Daniel Wilson from Harvard, at SEK Schools: “Education is like a natural environment, and biodiversity is critical for adaptation”

Daniel Wilson SEK

The director of well-known Project Zero at Harvard Graduate School of Education, Daniel Wilson, visited SEK International Schools in Madrid and Camilo José Cela University with the aim of learning about our educational model, our teachers and students.

Wilson is convinced of the positive predisposition for learning offered by outdoor spaces and other elements such as a positive emotional state and a sense of wonder. We were given the opportunity to interview him.

Question. Can you tell us about Project Zero that you chair at Harvard University?

Answer. I’m the director of a research centre at the Harvard Graduate School of Education its name is Project Zero.  It’s an odd name, it was founded with this question of, what does it mean to think in the arts? And at the time of its founding, Nelson Goodman, the philosopher said ‘Well, we know nothing about how hard it is to think, and therefore we know zero, so we will call ourselves Project Zero’.  We’ve kept the name because it’s a humble stance, we know very little about what it means to think in the arts, today we know more, but still, this idea that we begin at zero to understand, not just thinking in the arts, but other aspects of what it means to be human.  And that’s what we study in Project Zero.  What does it mean to be intelligent? What does it mean to be creative? What does it mean to collaborate?  What does it mean to have ethics?  These are perennial questions that change with the times and each research project we have at Project Zero we begin with this remembrance that we start at zero and true collaboration with different communities, practitioners, we begin to learn more and more about creativity, intelligence, etcetera.  Today we have 26 research projects, operating all over the world, in different kinds of context,  , mainly in schooling contexts, but not exclusively, because in the questions we ask her about human development, schools are a place where we hope human development occurs, but there are many other kinds of context, contexts of family, contexts of work.  So, we look to explore these types of questions in a variety of cultural places.


Q. Over these days you have been able to visit some SEK International Schools and also students and future teachers at the School of Education at Camilo José Cela University. How can they collaborate with the project you lead?

A. My trip to Spain has been a gift, an occasion to talk with teachers students and leaders of the SEK schools as well as professors, students and administrators at the University and we’re exploring what are the questions that the University and the schools have in which we have Project Zero or also interested in. What’s emerging are several possibilities , question about what it means to gather evidence of competencies, competencies like wellness, how can we gather evidence in ways in which families and the community members can also see the impact of the kind of education that we hope to develop in the SEK systems. I’m not exactly sure what will emerge, but what is clear to me is that we are looking for synergies in which the needs and the resources of the University can be complimentary to the needs and resources of the schools, and the needs and questions and methodologies that we have at Project Zero can help strengthen those relationships. At the end of the day, what’s most important for us a Project Zero is that we understand a little bit more about how systems and schools can collaborate to grow human potentials and that’s what I think SEK schools and the University hope to do.


Q. We talk a lot about the role of education in our society. Do you think that we are in a particularly disruptive moment in this area as well, or is it that there are too many interpretations of what it should be?

A. Often we are asked are we in a moment of disruption in the field of education, many proposals and different forms of education. I don’t know honestly, I mean, likely in 10 or 20 years will be able to identify, where we at the point of disruption? However, I do know there are a lot of changes, technological changes, social changes in patterns of work, changes of where learning will happen, what happened in schools, what happened at work, what happened in the home. Also, a lot of political changes and economic changes due to globalization. So, we certainly have a lot of turbulence, in types of goals we hope education will achieve. What I think is key to keep in mind is that education, particularly at a state or national level, it’s like an ecology, kind of like a natural environment. Biodiversity in ecology, in environments, is critical for adaptation, when we see an ecosystem that is rich with different species it is more likely that it will adapt to turbulence. We should ask ourselves do we have a richness of species of educational models? If so I think we’ll be able to adapt to changing times, however, we should ask ourselves is there a dominant species of education right now.  I fear there might be, I think over the last hundred and fifty years the model of education has tended to be very hierarchical -and very transmission based. We certainly know from decades of research in psychology, cognitive science, and now in neuroscience, is that while transmission is an element of deep learning and development, there’s many other social forms of learning and collaboration that surround that. So, I think I’d like to see more variation in the kinds of ways we approach education. And more discussion about the moral purpose of education. Why education? What are we trying to achieve? Because in answering that question, I think we will allow more forms to emerge.


Q.What should the role of the teacher be?

A. In today’s contemporary society, what it means to be a teacher, I think, is fundamentally shifted from what it was, say, 20-30 years ago. No longer is it the role of the teacher to be the sole expert of knowledge, it needs to be broader, and it needs to include other kinds of competencies. Like designing learning experiences, designing the conditions in which learners can take risks, fail, make mistakes and learn from them through feedback. It also should entail making connections with the community, finding the resources, the opportunities outside of school for students to translate what they’re learning, adapt it to their passions and interests. So, at its core, what it means to be a teacher is more like a facilitator and designer in contemporary society. Facilitating, designing, and at the end of the day, connecting people together in new ways.


Q. In recent times we are witnessing the explosion of Artificial Intelligence applications. What will its impact on education be?

A.I think the impact that artificial intelligence should have as we think of education, is it should provoke us to consider what makes us human. And effective technologies make us more human, not less. Effective technologies make us more empathetic. Make us have deeper and longer lasting relationships. Extend our lives, hopefully in more robust and fruitful ways. They allow us to express and communicate in a rich array of symbol systems. That’s when technology is effective, it actually makes us and allows us to be more human. When technology begins to erode our capacities to be empathetic, to connect, I worry. Particularly with artificial intelligence I think we need to ask the question, what does make us human? What makes us creative? What makes us want to connect with one another? Simply knowing things, that’s not going to just make us more human. Computers and artificial technology, we able to do that.  Being ethical, having good judgement, developing, loving and caring relationships, these are fundamental to what makes us humans, and I think many technological interventions can help us.

Q. What other challenges do educational institutions face in the coming years?

A. As we think about the different challenges schools will face in the coming years, I’m sure we could imagine lots of them. Influx of new populations, new values, new community members we need to serve and include. More technologies, changing kinds of technologies, that we’ll need to adapt. However, I’d like us to pause and consider another kind of challenge, and this isn’t a result of any kind of technology or global disruption. But it’s a question that has long been lingering and needs to be answered soon. And that is, what does it mean to learn?  What does it mean to learn is a question that schools need to grapple with in order to face the challenges and adapt.  Learning was defined many centuries ago in such a way in which schools were structured curriculum, grade levels, time, the social roles and activities all organized around a conception of learning that, we now know, is quite misinformed. Schools, as a social form, were designed before fields like psychology were formed, before we knew a lot about human development. So, I think we need to ask ourselves what it means to learn and embrace what we know, at least from psychology, cognitive science and other social sciences.  Embrace a much more complex, socially interactive, unpredictable, collaborative form of development and developing of knowledge, skills and attitudes.  That, I think, represents learning in today’s society.

Q. If you had a crystal ball… what do you think the generation of students attending school today will be like when they reach adulthood?

A. So, I think the question is, if we were to design a school with the commitments to creativity, commitments to ethics, commitments to thinking, commitments to deep understanding. What would those students look like 20-30 years from now?  I don’t know, but what I do know, is that the role of schooling is to facilitate every human being to achieve its fullest potential. So, I don’t know exactly what they would look like or sound like. . But I think they’d be in relationships are much more beautiful ways.

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