We're currently in our 2023 funding drive. Nearly everything HRP produces is free — your donation ensures that our work sustains itself. We need your help to keep HRP alive! Check out our fundraising page, support us, and receive donor gifts. Let's restore humanity, together.
We speak with someone exposed to progressive education throughout the world, a human-centered school in Vietnam, an elementary school teacher reaching out, and two tech-experts leading the way in global communications.
One of the fundamental shifts of the information age is being able to connect globally with barely any limitations. I'm still shocked that I can connect to a classroom in Vietnam - see and speak with the person - and it's almost like I'm there. And that's a semi-normal thing to do.
And I often think about: what does that mean for education? Not only from a communicative standpoint in perspective-building, but specifically progressive education. I know starting off: adopting critical pedagogy in the classroom, giving students projects that weren't necessarily completely aligned with standards, letting students choose what to do each day - those were radical concepts to me that I took away...at least mostly...from books. I was incredibly hesitant to really go "full on" with any of my ideas...until I started engaging online. It turns out, I wasn't crazy - there are plenty of other people tackling and contemplating these ideas on social media and elsewhere.
Ara Aman, a sophomore at Bennington College in Vermont, a progressive higher education experience. Ara grew up in progressive environments in India and the United Kingdom.
Tania Mansfield, the PYP (International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme) Coordinator at Ho Chi Minh City International School in Vietnam, which is piloting a self-directed education program.
Lisa Liss & her elementary students, located in Sacramento, California, organizing around an experiential project, the aptly named Bandage Project, which seeks to build tolerance and understanding of the Holocaust.
Colleen Mascenik, founder of BreakawayLearning.org, a non-profit organization which connects students and educators with individuals around the world, teaching anything from life under the Taliban to piano instruction.
Evin Schwartz, founder of Belouga, an online platform aimed at connecting classrooms across the world, centered on social impact campaigns.
Chris McNutt: Hello, and welcome to season 3 episode 3 of Things Fall Apart, our podcast at the Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris McNutt, and I serve as a high school social studies instructor in Springfield, Ohio. In this podcast, we're tackling two main objectives surrounding global education. One, how is progressive education working around the globe, and is it an equitable system for all? And two, how can we use edtech to revolutionize how we communicate and learn with those around the world? I hope you love listening to the following episode, featuring a variety of voices from across the globe. But first, our podcast takes a ton of work to assemble, and is semi-pricy to be honest. However, it's kept alive by generous patrons on Patreon, three of whom are Shanna Schrader, Michael Hyde, and Bill Ryder. Thank you for your support! You can find more information about what the Human Restoration Project is, and how we're helping promote progressive ed through entirely free resources, thoughts, and more on our website at humanrestorationproject.org, and on Twitter at HumeResPro. One of the fundamental shifts of the information age is being able to connect globally with barely any limitations. I'm still shocked that I can connect to a classroom in Vietnam, see and speak with a person, and it's almost like I'm there. And that's a semi-normal thing to do. And I have to think about what does global education and being able to communicate online the information age mean for progressive education? Not only from a communicative standpoint, but also in perspective building. I know that starting off, when I started, let's say, incorporating critical pedagogy into the classroom, or giving students projects that weren't necessarily completely aligned with the standards, or letting students choose what they want to do each day, those were really radical concepts that I took away, at least mostly, from books. I was really hesitant to go full out with any of these ideas until I started engaging more online with other folks. It turns out I wasn't crazy, there are plenty of other people tackling and contemplating these ideas on social media and elsewhere. There's pockets of progressive education, of people who care and reflect on education and the humanity of each person in their classroom, and they're no longer isolated. And now we can hear stories and see people affected, and it really brings to light the necessity of progressive practice. Now we can see it, we can visualize it, be supported by it, and we have backing to buckle down and keep at it. We can unite together and see drastic change, and those sails are now already in motion. Organically there's this rally movement of people taking on what were once insane ideas at most traditional public schools. Every day I'm so happy to read a teachers going gradeless blog, or see people tweeting or debating publicly the goals of an often too teacher-centric classroom, or discovering whole new pockets of progressive ed, like Belouga's social justice-centered Global Education Initiative, who I'll be talking to this episode. The point is, it's a lot more common than I ever thought, and assumingly it's more common than most who attempt it would believe. We can do this together, just listen to the voices of this episode, and tell me if progressive education isn't here to change the world. And now that we're starting to spread progressive ed further, we need to make sure it's also for the whole world, not just a select few. When I started embracing progressive ed, I was a fairly traditional teacher. In fact, every progressive educator I know started off traditional, usually going through like an existential crisis of teaching, honestly, until now. This is Ara Aman, a college student at the Progressive Bennington College, who has spent almost her entire life in progressive institutions, growing up. Ara opens up about growing up in India, where her parents started homeschooling to support her and another child in the community.
Ara Aman: My parents were trying to really look for progressive schools around India, and like really trying to find an environment that would be conducive to me, the learner, rather than me shifting who I am to conform to the environment, basically. So they basically started a learning environment that was, I mean, now that I'm learning a lot about progressive education, I would say that it was very progressive, and it was just two students. And we were basically given the freedom to explore the world and become whole rounded individuals. It's inspired by integral education, and J. Krishnamurthy, but it's also an environment that takes and works itself to the people that are creating it. And it's called Koveda. It's a group of homeschoolers that have come together to educate their school kids. And now we're about 40 people, and it's still going on, it's in Chandigarh, India. Each project that the kids embark on is created by the kids and supported by the facilitators or the teachers. It not only focuses on academic excellence, but also on educating the whole human being. So the emotional part of you, the physical part of you, the academic part of you, basically how I grew up till I was 12. And I was basically storing my interests and doing projects and just like hanging out and like really being a part of this world as an active member of community and learning by doing, I would say. And I think that this experience really gave me a very strong foundation in myself. And I became very sure about who I am as a person and the kind of life I want to live rather than conforming to the life that somebody else imposes on me. And I think that that was very important. My parents and I moved to Auroville, which is also an international community of about 3,000 people living in India. And I went to school there. And over there, I went to a school called Last School, where it was kind of a continuation of the progressive ideologies, but it was just like, I think it was really important for me to be in a larger community and to be part of something bigger, but not as big as it was just yet, I guess.
