#SUNZSUMMIT - What I learnt from attending SingularityU and what I reckon it means for education in NZ

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Earlier this week (Mon-Wed) I was lucky enough to attend the inaugural SingularityU NZ Summit in Christchurch. Since then (Thurs-forever) my brain has a been a whirl as I have tried my best to understand and appreciate exactly what it is I learned and heard at the event. The saying "the more you know, the more you know you don't know" kept coming to mind. I went in to the event fairly confident I was abreast technological developments, what was in store and what that meant for education. I came away from his event patently aware that whilst I am relatively aware of technological developments, my knowledge really only skipped across the surface like a skittery ol' skipping stone and my understanding of the impact it is going to have on education was way short - I need to stop thinking Blue Sky High and need to start thinking Intergalactic Intelligence Building!

The SingularityU NZ website describes the event as bringing "the world’s top speakers and experts on exponentially accelerating technologies together with New Zealand's and Australia's leaders of today and tomorrow, giving us the knowledge and insight we need to compete — and win — in an exponentially changing world." Basically, think a future-focused TEDx on steroids and you will get the idea.

As someone who has the attention span of a flea or truly worried about the format, I would probably rather perform a bit of at home dentistry rather than sit through 20 lengthy TED type talks, but somehow, the format worked...maybe it was something in that tasty and ridiculously healthy cuisine they kept feeding us...and the free coffee certainly helped. I came away from the event with my brain absolutely stuffed full with new learning and with an appetite to learn more and more importantly to ACT!

Moore's Law
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The first day was all about setting the scene and ensuring each and everyone of use understood the concept of exponential change and what the ramifications of this change will be for every one of us. Kaila Corbin (who made this event happen), kicked us off with lesson in exponential change. Exponential change was often exemplified by the concept of Moore's Law which is based on Intel founders prediction that computing power would double in power every year and would half in price and size (or something like that) and thereby providing a handy example that is symbolic of the exponential technological change we are experiencing. Moore's Law is something that I have often quoted, so whilst this wasn't a new concept, what I did take away from Kaila's talk was the realisation about how the vast majority view the trajectory of development and resulting change. If you look at the graph at the top and imagine you are standing on the "you are here" dot and looking backward. The slope is insignificant, and by looking back, there is nothing to suggest that the trajectory will change, thereby lulling us into  the notion of gentle change, change that can make you feel like you a skipping through a field of daisies, the change is visible, at times its exciting and other time's pretty disappointing in it's glacial nature. However if you turn around and look forward, with a knowledge of the principles that underpin exponential change, you are hit, smack bam in the face by a sudden acceleration that results in a trajectory that appears damn near vertical! Unprepared, and it could feel like chaos, more prepared, I reckon you might more likely experience amazement and ultimately be more ready benefit from the down right bonkers rate of change.

Along with this intro to exponential change and many examples of it (think Uber, Tesla, Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence) the first day also set the scene for ensuring we approach all this technical whizz-bangery with empathy and ethics. Basically we can use all of this stuff for bad and selfish means, or we can use these developments for the good of humankind, as Nathaniel Calhoun asked us - what impact do you want to make on society?

The three days were jam-packed with lightbulb moments and technological takeaways. There is no way I can do it justice here, so here are just a few that stuck with me:

"Re-spect abundance... If you look again you might see that there enough resources for everybody" - Tiago Mattos stressed the idea that whilst we might have been plundering our Earth's resources that if we harness technology in a positive way it can lead to abundance for all.

"Technology allows us to be more human" - David Roberts flipped the notion of us all being bereft as a result of being replaced by robots in our workplace, we can see it as an opportunity to be freed from tedious repetitive jobs and to have more time. Of course that does also beg the question asked by Kathryn Myronuk - what will life look like when 80% of our work is automated? And I kept thinking how will we then make money? I keep clinging to the rather romantic notion that this may lead to a modern day renaissance...just don't ask me how we will fund it.

