Toby Newton Human Technologies

Human Technologies


In this video, Eleni  Vardaki interviews Toby Newton, Head of School at the International College of Hong Kong about how ICHK is going beyond beyond simply focusing on helping students achieve excellent exam results through a course they’ve created called Human Technologies. ICHK’s focus is far more ambitious: developing a truly 21st century education, supportive of learning for all students in a rapidly changing world, in which qualities of character and self-belief are so central to success.


ELENI VARDAKI: So let’s dive in. I’m really excited that you’re sharing with our audience here your Human Technologies course. And before we go into that framework for understanding why it is that so many kids and parents and people are stressed, and what we can do about it to bring back some balance, let’s talk about the following question: What does it mean to be human?

TOBY NEWTON: So you’ve mentioned that what we’re gonna be talking about his Human Technologies. And clearly in order to understand that as something that we’re doing in this school, you have to be able to understand “human” and “technology”, and then put them together. So yeah, I start with the “human”.

The critical thing for me is that we have to understand that we’re a living creature. We have an evolutionary past. There’s a legacy concerned with that, and that you can’t just wish it away. So one of the things that you have to do, if you are going to work with young people (or indeed teachers or indeed anybody, the community in general) if you are going to make them thrive, is that that has to be couched within the fact that they are living creatures, with an evolutionary cost. And that you ignore that at your peril.



Now if I was to say a little bit about what that evolutionary past means, for me, it takes me on to a myth from one of your compatriots! A very ancient compatriot. And it’s the idea of Epimethius. I don’t know if you know the Epimethius myth, which is the prolude to Prometheus. So everyone knows that Promethea gave humankind fire, right? What they don’t know is why he had to give humankind fire.

So the story about Epimetheus, his cousin, is that Epimetheus was task by Zeus with giving all of the animals their attributes in order to be able to thrive in the world. And Epimetheus gave these attributes to all the various different animals. So he gives the bear very strong paws and talents. He gave the dogs big jaw. He gave the monkey strong arms, and so on and so forth.

And when the bag was empty, he looked around and found this pathetic, weak venerable creature that said “What about me?”. And Epimetheus said, “Sorry, I’ve run out of stuff.” And that creature was humans, of course.

TOBY NEWTON: So there we are, we are this weak, vulnerable creature who have been poorly endowed nature – other than the fact that we have very big brains. So what Prometheus did was came along and said “Right, pathetic man, I give you these gifts. And what I give you is fire and crafts.”

And that to me is a fascinating little myth, because what it tells us is that while humans may not be homosapiens (there’s no very great evidence I think that we’re wise), I think that there is evidence that we are homo-technologicus. That we can’t survive without our technologies.

So here we are, this creature, poorly endowed by nature, in all other respects other than the fact that we have this oversized brain (which is both a blessing and a curse), and we are utterly dependent on our technologies. So that is the lead-in.

Once you understand that that is the human condition, then you can ask yourself, “Well what are these Technologies that Prometheus gave us?” We’ve named one already, which is fire.

But what are these other crafts and arts and techniques that we were given by evolution, and we need to get to grips with that, I think, if we are going to have a happier life as humans.

That’s the answer, “What is it to be a human?” It’s to be both blessed and cursed by the evolutionary process, but finally completely dependent on the technologies that have got us to this point in our evolutionary history.


ELENI VARDAKI: And what does “Technology” refer to, in your Human Technologies course? How would you define technologies? 

TOBY NEWTON: Okay, well this is where it gets really quite technical, so I hope that the viewership are patient with me. Technology in the 20th century has come to mean “physical stuff”. Physical tools, gadgetry, devices. And that meaning really has continued into the 21st century and arguably has become even more narrowly defined.

However, if you go back and look at the etymology of the word, what you discovered is that the Greek from which it comes Techne (Tέχνη) means art and crafts + -ology (λογία) refers to a body of knowledge. So technology: the knowledge of art and craft.

So technology is the art and craft of whatever domain it is that you happen to be operating in at that given moment. 


TOBY NEWTON: And I’ll give you an example. The one I usually use is medicine. So if you were to talk about the art and craft of medicine, I don’t imagine that you would default to scalpels and stethoscope and FMRI machines, and say, “That is medical technology”.

You would say, “Of course that’s an aspect of medical technology, but equally important are the doctors who operate that machinery.” Correct?

And so with the doctor, what you’d really be interested in with the doctor is: “Does she have a good bedside manner? Is she able to organize a good team in the operating theater? Does she keep up-to-date with the most recent research in whatever branch of medicine she’s working? Is she someone who is prepared to take advice from other people with good grace in order to make herself a stronger practitioner?” And so on, so forth.

