Feature Address given at the Basseterre High School Speech Day and Prize Giving Ceremony on November 18, 2015
In 2004, I was honoured to be asked to give the Feature Address at your Speech Day and Prize Giving Ceremony on the Theme, “Building on our accomplishments as we face the future with confidence.” Over the past 11 years, much in the world has changed, to the point that our knowledge base and skills set have left many of us unprepared for the challenges of the world of today, thus making it very difficult for us to face the future with confidence, even given the accomplishments of our past.
If we look at what happened after the global financial crisis of 2008, we would have discovered that having a college or university degree does not in any way guarantee that we would be able to use our talents and gifts in the areas of our choosing, and many of us are left disenchanted and disillusioned about our prospects for the future. It can be very demoralising to spend about 20 or so years of your life in school, specialising in a certain field, and to come back home and be told that there is no job available and you end up working in areas where your full potential is not being actualised.
What I hope to impress on you today is an approach to learning, or better yet, an approach to life, that would help all of us to be well grounded and committed, no matter in what stage of life we find ourselves, and no matter what this world of constant change throws our way.
Before doing so however, we must first ask ourselves what has changed, and why does it matter? If we look around us, and ask ourselves what has changed most over the past 10 years or so, we would say, it is the mode and medium of information gathering and sharing with our friends, families and communities. Our world has gotten flatter, smaller, more connected and our sense of space and time has contracted significantly. Our ability to reach in quick time people from any where on the globe, and our ability to search and find information of our choosing, no matter what the subject area, is only a keystroke and a mouse click away.
To be more specific, we have Facebook, where we can share our ideas with the public and with anyone we “friend”, we have Wikipedia that is a treasure trove of information that is constantly updated in a transparent manner by anyone who has the time and expertise to share, and we have Google, a web platform which provides the engine and search tools to find any information we want. Even with YouTube, you can find courses online and videos that teach you how to do anything you want and which allows you to engage in self-directed learning at the time and pace and place of your choosing.
For example, as of late, I have become very interested again in mathematics and physics, and I have emailed and gotten responses from some of the leading researchers in quantum mechanics, after coming across their pre-print articles that are posted for free at arXiv.org. I have even posted some of my ideas online on my blog site, and online databases, and have actually created a demonstration project on Wolfram’s Mathematica site that is freely accessible to anyone in the world. Just google my name and you will see what I mean.
Also I have created an online blog site for our weekly continuous medical education seminars at JNF General Hospital, where I post presentations so that my colleagues in the Federation and elsewhere can update their knowledge base on certain medical topics of interest, whether they are able to come to the presentations or not. And as many of you may or may not know, I have another online blog site, bsahely.com, in which I would put down my thoughts on any topic of interest that comes my way, be it with regards to physics, medicine, religion and spirituality, and even law, economics and politics. And I have gotten feedback both online and offline that has shaped my worldview and my view of society, where we are, and where we need to go.
Interestingly, I can see how many hits I am getting on my blog posts, and the countries from where they are being viewed.
But what I have found, which is very troubling, is that although I have annotated my articles with hyperlinks and references, the viewers are not clicking on the hyperlinks and taking time out to explore the information in more detail to verify and validate the claims I am making!
How do they know, given the rapidly changing landscape of knowledge and information, that what I have written is credible and accurate, and how are they able to separate my perceived facts from fiction? This has shown me that there is much work to be done, and that the online readers are not exploring these tools of the information age to the maximum, and this is a skill that needs to be learnt by us adults and taught to our students. We should as educators develop the habit of validating all our claims with credible references, and if our leaders, be they parents, teachers, guardians, and ministers of religion and politics, want their trust to be earned, the relevant information that would be able to guide our life’s choices, needs to be freely accessible and available to be verified and validated by those in our society with the necessary interests and skills. These interests and skills cannot be enacted from the top-down, but must be cultivated from the bottom-up and should be taught to our youth during their formative period of growth and development, using those same tools of the information age referenced above.
So back to the classrooms of the past and today, and contrast this with the “cyber-classrooms” of tomorrow. We will find that the digital and networked tools of this “cyber-classroom” called the world-wide web, are constantly evolving and changing in an organic, participatory and collaborative manner, in so far that you are able to add content and context to the collective of experiences out there, and where you are also personally transformed by the collective at the same time.