There were other less scary concepts to think about, I particularly like the idea of bitcoin and blockchain and the way that it allowed for things like mircopayments, allowing to bypass advertisers and companied to simply pay micro amounts, say 10c, to read an article. "Imagine our browser had digital currency built into it. A simple click & a micropayment goes directly to the original creator." said Mandy Simpson. Imagine how this could allow for individuals to flourish by cutting out giants such as Amazon or Facebook. 

There was also a lots (and I mean A LOT) of talk about self-driving and electric cars, this was combined with Uber and the concept of "uberisation". Basically the message was that we will all be in driverless, electric cars before we know it, and we will probably access vehicles as and when we need them. As stated by Amin Toufani, it will be about "access instead of ownership". Brad Templeton warned that we should not underestimate the level of disruption electric/driverless cars will cause - "Ownership, parking, real estate, energy, retail, food, medical… Just some of the industries self-driving cars will disrupt".

Health was another area that will see massive disruption. Raymond McCauley terrified and excited us with the potential impact of biohacking - "By 2022, sequencing a human genome will be cheaper than flushing a toilet. That’s so cheap it’s almost free". Basically stating that in less than 10 years our ability to "fix" by sequencing human genomes will be a viable option for many. If you could produce a child that was immune to influenza, immune to HIV, could be born without Downs Syndrome, would you do it?? I experienced massive internal ethical debates after this session. We also heard from Michael Gillam about the potential for exponential improvement of health advice around the corner, with the use of IBM's Watson in medicine we have "not just the mind of one doctor taking care of you, but the minds of 7 billion doctors taking care of you".  Now that's got to be better than my one vaguely interested GP.

And of course it kept coming back to the idea that all of this technological can do damage or can do good, depending on how we, the humans, harness it. As Ramez Naam so eloquently (and terrifyingly) stated - "We’re in a race - how fast we screw up our planet and how fast we innovate with these new technologies".

So what does this all mean for education?

Well for one, I feel like each and every session reinforced that we as a nation are doing one of two things:

The first group are sticking their heads in the sand by thinking that education (and probably everything else) won't or doesn't really need to change. Think back to that early image I created where people were standing on the "we are here" dot looking backwards. These are the people in education who protect the status quo, who think BYOD, makerspaces and a bit of coding will equip our young people for gently evolving future. And I fear A LOT of our schools are exactly in this place and space.

The second group of people are pretty much who I have been hanging with (up until I attended this pesky event ;-), a growing number of educators who are trying new approaches, enjoying Blue Sky High thinking. They are the schools exploring knocking down walls, exploring project based learning, integrated studies, self-directed learning time, STEM and STEAM initiatives. These are the educators who are aware that the world is changing and who are exploring innovation from within the still largely traditional enabling constraints of our primary and secondary schools. An increasing number of educators are in this space and this is exactly where we need to be....for now.

What I now realise is that second scenario is a good one for the very short term only. It is a scenario that relied on the idea of a qualified teacher being optimal, a physical school being necessary and the notion of a localised curriculum and qualification being relevant. After the three days at SingularityU I now no longer believe any of these things can be relied on as a "enabling constraint" for more than the next 10 years, 15 max. Sue Suckling (Chair of NZQA) set the scene when she stated - "The day of the qualification is over. The era of verification is coming". Now when the CHAIR of NZQA states that the very idea of a qualification is numbered we need to sit up listen. Consider this. One of the main reason children attend school until 18 (aside from it's obvious appeal as a free baby-sitting service) is to gain a qualification. What if the whole concept of a localised curriculum and qualification disappeared, would there be the same compulsion to remain in school? Combine that with the reality that access to the Internet and increasingly engaging, sophisticated online learning options become available we are no longer going to be able to lure students in by our ability to teach them anything they can't get online. And I am not just talking hokey MOOCs and Khan Academy, I am talking training with NASA experts and leaders from all fields from across the world. Who knows what the future holds when you combine this with AI and VR. You could be walking around NASA, learning alongside astronauts from the comfort of your home. And basically you can translate this to any field.

