After visiting Tokyo International School and experiencing the positive energy in the classrooms, you can’t help wishing you could go back to school again at TIS. In fact, many visitors feel that way, says school founder and vision navigator Patrick Newell, a dynamic individual with an infectious enthusiasm.
A resident of Japan since 1991, Newell established TIS in 1997, offering an International Baccalaureate-endorsed program of inquiry from Pre K – Grade 8. The school provides an internationally-recognized education and prepares children for easy transfer to the IB Diploma or other education systems. The school’s mission is to nurture confident, open-minded, independent-thinking inquirers for global responsibility.
Newell’s inquiring mind has taken him into other areas as well – he has co-founded TEDxTokyo, a community of leading thinkers, doers and changemakers of all ages to share ideas, connect the dots and to create an ecosystem that nurtures change.
Besides the school, Newell oversees an NPO, Living Dreams to enrich orphans in Japan, and 21Foundation which aims to make the purpose of education more relevant to the 21st century. In addition, Newell is in demand as a speaker at various events and also acts as a consultant for companies looking to create an environment to empower their employees to be more innovative.
Japan Today editor Chris Betros visits Newell at TIS to observe (and hopefully) learn some new ideas.
Take us back a bit. What were your school days like?
I don’t really remember my school time so much, except that I was bored. School was a small part of my learning how to be creative. It was more through my own exploration, my own way of looking at things, of solving problems. I was constantly trying to understand the meaning of things.
Why did you come to Japan?
I wanted to learn more about the Eastern way of thinking. I was working with my wife to manage two English schools. But I wanted to do more than that. So we established this school in 1997 to make a school for our kids that we felt was relevant for the 21st century. We started with 12 children in two classrooms. Now we have 330 students from over 50 countries.
What’s wrong with education today?
How long have you got? We’ve actually made a documentary on this subject called “21:21”, in which we show how ridiculous schools are and how they completely miss the boat worldwide. Most schools are stuck in the 20th century. Teachers are still up there telling students what they need to know, when they can Google and find the answer in five seconds. Teachers expect kids who are multidisciplinary, very dynamic and digitally skilled to sit there and just listen. That is absurd. But unfortunately, that is the way education is taking place all over the world.
Think about the relevance of what you learned in school and how much of it you are using now. It is a very small percentage. Children have more access to information than we ever did. The whole world is teaching them.
What is your approach?
If all you know is sitting in a classroom listening to your teacher, doing hours of homework and written tests, then you’ll be blown away by our curriculum. Our mission statement is not just words on a wall. We have created a model where you can see, hear and feel the mission within that environment. We empower the students to ask their own questions instead of having everything prescribed. They learn to use their cognitive skills. The key is to engage the learner in something that is interesting and relevant as well as to empower them to make some of their own decisions so they can be prepared for life in the 21st century. We have no real idea of what the needs of the world will be when these children leave formal education, so learning how to learn is so important.
How do you see your role?
It is my job as a leader is to be a vision navigator – to come up with a vision collaboratively and make sure it comes true. And that doesn’t only apply to schools. It can apply to business as well.
I do many presentations for various audiences and recently have spoken about innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship in the 21st century. One thing I emphasize is being sensorial. If you’re sensorial, then you are really igniting your senses. If you ignite your five senses, your sixth comes to life. And often, it is that sixth sense that really guides us in our life.
More and more people are looking to become more entrepreneurially minded and creative. That doesn’t mean you have to start your own company; it could mean you are working in a company but they want you to be more innovative and creative. So how do we create more entrepreneur-mindful people? The best place to start is at a young age in the schools.
How do parents, who are thinking of enrolling their children at TIS, react to your approach?
Our biggest challenge is that most parents have only experienced 20th century education. When you are looking at something new, you draw upon your past experiences to define what that new thing is, and they only know the old model of the teacher standing up at the front.
They are also concerned about whether their child will be able to transfer on to the next school after Grade 8. We have students from over 50 countries and one of our biggest responsibilities is making sure that those kids can move on to their next school environment in their home country and beyond. But it’s the how and the parents aren’t used to that. So we have to educate parents to understand what sort of learning their kids need and that it is not some kind of airy fairy creative process. Being around for 14 years, we now do have a track record to prove what we are doing truly works.
Do you have many Japanese students?
They make up about 10%. We’re quite different from a Japanese school, so if the parents don’t get it, that creates a gap in our community. It’s important that our parents be internationally minded. The key in a multicultural environment is to focus on the universalities and not the differences. We really hope the Japanese schools shift into the 21st century and start preparing children for a world that demands internationally and innovative minded people similar to those who redefined Japan 60 years ago.
