Why Anna Kirah thinks we should get rid of the blinders in education

May 15, 2013 by EDEN Secretariat   Comments (0)

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- an interview by Helen Keegan


When two like-minded people meet, an inspiring conversation is the result. This is exactly what happened when Helen Keegan agreed to interview EDEN 2013 keynote speaker Anna Kirah. Helen took the initiative and started a virtual conversation with Anna, sending her only one question at a time. This way Anna had the time and space to explore her ideas and create the story-teller texture feel of the interview. Thanks to the wonderfully open discussion, don't be surprised if new questions and answers appear with the time. It's worth to come back and check on new updates! Now, sit back, relax, take your time and let yourself be inspired.

 Helen: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed in advance of your hotly anticipated keynote at the 2013 EDEN Conference. As one of the very few keynote speakers to be invited back for a second time, your speech in Lisbon (2008) is remembered with a great deal of enthusiasm as the participants found you so very inspiring!
The main theme for this year’s conference is The Joy of Learning. In your TEDxTalk, you offer some wonderful examples that demonstrate the importance of understanding the aspirations and motivations of everyday people in their everyday lives, and working together towards a common goal. Could you share your perspectives on the conference theme, based on your experiences as a design anthropologist specialising in people-centred innovation?

Anna: First of all, it is an honor to be asked again to hold a keynote at the EDEN Conference.
We have come to the point where I believe we need to stop talking about digital learning tools, face-to-face learning tools and talk about the tools of learning. In fact, I would argue we need to take the "e" out of e-learning. The joy of learning has to do with our ability to give our students, whomever they may be, the tools to learn and the tools to motivate themselves to learn what they need to create meaning in their lives. The joy of learning is about encouraging curiosity and creativity. One of my favourite quotes in life is:
"There is no content of knowledge that is not pertinent to the work you will want to do."—Ben Shahn
We must help people learn HOW to learn, but not what to learn. We can set guidelines, we can set a framework, and when necessary we can even set the most important rules - but learning is ultimately about creating and or finding meaning.
Let us take schooling and education. Why do we go to school? It is to learn the ways of the culture we live in, the stories and truths of the culture---a connection from the past to the present and to the future. It is about integration, being unified in ones self vis a vis the cultures one lives in (for we do not live in just one culture anymore). We are living in a world today where authority and power is becoming flattened due to our access to knowledge. And yes, knowledge is power. Knowledge is no longer something which is holy to the few who have studied a topic. Knowledge is no longer something which is only for the "experts” it has become democratized. This of course also changes how we learn.
I am forever sighing when I hear the antiquated debate around WIKIPEDIA as a tool for learning. Of course it is a tool for learning! It is far more effective than the static textbooks of yesteryear. We need to teach HOW to read Wikipedia, how to arrive at an informed opinion on just about any topic you can imagine---(for example—note and read the references in any article). What is amazing about Wikipedia is that it is ever changing, just like our cultures our changing, just like history is changing, just like our language is changing----knowledge changes over time and space and Wikipedia has the elasticity and flexibility to handle change and at the same time hold on to the past connecting it to the present and adding thoughts to the future.
The people-centered approach to innovation on any front - be it a service, a product or even organisational change must come from a collaboration across silos, across stakeholder, across different target groups because it is through collaboration that we find meaning.
If we take the democratization of learning in to account, then all must be allowed to influence how they learn in order to motivate them to learn more. I encourage us all to stop creating tools for learning for people and start creating tools for learning "with" the very people we serve.

Helen: I'm interested in your ideas around curiosity and the motivation to learn. I often feel as though our traditional institutional/educational structures stifle curiosity. Through quality assurance processes (which are essentially about mitigation of risk) learning is chunked into discrete units, which can be measured, categorized and ranked. However, these processes seem to be more focused on our learners' extrinsic motivation (i.e. assessment focused), as opposed to the intrinsic motivation that comes from deep curiosity. Could you tell us more about your approach to motivating others and your strategies for developing a deep sense of curiosity with the people/organisations with whom you work?

