University of the future – A Knowledge Café at Regent’s

Yesterday I had the exquisite pleasure of attending the first of David Gurteen’s new series of open Knowledge Cafés.

The event took place in the surreally beautiful oasis of Regent’s University London, which I approached at dusk with the sense of entering a DreamWorks version of a wizard’s boarding school, replete with wild and ancient vegetation, a wide moat and wrought iron gates. Regent’s is London’s only independent, not-for-profit university, with a declared mission to develop tomorrow’s global leaders.

Billedresultat for regents university london aerial view
An oasis of learning
- aerial view of the university and the surrounding Regent's Park in the summer.

For the uninitiated, David Gurteen is one of the great masters of conversational leadership and his Gurteen Knowledge Café consists of a 10-minute input on a selected topic to set of three consecutive, informal conversations in different groups which are finally merged in an all-inclusive circular discussion. I have previously shared my thoughts on the difference between David’s concept to the more strict demands of my own speciality, Cooperative Learning in education in Co-Creative Conversation deconstructed: Comfy Café or outcome-driven classroom?

Read more about the connections later: KM: education for the 21st century, written for the Ark Group’s blog KM Insights.

Yesterday’s topic was “What knowledge, skills and/or capabilities should be prioritised for learners at universities in the 21st Century?” and the prompt was given by Peter Sharp, an Oxford trained historian with a PhD in Knowledge Management who has just contributed a chapter to the book University of the Future which gave our café its title. Given my firm conviction that Knowledge Management has a lot to offer education I was extremely curious.

… the reason our young people come across as slightly un-formed in relation to life is precisely because they don’t have such opportunities to mirror themselves in other human beings in that meaningful way

The crowd was as you would expect at such a prestigious venue: Movers and shakers, high level professionals and executives from the business sector, leaders in education from various more or less well-known universities and colleges, researchers and lecturers, authors, entrepreneurs (or both, as in the case of Mike Southon, who is an author and an entrepreneur).

Tea poured: David Gurteen introduces the Knowledge Café.

So, aside from the fact that I learn from everything David does (or perhaps, more so, the way he does it) I had no choice but to take the trip down to London: My recent work with the Confidence & Cooperation intervention to drive widening participation has been thought-provoking to say the least, and my development of the Co-Creative Conversation (a stringent version of the Knowledge Café), to investigate student engagement at University of Roehampton has refocused my interest in tertiary education.

Peter Sharpe in action.

Peter’s introduction (presented on slides so obviously hand drawn that I thought they were generated by some fancy piece of software I had never heard of) recapped how the landscape of university education is changing rapidly: Education as a consumer product, changing student expectations, tradition and values versus tech (e.g. artificial intelligence and social media), fear of increased unemployment and social and economic division, more borderless organisations and rapidly changing skill requirements – to name a few.

There is no way I can do any kind of justice to the three sequential conversations I attended last night, but I do want to share a couple of highlights – A principal one being the pleasure of having confirmed that there are very intelligent, committed people in positions where they can actually make a difference.

Conversation #1: The big picture and the broken frame

One such individual was a gentleman from the City of London whose main concern was the lack of problem-solving skills he saw in the young workforce. Everyone at my table were able to second that, and we quickly broadened the range of desirable skill sets to include emotional intelligence and collaboration as crucial elements of the curriculum. One young and conscientious leader from a London University explained how his leadership team was now developing a new pedagogy using a business version of the LEGO foundation’s “Learning through play” doctrine.

Being a Dane, I can't help popping this image in.

The upshot was that real live encounters inspire and engage and that simulations don’t. Honestly, how many business plans can you write for businesses you know will never exist, before you tire? Hands-on contact with the real world of work and giving “soft skills” priority as learning outcomes seemed to the table to be the optimal solution. But having been for so long exposed to the vicissitudes of the UK education system, I know for a fact that doing what is optimal, or even what is necessary, is close to impossible. The pressure to provide measurable results dominate every single decision and forces leadership teams everywhere into a Masada-level siege mentality.

… the problem is not just the aforementioned systemic problems: The other elephant in the room is the students themselves …

I sat there quietly thinking that if most schools fear to engage with a relatively simple in-class initiative such as Cooperative Learning, which demonstrably facilitates a range of soft skills and yields top tier test results, they will certainly not be engaging with the complexities of involving local businesses any time soon – as far as I can tell from the responses to my initiative on Participatory Budgeting in schools (everyone loves it, no-one will touch it), the political leaders of this country have made meaningful change impossible. (I actually apologised to my companions for my rather negative contributions, as I do now to the reader. But don’t give up, there’s a lightbulb moment at the end of the tunnel).

Conversation #2: Gumption in all the wrong places

Conversation number two involved the aforementioned Mike Southon and the publisher of “University of the future” where Peter Sharp’s contribution was included. Mike quickly dispelled my dark mood by bluntly stating that he was a hopeless optimist and that everything was actually going to be okay; it’s hard to be sour when you’re chuckling inside. We then all went on to pin down his word “gumption,” which was summoned up as “initiative, entrepreneurship, self-reliance, courage.”

