Xavier Aragay: “The main purpose of education should be to help people develop fully in society”

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In an interview for the Observatory, Xavier Aragay, Director of Reimagine Education Lab, addresses the challenges and obstacles education faces today and the 21 keys to transform education.

Xavier Aragay Tusell has more than 25 years of experience in leadership, change management and educational innovation in universities and school networks. He was the founder, along with Gabriel Ferraté, of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) and Director of the same institution for twelve years. He was also General Director of Fundació Jesuites Educació (FJE) where he designed and led the Horizonte 2020 project. Currently, he is Director of Reimagine Education Lab and last September he published a book entitled Reimaginando la educación, 21 claves para transformar la escuela (Reimagining education, 21 keys to transform the school). In an interview with the Observatory, Xavier talks about his book, the challenges and obstacles education faces today and his mission to transform education.

Observatorio (O): How did Reimagine Education Lab was born?

Xavier Aragay (XA): Reimagine Education Lab was born from a vocation for service, a vocation to help others. It all began when I left Jesuitas Educación and people started calling me, it was then when I realized that there was a real need. Both the idea of the book and the idea behind Reimagine Education Lab were born from the same desire: to be able to help management teams , deans, teachers, entrepreneurs, students , fathers and mothers that are worried because they see education is not  working the way it should, and to be able to transfer the whole experience that I have obtained along these years and the experience  that I gained  in my journeys around the world, where I have been in touch with hundreds of management teams  and education clusters.

At present, there are many people who are willing to make the change, but I have lived in my own skin that doing so is not easy. It is very complicated. It is organic. That is why we have developed a methodology that brings aid, that provides criteria and a series of steps that accompanies people during the change process without imposing anything, because each institution is unique, it has its own history, its own charisma and context, therefore, this is a methodology that does not impose, on the contrary, it adapts to their  particular reality, it helps them to organize and systematize in order  make a change process.

Education has lost its direction because it has believed that the most important aspect of it is the transmission of curricular content, and it has forgotten that this is just an instrument we had to impact the development of a person.

O: Tell us about RIEDUSIS, the methodology you have developed.

XA: The RIEDUSIS methodology (system for re-imagining the education) was the one I used to create Horizonte 2020 project. This project was born with the key elements of this methodology. I applied them there. I made some adjustments and I saw it was working perfectly. The main characteristic of RIEDUSIS is that it places the person at the core of the innovation process.

Education has lost its direction because it has believed that the most important aspect of it is the transmission of curricular content, and it has forgotten that this was just an excuse, an instrument we had to be able to impact upon a person, in the development of a person at any stage.

It is interesting. If you observe the educational system of any country, it is like as if by magic, for the sole reason of opening a brain, pour content in it and then close it, automatically converts the student into a mature, reflexive, critical, creative, and innovative person. And it doesn’t  work that way.

This generation lives in an unstable world, and next generations will live in a world where they should have to re-imagine almost everything. So, what kind of education are we providing to a generation whose content will be obsolete in a short period of time? What the next generations will have to learn is to learn how to learn; how to create mind maps, how to search for information, how to systemize it, to debate and to reflect.

This methodology is designed to reach and help the institution at any stage. Whether they are just beginning an innovation process, or they are already advanced. We have even supported institutions that are very advanced in its transformation process but they have not evaluated this innovation. Because one of the obsessions I have is the evaluation process.


O: Why this obsession with evaluation?

XA: Because any innovation we want to introduce in the teaching and learning process must always go through an evaluation process. I am worried because I see that in many parts of the world there are innovations that have been introduced without any further evaluation. Our methodology suggests that from the same moment of any innovation design, an evaluation of that precise innovation must be also designed.

What new generations should have to learn is to learn how to learn; to make mind maps, how to search for information and to know how to systemize it, to debate, to reflect.

O: What is your diagnosis of the current state of l education?

XA: I believe that nowadays we must dedicate much more time and energy to talk about the meaning of education, its main purpose. What is education for? It is a question I always ask when visiting an institution. What is the meaning of education? To transmit knowledge? That is not and should be not education’s objective. What is the role of the university today? To create professionals? I do not see that clearly anymore. That is why education is in crisis.

In the education world, there is a real drama going on and it is that nobody realizes that it takes fifteen or twenty years for a person to be educated. Many people tell me: “No, that is not my job, I’m only in charge of an elementary school.” Nobody comprehends school in its entirety, from preschool to graduate education. Why don’t we design a plan for the student that includes its whole academic life? The main purpose of education must be to help people develop fully in society.

So in the face of this crisis, we have proposed a method that tries to go back to the roots. What is education for? And to help those who lead in education to reorient themselves, to leave that comfort zone and discover the future.


O: When was your book born? Talk to us about “Reimaginando la educación, 21 claves para transformar la escuela”

XA: This book is the product of my experiences at the UOC, Jesuitas Educación and at the Horizonte 2020 project. This book is not the product of confinement, rather,  it is a product of contrast, of seeing what is happening in the world and was born to give a series of keys to directors, to those responsible of making a change in education.

