A Moonshot in Education Innovation: Amsterdam Goes Bottoms Up

Bottom line is that we simply don't know the future, and bureaucratic and highly regulated education systems are inherently inapt to respond to imminent learning opportunities and other emerging circumstances connected to the digital age.
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In collaboration with Judith Fischer

In a world where sci-fi writers are struggling to keep up with the fast-moving realities of the exponential age, education reform inadvertently lags far behind. This raises the question whether today's children are educated in a relevant, future oriented way. Considering the fact that the core of school curricula were set up and developed in the industrial age, the adequacy of traditional education systems and curricula are being debated around the world. Indeed technical developments go so fast that we can be certain that certain parts will be completely obsolete 10 or 20 years down the road.

Peter Diamandis -- visionary author of Abundance -- articulated it well:

"Should kids learn a second language ... in a world of instant translation? And, should they ever memorize any fact... in a world of ubiquitous Google? Will college even exist in 10 years' time?."

21st-century skills address some of these challenges, but are also not a panacea to all ills. Bottom line is that we simply don't know the future, and bureaucratic and highly regulated education systems are inherently inapt to respond to imminent learning opportunities and other emerging circumstances connected to the digital age.

The increasing focus of national education systems on cognitive outputs and testing has encouraged teachers to teach to the test -- and is a topic of fierce debate in many hemispheres. This approach, inevitably, goes at the cost of time dedicated to other important educational objectives such as personality development, social skills, critical thinking, humanities. In many ways, we can refer back to Hannah Arendt all over again. Her critique of education from 1954 -- the essay titled "The Crisis of Education" -- remains as massively important and true today as it was back then: learning is not the same as education and much of today's education misses common sense. She wrote:

Insofar as the child is not yet acquainted with the world, he must be gradually introduced to it; insofar as he is new, care must be taken that this new thing comes to fruition in relation to the world as it is.

Critiques like these may not be new, they are ubiquitous and are coming increasingly in crescendo from around the globe.

In the Netherlands, a country with an historically pluriform education landscape, there's a growing awareness of the lack of education innovation -- at primary, secondary and tertiary levels. Acutely aware of the inability of existing schools to enact radical reforms, the city council of Amsterdam took a radical decision. It embarked on an interesting, unprecedented endeavor whereby it deliberately turned to the crowd to help find ways to innovate the city's school system. It did so not only out of despair; it willingly hands over a level of control and shares responsibility, considers the demand-side and benefits from the collective brainpower and creativity of Amsterdam's huge creative community -- all free of charge.

Preliminary results of the crowd-sourcing exercise are staggering. Amsterdam's open call for proposals has so far generated a total of 124 proposals for new schools by a series of groups and individuals. There's the proposal for a neighborhood school, a startup school, a hacking school and a "maker" school -- and many more. Innovation in abundance, in theory at least, albeit some more radical and revolutionary than others, and more or less likely to stand the test of time. Yet, all of them hugely propositional and inspiring.

If there were one proposal that I, Peter Diamandis and Hannah Arendt would likely embrace it is the school plan called "Little Amsterdam" (PLAN #86 KLEIN AMSTERDAM). The plan combines novel insights, related to blended and integrated learning, with tried and tested methods such as collaborative and authentic learning. "We really want to dissolve the wall between school and city life, but instead benefit from its riches and diversity to the max", says Eva Vesseur, director of the Amsterdam based Education Bureau. The team of five developers also plan to work in close collaboration with a range of city stakeholders, co-creating the curriculum with cultural and social stakeholders in the city and plan to house the school in existing urban infrastructure.

It has surrounded itself with a diverse range of partners and supporters that can help foster a culture of curiosity, innovation in its school and classrooms, including Google for Education, ShareNL and THNK Amsterdam School for Creative Leadership. The school has a hybrid, physical space that is meant to facilitate encounters between school life and city life in a safe environment. Being located in a multi-purpose place allows the school to ride the wave of the sharing economy. By marrying these elements into one school, a school is no longer an insular locus, physically and socially disjointed from its surroundings, but becomes a place the school reinforces the social tissue locally and makes learning relevant, dynamic and future-oriented. A dream of a school that is not just another brick in the wall, for sure.

The Amsterdam call is one of a kind, with a pioneering approach. Playfully called "the nursery," it adopts a competition set up, involving popular element through an online vote. In a process of 6 months, this trajectory eventually "incubates" 15 initiatives of which in 4 or 5 will actually see the light of day and become new schools that are fully state funded by September 2016. The initiative serves as a pilot for national reforms that are on the parliamentary roll further down the road.

Is this a shot in the dark, or a brilliant move carried out by the city of Amsterdam? It is too early to tell. Regardless, it is a unique and exciting experiment that should be followed closely.

Check out my recently published book about blended learning on Amazon. Moonshots in Education: Launching Blended Learning in the Classroom and our new website supporting teacher professional development.