CM: Ara goes on to describe how these schools prepared her with the cornerstones of progressive ed, almost entirely student voice and choice, experiential learning, and self-directed projects. When she was a teenager, she briefly attended a traditional school just to see what it was like. See if this sounds familiar.
AA: I couldn't sit in a class where I was being taught something to just have an exam and get a good grade. And it was just something that did not fit with me and just what I believed in. And, you know, I'd ask questions in class and be like, no, but explain to me, why do I have to do this? For me, it's very important to know why I'm doing something before doing it, because otherwise I just don't see the point. And I can do other things that are more beneficial to me and my exploration.
CM: Ara lasted one year before deciding something new. Her parents encouraged her to guide her own journey, and she applied to Brockwood Park School in England, a small elite private school that supports progressive ed. She had the option to take exams, but realized it was limiting for her, so she went entirely project based.
AA: So I spent my last year doing my own individualized project where I explored photography and explored it and just let it take me wherever it would take me without, you know, a final goal. And just through that project, I taught myself how to use a darkroom. I would go to London on weekends and go to different galleries, learn about art and then about photography. And just through that experience, I realized I learned not only about, you know, the academics, but also about navigating my way in this world. And I think that that is something that is so important as someone who's part of this world, I guess.
CM: From there, Ara describes her transition to finding Bennington College, one of the, in my opinion, hard to find progressive colleges in the United States.
AA: And it was just so interesting when I came to Bennington, I felt at home, like I knew that this was the place that was going to really nurture me and really respect me for who I was. It didn't like, and Bennington also has dimensional application where students really get the chance to submit whatever work they want to in whatever form. And it's counselors and like a group of people really look at that and make judgments on who you are rather than your letter grade. And I think that just Bennington's progressive philosophy about being active learners and guiding your own education really was the perfect next step for me. And I think, and I'm a sophomore here right now, and my plan just got passed. A plan is basically what you would call a traditional, in a traditional school, a major, but each student at Bennington writes their own major, essentially. And it's a three page essay and you talk about your interests and what you want to do. And then you meet with a committee and then you go through that process together. So now I technique, I study photography, education and public action, and I'm looking at ways to make, make, understand progressive education all around the world. And I think of ways of making it accessible and, you know, making that the new norm because I don't understand non-traditional, I don't understand traditional education because it's, my norm is progressive and it's done wonders for me. And when I look at, when I engage with my family and other people around me, I realized that that it's fear that's keeping people back because a lot of people, especially in India, don't like the traditional education system, but it's a fear of not fitting in. It's a fear of, you know, not getting a job or not having the support. And I think that if we work together to make this more accessible, these fears will slowly die down and, you know, this will, at least some part of a progressive education will hopefully become the norm because I, yeah, and it is my passion to just work with kids and it's always been. And I just, yeah, I just love engaging with young people in a way where they're treated as people and I just love those interactions and I feel like I grow so much and explore so much and see the world so differently as well.
CM: So based off your journey really at this point across the globe, Arah, what are the commonalities of these institutions you're placed in? Sometimes in the United States, I think it's pretty hard to find quality progressive schools, but you're jumping around place to place and seeing really amazing opportunities everywhere.
AA: I guess that really is, but like the essence of all the places has been very similar, you know, keeping the learner at the center or, you know, educating the whole human being, making active learners, people that care, people that question. But I think the environment was very different because obviously based on the country or the people that are creating the space, it's going to have everyone's own flavor because we're all just such different people that no two places that have a progressive education not like have like a different educational environment will be the same because it's also like the people that are creating the space. And I think the essence of the place was the same.
CM: At Bennington, you participated in multiple internships. Could you describe what BrightWorks in San Francisco is like?
AA: So the environment was very project based where each and every kid was doing their own project. And it was really interesting to see such motivated students who were guiding their own explorations. So the way the curriculum at BrightWorks works is that they have an arc, which is for a couple of months, and each arc has a theme. So right now their theme was spark. So for the first part of the arc, I don't remember how, what the time period, the timeframe was, but for the first part, each group of students worked with their collaborator and just explored everything that there is to a spark, who sparked change in our world. So like it can be anything. And then through those explorations, the students started coming to projects that they'd like to do and like things that they'd like to explore. And then they came up with project proposals and they got their project approved and then they worked on their own project. And it was so self-guided where everyone just did their own thing and they were supported by the adults in the community, of course, because you do need support. Everybody needs support, but that motivation comes from you. And then they present. So you have nine, 10 year olds presenting their work to a group of people. They put up presentations, they talk about, you know, what worked, what didn't work. And then they have like a massive exhibition for all the parents and they put up all their work and then they have a couple of days off and then the spark starts again. And I think, yeah, and that was what right works is. And I think it was just like such a wonderful environment to be a part of where again, students were not depressed in any way. They were their own. They weren't guiding their process. They weren't scared of authority. They weren't, you know, they had questions, they loved to play and it was okay to play. And I think that that is such an important part of being a kid is being given the freedom to play and explore. And for me, it was just amazing to experience an environment like this in the US and seeing how, I mean, of course it's going to be different, but how similar it is to a lot of my experiences. And really for me, it was connecting with the kids and then just letting the kids drive the process. And, you know, they would come to me for support and I'd be like, yeah, let's do it. You know, let's figure it out together. And I learned so much, like I learned how to edit on Premiere Pro because two kids were doing a stop motion animation on World War II and the experience of World War II. And I just feel, and then that was like this field work term really showed me how much, how passionate I am about education, working in environments like these and how it just makes me happy to be part of a community that really cares about each other. Like a family from Brightburn, let me stay at their place for six weeks just because, you know, and I think creating those, that kind of a community for me and being part of that is really, really important. And that is what makes me happy.