“Reimaginando la educación” is an attempt to help directors because sometimes I see them collapsed. They are absorbed by the day to day work because the day to day of any educational institution is incredible. It chews up their time and even though they dream of making a change, they never have the time to even start it. Moreover, they have certain mindsets, fears that need to be transformed, and that’s why the 21 keys I proposed in the book, keys that will try to attack what I see are the most important barriers to innovate.

There are managers who want to transform education but they are part of an accelerated culture. That’s why in this book, the first key to change is “Párate” (Stop) This is a key step in the innovation process. And the second step is to envision. If we don’t dream a little, if we do not visualize a different future you won’t be able to transform education

"Reimagining Education. 21 keys to transform the school"

"Reimagining Education. 21 keys to transform the school"

This book is for  anyone that  says: “I’m aware that education needs to change but, where do I start?”

The good news is that it is possible to transform education. Because we have proved it ourselves in 8 schools, with more than 13,000 students, almost 1400 teachers, in different socioeconomic contexts and educational levels, from preschool to high school and professional development. We have done it. It is possible to achieve it.

If you have a dream, if you have the will and you want to lead a change, then read this book. Contact me. If we work together  I guarantee you we can make it possible.

I see managers collapsed. They are absorbed by the day to day work because the day to day of any educational institution is incredible. It chews up their time and even though they dream of making a change, they never have the time to even start it.

O: What is the main obstacle when trying to innovate in education?

XA: This is a question I get asked frequently: what is the main constraint to make a change? Is it regulatory? Is it economical? Does it depend if teachers want it or not? I say no, it does not depend on any of these factors. The main problem lies in the director’s mindsets. The main obstacle when trying to make a change is that the manager has a limited mental framework and that is why it finds it hard to innovate.

Besides, many times they want to innovate from top to bottom and nowadays innovation is “bottom-up”, not “top-down”. Directors have mindsets from the 20th century. In the 20th century it was thought that things changed from the top, but in the 21st century, it is not possible to fully transform anything if it is not from the bottom.

That is why our methodology always starts with changing the leader’s mental frameworks. Sometimes I get told, “Let’s start with courses for our teachers.” I say: no. Teachers will be the last. Let’s start with you, with the administrative team. To then reach the teachers and the families, thus creating a coalition of change to move forward.

Education main purpose should be to help people develop fully in society.

O: In your book, you talk about the importance of allies to add knowledge and efforts. Who are your allies?

XA: This is really important because the 20th-century paradigm is that a great leader is the one that makes the change, and this is impossible in the 21st century. Today we need a distributed leadership. Hence the idea to have allies. Inside or outside the institution. As in-house allies we have the teachers, that’s why we must empower them, but also, we should empower students and families.

We must create a coalition of change. Not a consensus for change, the consensus is paralyzing and you get nothing from it. That’s why you must have a coalition that should be strong enough to help you in a process that won’t be easy. In any innovation project, everyone should seek for allies.

In my case, my allies are all those who are interested in transforming education and everyone who would like to join forces and views to make the change.

The 20th-century paradigm is that a great leader is the one that makes the change, and this is impossible in the 21st century. Today we need a distributed leadership.

O: One of the 21 elements of your book is “Pararse” (To stop, to slow down)”, something that seems simple but at the same time is difficult to achieve in the educational sector. Because as you mention in your book, schools suffer from “hyperactivism” how can we foster mindfulness and reflection at schools?

XA: This is a key element; the main one I would say. This element was born in the beginning as a personal quest. Back then I was a school manager myself when one day I realize the madness this was. I thought: “this week I have had too many occupations, but next week I will have enough time” and that was not true; years went by this way.

That is why you have developed a culture and an organization based on hyperactivism and this is contagious because the general director lives this way but the academic director and the faculty coordinator live this way too… this extends further. At the end, it seems that the ones not having difficulties, the ones not overloaded with work and obligations are frowned upon. “If this person has time to reflect, to read, it means it’s not working”. But that’s perverse. We have turned this around in such a way that the one having a reflexive work rhythm, the one that stops one day to read and add value, is the one without work.

What I advise is this: Take one day off. People tell me “No, I can’t, what about school?” Listen, the school will survive without you, it will be even better in your absence. Because there is a feeling that we are indispensable. But I tell managers, try this. Take one day off to reflect, to think, to win perspective. Try it. Prove it.

The next step is to take procedures so this is not a one day’s action. So you can pass along this practice. Then the next step is to suggest your team to practice this, to take a break. To make a group retreat where the team reflects and this way you can start transmitting this perspective.  

And at the same time, you start making yourself the transcendental questions: Where do I want my school to be in the next five years? How do I want to change it? What is my school’s mission? What is the meaning of education?

