Growing tomorrow’s problem-solvers and digital makers – Q&A with Sophie Ball

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Robots and artificial intelligence are no longer the stuff of science fiction. And they’re changing the face of virtually every industry. Overwhelming evidence now shows a shift in what the workforce needs is well underway, a trend which will only continue to grow in the coming years.


In response, governments and industry leaders are scrambling to navigate the uncharted waters brought about by technology and automation. But unfortunately, our education systems are in real danger of being left behind the curve. If they do not change, they run the risk of leaving young people unequipped to participate in the economy of tomorrow.


Problem solving, creative thinking, digital skills, and collaboration are in greater need every year but are not explicitly taught in our schools. Even when schools teach digital skills, they tend to focus on how to use technology – how to create a document or a presentation – rather than how to create technology itself. This is something Sophie Ball wants to change.


Sophie is Co-Managing Director at Apps for Good, who offer courses that teach students about new technologies while equipping them with the problem solving, creativity and teamwork skills needed to thrive. The team are working to redefine foundational education to keep up with today’s rapidly changing business landscape.


We caught up with Sophie to chat about preparing the next generation for the future.


In your view, what are the problems with our current exam-focused education system?


Traditional education methods that are still widely employed in schools and colleges across the UK penalise a significant portion of our young people. Whilst an exam-based approach is perhaps an effective way to ensure consistency of teaching quality across some of our more traditional subjects, it hugely disadvantages students who have more inquisitive and creative minds, and who may struggle to engage and excel within a more textbook approach to education.


The OECD report on the Future of Education and Skills 2030 talks of the importance that “future-ready students need to exercise agency in their own education” and further emphasises the breadth of skills required for the future workforce including “cognitive and meta-cognitive skills (e.g. critical thinking, creative thinking); social and emotional skills (e.g. empathy, self-efficacy and collaboration); and practical and physical skills (e.g. using new information and communication technology devices).”


Whilst we appreciate that designing and maintaining a curriculum that keeps up with the fast-changing industry is tough, our current education system does not adequately foster these essential ‘power skills’ necessary to prepare young people for the future. As schools are not required to examine or report back on the development of these vital skills, they are therefore deprioritised and undervalued within education. Students who are driven by more of an inquisitive, problem-solving approach are subsequently at risk of feeling alienated and demotivated in the classroom.


We know that industry is crying out for more digitally-skilled, creative talent. Yet education is not moving fast enough. Teachers need to be given more time and resources to upskill themselves in teaching digital, entrepreneurial and ‘power’ skills to their students, in line with the fast-moving tech sector. Industry must also play its part to help develop scalable and sustainable ways to engage directly within the classroom, motivating students and supporting educators to overcome inevitable gaps in their knowledge.


Apps for Good runs an online and face-to-face Expert Community, connecting 1000+ industry professionals from small start-ups to large global corporates to schools across the UK. Experts can dial into the classroom or visit in-person to help teachers deliver parts of our digital product development programme to their students. This approach is particularly effective at taking the pressure off educators and providing industry insight on subject areas where teachers may feel less confident to deliver.


We live in an age where technology is forever progressing. Machine Learning, robotics and AI is changing the face of our industries and the possibilities made available through emerging tech grow daily. It is imperative we enable and empower our young people to have the imagination, confidence, and tools to continue to create, shape, and develop this technology in the future, whatever form it may take.


You need the right skills to participate in the digital economy. How should education change to ensure young people are equipped for the job market of tomorrow?


Education needs to embed more creativity, open-thinking and student-led learning across all subjects, as well as encourage more project-based and multi-disciplined approaches. This mirrors a typical workplace much more closely.


Young people generally engage best when they see the relevance of their learning. At Apps for Good we ask young people to pick a real-world problem they care about and then solve it by creating an innovative digital tool. Students come up with a really diverse range of issues they want to tackle; such as supporting young people with disabilities, helping cattle farming to become more time efficient, and combatting ocean plastic pollution. When given the opportunity to drive their own learning and choose a topic they are interested in, the passion and innovative thinking that comes from young people is limitless. This approach should be applied more broadly across other subjects to encourage, and not stifle, creativity.


In order to adequately participate in the digital economy, young people need to have at least a basic understanding of how to create, not just consume, technology. To achieve this, digital skills need to be taught in collaboration with (not in isolation to) other vital employability and life skills.


The end goal should not be to train a future generation of coders. Rather we need young people to learn crucial life-long principles; how to understand what to do with technology, how to learn about it, how to create it for social good and how to ensure that it works for the benefit of everyone. This can only be achieved if technology is taught within a context of broader skills, such as idea generation, product design, teamwork, public speaking and confidence.


There should be the opportunity for technology to embed itself into other subject areas such as history, geography and languages. At Apps for Good we often see young people building digital products to help them excel in their other classes (such as translation apps, homework apps, a game to learn the periodic table) demonstrating the appetite amongst young people for this cross-curricular approach to learning technology.


It’s also important that young people have the opportunity to fail. Resilience is a key skill required for the future of work, particularly within the tech sector; young people need to develop the necessary grit to keep trying new approaches until they succeed. Our current exam-based system works directly against the development of resilience, putting ‘failing’ and ‘mistake-making’ as a high risk, high cost activity.