CM: So as you can hear, progressive education can do awesome things. It's re-enabling thinking, curiosity, motivation and drive. But I'm sure you had to be thinking, is this practice equitable? After all, a school named Brockwood or Brightworks is likely not tuition free in public. And you'd be right. Without scholarships or tuition assistance, Brockwood is nearly $29,000 a year. Brightworks is over $30,000 a year. Many of these best progressive institutions, even those that were traditionally affordable, like Montessori or Emilia schools, have been increasingly unachievable for most people. Yes, a lot of them offer a percentage of their seats to fully fund applicants, but that number is relatively small, especially considering that most of these schools have really small class sizes to begin with. That leads to a lot of questions. Is it right? Is it fair? Is progressive education being gated off from students across the globe? Is progressive education even possible with middle and lower class students? Obviously, I think it is. I personally teach at a public school that's fairly progressive, but there's a lot of voices saying that progressive education is blanketed by this quote unquote elite framing. And certainly even in public schools, there's a gatekeeping aspect to public schooling and funding. Being that this podcast is edited, I reached out again to Ara and she recorded this question later. But I didn't know the cause when I initially recorded of these schools. I think her entire response surrounding equity is worth playing in. Here it is.
AA: It's been something that I've been thinking about for the last all my life, but like mainly for the last couple of years at Bennington, while, you know, like I've been thinking about what do I want to study and I've like really realized how inaccessible progressive educational environments are and how frustrating it is, how frustrating it is that it is so inaccessible because progressive educational environments, at least the ones that I've been a part of, and this is something that I truly believe can only come out of small community environments. And it's a model that's really hard to expand and make bigger. It's a complicated issue, but like definitely all the schools that I've been to are not for everyone. And I do have, I do recognize that I have a lot of privilege, economic and emotional. I think that I have so much emotional support from the community back at home and in India, I mean in India, at home in India, as well as relative economic stability. I'm not saying that it wasn't like it was easy for me to me as someone coming from India to go to Brockwood because it's really expensive, but I think just having that support from the people around me and my parents, like my mom has an architectural practice, which you know, like she can take on a project and be able to finance my education if she needs to, but her passion is really education. And this is something that, you know, like I've been questioning a lot and especially coming to Bennington, I've been realizing how, especially in the US, education is structured all around financial security and how, you know, college costs what? The tuition is what, $50,000, $40,000 a year? And then room and board on top of that, it's not accessible at all. I mean, like, you know, like I feel so lucky that Bennington accepted me and gave me my scholarship paying $60,000, $70,000 a year. There is no way that I would have ever done that out of ethical reasons, but also out of not being able to afford it. And this is coming from someone who has economic stability in my life, and I think that this privilege that I have is something that gave me the opening to, in a way, take my life in my own hands and say, hey, no, exams are not my thing, I don't want to do it. Because I knew that I would always have a home to go back to. And that is something that not everyone has, like people have to work, you know, but I knew that my parents would always, always, always be there to support me. And I think that just having a community back in India that is so supportive of everyone's needs is the reason why I am here today, and is the reason why I could take these so called risks. Like, it was really hard, it took me like three or four months to come to this decision of not doing Sam's as a 16 year old, because you know, I was coming, like coming through all these questions about, I'm 16, I'm going to be 18 in two years, I have to financially become financially independent. Would I even get into college? You know, what am I going to do with my life? And it was like, it was like a part of me that knew that this was the right answer. But there was just so much baggage that it came with baggage in terms of me not having, not knowing. And then I think that is where my privilege comes in, where I was able to do that and have an honest conversation with my parents and be like, Hey, you know, like, this is what I'm thinking. And of course, like, they were very, very supportive. And they told me that no matter what happens, I will always have home. And I think just that gave me the space to really do it. And really know that it's okay, like failure is okay. And sometimes I think society puts in a lot of fear of failure. But I think that fear is also legitimate because of the way our society is structured. And you know, you need money, you need to have an income, you need to, like, have all these cushions to live in our current society. And I think progressive education really challenges that. So it's not only about education, it's not, you know, K through 12. It's a lifelong process. It's a way of life for me. And that way of life is not economic or material, it is about creating community and sharing your skills about giving and taking and, you know, like, just being there together exploring. This is a very, very big reason why I've decided to study education. By education, I don't mean traditional education, because that is just something I cannot do. Like I have, I cannot see myself being a part of environments that I believe are not conducive to making children lifelong learners or making people explore our world around them and be happy. And so at Bennington, I study education, but within education, progressive education and education that is different. And like thinking about creative ways to battle these issues about especially, you know, economics and finding ways where this kind of an education model can be accessible is very, very important to me. And that is literally what my plan is based on over here. I mean, to sum it up, yes, I have so much, like, I am very privileged. And I think that it is very important for people to recognize that privilege, because it makes me realize how much I have to give back and how much like how lucky I am to be able to do this. And how I want to spend my time working to work a different way of doing things where not only a select few are given the space for these experiences. I think that these experiences should be for everyone. People need to see that it works, see that it is something that is not a pipe dream. That people who go through educational environments like this are not, you know, like these kids who don't know anything, and they can totally be a part of contemporary society without a problem. They just have grown up differently. And they have the agency to make those decisions about how they want to spend that their life. And it's not to say that, you know, going to traditional school is bad, because maybe for some people, that might be the best thing. And that's okay, as long as it's their decision. For some of my peers, it was the correct decision because they because it was something that they wanted, or that was something that they felt that they needed. And it was a decision that they made themselves. And I think that honoring those decisions that people make is also very important. I have been through an education that not everybody can financially afford, or even emotionally. I think that even if I had all the financial resources in this world, I wouldn't be where I am today if I didn't have that emotional support. And I think that sometimes we forget the importance of that. And I think that having that is also such a privilege, almost more of a privilege, no more of a privilege for sure, than that financial security. Like I'm not saying financial security is not important, but I think that they come hand in hand, like this community that I keep on talking about is just so amazing to see how people just like, come together, and like, just work together to just achieve whatever we want. And I think that that is just like the most wonderful way to do things. Like, if, for example, our homeschooler collective community needs funds for whatever, we organize dinners, where we spend weeks working really hard. So it's not only the adults and the parents that are working hard, it's the kids as well. It's been really, really hard to set up the space, create like, a beautiful aesthetic. We get cooks, we and then everybody serves the food together for a weekend, and we earn money that way, you know, that's how we raise funds, for whatever reason, it might be, hey, someone in our community is sick, and we need to raise that money. Or it could be, hey, you know, like, this is this is a resource that we need. And for that, you know, we need to come together, pull in our skills, and do this. And I think that that is a gift in itself.