So actually the art and craft of medicine would be much more around that human, psychological, anthropological dimension, than it would be about physical tools.


TOBY NEWTON: The same thing would be true of any domain that we talk of. We can say the same thing about sport. The art and craft of sport is tactics, skills, and teamwork as much as it is balls and bats. When we talk about technology we really are talking about something much wider than simply physical gadgets, devices and tools. And you might now say, “Wow, that means there are so many technologies.” And we would say yes, “Absolutely”.


TOBY NEWTON: So what we’ve then done is create a technology in order to understand the Human Technologies. And that is what we, at the International College of Hong Kong, called The Human Tech Venn diagram. And the Venn Diagram is – if you can imagine a four leaf Venn diagram, nested within a larger circle. So there is an overarching, enveloping circle, and then within it a four circle venn diagram (See  FIGURE 1 below).

And what we have done there is we have categorized Human Technologies into these 5 different types. The reason why we use the Venn diagram is to suggest that these type usually overlap. Very often, when you are practicing a technology or rehearsing a technology, or drawing a technology, it’s not just to serve one particular category; it’s a cross-fertilization of categories.

FIGURE 1. The Human Tech Venn diagram



TOBY NEWTON: For example, shaking your hands would be a Somatic Technology, because you use your body. And that in fact is the enveloping circle. Everything, because we’re human, and we are body-bound, we are physical corporeal creatures, so everything always comes from our bodies. And it would also be a Social Technology which will be one of the four (and I’ll tell you what the other ones are in a moment). It will be one of the four circles inside, and it’s social, because obviously it’s other-directed. So you’re using your body in order to make a connection with another person. And you’re drawing the technology which requires both of those things – the Somatic and the Social – in order to fulfill its full purpose. 

The example I’ve given is shaking hands, but I can give you many more. For example, breathing. Breathing is the most natural thing in the world. And as I speak to you, I can see you, the viewers can’t, but I just saw you taking in a deep breath, because I suddenly alerted you to the idea of breathing, right? You’ve suddenly become aware of this thing that of course you’re doing constantly or otherwise you would die! However, we can have technologized your breathing. And this is something that the schools are doing very often, of course, now.

We talk about Mindfulness. And we teach the students how to breathe in a way that allows them to be more mindful. Now for us, that is a Somatic Technology. This is something that you can do with your body, and you can have technologized a natural part of your human condition, in order to make it more effective for a particular purpose. So that would be somatic.


TOBY NEWTON: As I say there are 4, and I have talked about one of them, but I will start with another one, which is Cognitive. And this we would argue is what schools tend to make their stock and trade. They tend to focus on Cognitive Technologies. And Cognitive Technologies are technologies that allow you to think straight or better or more effectively, and I am using one now: Language. So for me, Language is a Cognitive Technology. It’s also of course a Social Technology, because other people use it. But if I don’t have it my thinking is much less straight.

And one of the reasons we would try and convince our students to read more, and to learn more vocabulary and to become more fluent and more conversant, is because it helps their thinking and it helps that Cognitive Technology of expressing oneself okay. Sometimes socially, and sometimes to oneself, you know in the form of something a diary, maybe or an internal monologue.

Mathematics, for us, is a technology. It shouldn’t sit alone as a separate  discipline. We should think of it as a Number Technology; it allows us to do things with numbers.



TOBY NEWTON: And then we will move onto Material Technologies. And by that we mean what most people mean by “technology”. So the computer that I’m talking to now is a Material Technology. The pen that I was making some notes with before I came on here is a technology. The table that I’m sitting at is a technology. Once you’ve adopted the Human Tech perspective, instead of these devices being something mysterious and something other, they just become another set of technologies – which you can either use, if they’re useful, or note use, if they’re not useful.

So we’re a one-to-one school. All our students come with computers. But one of the things we’re at pains to tell them is:

“Look, put the computer away. Get out a pad and pencil, because for what we are going to do now, it’s a much more useful technology than you diving into some software and mucking around and trying to get your ideas down on a computer. Just use a pen and paper, because that’s going to be a far more useful technology at this point in your thinking.”

So it kind of demystifies it. It takes it away from all of this obsession and fetishization we have around Digital Technologies, and it just puts us back in a much healthier place, which is: “How do these tools help us think, and express, and find out who we are?”

