Changing how kids learn: The Mind Lab and the future of education in NZ

PETER MEECHAM/stuff.co.nz

The year was 2013. YouTube was getting bigger as demand grew for video, Facebook was capitalising on the increasing popularity of mobile and while still in its infancy, wearable technology was already starting to transform the way people experienced the world.

But what hadn't been following the same upward trajectory for some time was the creativity of kids coming out of high school. Great at using computers, playing Angry Birds and taking selfies, the bright minds of the future failed when it came to innovating and inventing with technology.

There would be few more familiar with this than entrepreneur and education futurist Frances Valintine. In 1998 she co-founded the Media Design School, a tertiary provider of creative and digital technology training, and after it was bought by the United States-based Laureate International Universities in 2011, she got the chance to visit schools around the world.

She saw that diminishing capability among students was a worldwide issue and the culprit was the school system. While many primary schools had enquiry-based learning and digital learning was starting to come through, high schools were still dominated by rows of desks, siloed subjects and isolated, memory-based learning. For Valintine, it didn't make any sense.

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"No one's value is what they retain in their brain anymore. It's nonsense to think our value as an individual is what we can remember.

"The value has gone from being what you can memorise to actually, what can you do with information? But we hadn't changed the school system."

So in October 2013, Valintine launched The Mind Lab in Auckland to connect students with the real world and to change the way schools approached education.

Frances Valintine has been in the education sector for more than 20 years.
PETER MEECHAM/FAIRFAX NZ

Frances Valintine has been in the education sector for more than 20 years.

The light-filled, colourful open space had no workbooks, no whiteboards, no data projectors. Instead, students went in, were given a problem and asked to collaborate to figure out solutions.

Soon afterwards, Valintine was confronted by another problem: the teachers needed to be brought up to speed, and then kept at speed. With the average teacher being middle-aged in a system that doesn't reward further learning, it had been a long time since many of them had updated their qualifications. It also meant they needed something extra to stay motivated.

In July 2014, The Mind Lab launched its 32-week postgraduate programme with Unitec in digital and collaborative learning. Expecting 20 students in the first cohort, they got 120.

From there, the organisation just kept growing. Along with the original lab in Auckland, there are Mind Lab locations in Gisborne, Wellington and Christchurch and satellite labs for teachers in Whangarei, Rotorua, Whanganui and Manurewa in South Auckland. Last year, 40,000 kids around the country experienced the lab and every 16 weeks, 350 teachers go through the teacher programme.

In January 2016, Tech Futures Lab launched as a sister initiative to The Mind Lab, designed to help businesses and executives understand the present and prepare for the future.

As The Mind Lab's popularity skyrocketed, so too did the accolades: New Zealand CIO Engaging Youth in ICT Award 2014, Talent International Unleashed Award for Best Start Up in Asia Pacific 2014 (judged by Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak), NEXT Woman of the Year in education 2015, Westpac Women of Influence award in innovation 2015.

Modest about the recognitions, Valintine says awards are a morale boost for a team that's tackling "one of the biggest challenges of our time".

Frances Valintine is confident The Mind Lab will hit its goal of educating 180,000 children in five years' time.
Peter Meecham

Frances Valintine is confident The Mind Lab will hit its goal of educating 180,000 children in five years' time.

"To get the odd person who comes forward and says, 'Hey, look, what you're doing is extraordinary', it's a great feeling."

Much of the success of The Mind Lab came down to being at the right place, at the right time, Valintine says. People were looking for something different, student engagement was dropping and teachers were finding it incredibly difficult to get kids excited about what they were learning at school.

It also helped that the Next Foundation, an investor in philanthropic education and environmental projects, provided 800 teacher scholarships last year. This year, it has upped the number of scholarships to 1350, helping to remove one of the biggest barriers to further education.

The world was, and still is, going through unprecedented change that no amount of textbooks can prepare the next generations for. Technologies that used to take years to develop have gone on super speed dial and entire classrooms are now using virtual and augmented realities and 3D printing as a matter of course.

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Valintine predicts changes to the education sector will hit their stride in about six years, when the 12-year-olds of today's modern learning environments enter the traditional lecture rooms of universities.

The value of university degrees will be questioned when the same information that students are learning could potentially be accessed online for free from world experts and more companies become less interested in formal qualifications when hiring.

