Dr Conrad Hughes. Picture: SUPPLIED
Dr Conrad Hughes. Picture: SUPPLIED

This is an exciting, chaotic, fast-moving era with more information circulating than ever before, but how do people discern facts from confirmation bias? There are all kinds of information that can be confirmed on Google — from pyramids on Mars to American presidents who were members of the Illuminati.

These are some of the challenges that occupy Dr Conrad Hughes, director of La Grande Boissière: the International School of Geneva in Switzerland, the world’s first international school, established in 1924. He is a South African Wits University PhD graduate living in Geneva since 2005.

“People worldwide are creating their own truths, and information is being used to wield power more effectively and manipulatively than ever before. Anything US President Donald Trump doesn’t like, he condemns as fake news,” he says. “This is dangerous as it opens the door to conspiracy theories, which makes it difficult for educators who need to instil the notion that, while there is certainly a vast, subjective continuum of knowledge and information, there is still truth and falsehood.”

Earlier in October Hughes launched his book, Educating for the 21st Century: Seven Global Challenges, published by the Unesco bureau of education. “For over a decade I have been researching the theme of what types of knowledge we should be learning today, in a world characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. I finally felt ready to answer the question through this book which investigates seven major challenges facing humanity and how educational strategies can respond to them,” he says.

The seven challenges are: mindfulness, singularity, terrorism, sustainability, post-truth politics, character and knowledge. In many so-called developed countries and at most schools, people are complaining about high levels of stress caused by hyperactive lifestyles that can become unhealthy and compulsive. There are several responses to this, centred on developing mindfulness. Participation in sports and the arts can help focus minds and decrease stress levels.

Hughes has first-hand experience of this. In addition to teaching, he is a member of a band, Pososhok, with his Cameroonian wife Estelle. Other band members include a drummer from Senegal, a percussionist from Burkina Faso, a guitarist from Mexico and bassist from France. Their music is a blend of South African folk pop, Cameroonian music with accents of rock, other West African influences and Mexican and European influences.

“Diversity is the essence of our band and the essence of the International School of Geneva, which has learners from over 130 different cultures. Diversity opens and expands the mind and develops our humanity, which is essential to addressing contemporary challenges,” he says.

Hughes says that people appear increasingly attached to devices and dependent on them. “To understand this, we need to grapple with definitions of intelligence, both human and artificial, explore how humans are operating socially and cognitively alongside algorithms, and how this might happen in the future.

“The implications of artificial intelligence are that some areas of human activity can be outsourced to machines, giving us more time to develop facets of humanity that are uniquely human and cannot be taken over by artificial intelligence.”

One example of a uniquely human facet that requires greater focus is the need to continuously be opening, expanding and transforming minds, prejudices and sense of being through knowledge, education and experience.

One example of a uniquely human facet that requires greater focus is the need to continuously be opening, expanding and transforming minds, prejudices and sense of being through knowledge, education and experience.

“Our school believes in an international curriculum that exposes all learners and students in the world to the diverse historical and contemporary conditions of all humankind,” Hughes says. “This includes literature that opens new mental gateways and exposes people to different cultures and systems, including Chinese, Indian and African knowledge systems, world religions and global sustainability issues.”

The planet’s accelerated natural resource depletion, which Hughes describes as a “time bomb”, requires immediate and sustainable action rooted in a long-term, lifelong attitude change, he believes. He argues that learning experiences should be designed to ensure that young people develop a love and respect for the natural environment and learn the precious, neglected knowledge of the natural world from indigenous cultures.

Recent political developments have led some to argue that truth does not mean what it used to, that humans are entering a post-truth era where communication strategies supersede the facts. “Understanding and mediating knowledge and truth construction, or the lack of it, is essential in an age of sound bites and alternative and often false positions broadcast on social media. Critical thinking techniques should be anchored in a 21st century education,” Hughes says.

At the core of any response to global challenges is “the age-old question of a person’s character: the moral fibre that will determine the scope and style of their response to any given situation”.

“Today’s world is fast changing and uncertain and therefore requires a particularly developed level of resolve and sturdiness. Character can be determined through three core concepts: discipline, ethics and emotional intelligence,” he says.

As part of character building, he believes that all educators need to teach what prejudice is, how it works and how to become aware of it. “It is part of a larger idea of metacognition, of knowing about knowing, learning about learning, helping learners understand the process of learning and meaning-making and that their impulses and assumptions tend to be prejudiced,” he explains.

“This is the first step towards reducing prejudice: becoming aware of this blind spot. It is essential in the process of becoming a critical thinker, capable of good judgment and guided by the ground rules of respect for all life and equal value for all human beings.”