François Taddéi: we have more computing power in our pockets than NASA had for the moon landing

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François Taddéi
© Ashoka
07 March 2016

Rather than teaching students historical solutions to past problems, schools should show them how to find new solutions for the future, argues François Taddéi, director of the Centre for Research and Interdisciplinarity  (CRI) in Paris. Taddéi is participating in the 5th edition of Mobile Learning Week, which is taking place at UNESCO from the 7th to 11th March 2016.

According to this specialist in innovative education, the education system is conservative because teachers train their students the way they themselves were trained. Since technology and the working environment evolve more rapidly than schools, these teaching practices are out-of-date – which is why a different approach is required. 

Different in what way?

The essential goal of education should be to cultivate collective intelligence so that it can rise to meet the challenges of the day. But schools typically focus on developing students’ knowledge of things that have worked in the past. This knowledge is very important, but it’s not sufficient, particularly when you consider that this sort of factual information can be stored in machines. What schools need to prioritise is teaching students how to find new solutions and to redefine problems in more creative ways.

We need new approaches to learning that allow us to invent new solutions, particularly when confronted with the great challenges of our time. These great challenges all have local variations related to the rights of women, or problems linked to climate or biodiversity. Schools must help students understand the complexity of these problems, while at the same time making them realise that they can start working towards solutions today, by becoming involved in the world around them, as it is.

If a young person becomes involved in a project that means something to him, he’s going to learn how to learn; he’s going to learn to cooperate, because he won’t be able to solve everything on his own; he’s going to learn to seek information in different disciplines, because no one discipline is capable of solving every problem. So he’s going to discover what we call the “4 C’s”: cooperation, creation, communication and constructive criticism.

We need an educational approach that benefits both students and the planet.

What innovative teaching methods should we take inspiration from?

One example is the Catts Pressoir College, which incidentally was a 2014 prizewinner in the Re-imagine Learning Challenge organised by the Lego Foundation and Ashoka. The principal of this school, in Port-au-Prince, Haïti, has become a friend of mine: Guy Etienne. Right from primary school, children are encouraged to observe the world around them and to understand the stakes. They choose a problem they care about, to which they want to find a solution. They work together, they research solutions together and they present their findings at the end of the year.

After the earthquake in 2010, traffic lights stopped working and the streets became dangerous for pedestrians, particularly for schoolchildren. Some junior high school students from Catts Pressoir invented a system to repair the traffic lights that was a lot more economical than the existing solutions, and probably applicable to other situations too, and they presented their solution at the town hall. Other students from the same college invented their own SMS server, because they thought the cost of text messages was too expensive. 


There are plenty of other good examples from around the world, and they all put children in the driving seat of their own education, I’d even say they become scientists. Incidentally, cognitive science has shown that we are all scientists at birth. Every child observes the world, explores it, experiments, makes mistakes, learns from his mistakes, communicates what he’s discovered… these are all characteristics of a scientist.

Vous avez monté un programme d'enfants chercheurs intitulé Les Savanturiers. De quoi s'agit-il?

The idea for this programme came to me when I saw a scientific publication written by 8-year-old children. It was actually a whole class from a school in the UK. A scientist, whose son was in this class, offered to lead a team project with the students, and he began by asking them if they liked science. The response was unanimous: “no”. Then the scientist asked them if they knew that science was a game where the aim was to understand the rules of nature, and immediately the students were more interested. So they started a project observing bumblebees, and they ended up asking a question that no adult had asked before: “Can bumblebees recognise patterns of colours on flowers?” They tested their hypothesis and were able to show that bees do recognise these patterns. They wrote the scientific paper themselves, which in many ways is a typical science paper, but also has an uncharacteristic charm: in their conclusion, the authors wrote that they had also discovered that science “is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before.


In the case of the Savanturiers, we have worked with classes from disadvantaged areas on scientific projects covering neurosciences, climatology, biodiversity, synthetic biology, astrophysics, botany, robotics, paleontology, sociology, anthropology… and it turns out that when you invite children to become scientists, their natural childish curiosity transforms into scientific curiosity. The role of the adult researcher leading the project is simply to guide this curiosity and to share with them whatever methods or facts they may need to know to help them take their project further.

This education programme was developed by the Centre for Research and Interdisciplinarity (CRI), which you direct. What is the principal objective of this Centre?

