Diplomacy of knowledge

Posted on Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Governor General David Johnston at the podium during his speech at the University.

His Excellency the Right Honourable Johnston, speaking at the Big Thinking session Innovation in Learning at the 2015 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, hosted by the University of Ottawa.

By Mike Foster

Governor General David Johnston urges professionals, teachers and students in the social sciences and humanities to innovate in education by working across disciplines and encouraging exchanges across territorial borders.

His Excellency the Right Honourable Johnston, speaking at the Big Thinking session Innovation in Learning at the 2015 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, hosted by the University of Ottawa, called for “the diplomacy of knowledge,”  a multidisciplinary approach that brings people together to advance learning.

Johnston cited three big drivers of the need for innovation in education: an increasingly competitive world, the rapid pace of technological change and the fact that much of what is known about the way the human brain works has been discovered only in the past 20 years.

“Practising this kind of knowledge diplomacy is a must when it comes to the most pressing, complex challenges facing our world,” says Johnston.

“Canada can’t afford to be complacent in its approach to learning. This is especially true given the competition we face in sectors like manufacturing, where we’re up against low-wage competitors in emerging markets,” he adds. “When it comes to learning, however, Canada has an advantage. Our educational system is known for excellence and for equality of opportunity, and our future well-being will be determined by our ability to renew that advantage for the 21st century. It is one that we must renew, given our highly competitive global context.”

Johnston says one of the greatest privileges of his role is that he gets to hand out awards that recognize the extraordinary achievements of Canadians in a multitude of disciplines. One “wonderful example of innovation in learning” he gave was that of Canada Research Chair in Theoretical Neuroscience Chris Eliasmith, who won the John C. Polanyi prize for building Spaun, a computer model of the human brain.

Eliasmith—a philosopher, systems design engineer, computer scientist and neuroscientist—won the award, supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, by showing “how doing things differently is sometimes the only way to unlock new knowledge and understanding,” says Johnston.

The right Honourable Johnston says it is up to everyone—from psychologists, to sociologists to philosopher— to shape what “renewal” in education will look like. However, he says Chad Gaffield, “one of Canada’s leading thinkers on learning” and uOttawa university research chair in digital scholarship, had highlighted how digital technologies were enabling new ways of thinking and a “reimagined focus on learning.”

Johnston put forward three ideas for innovation in education: organize learning around tackling a challenge, instead of revolving around a single discipline; measure success based on outcomes, rather than inputs; and ensure that every student in Canada has a chance to study or work abroad, or in another province or territory.

He added that applied educational research has shown active learning is more effective than passive learning and “learning is more effective when ideas are reinforced and presented interactively.”

In conclusion, Johnston posed five challenges: “One, recognize the importance of integrating knowledge and working across disciplines. Two, take advantage of new technologies and methods to talk to each other across professional and national languages—move past the jargon. Three, find ways to bring people together around knowledge. It enhances people and societies and reduces the likelihood of conflict. In my international forays, I call this the diplomacy of knowledge. Four, take what works from other disciplines and apply it to your own. And, five, celebrate Canadian excellence, both within the country and globally.”

The Right Honourable Johnston was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Ottawa in 2011. He is a former president of the University of Waterloo, former principal and vice-chancellor of McGill University, former chair of Universities Canada and chair of Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec.

The event also included a panel discussion with Alejandro Adem, CEO and scientific director of Mitacs; Sara Diamond, president and vice-chancellor of the Ontario College of Art and Design; and Miao Song, assistant professor of computer science and software engineering at Concordia University.

Back to top