A Souk Soiree

By Chiara Baumann

Flying over the dark, silent Arabian Desert, the glittering lights of the giant palm lying in the Persian Gulf came into view. I’ve never had a personal desire to go to Dubai, and I sometimes feel that the costs of a conference can be better used. So let’s just say that expectations weren’t very high.

I was attending the sixth Global Education and Skills Forum, an initiative of the Varkey Foundation. Over two days, it brings together over 2 000 delegates from the public, private, and social sector to share, debate, and shape new ways for education to transform our world. It is a platform for collaboration and problem-solving – a space to imagine what the world should be and how we can get there together. This year’s theme was, “how do we prepare young people for 2030?” Predicting the future is not always easy and sometimes we get it very wrong. According to Plato, even Socrates himself worried about the advent of technology, arguing that the new fad of writing “will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust the external written characters and not remember themselves.” Similar sentiments are echoed in the 21st century. The Forum culminates in the Global Teacher Prize that acknowledges outstanding educators for their exemplary leadership and groundbreaking work that has effected lasting social change – recognition that every child deserves an exceptional teacher.

As the taxi dropped me off on the red carpet, and I entered the triple volume reception hall full of people from every corner of the world – all bathed in a deep blue light, I realised I might have underestimated what I was in for. Over the next two days, I whirled around from one room to the next – in and out, up and down through the palm tree and petunia lined pathways that crisscrossed the expansive and lavish grounds of the hotel.

Over the two days, topics ranged from “is celebrity culture harming young people”; “the role of arts and humanities”; “education and the power of Blockchain”; “will automation in the workplace revolutionise education”; to “teaching digital skills through virtual storytelling”; “neuroscience and learning”; and “how artificial intelligence and robotics will shape reshape education”. The event organisers had gone to great lengths to deliver the conference sessions in unique ways, from a simulation of the UK’s House of Lords, to a coffee shop, and a late-night television talk show format. Al Gore, Tony Blair, Nicolas Sarkozy, Sheik Al Maktoum, Simon Schama, Rory Bremner, Charlize Theron, Trevor Noah, and Lewis Hamilton were some of the big names in attendance – bringing a wow-factor to the event and elevating the status of education. But the real magic, was being surrounded by the teachers themselves – people who have committed their entire lives to changing the lives of children in incredibly difficult circumstances and who do it with such joy.

So while the World Economic Forum predicts that 65% of children being educated today will end up in careers that don’t exist yet, the truth is that they are likely to be variations of jobs today – what will change is who or what will do the work. That said, we still need to focus on what machines can’t do and ensure that technology does not exclude the most in need. Skills such a collaboration, problem solving, empathy, creativity, strategic and critical thinking are perhaps more important than they ever have been. “Educating the mind without educating the heart, is no education at all.” At the heart of all of this, is the critical role of the teacher and his or her relationship with the student. Motivation, aspirations, and expectations really matter. In fact, raising these should be the bedrock of everything we do.

I left buzzing – deeply reassured that the world will not be run by robots and that socio-emotional skills will remain deeply fundamental. I feel motivated and joyous about the work we do; and incredibly affirmed to realise that DGMT’s thinking is very much aligned to global – what we sometimes perceive to be at the “fore-front thinking” – something we perhaps don’t realise a lot of the time. As I flew back over the dusty, silent desert and make my way back to the tip of Africa, I realise that once in a while it’s absolutely fabulous to surround oneself by innovative, enthusiastic people – even if it’s just to have our work affirmed and reignite one’s sense of joy for what one does.

For a bit of reading, have a look at what South African parents think about education in the Global Parents Survey at https://indd.adobe.com/view/6c083e51-af83-4e70-adde-59c841c76d17.

To see more photos from the event have a look at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/gesf/