of wealth or status, no bravado or pompous airs. He’s just a normal guy who has happened to change the world!

As a boy, Steve had two ambitions: one to be an engineer like his father, because he knew that engineers can make the world a better place; the other to be a teacher, because, well, teachers too can make the world a better place.

Of course engineering won and the rest, as they say, became history, but only because of the unique partnership that was born when Steve met Steve.

What I think struck me most about Wozniak was his extraordinary generosity and his humanitarian spirit. It was apparent from his earliest days as an inventor. He knew he was on to something when he started messing with valves, diodes and soldering irons, and he knew that it was something that could lead to amazing things for his fellow man and woman, but he also knew that he wasn’t very good at understanding the social impact of his inventions, so he would go to his local computer club and give away his ideas to people he knew would find uses for them. He just wanted to make stuff that made life better. It was only when Jobs became properly involved that Apple was born and a business was created.

Steve has always instinctively wanted to do good; I asked him what he did with his time now and apart from still inventing, he said that he is in a very privileged place and that actually he was able to go around simply trying to do good. This included spending a number of years after leaving Apple working as a fifth-grade teacher in a state school near his home, thus fulfilling his other ambition. He loves teachers, saying that they are ‘special, special people’. He also believes that ‘It is less important what you teach and more important how you learn.’

‘Learning,’ he says, ‘must be a personal journey.’

The more I talked to Steve, the more I liked him and the more I thought about how much he demonstrates exactly what the future needs and what we have to help develop as educators.

I have met so many young entrepreneurs recently who have chosen to forgo the traditional routes of university and college to strike out on their own and create products that they believe can also change the world. The more I see, the more I am convinced that standardised systems and routes of learning will increasingly hamper our children’s futures and I have to say that I have far more faith in the lived wisdom of people like Steve than I do in the limited rhetoric of our politicians.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2018, others who are changing the world met to discuss the future of education. Their views echoed and amplified what Wozniak believes. Jack Ma, founder of the Chinese multinational ecommerce giant Alibaba Group, for example, said,

‘If we do not change the way we teach, 30 years from now, we’re going to be in trouble.’ He suggested that, ‘The knowledge-based approach of 200 years ago would fail our kids, who would never be able to compete with machines. Children should be taught soft skills like independent thinking, values and team-work.’

Perhaps most provocative was what Minouche Shafik, Director of the London School of Economics, said in a session on ‘Saving economic globalization from itself’: ‘Anything that is routine or repetitive will be automated.’ She highlighted the importance of ‘the soft skills, creative skills. Research skills, the ability to find information, synthesise it, make something of it.’ She went on to suggest that overhauling our education system will be essential to fixing the fractures in our societies and avoiding a tilt towards populism:

‘It’s no accident that the people who voted for populist parties around the world are people with by-and-large low levels of education. It’s not because they’re stupid, it’s because they’re smart. They’ve figured out this system will not be in their favour.’

Fabiola Gianotti, a particle physicist, the Director General of CERN and the woman in charge of the Large Hadron Collider as well as other Big Science projects, said,

‘We need to break the cultural silos. Too often people put science and the humanities, or science and the arts, in different silos. They are the highest expression of the curiosity and creativity of humanity… For me, I was a very curious child; I wanted to answer the big questions of how the universe works. My humanities and my music studies have contributed to what I am today as a scientist as much as my physics studies.’

What I find encouraging from this is the clear point of connection between educators and people working in the world beyond it. Firstly, we all want to prepare our children for the future; we all want that future to be a bright and optimistic place, maybe better than the world we find ourselves in today. Minouche Shafik’s comment about populism is particularly stimulating; it highlights for me so much of what I have seen and heard as I’ve travelled around the world and through political and social systems: a growing view that we are educated to believe in and search out certainties, certainties that for a growing number simply don’t exist any longer and are leading to higher levels of disillusion and anger amongst perfectly rational and educated people. Maybe, therefore, one of our challenges is this: to understand that as educators our job is not to teach children how to survive in the world but to help prepare them to thrive in it and, if we are to do that, then we need to be sure that we are aware of it, in order to help them to take ownership of it.

In times of such extraordinary challenge and change, we must take time to look up and ensure that we are not just focusing on making education more efficient but that we heed the advice and perspectives of people like Jack Ma, Minouche Shafik, Fabiola Gianotti and Steve Wozniak who are working hard to make the world a better place, so that our students can pick up the baton and continue that legacy.

Richard Gerver



Education: A Manifesto for Change, published by Bloomsbury Education, is out now.