"Education is not the learning of facts," said Albert Einstein, "but the training of the mind to think."
Before his name became synonymous with scientific genius, Einstein was a teenager struggling to stay engaged in his secondary studies at Munich's Luitpold Gymnasium, his creativity and passion nearly dashed by the rote learning style of his formal education.
Thankfully, the world has changed dramatically over the century since, and educational approaches have changed with it. But have they changed enough? Could the next Einstein – or Curie or Banting or Hawking – be languishing in a high-school classroom right now, their intellectual potential stifled by the very system that is supposed to ignite it?
Or would they even make it to high school?
More than 134 million babies were born worldwide in the past year. Only two thirds will even begin high school. Of those who do enroll, many – up to 40 per cent in developing nations – will drop out before graduation. The remainder will complete high school in the year 2030. We don't know what the world will be like 17 years from now, but if the pace of change over the past two decades is any indication, it will be drastically more complex and demanding than the world into which they were born.
We need to create better schools if we want today's infants to grow into capable citizens, able to navigate future challenges and contribute positively to their communities.
Early childhood education and postsecondary education have been the subjects of much debate and change, but high school – where children become young adults and determine their future paths – is a comparatively neglected piece of the puzzle.
High school is often perceived as a means to an end, a pipeline through which the highest-scoring students are funnelled toward postsecondary institutions or careers, rather than a crucial period of a person's intellectual, emotional, and ethical development.
Research indicates that approximately two-thirds of students become "intellectually disengaged" from their education during high school, partly because the teenage years are when young people develop a sense of personal autonomy and resistance to authority.
But that same sense of independent agency, properly nurtured and encouraged through innovative approaches to learning, can lead students to a self-motivated and fulfilling education. If students can become not merely the recipients of education, but rather the active stewards of their learning, intellectual engagement will remain high to graduation and well beyond.
Re-imagining how tomorrow's secondary students could engage in learning and master various skills – across science, technology, engineering, math, the arts, and beyond – is of vital importance both to their personal success and to that of society as a whole.
The stakes are enormously high, and in that context what is needed is a plan and forum for developing radical, transformative changes rather than incremental ones.
It isn't enough for educational systems in Canada and around the world to ride the wave of ongoing technological progress and pass it off as educational innovation. Laptops, tablets, and universal Internet access are profound technological innovations, but they are not inherently educational. We need to put the best practices in teaching and learning at the centre of educational innovation.
This is the driving objective behind the Equinox Summit: Learning 2030, a conference that brings a diverse group of education innovators from around the world to Waterloo, Ont., to develop practical, implementable ideas for how to improve high school education.
If today's babies are to become the successful high school graduates of 2030, then this is the right time to rethink how secondary education will meet their needs and to create a blueprint for the ideal school of the 21st century.
The goal is to help create schools that will not only teach pupils, but will, as Einstein said, "provide the conditions in which they can learn."
Neil Turok is Director of the independent Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. Feridun Hamdullahpur is President and Vice-chancellor of the University of Waterloo. Together, the organizations are hosting Equinox Summit: Learning 2030 to help spark global dialogue on high schools of the future. www.wgsi.org