At one point during the summit I had an absolute lightbulb moment. Here we are with people stressing about local educational developments - how we can evolve NCEA, sticking antiquated exams online, worrying that COOLs will bring about terrifying change. And all we are doing is panicking about the sideshows, getting distracted by the local developments. We are standing on that "we are here" dot, kidding ourselves that the gentle incline we are standing on will continue ahead of us. If we use the "horse to cars" analogy, I can't help feeling we are painting wings on a pony when we should be building a freakin' Tesla. We need to be thinking beyond the bricks and mortar and the local curriculum and qualification and start thinking about how we can harness each and every learning opportunity beyond our classroom walls, whether it be out in a forest, in a local business or in a virtual landscape. We need to think about how we can completely revise this concept of a school or at least this concept of a physical school. As Jane Gilbert often reminds me, we need to come back to the big question of "what is education for?" and go from there. I was only half joking when I tweeted the following:

But seriously, if we want to do this thing and we want education (and educators) in NZ to be relevant beyond the 10-15 year window we might have, we need start thinking outside the box and most definitely outside this thing we call school!

Innovation: doing the same things better
Disruption: doing new things that make the old things obsolete.

Basically our days of "innovation" being enough in education are numbered. I suspect we might experience disruption sooner than we think. Whether we want it or not. Let's stop seeing the "we are here" as a destination and recognise it for what it really is....a bloody exciting starting point!!


  1. Well said Claire.. couldn't agree more...

    Kind regards

  2. Great post Claire. I can understand where you are coming from in regards to disruption, but I wonder if there is a need to develop a clear and ethical vision associated with this? Not all disruption is automatically good? Apologies if I have misread the discussion.

    1. Maybe I needed to highlight this more in the ed part of the discussion "Basically we can use all of this stuff for bad and selfish means, or we can use these developments for the good of humankind, as Nathaniel Calhoun asked us - what impact do you want to make on society?". All the more reason we need to be thinking beyond innovation and doing so through a lens of empathy and ethics, hence the need to also come back to the big question - what is education for??

  3. Thanks for sharing a great summary, Claire.

    I was grateful for the 'heads up' that I was receiving from the Twitter feed, but your post has allowed me a greater insight. You have made me more determined to keep pushing the boundaries in my teaching and ensure that I am continuing to explore how we can focus on more integrated project based learning, self directed learning and the development of soft skills. It can be frustrating at times to do this as we are always pushing against the current industrial, institutional constraints. I am convinced that the change to our pedagogy needs to be happening right from the early primary years (where I am currently teaching.)

    I am now over half way through the Mind Lab's Postgraduate Certificate in Applied Practice (Digital & Collaborative Learning) This study has challenged me, and made me more determined to disrupt the way that we currently educate our tamariki, given the exponential rate of change that they (and we) are to experience in their lifetimes.

    Keep up the Blue Sky High thinking, and just as importantly, keep sharing your reflections. It's empowering for the growing number of educators in this space to know that there are others on the same waka.

  4. Great summary and insights Claire! It was and is a 'head-spinner' when you start to think re the implications for schooling....excitement and challenge neatly woven in an 'exponential wrapping' - Sue Suckling's comments were "GOLD" for us.

  5. Bloody fantastic! Love your insight and synopsis. Thank you...beam me up!

  6. A real thought provoker for me were your innovation and disruption meanings-thank you for making me go back and reflecting further on my own thinking

  7. Very interesting Claire, thanks for sharing all of this. However, as the responsible adults in our world of wonderfully creative teenage people should we be asking questions about how we can support young minds to be able to learn and think critically, nurture them as people, provide tools to help them evaluate the reliability and validity of all this information, support them to work collaboratively, valuing individual differences and opinions, guide them on a path of empathy...allowing world problems to be identified and solved collaboratively....this I believe is a human thing. Call me old fashioned if you like, but we cannot loose sight of the critical factor of humanness in all of this.