CM: Obviously, Ara is incredibly passionate about progressive ed and shares so many fantastic points here about creating an equitable system. There's two I really want to highlight. One, there's an obvious risk when it comes to thinking this way. We're convincing parents, students and the community that a non traditional pathway will still allow for success, especially monetary success. If one's family struggles every day to put food on the table, the last thing they want is for their child to be disadvantaged or potentially set up for failure down the line. We need to constantly invite parents into discussions on what progressive education is and how it will help their child succeed in life. And two, there is certainly a political overtone of our emerging education system. After all, education can't be separated from politics. Personally, I don't see how a public school system could ever thrive no matter the pedagogy without ample support of its children at home. Teachers should not be expected nor need to donate their clothes to lacking students or worrying about snacks for their hungry kids. It's absolutely absurd that the richest country in the world is dealing with such problems. Public education cannot ever reach its goals without an ample support system for those born into a disadvantaged position. Products such as free healthcare or free college tuitions or expanded welfare provide families with the capacity to take more assumed risks with their lives. And that being said, risks are what cause innovation and creative pursuits to happen. We can't have progressive education at a national level without solving these root problems that are incredibly serious and taxing. Finland is well regarded as one of the best education systems on earth and it is very progressive. It also has one of the lowest homelessness rates in the world, near the top rankings in gender equality. It has a massive safety blanket for those sick or mentally ill, it has an incredibly transparent government, and education is considered a right for all. I mean, the happiest country in the world that enjoys an amazing education system didn't get there by just building new schools, even pedagogically aligned schools. It got there by establishing an equitable society at large that benefits all children.
Tania Mansfield: Good morning, my name is Tania. I'm currently working at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City. We are an IB school, we have three programs here, and my role is PYP coordinator. So I support teams and learners and I'm part of the leadership team, basically looking after curriculum and ensuring that we're honoring the PYP, which is the primary years program. I'm actually a third culture kid, so even though I have a New Zealand passport and my family are now back in New Zealand, I've lived my whole life in Asia. So I was raised in Hong Kong and did a little bit of traveling, as everyone sort of does throughout Asia, and then came back to Hong Kong, work in international school there, and then I moved to China, to Shanghai for 10 years, and after Shanghai we moved here to Vietnam.
CM: Tania Mansfield contacted us wanting to share the fantastic stories of the International School in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
TM: So our mission statement is actually based on a book, The Culture of Achievement, and it is very aligned to the IB mission statement, which is to build holistic learners that are giving back to the community. It's also about global mindedness in that whole child, so not just academics, but also those that have those, you know, everyone's calling them soft skills at the moment, but those have those people skills, soft skills, are able to communicate, those critical thinking skills, are able to problem-solve, creativity and confidence, things there. But our program as such, as I said earlier, is very much inquiry model and very much student-driven. So we may start with a big conceptual understanding, but through our provocations or prior assessments it's the students' interests and the students' contexts that drive our teaching and learning here.
CM: So all of these awesome things are going on in Vietnam, and sorry for my ignorance on the matter, but when I think of Asian-centric education models in China, Korea, Japan, I think ultra-traditional, you know, places focused on doing tests, it's not really experiential. Given that you're an international school, does that make things different?
TM: Our program is very transdisciplinary. So it's that idea of catching butterflies, you know, that there's language within everything, there's maths within everything, there's science within everything. And so really trying to ensure the learning is authentic and it's contextual and it makes sense. You know, nothing's standalone or in a silo, it's all connected learning there. We don't, yeah, actually if you walk around our school here at international, it'd be hard to find a desk. We don't have desks, we have very, very, very flexible learning spaces. You know, our young learners love to crawl into little cubbies and make little tents and we have cushions and bean bags and there are tables of course to work on, but no desks up and very much a flow model. We don't test as such, of course we do some diagnostics and some benchmarks to see where learners are, but we may go about them in different ways. It's not always a paper test, sometimes it's a conference, an interview, sometimes we might do a quick reading assessment. A lot of it's through observation, through a lot of anecdotal notes and documentation. And then towards the end of all our units, there is a so what, I guess, you know, so you've learned all this so, so what, and we're watching to really see how are they applying their understanding, how are they using their skills, and what knowledge have they obtained and I'm happy to share. But also from that comes the confidence and the creativity and the collaboration and things going on there. So no, I know exactly the schools you're talking of in China, that's not us at all.
CM: And how do you go about assuring parents that your model is going to work for them?
TM: Our admissions team work really, really hard to educate and inform parents as they're doing their tours and coming to us, because this is not for everyone. And if you're going back to, like example, our Korean parents, if you're going back to Korea into that traditional education, you know, they want to make sure they're doing the best for their children. Some are coming to us because they want English, they want English as the language of instruction. But also the International Baccalaureate itself has a very strong reputation. We have an incredible head of school, who is very research based and has a number of parent forums and parent meetings discussing this is the future of education. This is why we don't learn the way that we did when we were at school. We also host parent workshops, you know, this is how maths learning has changed. This is how we now, you know, reading's not a race, all this, so that schools do all around the world. Because we have a transient community, we have parents coming in and out all the time. So we're working really hard at educating parents as well and supporting them in their understanding. And it's really important that we have that relationship and supporting our parents and their understanding as well. You know, I really love that idea of parent workshops to actually do experiential education, to teach experiential education, something that's really lacking from teacher PD as well.
CM: Could you go into detail on what this all entails?
TM: Yeah, so we try and model what happens in the classroom, so they understand what their children are going through each day. So traditionally at the beginning of every year, it's welcome to the PYP. What is the PYP and unpacking elements, but our sessions are very interactive and we warn them of that. You know, you're going to be working in groups or in pairs, we're requiring discussion. We might send you on a quick inquiry hunt around the classrooms that where can you see these elements in action. We might provide you with a little, I don't want to use the word homework, but you know, a little home study. So you've learned this is so what, how you're going to apply this, what are your next steps type thing there. Our maths workshop, we introduced Joe Bowler and her research and you know, a lot of our parents were educated. So here's some reading if you want to know more and some resources. And then we just actually played. We played maths games and we played card games and we played inquiry and we had gamification set up and really just trying to highlight to them all the skills that are involved in that, all the maths understanding and the development there. So we're about to next week host one on creativity. We're inviting parents into our fab lab to how do we use technology, how do our children use screen screen and some of the apps they've got. Art department is setting up a number of stations on different media that we can use to explore. And again, because parents didn't have this in their own schools, but this is what their children are using every day. One of the gentlemen here is introducing scratch and coding to parents and that was a really big hit last year. I think they think it's this big mystery. And of course when they actually sit down and start playing with it, it's not, it's actually wonderful. And then they've got that connection with their kids at home as well. So yeah, we try and try and mix it up, but our workshops, we do tend to model how we, how we work within our classroom walls.
