The Hult Prize and the Value of Group Work: Working with others as part of the UWC Mission
Dr Frazer Cairns, Former Head of Dover Campus
14 December 2016
When my daughter was in K2 she eloquently dismantled a significant portion of progressive educational thought with a single sentence. That is not to suggest for a second that she was a wunderkind, or that she and I were engaged in a deep and meaningful educational debate. It was far more mundane: like many parents at the end of each day I eagerly asked, ‘What did you learn today?’ and on that particular day, while removing the wings from a fairy, she replied ‘Nothing. We did group work.’
There is a danger that I will be inundated by outraged emails from members of the primary staff and parents, so I should explain that she then went on to describe the task in which her group had been engaged. It was, of course, both challenging and multilayered; it presented the opportunity for her to be creative, innovative, enterprising and to demonstrate leadership. However, what she meant was that the task didn’t have as its central aim the acquisition of a fact. The focus of the task was the development of the core skills of dialogue and negotiation and it struck me that what she was describing was something that indeed did not conform to what a traditionalist might consider a model of good learning – a teacher delivering knowledge to students in the way that one might pour water into an empty cup. It was, however, one that was very much in line with much modern thinking on the development of creativity.
Robert Fritz, in his book, The Path of Least Resistance, commented that, “The most important developments in civilization have come through the creative process, but ironically, most people have not been taught to be creative.” Unfortunately it is a perceptive comment. Many educational systems have come to agree on the importance of creativity but, alas, do not agree on the place creativity should have in the system. The arguments seem to reduce to two points: the first being how creativity can be developed and the second when it can be developed given that there is all this other ‘stuff’ that has to be got through.
There are as many different answers to the question of how to generate creativity as there are self-help books in the Times Bookshop at Changi Airport but richness and diversity of experience seem to be common aspects. Yes, absolutely academic study is important but, it seems to me, it is the combination of a much broader palate of educational experiences than simply academic study alone that prepares young people to be creative (and, perhaps, to be creative in the right way).
For example, a few weeks ago, I saw four things within the space of a few hours that seemed to fit together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. The first was a crowd of older students going off to catch buses to their service projects. At the projects they would take part in – rather than just learn about - a range of activities to help members of the local community from young children to those who are mentally disabled. The second thing was a meeting of the steering committee for the new IDEAS Hub at the Dover Campus. This group of interested parents, staff and students has been supporting the development of a space that will provide a focal point for student collaboration and exploration. The third thing was a passing comment from a member of staff about a student – a young woman – who was playing a part in The Short Form. This was a collection of short theatre pieces ranging from the comic (the classic fly-in-a-bowl-of-soup-at-a-French-restaurant sketch) to the deadly serious (murder) and the comment was not an uncommon one: look how confident that student is! She usually seems so quiet but up on stage she is extraordinary.
And the final thing, which brought all these other things together - being involved, collaborating, and having the confidence to face a situation that may be initially daunting - was the announcement that Wyclife Omondi, a student who graduated from UWCSEA had won the Hult Prize in conjunction with three of his fellow students at Indiana's Earlham College. The Hult Prize is an annual contest sponsored by the Clinton Foundation that challenges students to tackle a pressing global problem and which carries with it a $1 million grant.
Their winning project - Magic Bus - was one of 25,000 entries looking for a solution to double the income of people in crowded, underserved urban spaces. There are 2.5 million people in Nairobi who live in slums, 70% of whom rely on the city's ad-hoc bus system. The bus system has 20,000 private buses, called Matatus, which seat between 33 to 45 people. Fares range between 50 cents to $1.50 per trip but commuters sometimes wait up to two hours for a bus. Even then you might not get in if it's overcrowded. Magic Bus tries to fix this unreliable system by letting riders pre-book their bus tickets using smartphones. It is SMS based, so doesn't require an internet connection and it integrates mobile payments through the country's popular payment system called M-PESA.
UWCs remain committed to their original goal of bringing together young people so that they act as champions of peace, but they have increasingly recognized that they have to look not just at the tensions and conflicts that exist between societies but at the tensions and conflicts that exist within societies. In awarding the prize Bill Clinton commented that few things “are more central to increasing human dignity and self-worth then the ability to provide for oneself and one’s family.” Solutions to problems like those faced by people everyday as they try to navigate their way across Nairobi may well come from young people who have had education that allows them to respond positively to opportunities, to manage risk and cope with change and adversity, who not only know stuff but who can also do stuff, who can work with others, and who have the confidence to get up on stage even though normally they prefer to not.