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September 28, 2016

Learning to be more human

Global education consultant, Charles Leadbeater identifies four features of innovative schools essential to prepare students for our changing world. They centre around developing students’ humanity. He spoke at an SVA event earlier in the year.

At a gathering of school leaders – part of SVA’s Bright Spots Schools Connection, Charles Leadbeater previewed his now released report, The Problem Solvers.

In the report, Leadbeater states if education is going to prepare students for the future world of work, its core purpose needs to shift from teaching students to follow instructions to preparing students to identify and solve problems.

We need to develop people who are better at being human.

“There’s no future in getting better at teaching people to be bad robots – to follow routines and to do exactly as they’re told,” said Leadbeater.

“We should be teaching people to find interesting questions; to come up with solutions that no one has thought of; and to work together to create things that make a difference in the world. We need to develop people who are better at being human.”

Being work ready for 21st century

Leadbeater spent six months researching and visiting innovative schools around the world to identify how schools can best prepare students for work.

These challenges are especially relevant in marginal and disadvantaged communities where the rates of youth unemployment are particularly high.

Charles Leadbeater
Charles Leadbeater believes there are golden opportunities for coming up with new forms of assessment.

Leadbeater emphasised that employers are among the most critical about the current system which ‘produces’ young people unprepared for basic functions at work: “to take the initiative, to respond, to collaborate, to empathise”.

If things can be done by machines and computers, they will be…

He believes there’s increasing numbers of employers and academics who realise that we are letting young people down – that what we’re doing is not good enough.

“Even though the future world (of work) and therefore education needs to be all about technology and equipping people to engage with and use it,” said Leadbeater. “Fundamentally education needs to be about learning to be more human.”

“What are our unique strengths, our values, and contributions? If things can be done by machines and computers, they will be,” he said.

“Humanity is about empathy, creativity, collaboration, joint enterprise and moral purpose. That’s what we’ve got to put at the heart of schools.” 

Appetite for change in the system

Leadbeater is optimistic that there’s a worldwide movement of teachers desperate to do things differently.

Having looked at innovative schools around the world, Leadbeater saw a lot of new curriculum being developed. He cited the curriculum created by the US-based Expeditionary Learning Schools (ELS) to teach common core standards for literacy entirely through project-based learning. (It meets the curriculum requirements for the New York state exams.) About 150 schools have explicitly adopted the ELS model. And the online, open source version has been downloaded five million times.

… the universities will admit them on the basis that they are geared up and driven regardless of their ATAR score,

Leadbeater believes the single largest obstacle to curriculum development is assessment.

“Standardised testing is running out of steam because it doesn’t do anything about reducing inequality – and sometimes widens it, and doesn’t prepare people for the washing machine of the 21st century.”

Leadbeater believes that there’s a golden opportunity to come up with new forms of assessment by collaborating with universities and employers.

He cited Templestowe College in north-east Melbourne which has signed a deal with several universities to accredit students as ‘ready for university study’ regardless of their HSC results. The college validates that students are ready to learn and are motivated based on their performance in individualised programs in which they have selected subjects from more than 150 electives including entrepreneurship opportunities.

“Based on Templestowe’s recommendation, the universities will admit them on the basis that they are geared up and driven regardless of their ATAR score,” said Leadbeater. “We’ll see more of that in the future.”

The four common features

From his reserach, Leadbeater identified four common features of innovative schools:

1. A journey of knowledge from basic skills and core content to higher order, inter-disciplinary concepts

This knowledge starts with the basic skills of literacy and numeracy, and moves on to knowledge of core content and then to higher-order concepts and thinking skills, where students challenge, question and adapt knowledge.

Leadbeater noted that in the Indigenous context this means an exploration of Indigenous knowledge and culture. He cited some of the Maori immersion schools in New Zealand as being the most impressive.

Much of the learning is interdisciplinary, allowing the school to maintain the cultural context.

“They understand how to engage deeply with culture and history and with the modern world and to move between the two.”

The report cites the example of Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Te Koutu, an immersion school in Rotorua that not only gets good results in government examinations but also aims to deepen students’ understanding of their identity, culture and language. Much of the learning is interdisciplinary, allowing the school to maintain the cultural context.