And then, we must make sure this practice reaches the classrooms as well. I believe in a “slow school”,  a school where kids don’t have to learn in a rush. Because there is a hypothesis that I reject completely, which is that a kid only learns by doing things. It is like if we want to create a race for kids so they don’t get bored, so they have always something to do.

I believe people don’t learn by doing activities, they get educated when they have the time to reflect on an activity and when they reflect the meaning behind that activity. What did I learn from this? And at school and at universities we do the opposite. We don’t have much time to reflect on what we do, over what we feel.

Sometimes we forget that a university, any school, is not more than people with other people, who do things so other people get to be people. There is no such a thing as an institution, it is the people that matter. Then we must go back there, to the people. Because we can’t make an educational change without changing people, without changing managers and directors.

There is a hypothesis that I reject completely, which is that a kid learns by doing things. I believe people don’t learn by doing activities, they get vocational training by having time to reflect.

O: The eighth element in your book is Confidence. You talk about the need to reestablish confidence in teachers, on students and on families. In Latin America, the teaching profession is very diminished. How can we reestablish confidence in teachers? Which is the first step?

XA: Here we have an issue that is transcendental. The paradigm of traditional education is to control. That is, teachers must control students because they don’t trust them. The management must control teachers because they don’t trust them, the education system must control schools because they don’t  trust them… that is the paradigm. The entire system is focused on control protocols.

Then we should change these control protocols in order to have trust protocols. And we must apply this at all levels. The faculty department must trust teachers, they are the ones in the classrooms, they have ideas and initiatives. Support them and trust them.

But at the same time,  teachers must trust students. If you as a teacher create an interesting atmosphere that starts from the kids interests, you will realize that they want to learn. It is not true that they are not interested in learning. The world is different from the one we lived when we were students. If we start from the student’s interests, we will realize the great interest they have in learning.

We directly lived this in Horizonte 2020. Families came to me and told me "I do not know what have you done exactly but before, my son pretended to have a fever so he would not go to school. And now, even if he has a fever, he wants to go". But it is possible to do this, we just need to trust them. We must generate a climate of challenges and confidence in each of the educational agents.


O: Which of the 21 keys of “Reimaimaginando la educación” represents the publication of this book?

XA: The book represents one clear key of the 21, and that key is to take risks. Writing a book is always a risk but I believe it was worth writing it because I trust that whoever reads it will read it because it is willing to transform education. Then this book represents 2 of the 21 keys, to take risks and to trust.


O: And of those 21 elements, in your opinion which is the most important?

XA: There are two: visualize and dream. Dare to visualize. It is incredible that many people don’t dare to do it. But if you don’t visualize, if you don’t dream, you won’t accomplish anything. That is the most important thing because if you can’t visualize where will your institution be in five years, then you won’t transform anything. You will do things, yes, but you will not know where these things take you. We must dare to dream.

I come from a generation where people  use to tell me: “Child, stop dreaming and get to work.” But today jobs have some dreaming involved necessary to transform things. A school manager has to dedicate part of his time to dream. Because he has to anticipate the future.

It is incredible that many people don’t dare to visualize. But if you don’t visualize, if you don’t dream, you won’t accomplish anything.

O: And speaking of dreams. What is yours?

XA: My dream is the flame of educational transformation reaches all parts of the world. Because when I see boys and girls, I see they are asking this generation to help them transform education so the world can be different.

I dream of a different world and I believe that the best instrument we have to transform it is education and for that is why I have written this book and that is why Reimagine Education Lab exists. To help everyone who really wants to make a change. There are many people who want to do it.


O: Whats next for Xavier Aragay and for Reimagine Education Lab?

XA: Work with teams, learn from them, contribute with everything we know and what we have acquired from our experiences. And who knows, maybe to write another book.

Today what we have to do is give students the necessary tools to learn throughout their lives and to learn to reinvent themselves.

O: In your opinion, what’s coming in the following years on the education field? What will be the main educational trend?

XA: Look, one of the most important problem that affects university graduates nowadays is that they don’t know what to do with their lives. There is a great confusion in young people today. The school has not provided the necessary tools so they know what they like, what they are good for.

Then the school should be doing that, helping young people discover their talent.. Everyone has a talent, what happens is that there are people who die without discovering it. And this is a tragedy not only for the student but also for the world. Because we have a shortage of talent.

The international trend will be to return to a Humanism, to a certain Renaissance. For two main reasons: first, because there is no challenge humanity has today that is not interdisciplinary. Today, the biggest challenges are interdisciplinary. In the 20th-century it wasn’t like that,  they were challenges of specialization. And the second reason is that we're going to have to compete with artificial intelligence. Automation will substitute us in many of the tasks that we do today but in a simpler and more efficient way, so what's the point?

Then this overspecialization of the second half of the 20th century must be reversed. What we have do today is give students the necessary tools to learn throughout their lives and to learn to reinvent themselves.There are institutions that are already betting on this but in the next five years we will begin to see this shift and universities will have to face a huge tsunami.

The future is this: more human than ever. The person in the center.