The following speech is written by Sal Gordon, Green School Bali’s Head of Learning and Teaching. It was presented at SPARK 2019, a TED-style event featuring some of our inspiring educators.

Take a moment to look up.

Follow the span of this incredible roofline. The arc of the bamboo. The flow and the interconnectedness, the beauty of the bamboo. Incredible bamboo structures like this are a work of art. No one wants to sit in a box. No one wants to think in a box.

And it brings to mind the phrase – Bend Like Bamboo. 

Here at Green School Bali, our innovative, organic, creative and sometimes beautifully messy school and community brings this phrase to life, in the most vibrant way.

Today, I want to help us all open our minds to a shift in education. I want to help us to think outside the box. To think not only to the future but to the NOW. In simple terms, I want us to adapt.

They say change is the only constant. So it stands to reason that if things are always changing, we also need to continually bend, improvise, adapt. The ability to adapt is a fundamental life concept. I’m probably not the only person in the room who thinks that schools should teach fundamental life concepts.

When designing a new paradigm for what a school should be, in this radically changing world – one of the most important things our children must learn, is the ability to adapt.

The ability to adapt has defined life as we know it.

From the Big Bang until now, everything is a result of the ability to adapt. Atoms becoming molecules, molecules becoming compounds, unicellular organisms forming multicellular organisms,  water-based to land-based animals, human evolution, the evolution of a human-centric planet… Like it or not, this is what we’ve got. Every new stage of life on planet Earth has been driven by the ability to adapt.

In my life, that same thread of adapting runs through my most powerful learning experiences. Even though I liked school and I was good at it, when I joined the Real World after my first university degree, I quickly realised that most of what I had learnt was meaningless. My gap year turned into a gap decade.

I used my understanding of how I learned (thanks High School) and my ability to solve problems (thanks Science degree) as I spent 10 years travelling around the world, doing a variety of different jobs; basically up-skilling myself in the 21st century skills. I forced myself to adapt to different cultures, environments, work customs; different rules, wages, languages.

I challenged myself to adapt using travel as the medium – you learn a lot inserting yourself into a foreign culture (especially before Google maps, Google translate, GrabTaxi and Traveloka). Skills like communicate, collaborate, think creatively, think critically, think in systems, solve problems – I used these skills over and over as I adapted again and again working around the world.

But let’s go back even further than my youthful days….

sal gordon.jpg

The theory of evolution is really a statement based on the ability to adapt. Adaptation – “Over many generations, through the process of natural selection, organisms’ physical and behavioral features ADAPT to function better in the face of environmental challenges”. Thank you Google. Basically, adapting helps you function better in the face of environmental challenges. Environmental challenges – that’s a hot topic.

Now, think about human evolution. Not just walking on two legs, opposable thumbs, language – yes, these are important. Think about the civilisations and cultures  we have created. Think about cities, technology, transport, communication, sport and recreation – we have really treated ourselves. As much as I love nature and respect my Mother Earth, as much as I believe we could have done a better job with ‘civilisation’, the world that humans have created is awesome.

We moved out of the caves to a civilisation that can store and communicate the totality of global information, where we can fly around the world, travel into space and harness the power of science to live healthier and longer lives – we have created the life we know as modern human civilisation simply because we have continually adapted. We have changed in response to change; societal changes, environmental changes, and technological changes.

Yes – everything changes, all the time – except schools and education systems. Education somehow got left behind. How could that happen? 

We are currently in an exponentially changing world. Take Moore’s Law, for example – from 1965 technological change has doubled every two years. That’s 50-plus years of exponential growth. There are also exponential changes in societies – and most worryingly, exponential changes in the environment. These systems – environment, society, technology – don’t operate independently; they interact, giving, feeding, pushing and propelling each other.

Our world is changing so fast – and if you’re here tonight, healthy, educated, with a home to go to, with freshwater and food and clothes and money, you’re part of the small percentage on this planet that is impacted least by this exponentially changing world.

I cannot put this more simply, education needs to adapt to this changing world.  

For the majority of human civilisation our ability to adapt has been ahead of the rate of change. Well done us! We survived. We’ve innovated, created, designed, harnessed, built, expanded, exploited, leveraged and produced.   Yes, we humans have done an OK job… until recently. We adapted to advance our own needs – but that has unfortunately caught up with us. Now, instead of being ahead of the game, our ability to adapt runs the risk of falling behind the exponential rate of change. It’s bound to happen – exponential change will always catch up with you.

What was once a ball of ‘slow change’ rolling gently down the hill, at a pace we could keep up with and even keep ahead of, is now an exponential Snowball of change heading straight down the mountain.

I cannot state this more clearly, systems need to adapt.

The world is changing. Fast. Our students will leave school and as adults they will enter a world of unprecedented change – longer lives, more careers, high-tech and Artificial Intelligence, changing social norms through globalization.  

And climate change. Extreme weather events, species extinction and irreplaceable habitat loss, an acidic, warmer, plastic-filled ocean (that is rising), depleted natural resources, over-population, limited clean freshwater. The snowball is rapidly overtaking us.

We owe it to our children to give them the skills to adapt. Now more than ever.

ihub green school bali

Let’s think about this idea of explicitly learning to be adaptable. The skill itself is not a mutually exclusive, independent skill. We don’t just simply ‘adapt’ – we change in response to change by using a situational-specific mix of different skills and values.

