‘What problems do you want to solve? Lessons learned at CEMUS can be applied anywhere!’ by Jonathan Nylander

CEMUS Diaries Entry - week 41 

Jonathan Nylander
CTO of Creatica Lab 酷课创意教育 (Spring 2015 CEMUS student, part of the UU delegation to COP21)


There are a whole lot of people out there who think our education systems are outdated. Are you perhaps one of them? If we look at how the majority of these systems function, American, Chinese or British, it is clear that the de facto purpose of the education is to perform well on a certain test or examination. Have you ever reflected on the fact that the examination hall is the only place, with exception for grandma’s cabin and airplanes, where teenagers today do not have Internet access? However, some technology is still allowed, such as pencils, rulers and most advanced of them all: the calculator.


A 4G tower is being built in the village next to grandma’s cabin, and Finnair is offering WiFi on their flights today, but when will our educational institutions allow the most essential and powerful tool of the 21st Century into the examination hall?

Image Source: aipvt.com



You might ask why I make such a big deal of this somewhat small issue, but please hear me out. If the Internet were allowed in the examination hall, there would no longer be any point in asking questions like “What is Ernst Heinrich Weber known for?” because the answer is a 5 seconds search away. It would force the exam to start testing students’ ability in meta learning, or learning how to learn, or life long learning or whatever buzzword of your choice. Instead, a question might look something like “Design a 3D model of a tool that help young children learn mathematics in a playful manner. Submit your model in STL format together with a document explaining your thinking behind the design”. Such a question takes the student on an Internet adventure, finding a 3D modelling software, searching for YouTube tutorials, empathize with the target audience and using their creativity to come up with a solution to the problem.


This would in turn change the role of teachers and classrooms, because rote memorization is no longer of value. The whole curriculum would have to change, and the teacher training short thereafter. Perhaps it would even make us ask the fundamental question of the purpose of education. The small act of allowing Internet to be used inside the examination hall has a big impact because it’s a leverage point in the education system.


Image source: Leyla Acaroglu (https://medium.com/@leyla_Acaroglu)


This is not my own idea, but inspired by the great educator Sugata Mitra. My long intro, however, serve the purpose to explain that my biggest take-away from studying at CEMUS is to see the beauty of this kind of approach to problem-solving, formally known as systems thinking. We live in a world of systems, and we need to be honest about the complexity when solving big and wicked problems. I have seen smartphones apps with the mission statement of “solving the problems democracy is facing today” and companies claiming to solve this and that issue with their product alone. That is ridiculous and an insult to others working on solving the same problem. This brings me to my next role model, Indy Johar, who is advocating for systems thinking in social innovation. Indy also push the idea for building movements of change, in part because no single company or government department can solve these wicked issues by themselves. It has to be a collaborative effort, and we have to transcend the public and private sector paradigm.


That’s the point I have come to in my education career. I don’t think I can build a single company or service that will solve all of the problems related to our education system and the future of our society. After graduating with a degree in Computer Science, I began teaching high school programming classes, co-founded a maker club for children in Stockholm. As I went traveling, I got exposed to the concept Unschooling and its practitioners which planted a seed that has been growing in my head ever since. It grew so big that it made me quit my job as a primary school teacher as I saw first hand how the system fail many children in different ways. Right now, I am working for an edtech start-up in Beijing. Here in Beijing, I have met many other educators with the heart in the right place and we are now pondering how to impact the education system at large to help many of those children how are falling between the cracks of the system. Obviously, systems thinking and related tools are very useful in this context, but despite the tools, trying to come up with potential solutions for these problems ain’t easy. However, I recommend you start your systems thinking journey by getting a copy of Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows.

As of now, I am trying to tackle problems in education, but what problems will spark my imagination the coming years? I actually don’t know right now. Something I do know is that I am getting increasingly excited and interested in the cryptoeconomic space and blockchain technology. I believe this technology can help us to change economic incentives and create better sustainable economic models for the future. Oh, to whoever is the course coordinator of The Global Economy at CEMUS, you totally need to add some lectures on Bitcoin (a simple decentralized “central bank”) and more general purpose blockchains such as Ethereum (a platform for executing smart contracts).


The fact that someone will share this post to one of the course coordinators of The Global Economy, who will in turn read that and at least do some research about my suggestion, that is why CEMUS is cool. It is a community that do not fear change but rather embrace and adapt to it. Exactly what the education system should be doing.


If you are interested in chatting about all the things I have been writing about here, please shoot me a message on Twitter!

This is a part of the 25th Anniversary blog series “CEMUS Diaries: Stories from past, present and future”, where we invite present and former staff, students, work group members, associates, and other CEMUS friends to reflect on their time at CEMUS and shed critical light into the future. Read the other CEMUS Diaries entries here.


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