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Internet access for schoolchildren should be considered a human right – KidZania education chief

The world has changed, and the ways we communicate, work and learn have altered. How will the Covid-19 pandemic reshape this generation and define the next? We spoke with Professor Ger Graus, Global Director of Education at KidZania and Honorary Officer of the British Empire's Most Excellent Order.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Professor Ger Graus, the Global Director of Education at KidZania and Honorary Officer of the British Empire's Most Excellent Order, it's really great to have you with us today. Wow. So many things are changing around us. The world as we know, it is just not the same place anymore. So, I've been thinking, you know, events like, for instance, World War or sexual revolution or financial crisis, it really shapes a whole generation and it defines people's attitudes and expectations experiences. Is the COVID-19 pandemic big enough of an event to leave a lasting mark like that on an up and coming new generation. What do you think?

Ger Graus: I think the answer is yes and no, I think one is, as you intimated in your question, we need to see things in perspective, right. This is a global event, which is why I think we're struggling with this in such a way, because it is very rare that you encounter something that is global rather than national or regional. It's not a war. It doesn't last five or six years as we know, it is not that intensity. If I think back to my grandparents, I grew up in the Netherlands, and in the Netherlands towards the end of 1945, which is not ever so long ago, in the north of Holland people died of starvation because it was a severe winter, and there was a severe shortage of food. I think this is a crisis, but we must make sure that we don't turn this into a drama. Things will change. Things will change because they have to change. Things will change because they can change. Things will change to stabilize matters and things will change to make matters better. So, I think we need to keep this into perspective.

SS: Alright, so let's accentuate on the part of things will change but, you know, gradually. What will change and what values will this new generation of people coming out of quarantine or like a semester of online education or maybe two, we don't know, maybe there's gonna be another wave of Corona in September and people will still have to be doing their courses online.... What values will this generation have? Will they be more socially responsible, more eco-conscious than prior generations? What do you think?

GG: I think part of that is to do with our attitudes as adults and as potential... as role models. So there is a danger that the next generation will grow up to be a fearful generation, a generation that doesn’t take any risks because we keep telling them to be careful. There is a danger that schools, for example, will engage less and less in out-of-school experiences. And therefore, the learning experiences of young people will null. We are in charge of this and we as the educators and as the adults need to be mindful of that. So that's first and foremost. Then I think, secondly, you can live in hope. Right? And I'm an optimist. I’m a born optimist and I live in hope. I think we will see a generation that is more caring. We will see a generation that is more kind. We will see a generation that hopefully is more fair and honest, because they will have learned with their parents, with other grown-ups over this period that those qualities are the best qualities to have, that fairness in terms of access to medical care, that caring and being kind to other people is a good thing. And that honesty, which is not always displayed by our leaders and politicians, for example, but that honesty is a good thing because you need to trust people. And I think and I hope that we will see a generation that is much more emotionally intelligent, and much more aware of the world around them than certainly we have been.

SS: Emotional intelligence has become such a huge factor in all of this actually. I was talking to this amazing neuroscientist the other day, she's almost 80 years old, she's one of the most famous neuroscientists in Russia, and she was saying, there are three things that are going to save us in this pandemic. It's emotional intelligence, empathy and curiosity. Would you agree with that? And would you agree that this is what we should be installing in our kids?

GG: I think so, yes, but not as theory because these things you cannot teach. Those things - you can make children aware of them, but you need to put them in situations, you need to facilitate situations whereby they can experience those things because curiosity, the Google curiosity is a very different curiosity than the real-life curiosity and attached to curiosity… And I think I would add a fourth point to that, and it is attached to curiosity, is calculated risk taking, because there needs to be an active outcome in this and the active outcome is to do things, to have a purpose and to move forward rather than to theorize in a schooling kind of way, and I think that's incredibly important. And with that, then, of course, you then link to that aspect of resilience and aspect of perseverance, those qualities of not giving up even if you get things wrong once or even if you find that you don't like certain things. Finding that you don't like certain things is a positive and not a negative. So I would add the element of calculated risk-taking to that and attach it to the curiosity element of the three points you mentioned.

SS: And of course, I mean, a lot is also going to depend on what our education system is going to look like after the pandemic because we're all waiting for this to be over but we are seeing it as we speak, how the whole system is being transformed. And further we go ahead, more we hear about the thing that, you know, the online education is the future and this is going to replace the one-to-one class communication sort of education. So what is your take? Do you think the education system itself is going to undergo a drastic change?

