Meet the OEB23 Speakers: Keynote Helen Lee Bouygues

Helen Lee Bouygues, confirmed keynote for OEB23 and Founder of the Reboot Foundation, shares some insight into her career and life. She founded the Reboot Foundation with the mission to develop tools and resources to help people cultivate a capacity for critical thinking and reflective thought. She has spoken on the topic of critical thinking to audiences at the Smithsonian Institution, TEDx, HEC Paris, The European School of Economics, and with media outlets around the world. In her talks, Helen leads audiences through simple exercises and anecdotes that illustrate how anyone can improve their critical thinking skills.

Learn more about the person behind the speaker in this Q&A interview!

Who, or what, was your most important teacher?

This is a non-conventional answer, but “risk” has been an important teacher in my life. I’m not by nature someone who is impulsive or craves adventure, but there have been a few critical junctures where I took calculated risks, they paid off, and I learned a lot from the experience. One was moving to France in 2004 for a job despite the fact that I hardly spoke the language, having not taken any French classes or lessons beyond high school. Another was when I launched my own consulting business after working with Philippe Druon, a leading figure in Europe on the restructuring of troubled companies. A third was when I launched The Reboot Foundation to help elevate critical thinking. Through these experiences I learned that “risk” is both a great teacher and motivator. “Risk” taught me the importance of dispassionately thinking through a scenario, of understanding tradeoffs, and seeking honest feedback. These are skills that have proven invaluable to me throughout my career. 

What was your most important lesson?

One of those influential ideas that drives me is the understanding that I’ve embarked on a journey with no finish line. What I mean by that is, it’s often more important to ask the right questions than to have all the answers. To me, this is what it means to be a true critical thinker. That’s why I’m constantly questioning my own assumptions and walking through problems logically – reflecting on my thinking to better understand it. Critical thinking forces me to remain open to other perspectives and multiple sources of information. My background and life experiences give me a unique perspective, and I like to think that I see things differently. In my work as a business consultant, I am too often the only Asian – and the only woman – in the boardroom. It is an advantage, but I still try to solicit different points of view from those around me. It makes me less rigid, more open to changing my mind based on new information. It makes me a better thinker.

If you could try out any job for a day, what would you like to try?

I actually have two jobs that intrigue me. The first would be managing a high-performance sports team. Not necessarily because I am star-struck but because I’d like to better understand the nuances of how high-performance athletes think and are motivated. On a lighter note, my second choice of job for a day would be a pastry chef. I realize that they have grueling hours with massive variability in their jobs – I’ve heard that the humidity in a room can change the texture of dishes – but ultimately, it is a job that provides customers with pleasure and culinary satisfaction.

A genie gives your three wishes – what are they and why?

A new right knee so I could be a better runner. Patience to be a better mother to my pre-teen. A better photographic memory.

What current learning trend do you think will have a lasting impact?

With all the technological change driving the ways we communicate, I think media literacy is a critical skill, particularly for young people. With the growth of AI, computer-generated content, and all the disinformation on social media, it is becoming too easy to conjure and spread bad information for the sole purpose of deceiving or harming people. Strong media literacy and critical thinking skills are necessary to sort fact from fiction. A focus on media literacy will help young people identify when they are being tricked or misdirected and will contribute to better learning and understanding.

Which technology, in your view, had the biggest influence on the way we learn now?

I’m a bit old fashioned. I understand that technology has its place in schools and in learning, but I’m still a fan of the pencil – it’s still the greatest learning tool, in my opinion. Reboot has studied the role of technology and learning outcomes and found the results mixed. In one international study we conducted, students who reported low-to-moderate use of school technology tended to score higher on tests than non-users. Another study my Reboot Fundation funded looked at learning between students who used technology vs. those who were encouraged to use paper and pencil on math assignments. The pencil users outscored their classmates by 13 points. When you use a pencil, you’re forced to go slower, to think, to explain. As a result, you better understand the work. Sometimes technology can help us move faster but prevents us from really understanding the basic principles we’re studying. 

What is the coolest gadget/ technology/ tool you have seen lately?

Technologies change rapidly so it’s hard to keep up. Certainly, ChatGPT has caught the world’s attention, and I am very concerned about how AI will impact learning. From what I’ve seen, ChatGPT has great appeal, but it could have far-reaching, unanticipated, and potentially harmful consequences in the long term. Trust and good faith are still bedrock principles in schools and in business, and AI bots have neither. Students still need to be able to analyze arguments, distill facts, and reason through problems. ChatGPT – thankfully – can’t yet do any of these things. I believe the learning engineers who are building these bots need to think hard about how to ensure this technology doesn’t gain an outsized influence on the way we learn.

Who would you recommend in the learning world to follow on social media right now?

One of the people I follow right now is Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University. He’s one of the big voices on the harm social media is having on kids and he is exploring the influence of this technology and social networking in the political sphere as well. He also wrote the Coddling of The American Mind, a very influential book on how the American higher education system is failing students.

What would be the title of your autobiography?

“Come Labor On.” It’s from the hymnal “Come Labor On” from Jane L. Borthwick and it influenced me greatly in high school and throughout my formative years.  Not to be too much of the stereotypical hard-working Korean, but I always found the words and the music of this piece to be very upbeat:  “Come, labor on. Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain while all around us waves the golden grain?  And to each servant does the Master say, “Go work today.” I believe work helps us give shape to not only ourselves but the world around us, in positive ways – so why stand idle?

What was your first thought about our overall theme, ‘The Learning Futures We Choose’?

I like the message captured by the theme: The learning futures that we “choose.” Choice is vital to our growth and development. In many ways, education and learning mirrors good health habits or good nutrition. What we choose to put into our bodies is essential for our growth and development – it fuels and powers us to achieve great things. What we choose to put into our brains is no different. The choices we make about how we learn, what we learn, the effort we put into are reflective of good critical thinking. Critical thinking is being actively practiced when we reason with logic; when we gather and weigh evidence. The result is that our choices are improved and more reliable. That leads to a much stronger learning future.

Do you have a final message for the OEB community?

I agree with OEB’s assessment that technology opportunities and challenges are transforming the world of learning. I think if we employ some of the tenets of critical thinking – metacognition or reflective thinking, seeking different perspectives, being analytical and thorough in our research and study – we can explore these new opportunities to make sure they benefit society and students everywhere. I’m excited to be a part of this conversation and can’t wait to learn from the other speakers.

Thank you, Helen.
Written by Helen Lee Bouygues for OEB Global 2023.

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