This has a particularly negative impact on girls, hampering confidence and forcing them to become more risk-averse when in reality the ability to make mistakes and try new things is a mind-set embedded within tech and entrepreneurialism. At Apps for Good we frequently ask young people the most important thing they have learnt through our course. Often the response comes that it’s the confidence to keep working through a problem until the solution is found.


Unlike other subjects, the Apps for Good course is not accompanied by a complete text book of answers. Most likely an answer does not even exist for some of the issues young people face when developing their products. The discovery journey they must go on as a student team to pivot on failure and overcome hurdles is invaluable to pave the way for a future imagining and creating great new products.


Could you outline how Apps for Good came about and the work you’re involved in?


Our CEO Iris Lapinski founded Apps for Good with the vision of growing the talent pipeline in technology. Iris was driven to do this because she is actually an example of the ‘leaky pipeline’ problem; she pursued STEM subjects with great interest as a teen but eventually dropped out of her university level electronics engineering degree, where her passions were discouraged.


Iris would have never worked on Apps for Good if she had not met Rodrigo Baggio and Mauricio Davila from Recode who were looking to bring the successful model of empowering citizens through technology from Brazil to the UK. Both Rodrigo and Mauricio worked with Iris to bring this spirit of social change and digital empowerment into Apps for Good and were key in getting the first two funders of Apps for Good: Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and Dell.


At its start in 2010, Apps for Good was delivered in just one school and one community centre in London, with a focus on using mobile apps – as they were the emerging technology of the time. Thanks to the effort and passion of many people and key changes in education policy, Apps for Good grew rapidly.


Fast forward to today, and we’ve reached 130,000 students in over 1,100 schools worldwide. We’ve now widened our focus on empowering young people to problem solve using not only apps, but Internet of Things and Machine Learning through our latest emerging technology courses.


How can technology be used to deliver education in a way that’s dynamic & applied?


Most young people across the UK engage with technology outside of the classroom on a daily basis. The next generation are often seen as born professionals in consuming technology. It is therefore the role of education to enable and empower young people to colour in the grey areas of their knowledge on how to really understand and then build the technology they can so expertly use.


This should be done on a whole-school approach; not simply within the confines of a computing class. Technology now underlies all industries. Very soon we will stop talking of a ‘digital sector’ as if it is a distinct entity from other sectors. The same approach should be applied to education.


All subjects should embed technology in their framework and use it to improve learning and engagement. Online resources, video conferencing tools, and enabling young people to create tech products as part of a history assignment, or geography project, for example, is vital.


Outside Experts need to be brought into the classroom to really connect the real-world to young people’s learning. To inspire and engage young people in what is possible with technology, they need to be able to imagine their own pathway as creators and makers. That is why it is crucial to ensure that role models of diverse ages and backgrounds and from a variety of industries actively mentor young people. Technology can be leveraged to ensure schools right across the UK can access the same opportunities, such as via video conferencing tools.


How can education reduce group disparities and create a more diverse workforce?


In areas of high deprivation and challenge, there is often increased pressure to push students into completing their exams, frequently at the expense of fostering other vital creative and social and emotional skills.


There needs to be a greater, shared appreciation and understanding of the value of the arts. Perhaps we need to review criteria on how schools are inspected and monitored, so that more young people, particularly those from areas of disadvantage, are actively encouraged and not hindered from pursuing more creative routes. We need to look beyond qualifications to spot real talent and skills required for the future of work.


It’s also important to appreciate the power of relevance within learning. If young people can see the impact of their learning, they become more enthused and engaged with their work. In 2017/18, 56% of students taking an Apps for Good course were girls. We strongly believe that a key factor in our success in beating the gender gap is the fact that we empower students to change their worlds through creating technology.


In order for emerging technology to work for everyone, it needs to be created by everyone. There are already so many concerning reports about bias within AI, including certain programmes favouring men over women (e.g. Amazon’s recruitment tool that was subsequently scrapped), or facial recognition software responding more effectively to white men.


A more diverse workforce of the future will go a long way to combating these blatant discriminations in technology. We can only achieve this through ensuring our education system genuinely encourages and fosters creativity, imagination and problem-solving from all young people from an early age right through to adulthood.


What are your predictions for how the education system will look in 2030?


Whilst 2030 seems like a long way off, it is unfortunately unrealistic to expect a huge education system change within that time. It can take years to design and roll out a new curriculum for even just one subject.


We are, however, feeling positive about the state of the computing curriculum within education, thanks to the investment of £84 million from the Department for Education. This investment will see the creation of a new National Centre for Computing Education which will support the teaching of computing in schools and colleges across all key stages, giving teachers the subject knowledge and skills to establish computing as a core part of the curriculum.


We hope to see computing becoming more prominent within schools, enabling more young people to learn vital digital skills. In addition we hope that industry continues to support schools, through more mentoring initiatives to help encourage and inspire young people.


We know that it is incredibly challenging for education to progress and change as quickly as our high-speed tech industry. However, we hope that the curriculum becomes more adaptable to allow for more young minds to access the tools and support to continue imagining, problem-solving and creating our shared future.