CM: As a result of these experiential practices, as well as just caring more about the human nature of children by letting them play and socialize, what do you see as the greatest change for your students?
TM: So we have, our school has two year olds, two year olds all the way through to 12 year olds in our elementary school. And then they go to secondary, which is across the road, which is also IB. I see here just such difference in independence, in responsibility, but I think the biggest thing is relationships, relationships with the adults in their lives. I mean, I've just, before this Skype was just upstairs playing knockout with a group of grade fours in basketball. I lost terribly, but that's okay. But you know, it's just that they see you as a partner in learning and you're there to support and help. And us as the facilitators were very strong to say, I'm not the expert in everything, but let's go and find out how can we go and do that together. The thinking, and we do get a couple of kids coming in who are not used to our program or inquiry as such, and you see the frustration that's like, just tell me how to do it. Just tell me what you want. We have to step back and say, well, it's not my learning. So, you know, you tell me how you'd like to tackle this and who else is around here to help and support you. The collaboration and working together, we're blessed to be in an international environment that we have, you know, you watch children, they're just magical, you know, that there's no, well, you're from Korea, and I'm from China, or you're from New Zealand, and I'm from UK. We're just learners, so that crossing cultural is so natural, supporting each other and helping and also understanding that we have, we all have strengths, and we all have areas to develop, and that's all okay, you know, and so supporting things like that. We do host three-way conferences, and we've done that for years. So our parents, students, and teachers are part of the triangle, and it's the students that pretty much lead that conversation. There's already been a conference with teachers about goal setting, but our goal settings tend to be about those skills. In our PYP, we have five skill sets, research, social, communication, thinking, and self-management, and so we tend to focus on them for goal setting, but it's the, even our five-year-olds are leading. So what are your goals for your next semester? Well, actually, I've nailed my self-management skills. I'm doing really well there, but I'd like to work on my research skills and develop my reading through that or my web searching or things like that, and then, of course, the parents have their say on how they can support those goals at home, and then the teacher compliments. So it becomes a triangulation there, but I think that's what you see. You walk through our school here, and it's a buzz. There are children everywhere. There's learning everywhere. We're very much about, well, where would you like to go? So they're breaking out into corridors. We have lots of breakout spaces and things there, and I think there's that culture of trust throughout the school, but then there's also that responsibility. You've made this responsible choice to go there, and, yeah, and it's your learning.
CM: You know, what strikes me about what you just said is how ubiquitous it is to what's going on in the United States, and I presume the world. Kids are kids. Obviously, there's cultural differences, and those are magical things, but our education systems can have the same transformational effect no matter where it's placed because progressive ed is just natural, organic learning. On another note, a hallmark of good experiential learning is reaching out to the community. How does an international school expand out to the local region?
TM: To be honest, this is actually one of our strategic development goals for us as a primary school. IAP has just been through a five-year review, and what's come out of that is more guidance on action, what we call action of learning, and they've separated it into five facets. So we've just been doing that as our own inquiry as educators, and that's something that we've highlighted we'd like to focus more on next year. We try really hard to not put a whole load of doom and gloom on our seven- and eight-year-olds. So they can't save the world, and they shouldn't. It's not their responsibility type thing, but go back to, but what could you do? And basically, we look at those concentric circles, starting with self, starting with our community in our classroom, and building out from there. We are situated in District 2 in Ho Chi Minh, so it's literally a little 5K circle, and it is an expat hub here, but very much our kids are part of the community. The secondary school we have here at Ishmak, they are definitely more connected to some of the NGOs and the charities and connections outside there. But on the other hand, one of our Studio 5 kids working with one of the TAs, he was looking for some upcycling, recycling-type project, but he wanted it to have meaning. He said, so we collect this cardboard and so what type thing. And then chatting with our teacher assistants, who are Vietnamese, explained that well, actually our cleaners will collect that cardboard and sell it to recycling to earn extra cash. And so he did a little bit of inquiry and investigation and used language skills to interview and support. And then, so then all of a sudden, it wasn't just about collecting cardboard, it was actually supporting our cleaners here so that they could actually have that extra income and so things. So it just became a more focused type thing there. And our elementary school, we'd rather that was happening, rather than looking to five kilometers down the road when in fact there's people right here on our doorstep that could do with our support. We recently started an English community club here on a Saturday, which is to support our trainers, our guards, our maintenance staff, because we've realized that English is their next step in their career and things there. And it's our kids that are running it. I mean, we turn up and I have this incredible grade three boy, Kian, who turns up every Saturday in uniform and is supporting. And the English is one thing, but the connections and the relationships that are happening between the children and our staff has been incredible. So it's those sorts of community connections. We are very lucky. We do a lot of field trips. So we have just down the road, a family garden, which we took our kindergarten children to last week. And they're talking about our native Vietnamese plants and how we can build a more sustainable world and how you don't need a big garden to do that. And so those connections are there. But at that level, it tends to be more teacher led initially and then see where the children take it.
CM: Recently, you decided to shift to a much more self-directed approach based on research surrounding child development out there. What has that been like?
