Ingvi Omarsson Explains Why Every Teacher Should Be A Lead Learner
Ingvi Omarsson is an Icelandic elementary teacher, Lead Learner, Tech Coordinator and speaker. Here he shares his thoughts on the risks of standardization, the answer to isolation in education and one simple change that teachers can make to inspire their students.
Do you feel that the current way we are educating children fully prepares them for the needs of the 21st century?
First of all we need to look at the skills for the 21st century and a lot of reports have come out talking about the 4 Cs, which are communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creative thinking. Some people have added 2 more - citizenship and character - and I think those are skills we should definitely work on.
I really dislike when people say we should teach 'basics', meaning reading, writing and arithmetic - like that's what school is about, like that's what learning is about - it's not! I think we should really focus on how we can co-exist and how we can actively make the world better for everyone.
We should be preparing students to be active and critical citizens and in a democracy, who can truly listen to other people's points of view and act accordingly and empathize and discuss and deal with issues critically. I think that's a really important issue.
I think also in the past there was a big focus on secreterial skills and nowadays what we're preparing our kids for is more CEO skills. I know Abdul Chohan has talked about that at great lengths. CEO skills - if you see a good leader, what quality does that leader possess? The ablility to think and innovate and speak and fail - not afraid to do that - and empower others, have vision, know how to communicate their message and collaborate with others - collaborate with people who are different than you, hear different points of view and show true character through adversity. I think that's one of the main things we need to be focusing on.
I think education as well should be more about creating real, meaningful work that matters to the community as a whole, because a lot of times in schools we have students do projects for us and they are not shown to anyone and if students are doing projects for you, they want them to be good enough. But if they're doing it for the world and they're showing their skills and people can find their work, not all of it but some of it, they want it to be good, they want it to be really good. So, that's a big difference.
The basics, what we should be looking at, if basics are what we're talking about - is arts and music and dance and all of those creative things that work and tie so closely in with the 4 Cs as well.
I think how we are preparing, that's a big question and that varies a lot between what people are doing and I think it should, in a way. Assessment and standardization requires us and wants us to do the same thing for everyone, exactly the same thing, but what we really need is different types of skills and then the ability to collaborate with each other. So, I don't have to be decent at everything, it's alright to be bad at some things. I'm terrible at some things but I know people who are better than me in a lot of ways, so I find those people and I find a way to work with them, so that's how we do great stuff.
So, are we preparing them? We're on the right track, I think, as long as we keep this conversation alive and we ask people about where the future's heading and what we should do.
What is the role of the teacher?
First of all, we have to pay teachers well. We have to respect them and we have to trust them - that's the first thing. When we do that, we'll have great teachers and more great teachers. People need to respect teachers and see them for the creative professionals they are. It's a creative profession, if we don't standardize it too much - if we give them the freedom and the trust to do it then they can do amazing things.
I think the role of the teacher is to also be the lead learner, leading and showing students what it is to learn and that learning never stops. It's not a 40 minute session you can just do, it's a lifelong process.
So, I do it sometimes - I go to the library at school and rarely I find adults there. If I go to schools across the country, in Iceland for instance, I rarely see adults, except the ones that are working there and making sure it's quiet, rarely do you see adults learning there - using the skills and finding stuff to learn about and sharing it with others. We rarely see that. We keep asking kids to go there and do that but we don't do it ourselves. Sometimes when I go to the library to read or learn, people ask me "Are you not feeling too well? Why are you in here?!" So I think being a lead learner is really important for us.
Teachers should collaborate but it's also up to the systems and the schools to give them a chance to collaborate. You can break down the physical walls between classrooms, you can have teachers co-teach so there's more than one teacher in the classroom, which means they are learning from each other as well, so they don't get isolated.
As Tony Wagner once said, isolation is the enemy of improvement. I think we have to collaborate, both within our school and between schools and between countries, which is exactly what this project is about. Sharing what best practice is, sharing what works. So, I think [teachers are] lead learners, that's the main thing - showing students what it is to learn and that it never ends.
What do you feel the most exciting or effective learning environment would be?
Well, we need different kinds of environments, we need different kinds of spaces for different kinds of learning and a school doesn't have to be the place you go for learning necessarily, it could be a certain type of learning. You need places where you can work alone, where you can collaborate and share what you do. In a school, if there's a forest around it, that would be great, but it's no use if you don't use it.
