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IMPULSA - Fòrum Fundació Príncep de Girona

A summary of new ideas and concepts in education


Why don’t children (or anybody) like school

Alfons Cornella

As Daniel T. Willingham outlined in his book Why don’t students like school, we have to understand how we learn. Although we are rational beings, the human brain has in fact evolved so that we don’t need to think all the time, only to react to changes in our environment. Thinking is hard work and requires a great deal of energy. We like thinking, though, as it provides us with pleasure. Learning is a fantastic process, and has much to do with motivation.

Learning is the relationship between three things: the environment, working memory and permanent memory. We pay attention to the environment, we feed what we want to investigate into the working memory and we keep in the permanent memory whatever interests us most. The working memory serves for thinking and perceiving, while the permanent memory stores the knowledge of acts and procedures.

We learn though memory. Riding on the digital wave, some even claim that memorizing is no longer important. But remembering, placing important things in the memory, is crucial, because knowing is what allows you to think, and the more you know the better you learn. And at the same time, only what you think remains stored in the permanent memory.


  1. In order to learn you have to remember.

  2. You remember what you think.

  3. You only think what motivates you.


But the present educational system is not meeting any of these three premises. We must design education so that it forces students to think about the meaning of what is being taught.

The WIF factor: “What’s it for?”. The educational system sometimes fails because it offers no reply to that question. There has to be space for experimenting, failing, connecting, practicing. Effort and motivation have much to so with solving problems, as explained in the book Problem solving 101 by Ken Watanabe. And the book How things work, by Louis A. Bloomfield, does just that — it explains how things work. We need to set real challenges; if the challenges are theoretical, they remain very remote from us.



A planetary talent market

Antonella Broglia

According to a study carried out among 3,000 young people, internationalism is primordial in their academic and employment training. In research carried out at Harvard University, 500 students replied in interviews that their first steps in the employment work would be in two or three different continents.

The American universities open satellite centers in other countries, awarding diplomas with the same validity. In the Education City in Doha (Qatar), the quality of studies is exactly the same as in the United States.

We also have the phenomenon of new nations that want to become main players in talent. China wants to invest six thousand million dollars in order to make five universities the best in the world, and it would like to recover the Chinese lecturers now working in the United States and the United Kingdom. There are more foreign students in China than Chinese students studying at universities outside China. The world ranking of universities is drawn up in China.

Like China, India also wants to be on the world map of universities, as do Saudi Arabia and Korea, where Kaist wants to become one of the best universities for science and technology.

Lots of universities are being created as commercial enterprises, like multinationals, largely online, for students who fail to reach the grade or do not have the money to study at a conventional university. Laureate is the best-known commercial university, with 150 campuses and 500,000 students. Whitney, Apollo, Kaplan and DeVry are other examples.



PBL, Problem-Based Learning: the future?

Alfons Cornella


Problem-Based Learning started in the 1960s at the Canadian university McMaster, and was basically directed at the field of medicine, in which it is impossible to learn everything. They trained the students to absorb knowledge, to work in groups, in specific situations.

The idea was to bring together the following elements:

  • What do we know?

  • What we need to know

  • Team work

  • Communication

  • Defending ideas

  • Accepting the ideas of others


The objective is not to solve the problem but rather to determine learning needs and to learn by seeking out the knowledge. The teacher acts as a facilitator, not a “source of solutions” (guide The tutor in PBL, by Allyn Walsh).


Project-based learning was developed by the  Buck Institute of Education in the 1990s in order to rethink the educational system. At iPoly High School, the entire system is based on projects. The NASA sets challenges for schools all over the world. Project Exchange brings together libraries of projects drawn up by teachers. High Tech High is a group of California secondary schools oriented towards science and technology, all through projects; the schools operate with public funds and private management; they is not elitist, but eminently vocational.

Projects mobilize energy. That is the case, for example, with the X-Prize award, promoted by Peter Diamandis, consisting in setting stiff challenges that mobilize dozens of teams worldwide. Then again, we find the awards given by the aerostatic balloon company Ultramagic from Igualada.

As Alfred Solis says: “the only difference between dreamers and doers is that the doers are living their dream”.



No to universities

Antonella Broglia


Ken Robinson, a world expert on creativity and talent, affirms that university is not always the best path for everybody.

Employment systems are changing: Silicon Valley does not demand a PhD, nor even a degree — indeed, it may prefer a craftsman or an artist to a scientist.

Books such as Higher education, by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, Our underachieving colleges by Derek Bok, or Excellent without a soul, by Harry R. Lewis, question whether studying for a PhD might not be useless, expensive and lengthy tasks, and whether or not a university education means that graduates can earn a living.  

Within such a context there arise entrepreneurs such as Peter Thiel, who go into universities, choose the best students and tell them “leave university, train with us, with entrepreneurs, and we’ll give you money to set up your own company”.

Uncollege, no to university, the university is not the only thing one can do — that time can be invested differently, there are lots of on-line and off-line possibilities that may not give a paper qualification  but do provide knowledge. The best lectures at Harvard, Yale and other colleges are recorded and posted on the Internet, for example.

At the Learn by Doing institute offers the chance to be an apprentice and, rather than spending four years studying, spending two working with major New York entrepreneurs.



Integratory learning

Alfons Cornella


We must go beyond integration of the left and right sides of the brain. We need new skills: adaptable, cross-disciplinary people able to unlearn (manage the cognitive load), capable of designing and prototyping, etc. 