TM: We are a progressive school and that is led by a head of school. We're extremely fortunate to have a head of school that is a thinker and a researcher and a provocateur and always asking. One of the buzzes that is around at the moment is the model of self-directed learning here. We piloted that last year, but it was actually 18 months of discussion and design and things like that. The original idea came because of this discomfort. We knew something was wrong with education, as you say, people were talking about it. Dewey's been talking about it for forever. And so enough talk time for action, but what do we do and how do we do it type thing. So our current principal and my predecessor went off to a conference and the conference learning too, it really does spark, you know, what if you had the world, what would you do? So we were looking or they were looking at the research, you know, things like Google with their 80-20 time project-based learning, golden hour, there's lots of different things like that. And of course, all the research we're showing, well, actually they're more productive and more creative in that 20% than they are in the 80% type thing. So the what if was, what if we flipped it? What if we did 20% was, you know, the must do's and the 80% was what you could do type thing. So it came back to our head of school and this was thrown around for 18 months in design. And so what were the barriers to learning? And of course our timetable was a barrier, our model of one teacher to 22 kids was a barrier. How can we get children connected with more experts, with more facilitators, with more adults and things there? So last year we piloted what we termed Studio 5 and we renamed it Studio because we wanted that flow of choice. There are a lot of stumble trips and a lot of reinventing along the way because it was all about the kids and everything's wonderful in theory until you throw learners into the mix. And so halfway through the year, I think we all had a ha, or the team did. The team had a massive ha and we said, well, what if the children just had choice? What if they just learned what, we kept trying to fit things into boxes and it wasn't working. It wasn't, just wasn't working and everyone was uncomfortable and it just was awful. So we said, well, what if we just let go of the boxes and the kids just chose what they wanted to learn. So we do have literally Sam in Studio 5, he's really interested in shoe design. So he's off there learning about shoe design. He's connecting with experts in the community. He's talking to our tech and our art team about design. He's organized a couple of field trips to the Nike factory down here because we have a parent connection and he rethinks that. So that's been his, we tend to do six weeks, things like that, and then we take it public. So now you've learned this, how you're going to share it and there's different ways to take it public, things like that. And then we have a conference, I mean, we're conferencing all the time. We have our children organize their own schedules. So the only things we have blocked off are the specialist lessons, the art and the music, and we're working on getting rid of those too. So they have a list of must do's, must do's, should do's, could do's and want to do's. So some of the must do's might be, you have to conference with your advisor today. You have a commitment that you have to meet and things like that. So they schedule when they're going to do that through the week and how they're going to do that. As they get through to this end of six weeks, that's that conference. So is there more to go? Is there more to do? Are you still interested or would you like to pivot? So they term that the pivot or persevere, you know, someone like Sam would go, no, I'm good now. I've learned what I need to know. I'd like to know. And to be honest, something that started as a joy is becoming a bit boring now. And my friend over there is designing his own online game and I'm really interested in that. So I'd like to go, sorry, I'd like to go and learn more about that. So that's his next inquiry or project and things like that. It sounds a bit free and loose, but there's accountability the whole way. There's accountability all the way through, but they're 10 years old. So what happened today? So we meet at the beginning of every day and the end of every day. So what happened today? You didn't meet your goals. Why not? Well, you know, I sort of got distracted and I was off here and then my friend designing the game, you know, took up a lot of my time. Okay, so what are we going to do about that tomorrow? So how can we support you? What do you need? What can you do for yourself? How can we support you? And things like that. So there's always that check in and remembering all the time they're 10 and 11 years old. So this model has now permeated its way through our whole school. So Studio 4 have very much got the same. It's not quite as student directed. However, there's a lot of agency and agency is termed as our learners having voice and choice and ownership of their learning. So as we design learning engagements, there are very big conceptual understanding which allows learners to have that choice and voice and also work out how they're going to learn, where they're going to learn who with and what they're going to do with that learning and things that all the way down to even our grade twos have studio time where they plan their own days. In fact, that was our unit on time. And so that was their provocation. So you have today and because time's a really abstract thing for grade twos who are seven years old. How are you going to plan their day? A day seems like a long time until you they look up and realize they've missed recess because they didn't plan their day. So we scaffold it all the way through there. But just so much connection, our early years who are early explorers, they are four years old and below, there is a model of flow. So looking at the ratio, Amelia inspirations, and they come together in the morning. And then again, there's this choice, there's voice and choice and ownership. Again, there's conferencing. So it might be, you know, Jin Ho, I've noticed that you're always playing with the blocks. Should we try something else today? And we go, no. Okay, well, then let's talk about what you're doing with the blocks. Or we might go, yeah, what's your idea? Or, you know, but to be honest, it's not us that sparks them as their friends and their friendships and things there. But again, documenting as the learning is happening all the time, that documentation is just so important and our role as observers and supporters. And really, I know our early explorers, teachers, educators are desperately trying not to get in the way of learning. It's really hard not to interfere and just be there when the children are asking for support or help and things that. There's lots going, we're very excited. And we have a culture here of educators of thinkers, they are always looking for that what if. So what if we mix it up a bit? What if we do that? So these are our PYP parameters and guidelines that we have to adhere to, but we're also a little bit proud of the fact that we're slightly rebellious and, you know, that's just paperwork and we'll find a way around that, but, you know, we'll make that work because the learners and their learning as grade threes have what they call skills studios. So the learning will happen. And again, within their learning is voice choice and ownership. And then at the end of the learning, the teachers go, so what? So you've learned all these skills, you have all this knowledge, you have this conceptual understanding, you have a week to do what you'd like to do with it, what are you going to show us? And so that's the week they plan the whole schedules, who they're going to work with, how they're going to show and present it. And really, it's that that transfer and application of PYP, we call them approaches to learning those ATL skills that they've been developing through the unit.
CM: And what have these changes been like for your teachers? I know for me personally, a systemic shift at that level would be inspiring for my practice, but for some, that could be rather scary.
