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Interview with Frances Valintine

Andrew Patterson talks to Frances Valintine about a
tech ed initiative for pre-teens set to launch in Auckland

Posted in Business September 2, 2013 – 11:35am, Andrew Patterson

By Andrew Patterson

In a world where seemingly everything is ripe for disruption, education, as we know it, is on the cusp of a radical transformation.

When it comes to IT and technology, a new generation of students are increasingly challenging the status quo with both their understanding and their competency.

In fact, for the first time in history they actually know more about an entire subject at a relatively young age than their teachers and parents as this TED video graphically illustrates.

Not surprisingly, satisfying the insatiable appreciate many young people have for technology and being able to do so in a controlled environment is a challenge both parents and the school system continue to grabble with.

While 50 is the average age of IT secondary school teachers in this country, most are already well and truly on the back foot and have long since surrendered. They’re part of the more than 20% of the profession due to retire in the next 5-8 years, according to Ministry of Education figures.

A new approach to learning

Enter The Mind Lab; a new business initiative aimed squarely at addressing a need many will consider is becoming more acute by the day.

The new facility, set to open in Auckland in a few weeks, is designed to create an engaging space for primary and intermediate aged students to explore the world of technology in all its forms including robotics, electronics, gaming, design, coding and animation along with a vast array of interactive work stations all under the watchful eye of a team of trained teaching specialists.

The new venture is the brainchild of Frances Valintine, the original co-founder of the successful Media Design School based in Auckland. It aims to create a new approach to learning pitched at four to fourteen year olds – a demographic she believes will be at the heart of the next revolution in technology.

Undaunted by the challenge she faces satisfying the needs of an audience notoriously difficult to please, Valintine has actively recruited her two teenage sons in the design and layout of the new facility.

In close proximity to a huge expansion being undertaken by the University of Auckland in Newmarket on what was formerly the site occupied by Lion Breweries, The Mind Lab will be well positioned to cater for a growing cohort of youngsters who not only embrace technology but are completely fearless of it as well.

The idea

Valintine says she got the idea for the business after watching a two year old beating his older siblings in a game being played on an iPad.

“The idea for the Mind Lab has actually been a bit of a dream of mine for many years. What really spawned the idea was watching the age of students coming into the Media Design School dropping to high school leavers for the first time. They were coming in to pursue degrees. The capability they had in terms of technical skills was so much superior to what someone of a similar age group ten years earlier could demonstrate.”

“So I started going backwards, saying that if a 17 year old could have this type of capability, what does a 15 year old have, and what potentially could a ten year old do? I ended up going right back to two year olds, where I started seeing how incredibly savvy they were around technology and their ability to be totally adaptive. They could pick up an iPad or a phone and figure it out within moments, how to use it, how to unlock it, how to find the apps on it.”

“Once we got to touch screens and the iPad, a student or a child could pick up a device without any speech and without having any ability to read and write could actually interrelate with a screen. I think that changed the world, and that was just three years ago.”

A two tier world of technology

While children have enthusiastically embraced each stage in the technology revolution the education system has been must less responsive creating a two tier world for school students -the world of learning in the classroom and the world of technology generally on offer at home.

Innovations such as Kahn Academy founded by former US hedge fund manager Sal Kahn and fully underwritten by the Gates Foundation now allow children to teach themselves subjects such as maths, science, economics and history for free using an engaging series of utube videos produced and voiced by Kahn himself.

In his excellent book “The One World School House” he argues that the whole idea behind Kahn Academy is to flip the classroom on its head so learning takes place at home and the classroom becomes a place for problem solving and discussion. Education experts call it ‘facilitated learning’ where the teacher instead becomes a facilitator.

Valintine says this was part of the catalyst that encouraged her to think about a new private sector opportunity. One that would embrace this new approach to engaged learning.

“I started looking globally at what people were doing, what age institutions were formally engaging with children and actually encouraging them to get under the bonnet, not just to use the technology, but to understand how to create things to actually go into the technology.”

“From the age of four, most kids are really adaptive, and are looking for more stimulation. If you bring learning into a fun engaging environment and take away forced learning, we could see that a four year old was very capable of picking up new skills. The Mind Lab really focusses on that age group between four and 14.”

“It does sound strange to be thinking about careers for an eight year old, but actually that period between the age of eight and 14 is when they’re identifying and defining their subject choices for their future. It’s actually a very short window and if they can understand the importance and relevance of some of those subjects then potentially that improves the chances of them making the right career choices later on..”

“Once they get beyond 14 they’re starting to deal with exams and they become part of the formal education system and their subjects from that point are fairly well defined.”

“What we’re hoping to do with The Mind Lab is actually getting students exposed to new skills, for example electronics or programming or new types of science, that may influence the subjects they take by the time they get to high school, and the subjects they take when they’re going into either NCEA or the Cambridge system.”

Addressing the digital divide

While creating a world of exploration is key to the success of the new venture, Valintine also recognises that not all children have equal exposure to technology in the first place.

“The question I often ask myself is how do all those other students out there in the marketplace get exposure to and really understand what a 21st century career looks like, if the only reference point they have is their immediate environment at school and their home life?”

“The Mind Lab will address that in two ways. Firstly, having students being able to come in after school and just look at and try out lots of different things — trying robotics and getting a taste of what they actually do. In the process of having fun and learning about robotics, they’re also improving their skills in maths and also learning about programming. Secondly, we’re going to cater for school groups as well, who can come in for a session for a morning, for an afternoon, for a full day and actually focus on areas that they perhaps cannot be delivered within a school environment.”

“If you look at a typical primary or intermediate school in New Zealand students are generally taught by an individual teacher, who is not a specialist. They are a generalist and they have to be by nature. So they are potentially missing the opportunity to be exposed to a range of specialist skills from teachers who do have technology skills for instance.”