    1. Interesting you had this response, it wasn't my intention ti suggest anything less. Our humanness, ethics and empathy is central to any technological development being positive. And I agree adults will and should continue to have a role in shaping our teenagers, it is more that we cannot assume that the context in which we do that will resemble what we define as school for much longer. What I was trying to get across was that we (teachers/schools) might remain relevant through innovation in the short term, I just don't believe we can rely on that in the longterm. And I don't believe that means we lose humanness, just a complete reimagining of the concept of formal schooling and qualifications. As David Roberts said, technology can allow us to be more human.

    2. Can't help thinking all of this would be a great debate/wicked problem to put to our students?! Man, we live in interesting times!!

    3. Hi Claire - I'm working on a summary of my Singularity experience and it was great to read your blog and comments, and appreciate the common impact. They promised a paradigm shift and they delivered. My thought on your tweet is for school to develop as an ecosystem for learning for our students, staff, families and whanau.

  8. Marshall McLuhan was indeed a visionary - classroom without walls!

  9. Thanks Claire, this post went a long way to ease the frustration of not being at the summit myself..

  10. Taking the notion of teaching cyborgs to a whole new level! I watch my just turned 7 year old working on minecraft and the self-directed/globally connected learning she does using YouTube and the chats and collaborating in teams within minecraft domains and I'm beginning to realise it's a brave new world. And that's just the teenie tiny tip of the iceburg of what is being shared here!

  11. Hi Claire - thank you for this rundown! And I see you're preaching mainly to the converted here! I wish more schools operated like yours. I wish my kids were at yours - with the will and capability to adapt and disrupt the way you and an avalanche of others describe. I see these changes gradually filtering into Y1-10, (although after a lovely project & experiment-filled science year, my Y9 had to cram a cheat-sheet of science facts to sit the standard end of year exam). Isn't the elephant in the room standardised NCEA in silo subjects & the resulting grades that qualify entry to tertiary? How do you think high schools get around that starting today?

  12. Hi Claire and other readers...
    I was not fortunate enough to be at the summit but one question on my mind is understanding the effect of the pace of change on social cohesion and the already fragile consensus about what ‘good’ education looks like? How can policy and educational leaders help to influence and shape the debate to be as constructive as possible? What about the challenges on the profession to ‘keep up’ with research into what is working (or not)? How can we make sound judgments about what course to follow or to promote as the pace of change increases and we find it harder and harder to measure and validate approaches to education? What is the ethical approach educational leaders should take around adopting or promoting new ideas and innovations in this ever-changing environment?

    I am concerned about the social divide becoming greater as the consensus around what good education looks like erodes as more ideas, thoughts and innovations emerge and compete with one another for resources and opportunity. I can hear ever greater calls for different 'types' of schools to be available for parents to choose from and that schools, politicians and officials will come under pressure to respond to an ever-increasing variety of positions around what schools should ‘do’ and how schools should ‘be’ in the next 30-50 years.

    Will we have – ala Brexit and Trump – a backlash against evidence informed discourse, a lack of trust and belief in experts as the ‘experts’ themselves argue with one another about what is the best approach? Will those with resources and influence push for the type of schooling they think is going to be best for their children and how will those with less influence or resources respond to the ‘establishment’ telling them what is right for their children? Will we have – even more than now – an ‘anything goes’ approach to education with more and more private and charter and home schools set up promoting their own particular brand and approach to education as the best one?

  13. Hi Claire.

    Thanks for sharing your experience of the summit. I wasn't able to make it this time, but I'm really interested to hear what others have taken away.

    I was surprised and pleased at how many people from education roles were at the summit. I really like some of the huge ideas you throw around in your write up, especially the comment "We need to be thinking beyond the bricks and mortar and the local curriculum and qualification and start thinking about how we can harness each and every learning opportunity beyond our classroom walls, whether it be out in a forest, in a local business or in a virtual landscape."

    What's next for some of these ideas from your perspective?

    warm regards

    Steve Fitzhugh


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