TM: So with our PYP review, the global review, this big word agency has come out. And so even though we were playing with it, they've now concreted for us. And so it's given us sort of more permission, which I guess we needed, and our parents needed to see it written out, which is fair enough, you know, type thing. But your role as a teacher changes, and that's what we're really trying not to use that word teacher, we're not the experts at the front of the room, we're not the fountain of all knowledge. But we get a lot of things, questions on how do you plan? And it's like, well, it's, it's not the same, it's not the same model. So our roles change completely. I say to my educators all the time, it's not our learning. So we need to stop. And we need to wait and see where the learners take it and where their questions or their interests go. So where we don't, you know, I've been in traditional models, too, you know, I'll sit down and I love my color coding in my organization and things like that, you know, I've got my six weeks all planned to the T, even before I've met the kids sometimes, it's not like that at all. So we have a provocation, or we have a learning engagement, which invites our learners in, and then we stand back, and we watch and observe them, we tend to meet all the time, but we meet after school during our release time, things like what do we see? What do we think? What are our next steps? Who needs what? And things that so it's a responsive model, rather than a planning model. So just that the focus changes, the mindset changes. And yes, it is, it is still hard work, but it's a different sort of intensity at a different level. I think the mindset and your your attitude and approach to children and our learners, and it goes back to Rocha Amelia, that this is this is a person, this is a person and respect for the individual and the person. And that changes your whole conversation with the child, it changes, you know, some incident during lunch is not suddenly the adults in charge. It's like, hey, guys, what happened here? What's going on? And that culture of respect throughout the school for all our whole community, including our parents, too, they're very much a part of our community to really does help bring us together as a partnership and and build those relationships throughout. We have we have struggled people visit all the time, which is wonderful. Always doors open, always visit. And they said, but where's the learning and because the maths always comes up, where's the maths? So we know that it's embedded in everything and things, but so we're working really, really hard on mapping where it does happen and tracking it and trying to fit it. You know, we've got one hundred and twenty children in Studio five trying to track and map one hundred and twenty individual units of inquiry is a challenge and we continue to really do continue to struggle with that. How do we do it authentically so it doesn't become busy work? And I certainly don't want to get in the way of the flow of learning. And I don't really want my educators also spending a lot of time on paperwork when they could be using their time and energy supporting learning. So I'm that's my role and I continue to struggle with it. I'm trying to see if there's some magic app out there or something that will will help us do that. But if there's a will, there's a way. So maybe one of your listeners knows the one that we can we can go in bed and go.
CM: You know, it's awesome to hear about all the cool things going on there, especially from another country's perspective. I hope the progressive continues to spread because of messages like yours.
TM: It is. And there is it is. Twitter is wonderful. And there is it's really great to to hear and to see that there are more and more people and the fact that we're doing it all in different ways so we can all learn from each other's experiences. We're very careful to say this is not a cookie cutter model. Everything is is dependent on our learners. So what it may look like last year is certainly not what it looks like this year because we have a different cohort. We have different facilitators. We have different spaces. But, yeah, we've got connections through Twitter in New Zealand, in the States, in Australia and throughout Asia. The International Baccalaureate Network is very strong here in Southeast Asia. And a lot of people are having a go, letting go, really. And I always say, you know, one's going to bleed, you know, just have a go and, you know, might just end up in pure joy, you know, it's wonderful to see. Now, for something way different for me on the Human Restoration Project, given the setting, the audio quality might be a little bit dicey.
Ariana: We ride on them to honor the children and then we put them in bins to keep them safe. We're going to put them in a plexiglass-shaped bandage and put them in the Museum of Tolerance.
CM: This is Ariana, one of Lisa Liss's many elementary school students working on Project Bandage, a collection drive of bandages to artistically express the loss of life during the Holocaust. Essentially, students engage with community members, locally and globally, to collect these bandages and discuss empathy, altruism, and the history surrounding the event.
Ariana: I felt that, or I feel like I've learned that it's not good to hate. And it shouldn't be, it shouldn't be a thing to do, actually, because once you actually express that, it just kind of fills you up and you just want to keep doing it, it becomes a habit. And then other people are going to feel like, oh, I'm not worth it, I shouldn't be here. So it can lead to different things.
CM: Lisa started this project in February 2008. They've collected over a million of these bandages so far, and have also done various projects from making books on Anne Frank and survivors to performing a play. Here's Dionne explaining how they collect bandages.
Dionne and Others: So we have heard from all 50 states and 11 countries so far. If everybody who, like, listened to this would send us 1000 bandages, we would reach our goal of 1.5 million. We currently need 300,000 more. Yeah, we currently have 1 million and 200,000 bandages. They're all in tubs that are jam-packed tight.
CM: It's really quite a sight to see. There's literally box after box filled with drawn-on bandages representing those murdered during the Holocaust.
Student: Here's another student sharing what's going to be done with them. They're going to go on a display case, which is going to be six feet tall and four feet wide. And I helped Miss Liz figure out what the numbers were going to be for. The four feet is going to be for the four Franks who died because we learned a lot about Anne Frank. It was Anne Frank, Margo Frank, her mother, and Otto Frank. I learned a lot about the Holocaust already, and we're not even over with school yet. I've learned that people who were there got really, really skinny, like bone skinny. We saw this video of one guy moving, and you could just see his shoulder going up like that. And the bone, and his ribs and his knees caps were like, oh, it looks like he was a walking skeleton. And Miss Liz said that when the Americans went to liberate, they literally looked like walking skeletons. This is what they thought they saw. And that like when they brought food and stuff, they brought food. Some people who survived, some people who survived ate too much and their stomach exploded till they died.
CM: To put this in a perspective, there's like seven students crowding around this webcam and they all are waiting in anticipation to share about what they're doing in this project. But my next rationale was figuring out, should students even be talking about such a serious topic? I think they should, but there's a lot of people out there that are afraid to subject students, especially young students, to such a serious topic. I asked them what they thought about learning about something so dark.
Students: Basically, Hitler hated these people, so he had, just because of their religion or what they looked like, so he basically had these people come in and kill them, or make them work until they died. So I think it's very good for like them to learn about the Holocaust.
CM: And just to clarify, cyberbullying is the thing that you guys are concerned with?
Students: Yes. It's becoming a very serious problem because all these people think it's okay when it's not because you're just assuming something about someone or you're like, you're having like information that some people wouldn't want to be studied. It stays there forever. You can delete your post, but somebody else can go there and like have screenshotted it or find it and just like repost it and like show it to their friends and like, it's just a lot of reflection. Yeah.
CM: Experiential education is showing not only the very important topic of the Holocaust, but tolerance, empathy, and so much more. And these kids realize it too. Here's Lisa.
Lisa Liss: What about like meeting new people all around the world, plus counting, a lot of math, because we had to do the math to figure out how big our container is going to be to fit 1.5 million. And we had to do a lot of math. When we write on them, we have to recount them so they don't get the bins until they've been recounted. So a lot of stuff like that, but we've also met a lot of people. We've heard from survivors. We've heard from famous people, a few people.