Rotman is in the ranking of the world’s best five business schools. There, they deal with problems viewed from various areas at the same time, which is what happens in companies.

Connected “subjects”: In the Lóva project students learn literature, history, music, work organization, management of the emotions, etc.

In the book Teach like your hair’s on fire, Rafe Esquith tell us how to go about learning mathematics through baseball, how to get to know oneself as an individual through art, how to make a connection between geography and society or how to use Shakespeare to get primary school pupils to understand the complexity of human beings.

And we learn at all ages: like players of Fold-it, who solve how the folds occur in a protein in the structure of the AIDS virus.

Nowadays it’s not so much a matter of having resources as of using one’s imagination. Many resources are on Internet: TED-Ed, YouTube Education, BBC, etc. It lies in our hands to change the rules of the game. DonorsChoose, which is expanding throughout the planet, is a platform on which teachers can post projects that need financing, and assistance for getting them off the ground is provided by small donors, often by parents themselves. Micro-donations are a phenomenon on the rise.



KIPP and its sister programs

Antonella Broglia


KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) is an example of Charter School, schools that experiment with new models more closely adapted to each reality. It was created for children so poor that they scarcely spoke English, did not do homework, got no help from their families, etc. They changed the timetable (from 7 am 5 pm), had teachers contactable by telephone round the clock and had the three agents involved (children, teachers and parents) sign a contract in which they undertook to enter and depart punctually and to do the homework set.

Rocketship, also for Afro-Americans and Hispanos, but with a technological plus that allowed for more personalized schooling.

School of One: offers reinforcement in the area of mathematics. They are public-sector schools, but designed for solving specific problems.




Each person, a learning history.

The end of industrialized education

Alfons Cornella

In his book Disrupting class, Clayton M. Christensen sets out how to change education from the outside. As with any system, innovation is easier when it comes from the frontiers. All systems create antibodies that prevent change from the inside.

The dominant educational system is based on standardization. But we must move from the standard system to a student-centered system. The Mix o edX programs, run by prestigious universities, offer free courses to virtual communities throughout the world, although the social relationships achieved by attendance-based teaching is irreplaceable. The Khan Academy posts short videos on all sorts of subjects; some 163 million lessons have now been downloaded.

A whole industry of personalization of education is emerging. Aplia is an initiative from Paul Rommer to allow people to learn economics in small doses. Apex Learning resolves the matter of optional subjects that cannot be paid for, offering them on-line.

The tools are there, then, but is that enough? We also need motivation. It’s not a question of what but of how. The tools must connect to people’s interests, as Ken Robinson suggests in this book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. The first step is to identify each person’s talent, and then go on to develop it.

Edupunk is a movement based on three points: a reaction against the commercialization of teaching, a do-it-yourself attitude and the learning individual.

Learn by doing. The magazine Make  is a publishing phenomenon in United States. Algodoo shows us how with our hands and minds we can build any kind of experiment, and Build a sound shows us that children learn in a very different way when they get down to doing things.

Personalized education does not mean mere learning, however. We rediscover the figure of the apprentice, but also of the mentor, as in the Rolex program, which brings together authorities in their fields and emerging practitioners.



Learning P2P

Antonella Broglia


In his book Le maître ignorant (The Ignorant Teacher), Jacques Rancière develops the theory that we can all learn from one other, even from people with less academic training.

P2P University are post-university courses in which people teach people. There are also platforms such as Skillshare, where people can offer or ask for private face-to-face or webcam classes on subjects ranging from embroidery to mathematics. Video is becoming a great tool in this.

Financing P2P: Vittana, in five countries, brings together people with money who finance the university studies of the students; Lumni concentrates investment funds that help students, who later pay back their loans with part of the money they earn when they start work; Kiva offers micro-credits to small entrepreneurs in developing countries and has now added a section for financing students.

Groupon, which offers products with a discount on Internet if a lot of people buy them, posted a university course for sale and did manage to sell it.

We can also find students who pay for their courses by placing traveling advertizing for big brands that want a visible presence in the universities.



A basic equation for education

Alfons Cornella


What should we do?

  1. Equality of opportunities. There are loads of talents that could be lost. Worldreader is an initiative that arose in Barcelona to take Kindles to Africa preloaded with books. Over 100,000 Kindles have been distributed, with sponsorship from individuals and companies.

  2. Personalized education. Ensuring access to lots of knowledge thanks to digital devices.

  3. Project-based education. 21 foundation is a movie posted on Internet  that invites us to wonder about the things going on in the world and to try to solve the problems.

  4. Doing. Developing knowledge based on doing rather than on reading and interpreting.

  5. Social impact. Not seeking only a return for the individual but also for the community. All learning should have a social return. 

  6. New role of the teacher. Only people who love can teach, so there has to be a love for the students.

  7. Happy people. The fundamental objective of education is to achieve happiness, understood not only as having a good time but also as finding out the sense of things.

So, how can all that be summarized?

  • Letting schools experiment.



Models of university productivity

Antonella Broglia


We must measure the productivity of universities, know how much it costs to get a good student emerging with a degree. There is no one strategy that solves it all. There are five key factors:

  1. Not teaching everything to everybody, but instead focusing on a specific group of students and needs.

  2. Eliminating activities that are not central, such as sport.

  3. The key role of on-line teaching.

  4. Strategic use of the satellite campus.

  5. Special mentoring to help students graduate.


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