What we traditionally now have are classrooms, which are very structured, in time, space and syllabus, and reading material that may become obsolete by the time they are printed, where the goal of a traditional education is for us as individuals to pass standardized quality control assessments, in order to manufacture competent workers for our civil service and private establishments. Even during our standardized testing and assessments, collaborating and sharing of information may be deemed cheating and is punishable by failure on the exam. Instead of actualising the diversity of talents and potentials of our children, we end up extinguishing their passion for learning which can only be fostered by experimentation, trial and error, and “learning from failure.” What we end up doing instead, is instilling from early on, a school and work ethic geared towards conformity modelled on a mechanical, “conveyer-belt” or “factory-line” industrial-age mentality, which is a model of the past, which has outlasted its utility. This model of the past was built to function efficiently, to maximise profits from its workers and to minimise costs, and not to create well rounded, caring, empathic, and wholesome citizens. Given the potential for awe and wonder and the potential for phenomenal growth and development, and more so, discovery, in the “cyber-classroom,” I always wonder how the educators of today are able to compete for the attention of our students in our traditional classrooms, given the dynamic new world of the “cyber-classroom”.
Given our competitive and changing world, how can we keep up and not be left in the dust of this change? The answer lies in cultivating the imagination of our students and also our teachers, in transforming today’s classroom from where, knowledge and skills are viewed as an end in themselves, to where the learning process becomes the focus, where we have a new culture of learning, which is now mentally challenging and fun, and based on sharing, collaboration, and above all, participation. Not only would our students be learning what they are expected to learn, but they would learn the skills of team work, conflict resolution, thinking critically, respectfully questioning authority, seeing outside of the box, empathy, humility, and above all learning from each other. It is here where diversity of experiences, thinking and approaches to life become better appreciated and liberated, rather than being shackled by conformity and uniform thinking, which is the norm of today. Even the free tools of the cyber-classroom such as Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, along with blog sites such as WordPress, can be blended with the classroom lessons, where they are no longer viewed as liabilities to the learning process, but are embraced as assets, that can help cultivate the minds, hearts, souls and spirits of not only our students but that of our teachers as well.
We need not be afraid of these new technologies, but should embrace them. All tools are neutral, and can be used for good or bad. That is where our job as educators come in, as facilitators to help guide our students, to help set healthy boundaries, so that they can use these tools for good, to uplift, rather than be belittled by their peers, their family and their communities. As teachers, we may be intimidated that our children have more experience than us in the use of the internet, but that is not their fault, but ours. In order to help them connect and actualise their potential, we have to also become familiar with this technology, and use it to maximise the effectiveness of our lessons. So this becomes now a two-way learning process, where not only our students need to cultivate their imagination in this world of constant change, but we the teachers need to do likewise.
Although the world is constantly changing, we need also to cultivate the imagination to tap into a set of “unchanging” constants of life, which truth be told, are where our life’s greatest lessons reside. It is these “unchanging” constants of life that are neglected and may be drowned out by these technologies and have caused many of our generation and the previous ones to incorrectly label them as distractions. Those “unchanging” constants of life are the NEED for belonging, the NEED to connect, and the NEED to have meaning in our relationships and our work, and the NEED for hope in the future. Let us all accept that these tools of the modern age are just that, tools, which are means to an end, which is the cultivation of the imagination of finding that quintessential meaning and that yearning for belonging and connection and hope in the future. It is here more than ever before that we need to cultivate our imagination where we see ourselves now as one big family, no longer divided by race, religion, sexual orientation, nationality or even our politics. Where each one of us comes to the table with a plethora of diverse gifts and talents, so that we can collectively capitalise on our strengths, improve on our weaknesses, take advantage of the opportunities and mitigate the threats, all in the name of service to each other, our families, our communities and the wider world. These information tools will help us to navigate our individual and collective life journeys by increasing the depth and breadth of our connections and our engagement with ourselves and each other.
Being a health care provider, I have even started to cultivate my own imagination as it pertains to discovering the root causes of suffering and hardships in our communities and the wider world, and to beginning to find solutions to these problems. What I have discovered is that our interconnected world of the world-wide-web is just an external manifestation of an internal interconnected world that has existed for billions of years. We are just taking the next step up in plugging our computers and communication networks into this geological and biological web that sustains all life. We are now beginning to appreciate that we are very much connected to the environment as we depend on clean air, clean water, clean soil, non-polluting energy sources and healthy and non-toxic food for our physical health and wellbeing. Although we take our bodies for granted, we know that our cells are networked together and are further interconnected to the higher networks of our tissues, organs and our organ systems, and that the vitality or lack thereof of any of these interconnected parts can also affect our physical, mental and social well-being. And finally, when we look at us as individuals, we realize that socially, economically and politically, we are interconnected to each other via the relationships in our families, our communities, and the rules and regulations of our engagement, be they enshrined in our laws and trade agreements, be they at the level of our nation state, region or international communities.