GG: I hope so. I sincerely hope so. I think one of the things that have made me smile positively about this at times is that the things we had planned to happen in the future, we need to address as a matter of urgency now. So I think, crisis often changes priorities, and changes the speed of implementation. I hope, I'm convinced that online will not replace offline, it would be a very bad thing, if that happened, and I think one of the interesting things that's happening is that many things that were meant to happen, that were forecast by futurists or techie people, whoever these people are, I think they will prove to be wrong. The school, particularly the elementary school, has proven to be such an important factor globally in coping with this pandemic, because a school all of a sudden is much more than a school. It has become a community center, where in the poorer disadvantaged parts of the world, people have accessed food, people have accessed all sorts. So I think we need to think around not what is going to be replaced but what is going to be different. Schools will exist, there might not quite exist in the way they do now. And one hopes that it does because the way schools exist at the moment goes back to the Industrial Revolution, the way that we teach children...

SS: What should be changed? Because you're saying that everything is being paced up by this pandemic, everything that was supposed to happen in 10 years is happening now. You're saying online education is excluded, it's not going to replace one-to-one in class. Okay, so that thing we are clear with. Then what will change? What do you think will be different about the educational system that we're going to get after this pandemic?

GG: I think first and foremost, just to come back to that point, I think online education, online learning will play an important part in the future of education. It will not replace schooling, it will not replace one-to-one, it will enhance it, it will add value. It will allow children to learn differently individually. It will allow children to learn differently in groups because the groups can be everywhere. And it will allow children access to knowledge quicker and better and the kind of access that you cannot get in the school. It will not, however, replace the classroom. The school will remain. The focal point of where the teaching takes place.

SS: Okay, so the amount of the communication that a student and a teacher get one-to-one will stay the same, you're saying, and the online platform is just going to be an addition to what we already have.

GG: Yeah. And I think we also need to... When we have this conversation, I think we need to have a picture in our head of what we mean by the child and who we mean by the child. So the one thing that is absolutely clear is that a crisis allows you to shine lights, and sometimes those lights are shown in areas that are less attractive. And one of those less attractive areas is the enormous inequality gap that clearly is still there. So which child are we talking about when we're talking about online learning? Are we talking about a child who goes to the independent, fee paying school in Moscow or in London, where the parents can afford a big house, the child has a room of his own and has access to iPads, iPhones, laptops and whatever else? Or are we talking about a child who lives in the city center, who lives in disadvantaged, deprived areas where the house is small, where there is no internet access and where parents can't afford a laptop or an iPad? Which child is it we're talking about? So I think we need to be extraordinarily mindful that when we have this conversation that we don't generalize and that we actually link it to real people. And I think the biggest danger that has come out educationally out of this crisis, it has highlighted the huge inequality that exists. And I think one of the things that educationally and politically needs to change is access to the internet for educational purposes needs to be added to the list that essentially are human rights.

SS: More than anything, this crisis has highlighted the gap between the wealthy and the poor in terms of how their children are coping with online courses. And also, correct me if I'm wrong, but I do feel like 99% of parents who have their kids at home, figured out that the online courses, there is no way they can be something that would replace one-on-one education with a teacher, especially for the beginners. I mean, when you know, your attention span is so little. And you need to be guided each step of the way. I mean, you can't expect a 6,7 and 8-year old kid to sit in front of a computer for five hours and be focused on whatever his teacher is saying, right? But then you're saying that for sure now we understand that online education will not replace one-on-one education, but you're saying that we will have the additional online platforms. So you're saying that we should make sure that everyone has access to those platforms and that is the foremost goal for the future, right?

GG: That is the first task, then the next thing that we need to do is we then need to invent or qualify rather than invent the place that online learning has within this big education piece. And I'll give you a very simple example. So if I'm talking about teaching children about traffic, for example, be it car traffic or public transport or flying or whatever, then to be able to use the internet to interview pilots, cabin crew, and people who design planes to add a touch of reality, to add practice and experience to the theory. The internet is a superb tool to do that. So that content development and adding value is immensely important. But of course, it always brings us back to that first one. If you haven't got internet access you are excluded from high-quality education. Not fair.

SS: But also access to the internet and the amount of access that these kids have, especially if they're going to have the additional online platform to help them cope with the education is somewhat sketchy because who makes sure that these kids will filter what to see on the internet and what not to see?

GG: So I think that is a whole big dialogue. And part of that is a dialogue of trust and of joint responsibility. So every child will become everyone's responsibility. And we have a very odd at times arrangement. I've smiled on a number of occasions during this crisis. So, for example, everybody was complaining that children were spending too much time online, terrible. All of a sudden, we want them to spend time online because we've discovered at the moment it's the only way that they can learn. So that debate seems to have shifted, right? Other debates that need to shift are around who is responsible for what. And one of the things that I'm absolutely clear about is that we need to re-address the issue of parents as co-educators, not as parents who send their children to school and at times, for one there is a better way of putting it, absolve their responsibility, but actually, that education of the child is in tandem and in partnership. I also think, incidentally, there's an interesting thing that I've always been an advocate...

SS: Can I ask you something real quickly as a follow-up question before you go on? Sorry for interrupting you.

GG: No-no.