Instead, apprenticeships could come back with a vengeance. Learning will have a lifelong focus. Companies will want divergent thinkers with depth who can work well with others. Cookie cutter types need not apply.

Numeracy and literacy will be more critical than ever but the important difference will be context - students learning the why and how, not just the what.

"Given every industry in the world right now has been changed by computing, the capability we need our kids to have is problem-solving," Valintine says.

And along with that, they need to be individual thinkers who pursue innovation, whether that's through entrepreneurship or in emerging industries to keep New Zealand competitive on the global stage.

Take two of New Zealand's top exports: meat and dairy. Stem cell technology is already producing meat, albeit expensively, that tastes almost like the real thing. With no need for vast amounts of land, water or dead cows, it could change the face of the industry.

Synthetic milk, made in the lab from yeast, is due to be on supermarket shelves this year and is virtually indistinguishable from cow's milk. It looks the same, it tastes the same, it has the same proteins, fats, sugars, vitamins and minerals - all without the cholesterol, lactose and bacteria, meaning it would be healthier and have a much longer shelf-life. It's also claimed it'll be much cheaper than the real deal.

If scientists can make the same products that our economy relies on, what then for New Zealand? Tourism may be "flavour of the month" right now but tourism isn't going to keep talent in the country. If this is all our country relies on for its main industries, we're going to lose our best and brightest, Valintine warns.

"What's going to keep them here? The industries that will are the ones that are scalable, digital, global, they've got all the appeal of being highly agile, probably software-based.

Most industries have gone on this journey of incredible change as a result of technology for some time. The education system has just taken a bit longer to let go of the past.

"In a way, education was sort of at the last frontier of sitting back like a stronghold saying, 'We don't want to make changes'."

For as long as she can remember, Valintine has felt like she's been on a mission. But growing up on a farm in Hawera, Taranaki, she never imagined she would be leading the charge on something so transformative.

Her own education background strays slightly off the beaten track. As a child, she went to a rural school that had just 80 students. She moved to Auckland when she was in third form, or year 9 nowadays, starting at a school on the North Shore. She attended four different high schools in total and made it through a week at university before deciding it wasn't for her.

She loved photography - she studied it at school and used to work at Camera House developing photos and taking Santa pictures in shopping malls. It was through photography that she got into the fashion industry, leaving New Zealand for London at 17.

From there, she went to Turkey before the Gulf War sent her back home. She got involved with education, starting with bringing international students into New Zealand in the early 90s. In 2013 she went to the University of Melbourne to get her masters degree in education management.

Today, as The Mind Lab's chairwoman, she spends about 20 hours a week researching the effects of technology and data on how business are run, how industries operate and what this means for the future.

It's a tough job staying on top of things but then again, education isn't an industry people get into for the money.

"Once you're in and you can see the impact you make, like when you see a child suddenly have that 'ah ha' moment, and they suddenly feel more excited about what they're doing, I think that's such a significant motivation. You see it and you don't want to leave that."

It's something far more innate that's brought Valintine to where she is now, though. On the farm in Taranaki she was always tinkering in the shed, at school she filled her spare time with art, music and sculpting and in London, she was intrigued by the technology behind the making of garments. From 2009 to 2012, Valintine was a finalist in World of Wearable Art - something she hasn't had the time to do in recent years but which she sorely misses.

"I'm still the person who goes around and puts together paperclip curtains. I still have the piece of me that really loves the experience of taking a blank canvas and putting something on it. And I think education does that too.

"It sparks something in the kids' brains and often those kids who are academically seen as failures, suddenly they light up and they're putting things together and they want to create, and I think that's the bit that so many students miss out on."

This year is the year of virtual reality, drones are all the rage and incredible developments are being made into autonomous vehicles. Next year? Who knows. The scope into the future is getting shorter as technological advancements get faster, but Valintine's goals for The Mind Lab are crystal clear.

By the end of this year, the plan is to grow from eight centres to 12. In the next five years, they want to teach 180,000 children and 10,000 teachers. Valintine is confident The Mind Lab will reach those goals as the hunger for a more contextualised, modernised education keeps increasing.

That hunger is a constant in a world that's rapidly changing and it doesn't seem to be going away any time soon.

School holiday programmes will run for kids aged 7-12 years in Auckland, Gisborne, Wellington and Christchurch. To find out more visit themindlab.com

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