Some revolutionary ideas for school reform are not so new. The 17th-century philosopher and ecclesiastic Comenius had important things to say about 21st-century education. More than 300 years ago, he favoured “learning through play”, arguing that the successful acquisition of knowledge was active, not passive and that it should be a pleasure, not a task. “That guy was ahead of his time,” notes fellow Czech Jan Muehlfeit, Microsoft’s Chairman for Europe.
While some traditionalists still find Comenius’s ideas controversial, Muehlfeit sees them as a springboard for developing ideas about the future of education in Europe. “Europe doesn’t have huge natural resources or cheap labour,” he points out. “We can compete only by selling ideas.” From a commercial standpoint, Microsoft will only be successful in Europe if the community itself is able to succeed in the global market. “This is the reason we are heavily investing in technology in education.”
is an essential ingredient, it is not sufficient, Muehlfeit adds. It needs to be mixed with creative thinking, a disposition to learn throughout life and an entrepreneurial spirit. “We have to change the educational process. We need the ability to unlock human potential.”
To these ends the company is supporting a range of education-related programme in Europe. One of the biggest is Partners in Learning, with a $500 million (€375 million) investment worldwide over ten years to support teachers, schools and governments by providing equipment, training and money to aid innovation. Part of this is the Partners in Learning for Educators Programme, designed to foster the sharing of ideas through networking, both online and in local and international meetings. At last year’s Partners in Learning European Forum, teachers from the Julio Verne School in Valencia, Spain, described how children had taken laptops into the woods to research the plants they found during a nature walk, using materials staff had uploaded. Participants in this year’s event in Moscow learned how the Viktor Rydberg Gymnasium in Stockholm used high-tech forensics to bring the wow factor into science and math.
One of Muehlfeit’s favorite schemes is the Imagine Cup, which encourages innovation
and entrepreneurship among university students. Entrants to this global competition find technical solutions to real-world problems such as road safety, eradicating poverty and creating a more sustainable environment. “In the industrial era, you might have one job for your whole life. In the future, you will need to learn as you go,” says Muehlfeit. “Within five years, 90 per cent of jobs in Europe will require basic e-skills.”
The factory-as-model for the school must also change. “Although human beings have different talents, school is the same for everyone”, says Muehlfeit. Instead, highly skilled teachers should address the needs and capacities of each child. “Seventy per cent of the curriculum should be based on the talents and strengths of individual students,” he says. “Then perhaps they will get good jobs. Not only will society benefit, they will be happier.” Comenius would approve.
This article was originally published in Issue 9 of the Futures Magazine.
Students from the Julio Verne School take their laptops on a nature walk in Valencia, Spain