The goal of CRI is to reinvent ways of learning, teaching, and doing research. The Centre was established in 2005. It is attached to the University Paris Descartes – Paris 5, and it offers a degree in “Frontiers in Life Science”, a masters in “Innovative approaches to research and teaching” (AIRE) and an interdisciplinary doctoral programme. Creativity and interdisciplinarity are key.

Since 2014, CRI has also hosted a UNESCO research chair for Learning Science. Its aim is to develop a cohesive set of research activities, teaching programmes and documentation in the fields of education science, research and the future of education.

In the world today, a lot of research and development (R&D) is done on topics such as health, transport, energy… - but very little on education. You see the same thing in universities: they research everything except themselves!

But universities are supposed to be places where knowledge is created and shared, and they risk becoming obsolete if they don’t rethink their approach. 

Technology could have a vital role to play in accessing knowledge. How can we get the most from it?

Technology breaks down barriers: it allows high quality information to be widely available. The speed of sharing, and its wide reach, can help make the education system more impartial and more efficient. We are beginning to see a leveling upwards, rather than a leveling downwards.

But to be able to get the most out of technology, we first have to learn how to master it – and this is one of the most important roles of schools in the 21st century. They have to teach students how to navigate the oceans of high quality information that are accessible like never before. They have to help young people understand what knowledge is and how it’s passed on, to develop critical thinking, and to become active participants in the world, not simply observers. And they need to do all of that using the tools of today.

Could technology also exacerbate inequalities? For example, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) might be free, but they are still out of reach for the most disadvantaged. 

It’s true that lack of bandwidth is currently a problem with MOOCs, but since these technologies develop very quickly, I don’t think access will be a problem for long.

In my opinion, the real problem is that MOOCs are high level courses, and a student who isn’t well prepared is not going to keep up.

Generally speaking, it’s difficult to complete a MOOC when you’re on your own in front of your computer. This is why new solutions are starting to emerge. Currently there are plans to transform municipal libraries in Chicago and Paris into 21st century teaching spaces, where you can follow a MOOC as part of a group. This brings a social element back to learning. It would be a shame if MOOCs developed at the expense of that.


© UTC Library via Flickr

And mobile phones? How can we use those for education purposes?

The main advantage of the mobile phone is that it works just about anywhere, as long as there is network coverage. Given how quickly network coverage is spreading around the world, you have to expect that one day everyone will have a mobile phone. It has its drawbacks of course, particularly the size of the screen, but it’s in your pocket!

The mobile phone is not only a tool for communicating and accessing information, it’s a pocket-sized scientific instrument, and very few people realise that. Very few people know that they have more computing power in their pocket than NASA had for the moon landing! Few people realise that they have the means to make scientific measurements that Galileo or Newtown could only dream of.

You can learn to programme your mobile phone to turn it into a very precise scientific instrument. It can measure pollution, for example, because the image quality on your phone depends on air quality. The timbre of your voice today could tell you if you will have Parkinson’s disease two years from now.

Mobile phones could be used in social sciences too. A group of my students programmed a mobile app which has been picked up by Google: it allows you to measure, for example, the amount of time men speak in a meeting compared to women. So it’s a digital device that lets you at least hold a mirror up to society, with a view to eventually changing how things are done.

Education, health, climate, biodiversity, women’s rights, to name but a few, are all areas where mobile phones could be used as scientific instruments. They can help us understand ourselves and our environment. They allow us to produce our own data, and from there it’s up to us to turn the data into information, knowledge and an ethical response.

To do all this we have to change the way we look at our telephone: stop seeing it as a magical black box, and start exploring its potential. This means we need to teach people not just how to programme, but also how to understand the operational logic of this black box.

What are your current projects?

One of the projects that I’m most passionate about is encouraging students to make better use of their digital tools, particularly within the framework of the Objectives for Sustainable Development set out by the UN in September 2015. 

The idea is to spark the collective intelligence of the students to create new mobile apps that will eventually be available to everyone.

One way of doing this would be to organise training courses, summer schools, which would be recognised by the UN and would bring together the designers of the best apps for education, science, and furthering the cause of sustainable development. The best projects would be presented to the UN and shared widely.

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Interview conducted by Jasmina Šopova

François Taddéi, French biologist, is director of the Centre for Research and Interdisciplinarity in Paris. He has authored numerous publications in international science journals such as Nature and Science, as well as a report for the OECD in 2009, Training creative and collaborative knowledge-builders: a major challenge for education in the 21st century.