“The Mind Lab actually gives that opportunity for a teacher to say: You know what, I don’t really know anything about science, or I don’t have a huge understanding of how you do electronics. Let’s go somewhere that does. We’re providing a very affordable access for those schools to come in.”

Learning overload?

While critics might argue that kids don’t have the chance to kids anymore as their world increasingly becomes one of technology overload every waking hour Valintine sees it differently.

“I think if you’re looking at technology, it is a tool, and it’s a tool that does many things. I hear a lot of people saying: My kids spend too much time at the computer. In many ways, the computer is an uber-tool and if they can use it in a way that they can create more time for themselves, because actually they can use it efficiently, it means they could be doing a large range of subjects based on one particular piece of hardware.”

“I do think that a lot of innovation comes from just giving children access to the most modern of tools, and in our case it’s a computer, which can also be a science lab as well as an electronics lab. They all come together into one device.”

“In a perfect world for me we would have elements of what we do going back into all schools. We’re trying to approach all of our classes using things you’d find in a typical home, so if you’re doing a science lab, it’s not all about going out and getting the very best of science equipment, it’s actually saying what could you do at home that would teach the principles of science in a fun way, where if you get to blow stuff up, then all the better. Then it becomes how could you take some of those elements back into a school environment?”

“For me, it’s really all about sharing and catering to an entire new generation of kids across New Zealand. So then it becomes how could we teach differently, how do we pose questions that kids will pick up and come back maybe with another question, not necessarily an answer. The school system right now is so focused on the answer, because you need the answer to pass the exam. If you’re looking at true innovation, it’s about saying this is one capability, how could I take this and push it further, and create another whole set of possibilities. That’s really what we’re trying to provoke, the thought behind the activity that then inspires them to take it further themselves.”

A global trend towards leaning by doing

The idea behind the venture isn’t a new one with a number of similar initiatives springing up around the world, particularly in the US.

But each country is developing its own model and Valintines says The Mind Lab is intended to reflect an amalgamation of ideas.

“I’ve looked at many models overseas, and seen what people are doing really well. Every country seems to have approached the concept slightly differently, often because there are fun ding variations in different markets. In Scandinavia they do great open learning environments; parts of Eastern Europe are the same while in the US they’re a lot more structured. But the underlying principles of all of them are the same, it’s about discovery. It’s getting kids excited and involved in an authentic learning process that they’re not necessarily seeing at school.”

“I think we want to be very clear what we’re not trying to– we don’t want kids coming in thinking they’re going to school. With the staff and team we’ve developed, we want them to wonder and to ponder. Those are the two words we’re really trying to push. We want kids coming and saying they wonder how that works, instead of just accepting that it works, and then to ponder how it could be done differently, how could we utilise this knowledge and do something different with it.”

“The convergence space between science technology and discovery is actually really interesting, because as these elements converge, that’s really where we’re going to get the innovations and pioneers of the future. If we can find a ten year old for instance, who’s wondering how science can fit with music and technology, we’re really going to start seeing some great new developments happening here. If they don’t get that exposure, it’s going to take a much greater leap of faith to get that kid across the line to understand how they could really make a difference.”

Talent spotting

At a time when NZ seems to be able to pick its future rugby talent at aged 10 more strategically than its entrepreneurial talent, The Mind Lab might well have the CEOs of technology companies including a visit in their schedule to talent spot their employees of the future.

“Over the last few weeks as word about the venture has got around I’ve been astounded by the number of 14 to 16 year olds, exclusively male I have to say, contacting me saying they’re outside the age group of The Mind Lab, but actually they’ve been developing apps for the last five years or they’ve got a robotics club they teach down the road in the weekends or they’re in a band jamming together but they all want to get involved.

“I think if you went back to those kids and followed their progress over the next five years I can see already they’re quite identifiable as early adopters and also entrepreneurs. They’re out there, they’re articulate and they’re utilising social media in a way that’s very positive.”

“This generation is so collaborative, they want to share, they’re very open about their ideas and they try to involve others. There’s so many wonderful things this generation brings, partially I think because of social media. They’re also a completely networked generation and it’s really enabled them to be able to share in a way where they can have their own voice. Even these young students who have contacted me already, they’re already showing signs of great things in the future. If we can find some more of those coming through The Mind Lab and perhaps single them out a little bit and actually really encourage them, and take away some of the barriers they’ll face in their journey, then we’ll be onto a good thing.”

NZ behind the curve in technology engagement

When it comes to teaching technology and innovation in the education sector, Valintine is adamant NZ is behind the curve globally and there’s plenty of catching up we need to do.

“I know we like to think we’re ahead of the curve in this area but in reality we’re not. Although we’re very ingenious when it comes to creative solutions, they also need to be substantial and they need to be commercialised, and they need to be taken to the world.”

“At the moment, we have great pockets of genius, and individuals who’ve actually made a difference, but I think we need a generation of a lot more people thinking innovatively, and willing to be more pioneering. I think if you’re looking globally, there are programmes in many countries where they’re trying to encourage entrepreneurship from a very early age, and trying to understand the business opportunities of the world. I don’t see that coming through; except in a few pockets throughout the country”.

“If a student is in a school or environment where they’re not getting that exposure, then by the time they have for many of them it’s actually too late. This is an early person’s game, you need to be early and that’s why I see The Mind Lab as playing an important part in that process of transformation for New Zealand.”

KEY FACTS

Founded: 2013
Opening: Late September this year
Location: Newmarket, Auckland
Sector: Education / Innovation
Staff: 8
Overship: Private
Website: www.themindlab.com

 

By |October 28th, 2013

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