SS: But don't you think we'll be tapping into a dangerous territory if we have parents as co-educators? Because we always had this really clearcut sort of division that school takes care of education and parents take care of bringing up, I mean, you know, giving good morals, making your kids good human beings and giving them access to good education. And then, you know, school takes care of education. Do you think teachers will be okay with parents starting to co-educate the kids with them?

GG: We need to define this. Let me give you a very simple example. So, schools are there to school children, they're not there to educate children. Educating children is a much wider spectrum. Schooling is Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday at nine to four, delivering the subject, teaching the subjects that the government requires them to teach. The education of the child and the role of the parent is in adding value on. So for example, again, you have just studied Shakespeare. You're in an English school, you've just studied Hamlet or Much Ado About Nothing, or whatever it is. And the role of the parent may then well be defined as you've read the play in class, you've interpreted the play in class, the parent, the homework, the family homework will be to, as a family, either go and see Hamlet in the theater, or watch it on a video at home, so that the child has an other angle to approach this. Why would that not happen? So the education is a matter of co-educating, the schooling is the responsibility of the school.

SS: Here's another large question, I guess, because the newer generations of digital natives can't imagine life without gadgets, which are for young people becoming a natural extension of themselves. So handwriting as a skill is becoming obsolete. And I've even heard that reading handwritten text can be a stumbling block for them. Is that a bad thing? Or is it just a natural course of evolution? See, I'm trying to figure it out for myself and for the children.

GG: No, there is research to suggest that that is the case. And I would strongly advocate that particularly in the early years of schooling, i.e. the equivalent of elementary school, that handwriting just like arithmetic is a life skill and therefore it needs developing. We will take notes, we will take quick notes. We will practice writing in a creative form. And it just allows, it's the functioning of the brain that allows the child to develop better than just put them in front of a keyboard and teach them to type.

SS: Okay, talking a little bit more about putting a kid in front of a keyboard, computer, internet, the amount of information that comes into our lives with the internet is growing exponentially. And what I may find overwhelming for today's kids is natural and they navigate freely in this dashing flow of information. Is it an indication that the new generation actually is smarter than us? 

GG: That is to be seen. I think they are smarter and very quick to access, whether they are smarter to progress that information and form judgments that are the right judgments that is to be seen. I have a 14-year-old and I’m full of admiration. I think what she's able to do, I was never able to do, but then I suppose if I look back, what my parents said of me is that what I was able to do, they weren't able to do so perhaps that's a natural progression anyway. I do think, however, that we need to rethink in general, that role of technology and education, and the role of technology and work. I've been working a good number of years now. And every time a new technological development came along, I was promised it would make my life easier. I was even promised that I might work three and a half or four days per week, and have more time to myself. I now have a global role. If I don't turn my phone off, when I go to bed, it will ping 24 hours. I promise you, it's not made my life easier. And surely, we would like to equip our children with the skills to make that work so that we don't just talk about full-time employment, but we talk about self-deployment, so that they also know how to go to a museum or a gallery, or a ballet, or a football match or whatever it is. What are they going to do with that spare time that we've been promised for so long now.

SS: But tell me one more thing, because I've interviewed, like I said, many neuroscientists lately, and they tell me that our brains and the brains of people before the internet, and the brains of digital natives work completely in a different way. Are we heading into a big generation gap with all these transformations? 

GG: I don't know. I'm not sure that the generation gap we're heading into is any bigger than that between you and your parents, or me and my parents. I think everybody for generations has been talking about generation gaps. I just think we do need to think around. And again, I think what's happened is that the speed with which technology has evolved, in a sense, is faster than we can keep up with. And if I look, for example, on the influence of social media on young people, I think we need to be very mindful of their mental well-being within this enormously rapid development of new things. The human nature is such, we can adapt. But we do need to watch this because we don't want a generation of people who are mentally not well,

SS: What skills do you think will be the most crucial in the next 10-20 years?

GG: Very clearly, one, being able to cope with change positively and two, to embrace change positively. And what I mean by that is this. So my grandfather was a coal miner in the south of Holland. He had one job, he started working when he was 14, he finished when he was 66. My father had two jobs. One he had to leave because the company went bankrupt. So the choice of his second job was not his choice. He was forced to do this. I've had 6-7 jobs, and they've all been of my choosing. What is quite clear that my kids will have God knows how many jobs or certainly how many tasks within a job, and they need to know that change will happen, that change is a good thing if you're in charge of the change that affects you, and that requires an element of courage, self-confidence, and risk-taking. And so I think everything surrounding being able to manage change positively and well, with a smile on your face, I think that is single… this is the single biggest challenge that our young people will face and will succeed in it.

SS: Professor Graus, it's been such a pleasure talking to you, you really lifted my spirit up and made me look towards the future in a more optimistic way. So anyways, thank you so much for this wonderful interview, and your insight on how we should be with our kids and how we should be educating them for the nearest future. Thank you so much.
GG: It's been my pleasure. Thank you so much. Thank you. 

SS: Bye.