Personalized lifelong learning for all. That’s the driving force behind the 9 Billion Schools movement, which was conceived with the recognition that every individual is uniquely different in their ability, interests, hopes and dreams. And all human beings on Earth – there’s projected to be about nine billion of us by 2050, in case you’re wondering what the significance of that number is – will flourish if they have access to lifelong learning opportunities that meet these diverse and ever-changing needs.
Lauren Della Bella and Dick Thomas are passionate leaders behind the 9 Billion Schools movement and co-authors of, 9 Billion Schools: Why the World Needs Personalized, Lifelong Learning for All. They are also both leaders at SHP, a nationally recognized architecture firm focused on learning spaces of all kinds. Lauren serves as the organization’s president, and Dick as the vice president of architecture. Together they are reimagining the global approach towards education and learning while inspiring discussion, innovation and action around this critical issue.
In this episode of the Leading Learning podcast, Jeff talks with Lauren and Dick about the key concepts behind the 9 Billion Schools movement as well as how space and technology are impacting the learning landscape.
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[01:36] – Highlighted Resource of the Week– a downloadable preview of the book, 9 Billion Schools: Why the World Needs Personalized, Lifelong Learning for All.
[02:04] – A preview of what will be covered in this podcast where Jeff interviews Lauren Della Bella and Dick Thomas, leaders of the 9 Billion Schools movement and co-authors of 9 Billion Schools: Why the World Needs Personalized, Lifelong Learning for All.
Jeff admits that he was first intrigued by this movement and the book when he received a very attention-grabbing promotional package. Below is a picture of him with his “Jeff Cobb University” pennant that was part of that package:
[04:14] – Introduction to Lauren and Dick.
[05:23] – You both are partners at SHP, an architecture firm based in Cincinnati. What inspired two architects to start this movement about learning? Lauren clarifies that she actually isn’t an architect but as the president of the organization, one of her major responsibilities is helping to envision what their future is going to look like. They work with an extensive number of education clients across K-12 and higher education and as they’re trying to understand what might be important to them in terms of their future, they felt they needed to do more research and knowledge development about what the future of education looks like. They realized that the future of education isn’t about what we’re doing today or the formal learning we’ve created in the Pre-K – 20 space, it’s really about how learning happens over a lifetime—and how to make that learning personalized over a lifetime in a way that can really affect an individual’s ability to flourish and have an impact on their overall human dignity. As designers and architects, Lauren says they sit in the space of design thinking all the time so they really felt they were the right people to take on this problem.
[08:10] – What is the meaning behind “9 Billion Schools”? Dick shares that 9 billion stems from the idea that in the year 2050, there will be just over 9 billion people on Earth. When they talked about the idea of personalized learning they thought it would be nice to figure out how to educate all of those 9 billion people.
[09:27] – Is there something fundamentally different about the environment we have now that’s such a critical difference than, say, 50 or 100 years ago? Why is this so important right now? Dick points out one of the first things we have to understand is this concept of change. The pace at which change is occurring in our lives has surpassed our ability to manage it as a human society. In a complex environment like this – infinitely more complex than we were 100 years ago – the need for education is absolutely critical. We need to be able to discern the proper solutions, otherwise we’re going to get run over by our own success in terms of creating technologies that will perhaps take over.
[11:24] – In the book, there is an emphasis on human dignity. Can you talk a bit more about how human dignity factors into this? Lauren shares a story of when she first started working out of college where she helped people in communities that didn’t have basic needs like indoor plumbing or electricity. She realized the only thing that separated her from the condition these people were living in is she had access to a high quality education. As we look across the problems we are dealing with in society, education isn’t necessarily the only answer but it is a big part of the answer. When we have the ability to educate ourselves and, not only gain knowledge but to understand what to do with that knowledge, it contributes to our own individual dignity and our ability to flourish as human beings. She admits it’s a passion for them and a big underlying premise behind the idea of 9 Billion Schools.
[13:56] – The book also dives into the idea of vitaegogy and Individual Flourishing Plans (IFP’s). Can you tell us more about those two concepts? Lauren explains how in the education world, we think about pedagogy as the teaching of children and we think about andragogy as the teaching of adults—so they coined the phrase vitaegogy as the idea of teaching the whole person across a lifetime. As previously mentioned, the pace of change is so phenomenal that the idea that we could go through school and learn everything that we would ever have to know is ridiculous. We have to constantly learn as things change around us and the need to put a framework around this is how vitaegogy was born. The IFP is really about taking ownership of this process and making it more actionable. We all learn, receive, and process information differently so with the IFP, the idea is to think of the best way for each person to learn, where they can get that learning, and how it’s going to take place over a lifetime (realizing this is going to be a moving target). The IFP is really about writing an action/strategic plan to figure out where these things are going to come from. Once we leave the safety of formal education we need to think about how we’re going to own it for the rest of our lives.
[17:10] – Dick adds that if you take the notion of flourishing plans and you extrapolate, you begin to see what impact that might have on the places that we encounter daily (restaurants, stores, etc.). You begin to see how perhaps you could even begin to make choices about the future and where you’re going to be/what you’re going to do on the basis of the flourishing plan and who can respond best to it. He says flourishing plans have enormous power if we were to unleash them going forward in all aspects our lives—and not just in the first 20-24 years—that era has passed. We need to be thinking about learning as a constant activity that helps each individual reach their own personal goals and aspirations.