We are adapting all the time. You’re adapting right now – physiologically, behaviourally, intellectually, spiritually. Generally, and in no particular order and with all types of combinations, when we adapt, we:

Think Critically – understand the change.

Think in Systems – understand how the change affects and is affected by others.

Think Creatively – think outside the box, think new thoughts, find many possible ways to change.

Collaborate and Communicate – talk, listen, ask questions, present ideas.

Solve Problems – you put a plan into action.

Education is key. Education needs to change. The functional concept of education needs to adapt to the real world, schools need to be more adaptable, and we need to refocus what is taught at school so that we teach adaptability. School curriculum, pedagogy, assessment… it all needs to change.

We need to reimagine how a whole-community learns skills and values together. We need to redefine the purpose of a school to be just a part of life-long learning – for all of us.

What we teach at school needs to adapt to the constantly changing world and to the new age learner.  We love the approach where documented curriculum provides a backbone, but is never finished – it continually evolves and adapts. The idea that curriculum is contained in 84 binders and reviewed every 5 years is gone. It’s dead.

Day-to-day class schedules need to be open to adapting – to be open to new ideas, to see where the students want to go, to experiment, to design, to review, to fail and to learn. Our school leaders need to be problem-solvers – we need to say Yes to new and good ideas, and then adapt to make it happen. Structure is great – but it needs to be able to bend.

Learning programs should integrate new technological platforms. We need to teach coding and robotics, without losing opportunities to learn low-tech skills. We need to promote the Arts and inspire creativity, while reconnecting to indigenous wisdom.

We need to embrace the modern, while keeping our feet in the mud – deeply connected to nature. We need to blur the line – no, erase the line – that separates school and education from the real world.

Schools need to be places driven by a growth-mindset – we need to be, not just open to calculated risk-taking, but promoting the concept of trial-and-error; and importantly to feel comfortable with ‘error’ and failure. As parents, we have a role here too – and while it comes from a place of love, trying to stay ahead of our children to remove every challenge, obstacle and difficult relationship is not altogether helpful.

As a teacher, I love to listen to student themes and ideas. Get side-tracked, tell stories. My minimalist lesson plans allowed me to adapt and pivot while still delivering solid learning outcomes. This takes skill and energy. It takes boldness and trust. Teachers change plans all the time, no lesson ever comes out like the lesson plan – but we need to change plans in an open and explicit way with students. And own the change – let the change, and how the learning adapted, be a rich learning experience in itself.

Allow students to decide the learning objectives and learning experiences, and then as a teacher adapt. Allow students to build the lesson, structure the unit, and design the assessment. You’re better off presenting concepts and then allowing students to decide how to learn and how to demonstrate their learning.

We need to do better at explicitly teaching skills and values – not just teaching information – to provide opportunities for students to experience skills and values, to get feedback, to reflect, and to experience again. Skills and values-based learning programs are key to how we teach Adaptability. Student-centered project-based learning, solutions-orientated real projects with real problems, community service and entrepreneurial learning, integrated studies and thematics units – these learning experiences need to be the norm, not the exception.

This is a new paradigm, and it is emerging across educational systems globally, but it’s not moving fast enough. The industrialised approach of standardised testing, crushing homework regimes, rigid curriculum and text-book style learning is still fighting for its life, even as the snowball of change picks up momentum.

green school bali adaptability education

The impact of the industrialised approach to education on a child in today’s world is staggeringly bad. Anxiety, depression and suicide in children and teenagers are our worst nightmares. In the US, youth suicide is now the second biggest killer in people aged between 10-24. That rate has increased over 50% during the past ten years – in the 10 to 14 year old bracket, the rate has tripled. There is a lot of discussion on the need to build resilience in our children. Adaptability is the foundation of resilience.

I want us to be confident. To come from a place of love, not fear – and I am confident of our ability as a civilisation to adapt. I think of people that history records as being ahead of their time – really, they were thinking ahead of their time, and adapting ahead of their time. People who were able to make huge impact in science, technology, music, art – by bringing something completely new. Marie Curie adapted her knowledge into a new understanding of radioactivity. Jimi Hendrix adapted the guitar into a new sound. Mark Zuckerberg adapted how we connect and communicate. These people were adaptors – thinking and adapting ahead of their time.

We need to teach confident adaptors who are change agents in their own lives and can be change agents within the world.

At Green School we want to drive an Education revolution. We want to change the idea of what a school is and what a school does.

If we look back into the past, we see Adaptation as not just a function of evolution but as a driver of change. When we look forward, the ability to adapt will decide how future generations live on this beautiful planet.

Our graduates over the past 7 years consistently rate their ability to move through the world with resilience as ‘Very to Extremely High’.

This is our gift to them. And this is a gift that will keep on giving, over and over throughout their lives and for the good of the world. Perpetually adaptive lives – when you think about it, that is all we are ever doing. The world is beautiful, an evolving, spinning, live and vibrant place to be. Full of challenges and opportunities – for those who are supported, nurtured and skilled to adapt.

It MUST be our promise and our obligation to raise and educate children to be adaptable. To navigate the challenges, to harness the opportunities and to live with resilience and a love for the wildness of humanity and the planet.

To bend like bamboo.

Terima Kasih. Suksma. Thank you.