The best teaching starts with those who teach

Adrian Kearney, director of IB talks about how to keep it relevant in a world that’s changing rapidly.

What’s the idea behind International Baccalaureate (IB)?

The IB has just celebrated its 50th anniversary, and since its foundation, which dates back to 1968, it has achieved a lot in terms of education and transformation. There are two main reasons the IB came into being. The first one is philosophical: in the post-world war debate, the main question the education community had to untangle was how to avoid conflict escalating into worldwide carnage again. IB’s founders translated this question into how to shape young people’s lives by having them empathize with the needs of others and develop the necessary language and interpersonal skills to negotiate and deal with the trials and tribulations that life throws at them. This has been one of the main propellers behind IB, and it still is: the aim of our programs, as our mission statement reads, is to develop internationally-minded people who recognize their common humanity, share ownership of the planet and help to create a better and more peaceful world. The second reason is very practical: in the early 1950s, people began to travel much more than before. The idea, then, was to have international schools that served this new community and provide their children with an education system that was not entirely cemented to the country in which it was being offered.

What’s the first subject you developed the Diploma Programme on?

The founders began with history, developing a programme that had no national perspective, where students could learn to be reflective and see the perspectives of other nations on historical events. The IB’s conception back then was the result of a joint effort between people coming from different institutions. For example, there have been strong links with the University of Oxford and the International Schools Association, especially concerning the idea of interdisciplinarity, and also with Kurt Hahn’s United World Colleges movement’s principles of creativity, action, and service.

These foundations created an education that was positive and wide in its perspectives. Issues rarely have one answer and what has kept IB relevant is that it links subjects together – this collaborative focus is found throughout IB and is one of the most understood catalysts of innovation today and what is required for the workforce of tomorrow.

How do IB programmes work?

We have four programmes covering the 3 to 19 age groups: Primary Years Programme (PYP), Middle Years Programme (MYP), Diploma Programme (DP) and Career-related Programme (CP). The students have an active role in their learning experience: as I’ve heard saying, if Einstein had been educated in the UK system, he wouldn’t have gone as far as he did, due to limitation caps on what can be taught, and thus learned. This education system, instead, does have a set of assessments, but it also gives the students the chance to show what they can do – something that’s liberating for both students and teachers. To us, it’s all about constructing the learning with the learners, through a project and inquiry-based education. It’s about the knowledge, but it’s also about the skills and attitudes around it and their impact on people. We focus on the learner, and on the learning, rather than on the teaching.

How many schools do you have worldwide? How does a school become an IB World School?

We have over 5,000 authorized schools in 153 countries, each with a distinct profile and are both part of public and private education systems. To be authorized, schools have to work through a two-year transformational change. What they need to do is show that they’re aligned to the IB mission and that they can deliver on the standards required, as well as sustain it over time. Finally, they go through a substantial professional development.

Are you a substitute for traditional schools?

No, we don’t replace national systems, we are more focused on complementing rather than replacing. To give you an example, in Japan we work hand in hand with the ministry, who asked us to help them train an internationally monitored, critical thinking workforce. Something very similar is happening in Spain, where the ministry wanted to adopt IB to impact their own university system positively but also to uphold attendance retention in the early years.

What’s the hiring process of IB World School teachers?

As we don’t accredit schools but authorize them, first of all, teachers need to fulfill the requirements within the system they work in, be it national or private. This said, every year we train more than 80,000 teachers, with professional development and workshops not only for schools to become authorized but as ongoing professional development, too, meaning that we influence and uniquely engage teachers. We train some teachers as educators with a peer-to-peer model and have them provide workshops, consultancy, and support to new schools to help on-board them. We also run large conferences for our heads and educators throughout the world: our aim is not to have a standalone school, but real communities wherein we exchange best practices and ideas about how to make the IB work in their own setting and context. It is a global learning community of teachers who aim to inspire one another.

How do you create your programs?

We essentially work on a committee structure with the whole community. Everyone helps with the design of the curricula, making sure those they have developed are fit for purpose. We spend a lot of time looking at other systems and benchmarking with the Learning and Teaching Division, continually defining and pushing up what is best for IB education. Our reference points are leading universities, employment rates, as well as consultations with different parties. We’re working on a continual cycle of renewal and refinement at the kind of pace that schools appreciate, but we also spent a lot of time working on the alignment and the continuum of education, on the connectedness between the different stages of the learning path.

What about the digital transformation? Does this change in society reflect on your programs?

