Future Decoded – We need leaders who know how to create a culture of innovation

The following is a guest post from Gerald Haigh, an educator and journalist who last week attended our Microsoft Future Decoded event in London.

Future Decoded

OK, I admit, The Excel Centre isn’t my favourite place. (I confess to being one of those who reminisce fondly about BETT at Olympia ) . Not only that, I wondered what it would be like to sit through a whole morning of keynote speakers – seven of them no less. ‘Feel free to come and go,’ was the message.

In the end, though, the speakers were brilliantly chosen and it wasn’t easy to decide where to take a break – just take a look at the list of Microsoft Future Decoded speakers. I won’t attempt to summarise what they all had to say, not least because I did indeed ‘feel free to come and go’ – even though it was just for a quick look in the Expo area. However, I was there at the start with Jeremy Paxman, who gave us a well modulated measure of grumpiness, a few laughs, a Cook’s tour of modern history, the first ‘bollocks’ of the day (no prizes for the second one) and a nice takedown of his brief.


“I’m not a clairvoyant, I’m a journalist. If you want an accurate prediction you’d be better off with Mystic Meg.” – Jeremy Paxman

Jeremy clearly has regrets about the modern reluctance to join organisations and do things together. The problem, says Jeremy, is that technology provides endless opportunities for people to do things alone, a trend that has clear implications for education.

“Why should universities spend money on lecturers and halls, why should students listen when everything is available on a screen.”

The answer, he suggests, is that while knowledge can be gained like that, wisdom can only be learned in a social setting, And so –

“The function of education is bound to change – to be not so much about acquiring information as learning to think.”

And that became, as it were, the keynote for all the keynotes, because each speaker, in his or her own way, argued for an approach to education which places at least as much emphasis on creativity, entrepreneurship, employability, whatever label we like to use, as it now does on measurable, testable content.

So, Sir Martin Sorrell, founder and CEO of WPP, the world’s largest marketing communications group, displaying a formidable grasp of global business trends, explained the urgent need for innovation and innovatory talent which ‘cannot be incremental but has to be fundamental.’

And you could argue that the mere presence in the hall of Sara Murray OBE, entrepreneur extraordinaire, reinforced that line of thought. Sara spoke of ‘disruption’ – the kind of boldness and agility of thought and action that stirs the business pot, and which, by implication, needs to be recognised and nurtured by educators.

Bob Geldof, for his part, was intense, driven by his abiding concern for humanity and the problems of Africa. His thoughts on the unprecedented levels of connectivity brought about by the internet brought out vivid images:

“We have a sort of hive society where we are touching our little feelers all the time......this other consciousness almost like a synaptic membrane enveloping the world. Its potential benefits are manifest; its potential dangers we can hardly imagine….there’s something new coming down the track, but it must be guided.” – Bob Geldof

Satya Nadella, Microsoft. 2014-01

And the guidance, of course, must come from teachers.

The last of the seven was Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, in his first UK platform appearance. Interviewed by Microsoft Chief Envisioning Officer Dave Coplin, he declared his own support for innovators and entrepreneurs, pointing out the strength of the UK start-up scene:

“Start-ups are the lifeblood of any economy more so today than the past, as the barriers have significantly come down.” – Satya Nadella

The removal of the barriers, of course, has much to do with the opportunities offered by cloud technologies, and Satya Nadella was quick to praise the take-up of Microsoft cloud products in the UK.

Satya Nadella, Microsoft. 2014-01

Also in town from the USA was Microsoft Vice President and global education lead Anthony Salcito, and I felt privileged to be one of a group of educators who were invited to crowd into an upstairs meeting room for a round table session. In effect Anthony is the authentic voice of Microsoft’s genuine and truly evangelical vision for education, and when he speaks, his very obvious deep conviction is at least as impressive as his message. This is a man whose relentless and surely exhausting programme of global travel, visiting schools, meeting teachers and students, gives him unrivalled knowledge and understanding of what education means in the most fundamental sense. He mentioned, too, his own background, working with children with special needs, and helping disadvantaged youngsters with entrepreneurship training. From both his roots and his experience, then, comes his belief that the biggest challenge lies with expectations.

‘The most important thing that faces all of us in the work that we do is helping students to expect more from themselves.’

Often, he pointed out, for many children opportunities are not just out of reach, but out of sight. Economic conditions, cultural attitudes to gender, mean – and here he used a phrase that stays with me,

“There are kids who don’t understand what to dream.”

In terms of technology, Anthony’s message is equally consistent -- that the vision for learning comes first, before you think about technology.

Too often, he said, school leaders have ‘access aspirations’ – that’s to say the aim is – to quote one of Anthony’s past pithy sayings, ‘let’s get the stuff’. This then becomes a distraction, because attention then shifts to implementation – how does it work? Where does it plug in? And always the risk of setback and the need to rethink.

Real transformation has to reach beyond that. One of Anthony’s most telling points was illustrated with the concept of a train moving along and calling at stations which, by analogy, are module assessments. Not all students will be given the same grade – there’ll be everything from A to D, but the train has to move on, whether all the learners are really ready or not, and so for some – perhaps many – the foundations that are laid will be weak.

That’s so true is it not? And yet we absolutely take for granted that it will happen, so much so that as the train moves on, station to station, students become permanently labelled – ‘He always was a ‘D’ student….’

What’s needed – and it’s obvious when Anthony says it, is a shift so that a student stays with their learning as long as necessary to master it before moving on. We already have the technology to make that possible – to cut across the restrictions of timetables and chronological grouping, and it’s just one example of the kind of paradigm shift made possible by technology.

The session ended with a quick demonstration of ‘Sway’ , and ‘Office Mix’, and there was a lot of interest in ‘One Note Classroom Notebook Creator’, during which I was able to bring up on my Windows phone the blog by Kevin Sait on how it’s used at Wymondham High School, and point it out quickly to people sitting either side of me. Kevin was sitting quietly at the back of the room, but didn’t intervene in the discussion – he’s just not that kind of guy.

There was so much to think about in this session, but perhaps Anthony’s most important point is that transformation will only happen if leaders want it to. Right at the start of his talk he spoke about teachers who do great work without recognition even in their own schools.

“They don’t have the time, confidence or leadership to say that this what I did and you could do it too.” – Anthony Salcito, Microsoft VP Education

Again, that is so recognisable. We all know of innovative teachers who have had to move to other schools to have any hope of making a difference.

‘The leaders are the ones who need training,’ says Anthony Salcito. ‘We need leaders who know how to create a culture of innovation.’

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