The first day of the INK talks (in association with TED) in Pune is a lesson in free thinking—if you can take a lesson in free thinking, which you can’t, according to Alan Wagstaff, the affable and earnest ‘learning manager’ of The Green School in Bali.
Wagstaff holds the humble school timetable up to the audience—an example, he says, of one of the worst tools of learning stagnation. The timetable traps young minds in its dedicated time-slots, making learning subject orientated instead of student orientated. In this respect, says Wagstaff, our education system hasn’t changed in the past century: “This is astonishing.”
At least the INK2012 talks can’t be accused of adhering to any of Wagstaff’s ogres. It’s timetabling, though unusually strict on timings, is not a slave to traditional subject divisions. In fact, it’s whimsical, to say the least.
The schedule consists of eclectic groupings of personalities, a smorgasbord of names and descriptions in surprising combinations. The sessions are rather vaguely aligned around the theme of creating an artwork—starting with a session called ‘Blank canvas’ and progressing through ‘Primer’ and ‘Rough sketch’ on Friday to ‘Finishing touches’ and ‘The Collection’ on Sunday.
All this could be very irritating. Whimsy is not best suited to the conference centre. But INK2012 has managed to avoid that pitfall so far because of two things: the quality of the speakers and the presence of an underlying theme that’s really pulling it all together: a persistent questioning of the value and suitability of the systems we live by today, from our notions of classroom etiquette, to the way we think about sex or cope with death, to the way we build our cities and buy our food.
Seen together, the speakers present a cross-disciplinary network of ideas and principles, focusing on individuality, the importance of choice and the need to personalize those choices, which can be applied to any subject.
One by one they picked at the thread of each other’s ideas. In her talk on the Large Hadron Collider, CERN physicist Isabel Pedraza referred to observations made by a member of the Mars exploration rover team, as well as to a theory put forward by an education specialist on the psychological value of surprise.
A detailed breakdown of the abstemious budget of a Mumbai street vendor by Harish Hande of the solar energy social enterprise Selco was picked up by Alok Shetty, an architect with a vision for constructing buildings out of trash.
When Jason Wishnow, the film-maker behind TEDtalks, talked about his creation of films purely for the digital world (including a version of Oedipus Tyrranos starring a stick of brocolli and a potato), he predicted that pretty soon we’ll all have the capability to watch and create video on our personal screens.
“What matters now will be curation,” he said.” The notion that the systems we currently work within are outdated came up for debate regularly; as did the conviction that their modern replacements should spring from a different set of values—our lust for individuality, adaptability and resourcefulness.
Wagstaff wasn’t the only one who voiced his desire to see a systemic overhaul. Twenty-year-old Dale J. Stephens is a self-described “unschooler”, who dropped out of school at the age of 12 and is the author of the forthcoming book Hacking Your Education. Stephens argued that his self-tailored curriculum since then has been just as useful as any official syllabus, and is now taking his argument on the benefits (mostly financial, but also educational) of “uncollege” to the masses. For those who believe they are paying too much money for too little education, Dale offers an alternative outside the world of institutionalized academia. The question, asks Dale, is “do we trust people’s capacity to be curious?”
Yes, argues another INK fellow, Alok Shetty, who is currently working on a scheme to make 250-seater auditoriums out of wasted shipping containers. The 26-year-old has been experimenting with unorthodox building materials in other areas too. His plan to use graded, recycled rubbish to make building blocks (cans for heavy duty, plastic bags for lightweight, earthquake-resistant blocks) came to him while working on a construction project in South India. “I saw these trucks of garbage going out and these materials coming in and I was paying for both, it didn’t make sense,” he explained, after his talk was over.
Joi Ito, an entrepreneur and venture capitalist who heads the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Mint that the thrust of investigative work in that the institution already follows these principles. The Media Lab is a research laboratory devoted to projects that combine technology, multimedia and design. Ito said the best way to tell if a research idea was right for Media Lab was to see if it could get a grant from anywhere else—if it can, then it’s probably not for them. “I’m not an academic,” said Ito, “I’m interested in everything that is connected to practise.”
In this respect, he is in good company at INK2012. Most of his fellow speakers offered similarly maverick or anarchic advice. Don’t bother with an MBA, said Hande—only half joking—instead learn from the economically savvy sabzi wallah. Shetty, the architect, admitted he couldn’t even use the computer software he needed when he started the designs for his first hospital—at the age of 20. It was an appropriate opening message for an organization like INK, which prizes brilliance and innovation, with little regard to its provenance.