When we're designing a school and talking about the physical space of the school, the environment of it, that should reflect what it is we want to do, what we want to achieve. Are we going to set it up for creativity? Or do we want to focus on memorization? Do we want to focus on collaboration, so we build spaces for that, or do we want isolation and competition? Do we want technology or not? Do we want communication between learners or do we want that transfer of knowledge from one person to the group. So we have to design our physical spaces with our need and the future in mind and have the workspaces be student centred.
We need to collaborate and there's two ways most classrooms are isolated. They can have closed doors, the drapes are shut and nobody gets in or out until the class is over, the learning is constrained within those four walls. It can also be isolated from the outside, be it the internet, the knowledge out there and the experts from the outside.
I think the best environments, the best schools, use technology in a way in which it's almost invisible - it's just a tool, it's not the focus. I think a great environment in schools should be encouraging for students to create and collaborate, think critically and creatively and we should build the curriculum for that, help students do that.
There are children suffering because of testing and because of the immense testing we are seeing and it's happening all over and there's less joy and there's less engagement. We see that in schools and we've seen the curriculum begin to narrow and I say if Iceland, my home country, ever reached the top of PISA we've failed our students.
Stephen Mintz, for instance, he mentions in his book, The Prime of Life, he says by almost every measure kids are better off today; crime rates are down, smoking is down, grades are up, graduation rates are up, they are up by almost every measure except the ones that really matter - so we have depression starting at a much lower age, we have kids showing signs of stress, debilitating stress, children showing signs of trouble with interpersonal relationships and suicide rates are up.
So, basically he says in his book you can be better off in the ways we can easily count and still be worse off in the ways that truly matter. So I think we need to create an environment in schools that allow kids to flourish and create and be their natural self.
Do you think standardized testing is the most effective way to judge learning?
No, I do not, but it depends on what you want. If you want to test memorization, if you want to test reading, handwriting and the standard modes of reading - sure, it works. If you want to test isolation and if you want to test if they give up or not, if they quit, then yeah. But as a way for us to move forward? No, definitely not.
The tests should be personal, they should be used by teachers and in my opinions made by the teachers to guide them, not done by systems for systems. People aren't going to ask in the future, and even now they don't ask, "show me your degrees." It's what have you done with others and where can we find that?
I'm all for kids going to university, I think that's a great thing and if that's what they want at this moment but I think memorization and facts, which most standardized tests are like, is not the way forward for us. It should be about solving problems, real problems, that they find themselves - creatively, critically, collaboratively and if they can do that then we're on a good track I think. The focus in assessment in my opinion should be on empathy, creative thinking and communication.
What role do you think government should play in education?
The government politicians and policy makers should make sure that all students get equal opportunities regardless of their background, that's the main thing.
That's a very important task now because what happens in competition all the time is there's a winner and a loser, in education we can't have a loser. We can't have someone on the losing end and that's what it creates, competition creates two nations or two communities or even more divides us up and what it does as well is if we're competing we don't share. We don't share what's best, what's working, because why should I work with you if we're in a competition?
Even within a school, teachers are competing, I would not want to work in that environment! Especially in education. So, I think those are the main roles of politicians and government to make sure everyone gets an equal opportunity.
In your experience, can an innovation that works in one place, work in another?
Not always, no, because innovations most often are driven by people, ground up, so you can’t always just put things top down to someone and say do this because there’s a lot that goes into that. You need the right people, with the right mind-set, willing to fail - I don’t think it works if you just grab something and don’t make it your own. You have to collaborate and learn from other people.
But we can try and share what works best and people can learn. But if you don’t have the right environment and the right setting you need to work on that first, before you can build on that you need to work on the ground first. It’s not as easy as many people think, innovations are hard, they’re not easy.
What was your favorite moment or experience in your own K-12 education?
“Was” implies that it ended and it hasn’t ended really- it’s ongoing, but so far, I would say the school play every year, that was my favorite memory, collaborating with everyone and putting it all together. And also as a teacher, that’s my favorite - seeing the whole class flourish on stage and working together.
My favorite teacher was my teacher from 1st to 3rd grade because of the connections and how she made us feel. I don’t remember anything she taught me, she taught me to read, probably, but it was that feeling, that environment she created, that you never forget.
The next 100 years of education should… be about making us more human, helping us treat others better, treat ourselves better, support our kids to develop ethics and values and help children to find their passion and purpose and lead them to live a good life. I think that’s what the next 100 years should be about.