Do you learn from the children?
All the time. They have a very different perspective on things. I have a lab of learners who are just flowing with ideas and questions.
What makes a good teacher?
You want to have people who can deal with the one constant in life -- which is change. You want people who are not fearful of change. In teachers, we look for someone who is able to think about existing challenges and articulately come up with questions that would best describe what they want to learn. They need to be people with inquiring minds and open-minded. This applies to not just schools, but also companies and organizations. One of the key skills is holistic integration.
What do you mean?
If you want to be effective and efficient with your time, you need to figure out how you can continually be integrating the different pieces together. In my case, the holistic perspective is creating the change that I wish to see through innovation, creativity, through people being empowered, to inquire, and if that is the core of what I want to share, how do I get these different organizations to achieve that? Some ways of doing that are education-based, like the film I mentioned earlier. Another way is a comic strip we are making to show how ridiculous schools are.
What about the TEDx talks?
TEDxTokyo, in a lot of ways, is about bringing a creative innovative community to Japan. There were pieces of it before but nothing that quite brought everyone together from all the different industries to share ideas. I have been part of the TED community for six years and TEDxTokyo has been very much part of the TEDx movement. The TEDxTokyo community has grown organically. We have been very precise about how we do things.
Our first TEDxTokyo was in May 2009. It was only the second event of its kind to be held anywhere in the world – and the first to be held outside of the U.S. Initially, people didn’t get it, so part of my role was helping translate the purpose of that vision into how you could see, hear and feel it as a hub of creativity. For TEDxTokyo 2010, we had 25 speakers from both Japan and abroad, and 300 attendees and over 7,000 others tuning in to our bilingual live streams from 57 countries. In May 2011 for our third TEDxTokyo, we had over 50,000 people watching a live stream and 1,600 people apply, so it has really taken off. We just did TEDxTohoku for about 500 people at Tohoku University. It was about redefining Tohoku.
Building on what we have done so far, we wanted to see youth involved. Myself and a few other Tedsters were talking about this and we came up with the idea of staging TEDxYouth Day on Nov 20, which is Universal Children’s Day and the day the U.N. Children’s Right Declaration was signed. This was our second annual event which saw over 100 events around the world where students ran the entire TED like a conference. This is another great example of empowering students around something they find interesting, engaging and relevant.
You are involved in so many projects. How hands-on are you?
In the start-up phase, I am very much hands-on. Intuitively, I have a very strong feeling about why we are doing it with the end in mind, so part of my responsibility is taking our purpose and mindfully working together with different people to create something unique.
What do you do with corporations?
I do some consulting. At the outset, companies ask: “How can you help make our company more TED-like or Google-like?” A lot of organizations have this huge mission statement, often paragraphs long. I usually break it down into a sentence and then empower them to build a framework of how you can see, hear and feel the mission in that particular organization.
Also, most companies still have a board meeting room with 20 people sitting around a huge table or set permanent work space. Why don’t they have couches and create a living room type of environment. When you feel more comfortable, you’ll try new things. The key is creating an environment where people can be inspired. My way is to get people out of their boxes, out of their routines because the more they have a routine, the less creative they will be.
I’ve had the opportunity to spend a fair amount of time with different creators and what really fascinated me is the amount of time they spend being sensorial, just walking around, taking in things. Often, the “a-ha” moments come when they are connecting things in a way that most people do not take the time to notice that brings it all together to create something new.
When do you experience your “a-ha” moments?
When I am connected with nature, especially when I am surfing, snorkeling, snowboarding or cruising around on my skateboard.
How do you divide up your time?
I am Tokyo seven months of the year, then I try to spend about three months in Hawaii being inspired and creating something unique. The other two months I speak at conferences, workshops and consult.
Looking ahead, what do you think are the biggest challenges facing education?
In the developed countries, the biggest challenge has to do with college entrance examinations and the criteria put on them which in many ways are still assessing the learning using 20th century assessment tools. Another challenge is getting educators to change. As dedicated as they are, they did not grow up in a system that the children are growing up in today. The gap between what they know and experience and what the kids need is huge. There needs to be a quantum shift in the system from the teacher standing up front telling the students what they need to know to the teacher standing at the side, being a guide.
The next major bubble in the world is going to be universities. The cost and expense are absolutely ridiculous for what value you are getting. A lot of education at university is about becoming an adult. It’s not necessarily what you are learning in the classroom.
What it comes down to, is that if people are actively engaged in something they find interesting and relevant, then they are pretty much good to go.© Japan Today