We are training students for jobs that don’t exist yet, and of course, this is a huge challenge. The IB is putting greater emphasis on skills rather than simply knowledge, which is already a big advantage in this sense: knowledge is important but it’s actually the skills and aptitude that we’re developing within learning that are really crucial. In terms of technology, our schools are of course at keeping pace with innovation and are using it according to its impact on their learners. But technology is not always meaningful in the classroom: it is a tool, which can be useful or not depending on the context. A big trend is for sure that of e-learning environments and e-assessments: we are developing one, making sure that it can be implemented by any school.

Are there any criticisms of IB that you would like to answer?

The most common criticism of IB is that it came from an elitist place. But I think that when you look at the footprint of IB it is anything but. The University of Chicago, for example, released a study according to which Chicago Public School students enrolled in the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme (DP) are 40%more likely to attend a four-year college, 50%more likely to attend a more selective college and significantly more likely to persist in four-year colleges for at least two years, versus similar students who did not enroll in the IB Diploma Program. Such case studies show that IB aids schools that have limited resources, with similar findings in the so-called coastal ‘coasting’ towns of Kent in the UK. All over, and throughout its history, IB has made significant, positive change. As we all know, the school-workplace connection today is weak, and we have a plethora of projects which have bridged that.

At the same time, we have a proven track record of raising students who end up going to Cambridge and Oxford. Underpinning everything we do are the right kind of learning attributes that provide our learners with the right attitudes in that they have lifelong, worthwhile commitments to doing good. Ultimately, it comes down to putting learners at the center of their education, because without them, how can we hope to learn?

Image: Universal Everything, Helmet Lady. ArtFutura 2017.

AI and self-driving cars

When creating AI, time is not always on our side. The goal of AI is to create systems that exhibit behaviors that are comparable to human intelligent behaviors. Some of us have read this sentence (or something similar) in the last few years so many times that we might almost take it for granted. We also know that this aspiration is difficult, and that, at the moment, even if progress in some areas of AI application have been fast in the last few years, we are still far from our goal.

It took millions of years for the human brain to evolve (from the first tiny mammals of 250 millions ago to the H. Sapiens), and as far as we know, the human brain is the only natural object that exhibits general intelligence. Nevertheless, we have the idea that the “evolution” of the artificial mind will be much faster than the evolution of the biological brain. This impression is based on the fact that neural networks are computer programs, and training them involves computational processes inside machines, that are more powerful than humans. Increasing the machine’s power, with the right algorithms, usually causes increased performance in less time. We are not only conquering intelligence, we are also conquering time: we do not need the painstakingly long process of trials and errors that evolution had to endure.

Time, however, is still a problem. Consider autonomous driving, one of the Holy Grails of contemporary AI. Automated Vehicles are robotic systems that contain three primary stages of functionality: Sense, Plan, and Act. Sense is the ability to accurately perceive the environment around the vehicle. Plan, or driving rules, is the ability to make decisions about what strategic (i.e. change lanes) and tactical (i.e. overtake the red car) actions to take. Act is the execution of the decision (translated into mathematical trajectories and velocities) to actuators within the vehicle to perform the driving decision. The stages of sensing and planning are the most likely sources of mistakes that might lead to accidents.

We can assume that society will not tolerate road fatalities caused by machines, so the guarantee of safety is crucial to social acceptance of autonomous vehicles. So how do we guarantee safety? The typical response from autonomous vehicle practitioners is returning to a statistical data-driven approach, where safety validation improves as mileage data is collected.

In recent papers, Amnon Shashua and his colleagues from Mobileye discuss the problematic nature of a data-driven approach to safety. When humans are driving, the probability of a fatality caused by an accident is known to be one out of a million hours driven. We may assume that for society to accept machines to replace human drivers, the fatality rate should be greatly reduced, for example, by three orders of magnitude, to a probability of one in a billion per hour (in aviation standards, this is the same probability that a wing will spontaneously detach from the aircraft in mid-air). Given these assumptions, can we guarantee safety using a data-driven approach?

According to Shashua and his colleagues, the answer is no. The amount of data required to guarantee a probability of one in a billion fatalities per hour of driving is roughly in the order of 30 billion miles. Moreover, a multi-agent system interacts with its environment and thus cannot be validated offline, thus any change to the software, of planning and control, will require a new data collection of the same magnitude: this is clearly unwieldy. 

We simply do not have the time to collect and validate the data, let alone the algorithm to learn, run the simulations, and obtain results. The guarantee of safety in autonomous driving shows that the long process of learning through trials and errors is still with us: “The progress of AI is certainly much faster than we expected.” These were the words of U.C., Berkeley Computer Science professor, Stuart Russell, who co-edited, A Modern Approach to AI, in a 2017 TED talk. But time is not always on our side.

Image: Renault Float – concept by Yunchen Cai, Central Saint Martins for Renault.

People not tasks

“People, not tasks, are at the core of your organization — create a three spoke flywheel to get them maximally engaged.”