“No, we can’t let students talk about personal things, they will break down and say all sorts, and then we have to fill out tons of safeguarding paperwork.”

– A secondary school’s response to introducing conversations as a teaching tool

Because the problem is not just the aforementioned systemic problems: The other elephant in the room is the students themselves. Passivity, helplessness, and the wrong mindset for education. As one lecturer said, “I just don’t feel they value what I have to give.” That’s not a conducive working environment for anybody who went into teaching to inspire students.

Mike, ever positive, reminded us to set this bleak perspective against all the successful young self-learners whose main resource is YouTube, rather than school. I certainly know a couple of high school boys with lots of gumption when it comes to commerce and trading, tactical and strategic planning, entrepreneurship and impact assessment in virtual worlds on their PS4, or vitriolic debates on social media, and rather less gumption when it comes to studying. But the negatively-minded riposte here was of course that all this positive energy is facilitated by a designed-to-stimulate- fast-food package with no real consequences for the participant.

Billedresultat for restart game

Online engagement strikes me as a mirage and some did indeed suggest that it’s quite a different matter to transfer this engagement to lived existence, where patience is a certain requirement and fiasco with no reset button is certainly likely. At some point, I shared a little story from a high school, where I proposed training resilience by letting students discuss personal challenges with their peers in carefully scaffolded group sessions: “No, we can’t let students talk about personal things, they will break down and say all sorts, and then we have to fill out tons of safeguarding paperwork.” And that was the end of that. Not only is the education system broken, but so are the children it’s supposed to support, it seems. I have already written extensively about the recent mental health survey in universities and hardly need to mention that “emotional intelligence” seemed to creep up everywhere.

Conversation #3: Just tick the box

My final table conversation returned to the world of work and work readiness, featuring, among others, a CEO and a commodity research specialist from a global corporation, both of whom had a rather vested interest in universities not producing incompetent babies, and a leader from another local university who was working hard not to produce more of them. He shared an incredible story that should give us all pause to think: In order to enforce accountability, students at his institution must manually timestamp when they enter a lesson. To stop them from dallying into the lesson half an hour late, their attendance does not count if they timestamp more than 10 minutes after the lesson has formally begun.

The university of the future?

Here’s the story: A student comes into his lecture 12 minutes late, and asks if it will count towards his attendance if he stamps in. When the lecturer reiterates the rules, the student shrugs, turns around and walks out. Because the point of going to university not to learn, but to rack up attendance points. Go figure: In an education system whose objective is to simulate that it is educating, the objective of the students has become to simulate that they study. Who would have thought? You can imagine that a pervasive theme throughout these conversations was, “what’s actually going on in the minds of those kids?”

Open plenary: this is the end …

A small side note for those who, like me, specialise in facilitation: David made the important point that the intention behind pulling up the chairs to form a circle is not the usual “groups report back” but actually a continuation of the conversations in a broader format. (More on the cons and pros of this unregulated approach through the lens of a diehard educationalist here).

Many points were raised, which included the lack of motivation to make change among high-level leaders, the need for attentive stillness, using social media to engage students, critical thinking in the world of fake news, balancing research and teaching, and the problems of league tabling, to name a few. But the one that to me was fundamental (and, it seems, to all universities across the country) is: What is wrong with our students? Why are they so disengaged? Why do so many of them have mental health issues? Why are they so incompetent? Why do so few of them showing initiative? Why do they come across as at once megalomaniac and yet so supremely vulnerable to pressure and critique that a mere B in a test paper results in a mental breakdown? (True story, sadly). To me, all our brilliant initiatives regarding curriculum and pedagogy seemed a moot point if we don’t understand what’s going on with the young adults we are supposed to be teaching.

It was actually Mike Southon who flicked the switch for my lightbulb moment, when he shared how the most inspiring discussions he ever had was was with his own diametrically opposite co-author, a man just as introvert, serious and deliberative as Mike is extrovert, playful and impulsive. Their conversations are amazing and enlightening precisely because of this vast gap between them.

Could it be the reason our young people come across as slightly un-formed in relation to life might precisely be that they don’t have opportunities to mirror themselves in other human beings in that meaningful way that Mike described? What’s the purpose of a mirror, after all? That you look at yourself, and check if there is anything about you that needs to be refined. Without the mirror, without the reflection of the “others,” without ever having to respond to all the challenges, demands, rejoinders, ripostes, feedback, and questions from other people, you will always remain a sketch – a mere outline of a human being, untried and untested, passively waiting to let yourself be coloured in by any (online) fad or trend that grips your attention.

I am pleased to say that all of my table partners recognised how the open explorative nature of the Knowledge Café might help unpick questions that can really only be answered by speaking with people we don’t understand.

My suggestion is that we all (bleeding-edge educationalists over 40 especially) leave our filter bubble and invite some young people to the next café.

Conversation has never been more important. Life never as exciting.

David has Knowledge Cafés lined up at EY, Westminster Business School, Deloitte, CILIP, House of Commons Library and the NHS London Leadership Academy. If your organisation would like to play host to a café, do get in touch. His next Café is scheduled for 23 April at the British Library.

Some further reading is the business end of

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