Today we are launching a peculiar space, a series of interviews with leaders from the world of social and technological innovation, around the topics of education, school and open source. Such process will start as incipit to our School’s co-design process, an open and shared reflection on the status quo and the next future horizons.
The first interview is with Eugenio Battaglia, Turin-based biohacker.
How has your experience with school been (both as a student and as a teacher)?
XYLAB was a unique experience among those in which I found myself on the other side of the podium, as a teacher. Truth is that there’s no such thing as a podium in XYlab, every student, every participant, every passer-by can activate processes of knowledge transmission. Everyone, in fact, contributed to make XYlab pure contamination. Each table contained huge flipcharts, drawn and written with formulas and concepts from very diverse fields. Some others were filled with electronic components, welders, cables of all sorts.
You spent some time at a table, exchanged some small talk, thoughts, projects – for a few instants, or for hours – then for some kind of magic, when everyone found his own place, people stopped and went deep in the topic. The result is well documented. Of course it was an experimental process which still has a lot to learn and implement, but considering the extremely scarce resources available, when compared with other more academic experiences I’ve had in Universities and Research Centers, the collaborative spirit and the multi-disciplinary approach that emerged during XYlab have been unique. On one hand, the spirit of the organizers, which all in all just facilitated a self-organization process by supporting the participants; on the other hand, the number of participants itself. Well, when you have a critical mass of people interested to learn and get to know each-other, together with the right parameters, unpredictable and wonderful things emerge.
Tell us about your dream school. How should the teacher-learner relationship be in such school?
Such relationship should be about transmitting one’s passion for a topic, a subject or a discipline, going beyond a (still very important in any technical discipline) merely notion-oriented approach. Using Pennac’s words, “students should have the right not to finish reading a book”. Sure, it is important for students to approach learning with a receptive attitude, learning from those who have more experience, recognizing the teacher. A the same time, though, the teacher should not take his role for granted and work hard to earn attention, trust and respect from his students by transmitting his passion and interest.
All in all, no student is interested in knowing how good you are at that subject, he will listen to you only if you will be able to involve him or an emotional and intellectual level on why what you are teaching is important and extremely interesting. This does not happen often, while I have to say that many people at XYlab were aligned with this way of thinking.
How does knowledge transmission happen?
Any transmission happens when someone emits a signal containing not only data (notions, formulas, operations etc) but also information (mental and emotional hyper-textual and trans-personal connections) providing content and enriching the network with the meanings emerging from the relations that data have with one-another, and the other relationships that these build with the emitting subject, with the receiving subject an with the different contexts they live in. On the other end of communication there has to be a subject who is first of all willing to learn with interest, aware of being ignorant, mainly giving total dedication and attention to the emitting entity. Slowly and by constant practice, transmission after transmission, and between one transmission and another, the right conditions emerge to make sure that the receiving subject can start to assimilate and compare the received information. From there, he would create models and interpretation that will further reach the individual’s empiric curiosity to wholly understand and own them. Finally, after passing the empiric test, or after having reached a sufficient enough number of mental association which hold the newly acquired knowledge true, such information gain growing strength through experience. An experience that, when adding new information, or perspectives, or applications, gets back in the social circle in the form of learning experiences that will serve others. And so on, infinitely – or better, until when that area stays interesting.
How would you envision an Open Source School?
Just like XYlab, but with more funding, more subjects, and continuative in time. It needs to have a permanent location, while keeping of spreading its model elsewhere, by supporting those who would do the same, or by generating the fitting conditions for it to happen. Exactly like with Open Source licenses. You can fork them an make your completely own version, or you can use the available one if you like it. It should all be supported by distributed governance models, providing value to everyone’s contribution and by sub-groups within the collective. In this way, you give value, and by so, produce value. The school should provide experiential and multi-thematic cycles with training, research and professional goals define just as much as it is needed to still leave room for sudden and unexpected discoveries.
What would change, if an “open source school” existed?
School would get back being the agora it initially was, out of inefficiency and degrading mechanism for the professional figures working in it, and with a broader perspective on the future possibilities for its students. The interesting point is that a school like that can really exist, and can even generate traction to become a new model, with its core between university and professional training, providing support systems and tool to secondary education, without forgetting about primary education, therefore trying to fill the generational gaps currently existing between people living the same – otherwise fragmented - historical period at different ages.
If you could re-invent the way in which knowledge is transmitted in schools, how would it look like?
The scarce passion found in many teachers, often disconnected with what was once getting them of their beds with one of the noblest of missions to accomplish. Mission that some refer to as “sacrificing your own life to transfer knowledge to others”; all in all, if you chose to study physics (beyond compromises and economic limits), why would you give up on research and keep on teaching the same things over and over again, every year to different students (?). Who does not feel that passion is just like those people who went to nursing schools to have a comfortable life without studying hard to become doctors. The difference is that those who are passionate about a particular job, studies nursing because he wants to do that, not to spend the rest of their life as a “missed doctor”. It’s two different things and I could provide many more examples from many different fields. The consequence is that many teachers are unable to transfer passion. And obviously, if one’s got no passion, he has also no clue on how to transfer that. But those who do have it, and wants to teach as well, can just give herself an ethical mission which is that of learning herself, first, how to transmit such passion. By doing so, teachers could incur into fear of deviating from ministry-provided curricula, and how could we tell them wrong? They must be revised as well, in a less prescriptive and much broader perspective, going out of this crazy and dead boring concept of State-driven notionism.
As said above, too many notions. And with that, too little hands-on practice. Today it is possible – provided that you want to do so – to set up a pragmatic teaching approach, which takes each concept and translates it its historical, economical, political, engineering, applicative context. If I teach you biology, after the needed readings, I’ll take you to a botanic garden, to the Faculty of Entomology or Biotechnologies. I’ll take you to conferences, to workshops organized by local FabLabs. Or maybe I start inviting to our school some FabLab people, some researchers. Or we could build this FabLab inside the school itself, maybe leaving it open after school hours. This should not just be an ephemeral safari, but content for exams, content for work to launch youth’s curiosity towards an endless vortex.
Text should serve as a foundation, not as a limitation to knowledge. It should be a trampoline to get your hands dirty to see if what you read is true and until what point. You’ll for sure figure that it is very possible to go deeper with knowledge when you apply it, when you touch it first-hand.