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11 December 2017

Dr. Alan Finkel on Inspiring Students to Solve Today’s Problems

The Chief Scientist of Australia argues that the two most important technologies for students are books and teachers.

Discussions about STEM and education always start with the questions, “How do you predict the future? How do you plan for it?”

On Sunday, addressing Teach For Australia’s incoming Associates, the Chief Scientist of Australia Dr. Alan Finkel proposed we look at our parents’ comic books for the answer. Fifty years ago, comic book superheroes imagined realities where you could take calls using the ring on your finger or move around in personal chair-like vehicles.

Of course, these things don’t sound like science fiction anymore, when we all carry around knowledge databases in our pockets. Innovation comes from imagination – even if that imagination comes from reading a lot of comic books.

To inspire students to study science and mathematics, Dr. Finkel argued that the most important tools we have are books and teachers. Although Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Jeff Bezos are all seen as tech innovators – those two elements are what they had in common.

A child’s first teachers are their parents, and it can sometimes be up to teachers to forge relationships with parents in order to help them become more active in their child’s learning and enable out of the classroom support. Dr. Finkel said that one of the most beneficial things a parent can do for their child is to read to them – and not off their phones or a Kindle.

“Turn the pages, look at the pictures,” Dr. Finkel says, “It’s exciting for the kids!”

Though there is a lot of talk about what exactly we should be teaching kids to prepare for the future, Dr. Finkel argued that it’s life-long skills, not necessarily specific knowledge, is key.

“It’s not essential to teach coding or accounting,” Dr. Finkel argues, especially in secondary school. Those things can certainly be used as a means of engaging students, but more importantly, they need to be taught the life-long skills that they can apply to any interest or career. Dr. Finkel pointed out that Bill Gates didn’t take programming classes – it was his imagination and desire to solve problems that led him to be known as a pioneer of the personal computer revolution. Especially now, when changing careers is a more common practice, the old adage of teaching a person to fish (or, say, how to solve problems) feels much more relevant.

When asked how to spark that passion in students, Dr. Finkel said that students need to be shown how what they’re learning in the classroom can be applied to the real-world, and how what they’re learning can be used to solve real problems. Students can be inspired by the idea that they can solve the problems like climate change.

As Dr. Finkel put it, “Science and technology makes superheroes of us all.”

You can read a full transcript of the talk here.