[18:45] – The core idea that really strikes me is about the context, environment, or space of learning. So who is responsible for this? Who facilitates this and makes this happen? Based on what you’ve presented there is a role for really all parts of society—so basically any organization or entity that’s going to interact with human beings can better facilitate/architect learning environments that are going to help people flourish in the way they need to in our world. Is that correct? Dick explains that the notion of learning is not a 100% individualized experience. In an effort to support greater development to the human dignity, we all have a responsibility in advancing this mission of education for all. Otherwise we’re falling back into a culture of society that’s everyone for themselves. There’s an enormous obligation on everybody’s part to understand the value of education and to determine the best methods and processes for delivering that education as we go forward.
[21:30] – In chapter 15, Dick, you go through a number of scenarios of different spaces people could be in for learning (a restaurant, a place where people make things, etc.). Can you highlight one of those scenarios of people being in a space that helps them flourish from a learning standpoint (that’s different from our standard, formal conception of education)? Dick shares an example that actually wasn’t in the book and talks about a concept called Bon Voyage Café. This was a dining experience that was informed by augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technology so you could transport yourself to an environment that infused you with what was going on at that certain time in history and allowed you to experience it in a way that you could never do through any other means of education. Dick says he recently saw an ad for a group who is applying AR to the dining experience. This illustrates just how quickly some of these notions are becoming reality for us and beginning to advance this idea that we can learn anywhere. We should be thinking about our own responsibility to create those opportunities for ourselves and others.
[24:04] – Can you talk a little more about your perspective on technology and how it fits into this vision of 9 Billion Schools? Lauren acknowledges there’s no question that technology is influencing every aspect of our lives and it’s a huge influence in learning—and it will continue to be, and should be. The thing that she thinks everyone is struggling with is the idea of what happens when we can’t separate it from our human existence. The one thing technology can’t be is human so as we think about the learning that we engage in that is inherently human, it’s about how to marry the important things we need to get from the technology with how we as humans are able to use our emotion, empathy, and critical thinking skills—and not lose that. It would be a shame if all 9 billion of us were just sitting in front of computers and interacting with our screens rather than each other. Dick shares a quote he recently read by a technologist about AI that basically said they weren’t afraid of machines becoming more human but rather humans becoming more like machines. So although technology is certainly shaping our lives in ways it’s never done before, we can’t lose sight of the fact that we’re the ones creating it and we need to imbue it with as much of our humanity as we possibly can in order to manage it.
[27:44] – Lauren, you tackle the issue of automation in one of the chapters of the book and talk about the role community colleges could potentially be playing relative to that. What human beings need to learn, the substance of the learning, and how and why they need to learn is really being impacted by technology—how do we stay ahead of that in this 9 billion schools world? Lauren talks about the gap that’s starting to exist between the workforce and the end of someone’s college or high school career. As corporations/companies are grappling with how to fill that gap there has been the traditional kind of continuing education in organizations but now some are trying to build their own universities and creating credentialing and badging systems. We’re also seeing corporations hooking up with public universities and creating courses that are specific to their corporation through those universities. She really believes this is difficult because sometimes the institutions are just not flexible enough to adapt to the needs that exist. But she points out we do have infrastructure in this country through the community college system that is very flexible and adaptable which is an opportunity for us to find a way to cover these gaps—and we should see tremendous growth in that marketplace.
[30:37] – What else should our listeners know about 9 Billion Schools? Lauren shares that the idea behind 9 billion schools and lifelong personalized learning is in many ways obvious, but it’s not so obvious that it’s actually happening. So as we figure out how to educate ourselves across a lifetime and how to respond to the changing needs of generations as this idea expands, it’s going to take a lot more of us. She says they have started to develop a nice group of advocates for 9 Billion Schools and the idea behind it but it’s going to take many more of us. One of the things she finds really encouraging and exciting is there is a burgeoning trend in K-12 education today where students take ownership of their education. She thinks it’s the groundswell that we’re going to be seeing that’s going to help drive this idea of education across a lifetime.
Dick adds that from his perspective, one of the things they’re looking for is more voices. Something 9 Billion Schools and the Institute are committed to is taking deliberate and actionable steps and it’s doing so through some of its research efforts and partnerships. He says 9 Billion Schools needs to employ people who aren’t afraid to fail but who are impassioned by taking steps toward understanding how education can be delivered. Not every option is going to be successful but that’s ok because at least we learned something by doing it. So the more people they can get involved, not only in specific research efforts, but in some of the higher level thinking, the better off they are. They’re anxious to see people participate in their message as much as possible—either through voice or dollars.
[35:06] – What is one of the most powerful learning experiences you’ve been involved in, as an adult, since finishing your formal education? Lauren shares one of the most profound learning experiences she’s had was when she became the president of SHP at the same time they were plunging into recession as an organization – something she wasn’t equipped to deal with. She talks about how incredibly difficult this was and how much the experience taught and impacted her.
[38:03] – Dick shares a powerful learning experience for him was about three years ago when he sat on a small board of advisors for a large company where the focus of the group was to look at the nature of innovation. They had to evaluate the influence of design thinking on education and he listened to 20-25 consecutive presentations of people all over the world who exposed him to a way of thinking about education that he’d traditionally not been exposed to. He explains how transformative and impactful this was. And it really helped him understand what kind of power he had in this conversation.
[46:59] – How to learn more about 9 Billion Schools, the movement and the Institute?
- Website: https://9billionschools.org
- Book: Amazon
- Twitter: @9BillionSchools
- Facebook: @9BillionSchools
- LinkedIn: 9 Billion Schools Institute
[42:03] – Wrap Up
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[43:53] – Sign off