Anna: When my eldest daughter was two years old, she loved two things: a kind of cookie (biscuit) and my chicken soup. My chicken soup took 12 hours to make, a slow shimmer and then straining all of the bones and fat out. When the soup was finished, it rested on the kitchen-counter to turn into jelly and then it was certain that it was "just right". Well, one day I entered the kitchen and I found my daughter putting cookies in to the soup. I was horrified and yelled out: "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!" My daughter looked at me indignantly and said: "I am making Cookie Soup". There are two points to the story:
1) This is actually one of the definitions of innovation, and perhaps my favorite: putting two seemingly unrelated things together to make something NEW that is MEANINGFUL, RELEVANT, DESIRABLE AND USEFUL!
2) EVERY single one of us is born curious and creative and most of us unfortunately have both this innate curiosity and creativity drained from us by our parents (by for example, not encouraging the acts of cookie soup), by our school systems (forcing us in to averages, forcing us to learn what we are told to learn), by our places of work (for example, the politics at the workplace, by power dynamics that determine what ideas actually surface and become utilized in efficiency and improvements).

We grow up with blinders that become stronger and stronger. We need to learn to take these blinders off and that is what I consider to be my most important task when working with organisations---how to remove our blinders. We need to bring back cookie soup into our lives, we need to find that curiosity in ourselves (start asking “why” more frequently) and bring back that beautiful innate creativity (dare to try new things, dare to mix things a bit, dare to learn from our youth who are much wiser than we are).
Things are getting worse, not better. My stepdaughter is 16 years old and her first year of Norwegian high school. Her textbooks are printed books and are written terribly. She came to me with her sociology book and read a paragraph to me because she was confused. It was about the pros and cons of globalization. One of the cons was that “globalisation weakens culture”. She had asked her teacher about this, but her teacher was busy teaching and said to focus on the text for the test. She asked me what I thought.
Now here is the sad thing, I want my daughter to get a good grade on her test so I tell her to follow the book. BUT I also tell her that the book is crap. Culture is not a static thing, it never has been. Culture changes, culture evolves but culture is not weakened. I do not have the space to go in detail here, but imagine, if this book was digital, imagine if this book was dynamic. Imagine, if people could place their comments in the text and discuss it, imagine, if experts in culture and anthropology could put their own thoughts into this text and help the children learn more about what they are curious about? Imagine, if we allowed them to learn MORE than is in the textbook! Imagine, if the measure in school was how well the teacher had encouraged creativity and curiousity in his/her students?!
The only way I know how to bring back the importance of creativity and curiousity is by showing its value and that is a journey that starts by listening to the challenges of any given organization and by helping them find in context their own blinders. When the blinders are removed, they themselves see the great potential in meeting people where they are, in living in the question instead of jumping to solutions, in diving into the possibilities instead of making quick fixes that ultimately cost us more on the long run. We need to create viable solutions to our future and that starts by taking a step back and being willing to remove our blinders and understand the aspirations and the motivations of the people we create for and start creating with them.
I will touch upon these topics in my talk at the conference and I have a surprise up my sleeve which I hope will be something that all of us can enjoy and learn from!

Helen: The metaphor of ‘removing the blinders’ is extremely powerful. I guess that magical moments, such as when you recognised the innovation in your daughter’s Cookie Soup (yum!), are things we must remain open to – we all need to keep an open mind. It can be really difficult to remain open to the world around us by retaining an almost childlike sense of wonder – and yet it’s so important both personally and professionally. In terms of formal education, where do you think are the biggest ‘blinders’?