Adding value to workers

Organizations that consistently add value to their employees, and other workers in their organization will be able to attract, retain, and keep the best people at their top level. Staff will be highly engaged by having their value improved during their time at work. 

Highly-engaged teams show 21 percent greater profitability

This finding by Gallup, as reported by Forbes, punctuates the fact that employee engagement consists of actual behavior, not an abstract feeling. Organizations that view engagement as a feeling conduct employee surveys and offer perks to improve results. The report finds that the most successful workplaces make employee engagement central to their business strategy. 

A reinforcing flywheel for engagement

Organizations that have a ‘people-oriented’ vision will, therefore, perform structurally better than their competitors and thereby create a sustainable business advantage.

The model is to deploy people where their talents and capacities are optimally utilized and rewarded. Next to that, you also have to ensure optimal learning so that they continue to develop. This makes the age-old learn, then earn, then returna continuous cycle during working life rather than following its previous linear format. To optimize this cycle, organizations have to create an accompanying flywheel to address these three elements.

Rather than organizing work around tasks, the idea is to structure work around people and their skills. Increasing skills and knowledge contributes to the potential to do valuable work, so education is part of the equation. We are seeing new forms of education emerging, like at H-Farm, partly through online access to information and partly as a consequence of longer lives and thus longer careers. It no longer seems possible to learn for a while, earn for a while, and then retire. Careers may extend over periods of six decades or more during which time technology will have dramatically changed society and its needs. Continued learning will be needed during a working career. Indeed, people with long lives may have multiple careers over time. 

Who are the role models? 

Google has claimed the top spot on Glassdoor’s annual list of the 50 best places to work, as well as Fortune magazine’s annual list of the 100 best companies for whom to work multiple times over the years. This is in part because Google offers some of the best employee perks, opportunities for career growth, work that positively impacts the human race, and innovative culture. Google has transformed learn, earn, and return into a reinforcing three-spoke flywheel.

What if you are a ScaleUp and not Google?

You might argue that once you are one of the largest companies in the world and have all the cash you can imagine, and can select and retain the very best people, it would be easy to implement this flywheel. But what if you are a ScaleUp with limited funds and significant challenges, and are struggling to keep up with the pace of growth? There are four things you can do right off the bat:

  • First, picking the right people to manage at the stage you are at (not where you will be in two years) and getting them up to speed and inspiring them, is key!
  • Second, making sure you know how engaged your workforce is. Measuring employee engagement is the first step to improving both it and productivity in the workplace. If you don’t know what’s going on, you can’t find or solve problems. As well as judging engagement on the quality and quantity of work produced, it is also essential to ask your team how they feel about the level of support they are receiving. Ask them how satisfied they are with their work, how valued they feel;
  • Third, give them the opportunity to constantly learn and improve themselves.
  • Finally, while employee satisfaction is not the same as employee engagement, it is essential to remember that when employees are given a voice and sufficient autonomy to be productive and innovative, success will follow. Engaged employees are committed to the business they work for. They are invested in achieving its potential, proactive and productive, and serve as ambassadors for the company. 

Final considerations

Usually, fully-engaged employees go above and beyond what is expected of them and will put everything into making the business a success… So you better hire the right people and treat them well and create your own three-spoke flywheel of engagement. 


Image source: United States Geological Survey

The empire of Sensorium

Intelligence has many facets. So far, we have been transferring the computational and logical side of intelligence to machines, forgetting that there is something else that beats to the time of life: it’s the time of emotions, the time of perception.

Computing power, cost and time efficiency, information processing capacity, data and language, logical thinking, semantic constructs: the comparisons between artificial and human intelligence are most often played on this field. Since its early days, human history has been studded with technical achievements that allowed people to transfer increasingly more sophisticated tasks to machines. In return, humans have gained the advantage of time, as machines carry out multiple tasks with great precision allowing us to expand our abilities on an exponential scale.

It is exactly that ability, the one that enables machines to increase and extend our intelligence which we refer to as super-intelligence.

But what do we really mean by that? Are we implying that machines have become smarter than us? What can, and cannot, artificial intelligence do? To what extent does technology extends our free will and does it resemble us? How does it actually process the world around us?

This investigation could start by looking for similarities between these two intelligences. Or, it could start by analyzing their differences. One of the first differences that come to mind is the human body, as described by the English poet, William Blake, in 1790 in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that called Body is a portion of Soul discerned by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.”

Following the trail Blake left in this fragment, we could ask ourselves if what really sets us apart from machines is our intellect, or rather, the purely subjective and human nature of our sensations and emotions that make us who we are. Italian philosopher, Emanuele Coccia, considered that question in Sensible Life: A Micro-ontology of the Image “We consider ourselves as rational, thinking, speaking beings yet, for us to live is above all to look, taste, touch, or smell the world. Our primary relationship with the world as it exists is not an act of immaterial contemplation, nor a practical, moral, and ethical fact. Our relationship with the world is a sensible life: sensations, smells, images, and above all, a restless production of sensible realities.”