And then Social Technologies, as I’ve mentioned, for us teamwork would be a Social Technology. Being a good follower is a Social Technology. Being someone who reliably makes other people feel as if they are being valued, and they are being supported, and backed up, that’s a technology. Being a leader is also a technology. Smiling is a technology. Nodding when people are talking is a technology, you can do it quite consciously, and when you do it people talk more. Sit there in stony silence, and people stop talking. So if you want people to talk, use these technologies in order to elicit more from them.


TOBY NEWTON: And then the last one is Spiritual Technologies. Really what we mean by this is, anything which allows you to get a better handle on who you are as an emergent identity. So I’ve mentioned Mindfulness. Yoga would be another one that we do at school. Walking The Labyrinth would be one that we do at school.

But equally, you know we, we encourage our students, if you’re feeling a bit down, go for a run, because that will get the blood pumping and that will get you feeling more energized. That’s a Spiritual Technology. Have a sing. Shout out loud. These are things that you can deploy in order to make the blood oxygenate your brain, to get things feeling as if you are more in charge.

So those would be our Spiritual Technologies, but we hope those are also other-directed. What try and teach the students is that to be a good school student, in order to be in the force of time of a good human being in the wider world, you really want to understand that you’re sharing it with other people. And that part of your feeling good about yourself is likely to be the confidence that other people are also feeling good around you. And that is a significant part of what we’re doing as a school.

So that really explains Human Tech as a lens, as an approach. “What we are then doing is, year by year, we build a curriculum where we try to use this way of approaching skills and attributes and knowledge as a critical position from which to approach your studies.”  And what we feel is that, because everything is revealed as a technology, humans are ready to step back and ask themselves: “Is this technology serving me well?”

And the teenage years are the ideal time at which you want to take stock of these technologies, and asking yourself: “Is this who I want to be? Are these ways of making myself known in the world, are they actually who I feel I want to be for the rest of my time on planet Earth? And if not, what am I going to do about it?”


For me that’s actually what secondary school should be doing. We should be doing that identity work with students. Allowing them, in a safe fail environment, where there isn’t a lot of pressure (and this is where I really appreciate the work you’re doing), where there’s not a lot of pressure, where there’s not a lot of stress. Where you can make mistakes. You can get things wrong. You can go down dead ends and come back.  You can follow paths that you then realize aren’t right for you.

And really what the school is there to do is to provide the social environment in which that could be done harmlessly, with support, and with guidance when necessary. So that really is the program, and that’s why we feel we’re doing it.

ELENI VARDAKI: Toby, I love how you are emphasizing the importance of sending the message to students that this is a time to think about who you want to be, rather than what you want to do when you “grow up”, which is what the status quo is:

“Well, what do you want to do when you finish school? What do you want to do when you finish university? What do you want to do after…?”, you know it’s like always what you want to do.

And you’re reframing the discussion to something deeper, and more meaningful, and more powerful, to: “Who do you want to be?”, which then transcend anything to do with what you want to do.  



TOBY NEWTON: And what you just said really I think ties in with something that we say, which is about productivity. We have this thing that we say to students which is, you know: “You have to decide whether you want productivity or productivity”.

And they look confused: “What do you mean? That is the same word, right?”

And I say, “Yes, but there are two ways of approaching it.”

And the traditional school way, which I think you just described very eloquently, is to produce yourself by creating a bunch of stuff. You know, you are these qualifications. You are these exam results. You are these essays you wrote. And of course, in part, you are.

However, the other version of productivity (and again, I keep going back to the Greeks, but I can’t help it!) is Aristotelian. It’s the idea that you’re producing yourself.

The shortened version that we use is: “Whoever you are, it’s a whole lot more than just those exams, and that school performance. What you’re gonna be living, with what you’re gonna be looking at in the mirror each morning when you wake up, is someone with a much more diffuse, divergent and interesting profile than that. So produced that.”

And actually the only rules that we have at ICHK, and it’s up on my office wall, and it just says: “Work hard. Be nice”. And what we mean by the work hard, is not work hard just at your school work. Although again, many students want to do that. But work hard at being who you want to be.

And I think put in that way (productivity versus productivity), for a lot of students, it just reminds them that, yes, what they are trying to produce and what they are trying to create is far more than just that basket full of qualifications.

Although we do that very well, I must say! If any of our parents are watching: Our IB scores are excellent. But we believe they are arrived at very healthily, by really well-rounded students who love school, who love learning, and who most of all love, themselves. And that’s the really vital thing.”


ELENI VARDAKI: And that’s what matters. Thank you very much, Toby.