Anna: This is a very good question and could be the topic of a book. I will try to narrow it down a bit to just a few of the blinders in formal education. The first being arrogance. Educators who believe they know more than their students is one of the most dangerous blinder I encounter regularly. Educators who are afraid to go in dialogue with their students and perhaps even coming up with something more powerful than what they know.Things have been turned upside down with the onset of the internet The information highway that has become so accessible (causing a demand for transparency) has made it possible for even a young child to have more knowledge than his or her teacher. This requires educators to be humble to be flexible and to be adaptable to change.Educators must be willing to lead their students to the beauty of learning, the motivation to learn as opposed to what needs to be learned. Our entire curriculum needs to address this. We have come to a point that the democratization of learning requires a flattened power structure where teachers become facilitators of learning instead of knowledge holders. We need to educate our students to be knowledge seekers and to make informed decisions on the abundance of information at their fingertips.
I would also like to take on the concept of PhDs as a blinder. The entire idea of a PhD creates the "expert blinder". The concept of a dissertation as a solo project, where one is required to prove individual knowledge and competency endangers the power of flexibility and adaptability to change. Innovation has almost always been a social phenomenon----we are social beings and new ideas come from observing others, dialogue with others and collaborating with others. Why can we not create collaborative PhDs? There is room for both subject matter experts (individual PhDs) and collaborative PhDs that teach us the value of collaboration and how working together brings us to another level of understanding.
Our current model is limiting. When we finish our PhDs, we are focused often on our own expertise and we are´ pushed in to a world where we strive to continuously prove ourselves at an individual level. The challenge is how can we be experts and at the same time be willing to be open to opportunities. The most common challenge within an organization is that people see themselves as experts in their own area and become defensive and threatened when, for example, a lay person or non-expert comes up with a brilliant idea that disrupts their way of thinking or doing.
Today, almost anyone, if they so wanted, could become an expert in an area (due to the availability of information online) and challenge the status quo. I am working on two public sector projects, one in transportation and one in health---in both of these projects there is a tension between the users of services and the "experts" creating the services. Most of my work is in facilitating this tension. This brings us back to the issue of creating WITH the people we serve and not for the people we serve. When we understand the aspirations and motivations of the people we serve, we find meaning. From meaning we can create together meaningful, relevant, useful and desirable services for the people and with the people.
My partner is building his own three story house. He is not trained as a carpenter, he is a theologian with a dream. He is building it step by step from reading online. The builders in the village come and speak with him and look at his work. What they say is that his craftsmanship is far better than the majority of builders today. This is possible for him because meaningful and relevant information is available online. The real challenge for e-learning is how to make information easily obtainable, easily usable in the context that an individual needs to learn.


Helen Keegan is senior lecturer in the School of Computing, Science and Engineering at the University of Salford and Programme Leader for BSc (Hons) Professional Sound and Video Technology. In 2012, Helen has been awarded a National Teaching Fellowship, one of the most prestigious awards for excellence in higher education teaching and support for learning in the UK. Helen is a pioneer of using social media technologies to transform students’ learning. With an educational background which crosses arts and sciences, she has a degree in linguistics and developed an international reputation for originality and digital innovation, actively using a wide range of social and mobile technologies to develop and disseminate her ideas, and constantly improve her teaching. With her students, Helen focuses on learner-driven curricula, helping them develop an online presence and an improved understanding of the internet. She is an executive board member of the Digital Cluster – a centre of excellence which combines and leads on high quality research, enterprise and teaching in the areas of informatics, digital media, and new and convergent technologies. Helen runs her own blog and is active on Twitter (@heloukee).


This interview is published in the framework of the EDEN Pre-Conference Interview Series. Read all interviews on this blog.

Anna Kirah is one of the prominent keynote speakers of the "The Joy of Learning' 2013 EDEN Annual Conference. Registration for the conference is still open, read more on the Conference site.

NVL Distance network arranged a pre-conference webinar related the EDEN 2013 Annual Conference. Watch Alastair Creelman interviewing EDEN keynote speaker Anna Kirah, live on 16 May 13.00 CET.
Registration required.


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