So everything is interconnected and networked with everything else, and the epiphany for me was that responsible stewardship of these networks of relationships from within, around, and without, IS the secret to creating a healthier, prosperous and thriving nation. It is in this same light, that the information tools of the modern interconnected networks should be stewarded responsibly, and be guided accordingly. We are now even beginning to connect our appliances to the internet, and now the Internet of Things, that connects open-source software with 3D printing, is leveraging the internet as it has now become the de facto great equalizer and accelerator making the localization of the provision of goods and services, a force with which globalization must now reckon. Our students must take advantage of these new technologies of sharing, collaboration and participation to cultivate their imaginations in order to at least compete, and at best collaborate, in this globalised world of constant and rapid change.
You may have noticed that I have used the term “cultivation of the imagination” tacitly many times over without explicitly defining what I mean. We can compare the cultivation of the imagination with that of the land. When a farmer begins to cultivate his land by sowing his seeds, he would soon discover that if he uses a monoculture, he will be able to produce his crops and harvest them quickly and efficiently, but what he would lack is the resilience and hardiness that comes with biodiversity. Biodiversity is absolutely essential for a healthy ecosystem and some would argue it is vital for long-term productivity of the land.
So it is with the imagination, where a monoculture of ideas and policies, and a lack of vision to diversify our knowledge, skills and toolsets, will also impoverish our lives, and put all of us at risk, when the world continues to change unpredictably around us. It is only when we capitalize on the sum total of all our physical, mental, social and spiritual capital, and cultivate our imagination not only in the academics, but also in the arts and the sports, and we become more responsible stewards of our sun, sand, sea, soil, and other natural resources, including SIDF, that we would stretch the reaches of our imagination in our collective cultivation efforts. We will then be ready and prepared for whatever change comes our way.
So where do we go from here? We must begin to see that everything we do is a work in progress, and that there is strength, not in conformity, but in diversity of opinions and experiences. It is only by helping to build a participatory and collaborative citizenry based on the incorruptible principles of accountability, transparency, equity and good governance, that we can begin to trust each other and cultivate the imagination of the other, and capitalise on the tools of the modern information age, and be ahead of the curve in our globalised community of constant change. This change is not something to be feared, but embraced. This is no longer a problem but an opportunity to be savoured and enjoyed. I hope that by seeing our challenges now in this light, we can once again face the future with full confidence. All that needs to be done now is to cultivate that imagination of our students, our teachers and that of our wider community. I hope you are as excited as I am and are ready to take up this challenge, now, at what ever stage you find yourself, and in the future that is to come.
I would like to leave you with some words of wisdom from Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is an American astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, and science communicator, and whose grandmother, you may not know, was born in Nevis.
He said, and I quote:
“I’m often asked by parents what advice can I give them to help get kids interested in science? And I have only one bit of advice. Get out of their way. Kids are born curious. Period. I don’t care about your economic background. I don’t care what town you’re born in, what city, what country. If you’re a child, you are curious about your environment. You’re overturning rocks. You’re plucking leaves off of trees and petals off of flowers, looking inside, and you’re doing things that create disorder in the lives of the adults around you.
And so then, so what do adults do? They say, “Don’t pluck the petals off the flowers. I just spent money on that. Don’t play with the egg. It might break. Don’t….” Everything is a don’t. We spend the first year teaching them to walk and talk and the rest of their lives telling them to shut up and sit down.
So you get out of their way. And you know what you do? You put things in their midst that help them explore. Help them explore. Why don’t you get a pair of binoculars, just leave it there one day? Watch them pick it up. And watch them look around. They’ll do all kinds of things with it…”
So that binoculars for that kid was a tool to bring images out yonder closer, so that they can be analysed and studied. I put it to you, that by using the tools of the modern information age in your classrooms, like “digital binoculars”, you will help to rekindle that curiosity of exploration and discovery which we had as children, even in our adult years, and it is only when we are able to do so, would we be able to cultivate the imagination of our students and that of our teachers, and truly say we have actually done the best we can, given what we have, in preparing them both for that world of constant change.