Sensorium was created to investigate and honor the sensitive and emotional nature of human beings. Held in Milan and powered by Gucci during the Fast Company Festival “The dawn of superintelligence” this interactive exhibition explored the depths of the human sensory apparatus. A sacred place where experiences are created using advanced technologies and innovative solutions to express and amplify emotions or “Super-senses” challenging intellectual and cognitive functions. This experience happened inside a dark and mesmerizing emotional chamber, that showcased unique startups and artistic installations. Participants explored six different areas, each dedicated to a specific emotion, by performing actions or being exposed to various stimuli that created an experience. 

Each visitor was invited to experience their own journey through the room of marvels — an open space with no pre-established rules, which encouraged visitors to experience an alternative perspective of time. As French novelist, Marcel Proust, said at the beginning of the 20th century: “An hour is not merely an hour; it is a vase full of scents and sounds and projects and climates.” And, we all know how the time spent in fear, wonder, love, or pleasure, creates a subjectively different experience. Our sensitive and permeable nature interacts with the rest of the universe, shortens and dilates how we feel without quantitative criteria. 

That’s why Sensorium had a built in limbo space an antechamber where visitors would “decompress” from the real world before beginning the experience — leaving behind “time of efficient reasoning” (governed by the smartphone) and to settle in the “time of pure feeling” (the sensorium experience). As stated in the Sensorium manifesto found at the entrance: 

“Prepare yourself for this immersive experience: an intimate dialog, a descent into the unspoken, a sensational journey, a stereophonic kaleidoscope. Beyond this threshold, you will discover the wisdom of your own sensitive intelligence. You will need very few things, very few and exclusively your own: pure heart, carefree mind and the entire spectrum of your super-senses.”

Stripped of their conventional criteria and measurable certainties, visitors were invited to an exploration journey based on intuition and curiosity in a Dogville-inspired, 350 mq laboratory divided into six areas, each dedicated to the perceptual experience of an emotion. Sensorium’s meaningful experiences were chosen on the basis of two criteria:

  1. The emotions had to correspond to a simple perceptual stimulus, one associated with artwork which required minimal thinking to be understood.
  2. The experience had to be interactive and based on a fascinating but somewhat undiscovered technology, moreover, its technical complexity had to be invisible and promote spontaneous interaction.

Sensorium explored the area of wonder, fear, empathy, excitement, love, and déjà vu: a collection of emotional states typical of human beings turned into artistic experiences with cutting-edge intelligent technology — one that is present but not perceived as oppressive or invasive.

Like human beings, Sensorium was designed to be constantly transformed: It could grow, generate other experiences, or find new locations with different forms.

Wonder: A mixed state of joy and doubt

Audio-visual infinity mirrors designed by Italian collective Ölo farm. The visitor was invited to get lost while contemplating reflections and colors in a magical well.

Fear: It may be as old as life on Earth. How does your brain do this?

A 3D Razer and six sound environments, designed in collaboration with sound designer Riccardo Alfano to explore the different shades of fear.

Empathy: You as if you were another, looking with someone else’s eyes. How does it feel being the other?

Looking at images of emotionally intense experiences activates complex brain areas. In this installation, a headset from neurotechnology company, Arctop, measured a visitor’s brain activity as they watched an image sequence.

Excitement: Succumb to provocation, a magnetic attraction. Feel like touching it?

Through WeArt’s ring that can apply forces, vibrations, and temperature changes to the skin, and Wovo’s sex toys, it was possible to “feel” the touch of objects and layers that are not physically present, but are shown on video.

Love: The sublime mental state that makes the world go round

A tactile dialogue between visitors is made possible by kinect technology and a collaboration with algorithmic artist Andres Villa Torres.

Déjà vu: Does time exist? Now is now or a little while ago?

A selfie is created from digital particles and is immediately turned into a pile of ash in collaboration with the new media art and design collective, Pangenerator.


Last July, The dawn of super-intelligence, the European Innovation Festival organized by Fast Company and powered by Gucci, posed a series of questioned about the future of society and explored the answers with innovators, historians, communicators, doctors, and artists. 

H-FARM was asked by Gucci  which has been actively exploring technology and innovation during the past few years to build an experience that investigates the borders and overlaps between artificial intelligence and human skills.

This is how Sensorium was born, an interactive environment made of six installations dedicated to super senses and designed together with artists and startups that have put the most refined technologies at the service of an emotional experience.

Photo by Giulia Pittioni