“A genealogy project which combined using the internet and digital tools provided understanding about culture, history, identity as well as biology,” said Leadbeater.

2. A personal journey which develops persistence, resilience, purpose

Personal strengths and character development include helping students find a sense of purpose and ambition, and building their resilience and persistence.

For these kids, just coming to school requires persistence.

“A young person needs to want to come to school because it’s about them,” claimed Leadbeater. “It needs to be an expression of them; not about fitting into a system.”

“All learning requires persistence. So good schools and teachers encourage students to take that leap into the unknown.”
Leadbeater cited the Broome Street Academy, a Charter High School in New York where half of students are homeless or living in foster care and the other half have come from some of the worst public schools in Manhattan.

“For these kids, just coming to school requires persistence. The school has created a whole champion and mentor system to keep kids coming back.”

3. A social journey – develops collaboration, empathy, communication

Social experiences allow students to deepen their relationships with others, learn through dialogue and collaboration, and take action together to make and do things, for and with other people.

They have learning-focused cultures that encourage collaboration and communications.

All the schools that Leadbeater identified as being innovative are highly social. “They have learning-focused cultures that encourage collaboration and communications.”

One example he described is the Northern Beaches Christian School in Sydney. The school has designed the pedagogy and physical space to encourage sociability. It provides “many ways for the kids to come together in teams and groups to interact with peers and teachers”.

4. Learning to be an agent, to make, serve, contribute

Activities need to give students a strong sense of agency, so that they learn how to turn knowledge and ideas into action, to see that they can make a difference in the world.

Leadbeater talked about Col.legi Montserrat in Barcelona, a school run by “a group of radical nuns who think outside the educational orthodoxy”.

They’ll be more like start-up hubs.

Leadbeater said that the school would say that you’ve got to get the students really interested to get them to learn. “It might be something really close to them, or about the wider world but it’s got to matter to them. Then they’ll start learning.”

Often, that need for learning is stronger if it makes a difference to someone else. When Leadbeater visited the school, they were building houses for refugees. “They were acquiring all the knowledge they needed for relevant parts of the national curriculum including science, economics, geography, language and technology.”

Leadbeater believes that schools are going to need to become places where you make things, run businesses, and serve the community. “They’ll be more like start-up hubs,” he said.

The schools mixed these four features together creating a dynamic learning environment for students.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Dynamic learning environment

What’s required of the educators

Leadbeater emphasised that in creating this dynamic learning environment, the primary change is the school culture. For students to learn these modes of behaviour, of being a better human, this has to be modelled by the educators and the system they are learning in.

This may mean having many goes, coming back with new waves of energy.

Charles Leadbeater
Leadbeater says culture is the most important thing.

“You have to get people to do things differently; it’s going to be messy.”

“The culture is the most important thing. A lot of the aspects in that circle [Figure 1] has to apply to the teachers as well as the students. It’s a whole school culture. It’s a place of research (into better teaching), lots of collaborative practice and sharing (lots of transparency).”

Leadbeater also noted that good and effective leadership in these innovative schools requires longevity – sticking at it with commitment. “This may mean having many goes, coming back with new waves of energy. It’s about systems and culture – things that build up collectively.”


Education needs to develop young people’s unique strengths as human beings – not only their knowledge but their personal strengths and character, their social skills, and their sense of agency. In this way they will have more capacity to identify and solve the problems that matter in the world; not just follow instructions.

The four features shared by innovative schools around the world described here need to be integrated into a dynamic learning environment manifest in the school culture.

Schools that achieve this shift will be better placed to cultivate the unique strengths and capacities of young people so that they are better prepared for the changing world of work in the 21st century.

About Charles Leadbeater

Charles Leadbeater is a leading authority on innovation and creativity. He has advised companies, cities and governments around the world on innovation strategy and drew on that experience in writing his latest book We-think: the power of mass creativity. Charles has advised the 10 Downing St policy unit, the UK Department for Trade and Industry and the European Commission on the rise of the knowledge driven economy and the Internet. He is an advisor to the UK Department for Education’s Innovation Unit on future strategies for more networked and personalised approaches to learning and education.

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