Students: We saw people, we videoed them and some of their relatives were Holocaust survivors. And one of them was actually their grandpa, I think they said, was from Auschwitz, to survive from Auschwitz. And Ellie Gross, she survived Auschwitz and I got to write to her, but I wasn't able to hear back. One of our projects, actually, because we have monthly projects, our first one we had to write to or write a letter or email a Holocaust survivor and learn about them. And mine was Inga and she actually survived. I forgot where she survived, but she survived.
CM: Eventually this work will be donated to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and you can help contribute to the children's work.
Students: So the website is our project website and there's a countdown, there's pictures of bandages, there's our one millionth bandage. There's our murals, Google at www.bandageproject.com, all lowercase.
LL: We've had a lot of help. We've had a lot of help because if we didn't have help, there's no way we'd get here. We kind of, some of the kids, well, most all the kids who started with us have all graduated at this point. And so I guess a little background story, but it's on the, so there were two boys who were in my classroom, they're best of friends, a little black boy and a little white boy. And they held hands and ran around together and everything. And at the same time they were in my classroom, one of my former students came back and he kept looking down at the ground talking to me. And I was like, what's the matter? What's the matter? And he said, Oh, come on, Ms. Lis. You know? And I said, no, I don't know. And I asked him about a friend that he was friends with of a different race. And he said, come on, Ms. Lis, gangs aren't multicultural. So that told me two things. Number one, he's in a gang and number two, now he's a racist. So I looked at Cameron and Simon, my two students, and I thought, I can't let this happen. So that was the point where I really pushed. So you're saying about elementaries and most elementaries don't do this and I'm kind of head headed. And so I decided that at that point, I've always taught it, but I thought at that point, I'm not going to give up and I'm not going to quit. So I've always pushed that, you know, and I've had principals not like it and I've had people complain, but it's important. So because it's important, I want them to know about it and we've kept on.
CM: Again, this is experiential education and practice promoting tolerance work with elementary school students taking on serious issues, and they'll be able to express their learning plus, learn writing, reading connected to the world, social studies and math. And they're excited to be there. Every single student expressed how much they love their class and the purposeful work that they were doing. Progressive ed isn't something that you have to wean into when you're older, it's meaningful for young children. To reiterate, you can help Mrs. Liss's class reach their goal by visiting bandageproject.com. Consider donating them to meet the deadline of June 12th, 2019, which is Anne Frank's 90th birthday. Thanks for listening to the podcast so far. I really appreciate your support and interest. If you want to learn more about us, we have a lot of free resources online, plus we've bundled together research articles and books backing everything that we're talking about here. You can find that on humanrestorationproject.org. And if you think the podcast is awesome, consider leaving us a review on iTunes or somewhere, or just giving us a shout out on social media. Our most active is on Twitter, which you can find at HumResPro, first three letters of every word. Critique is also welcome as well. Thanks again. So let's talk for a bit about integrating global perspectives. We've heard from some educators who work in global spaces or have global perspectives, but how can we build these experiences in our rooms? Well, luckily, the internet exists. It's easier than ever to get voices in the classroom, but daunting on where to start. Ed tech can revolutionize or it can make traditional better. Here's two awesome opportunities in my opinion. First, here's Colleen Mascenik from breakawaylearning.org.
Colleen Mascenik: I have a background in development economics and I worked 18 years at World Bank in several regions covering Central Asia most recently, and I'm in Central Asia now. But also Mekong region, Eastern Europe and Ukraine, and doing some work in East and West Africa. In my work, I was focused on financial systems and the enabling environment for doing business. But my interest in education started more personally. I have five children, came to homeschooling through the desire to provide the top quality education for them in the different countries that we lived in tailored to their needs. But I didn't pursue traditional homeschooling in that I was not the one doing it because I was working full time. It was an outsourced kind of homeschooling. One where we would sit down together as a team and talk about what each child was most interested in. And this started around sixth or seventh grade. So it's an exploratory start to say, what do you think is the most inspiring thing? What seems to feel natural to you? And then to create a learning plan that spent most of its time focusing on those things with little nudges around the side that are like, you should read great books. You should read Socrates. You should read Plato. You should understand something of the Bible. You should have some grounding in numeracy and mathematics. But really, as they got to be 14, 15, 16, more and more time dedicated to the things that were the most interesting to them. And then the way that I would do it in each city would be to contact local universities, academies, and institutes and find fluently English speaking students who were interested in earning money, who would come to our apartment as tutors and mentors. And so our apartment became this cycle of young people coming in and out all through the day and sort of a small school for the kids. With time, as we moved from place to place, some of our favorites would not be in the same city. And so they would connect by Skype or Messenger or Viber. And we would pay by PayPal or Western Union or MoneyGram or whatever. It was in the course of doing this that I would notice the vast difference between my children's experience with learning and what I was seeing on the ground of children, whether it was Tajikistan or Laos or Cambodia, who are marching off to a very short public education day, dressed up in uniform. The system seemed to take itself very seriously, but seemed to also deliver very little. In the teenage years in particular, it seemed like a very cynical process where it was a following through of the motions in order to obtain a certificate or to fulfill a national curriculum and take a national exam and go to a national university, but where the real content of education seems to exist someplace else. In my later years at World Bank, I worked on adult education and changing adult behaviors around microcredit. And many of the lessons from adult education were resonating with me, but I could again see that difference from teenagers. And you probably have read about this as well. Within the area of adult education, we come to terms with just how limited is the scope for changing adult behavior through education and how ineffective it is to put a lot of adults in a room and turn on some PowerPoint slides or talk at them. And by comparison, how you have to seek teachable moments and you have to make it social and fun and you have to look for occasions where the learning is relevant to the learner and immediately applicable rather than just an unloading of data.
CM: Breakaway Learning is a platform where students or teachers can connect with people from around the world, basically learning whatever they want to. Here's how Colleen describes it.
Colleen: What our website tries to do, and this is BreakawayLearning.org, a not-for-profit organization, and there are no fees and no subscription to using the site. We try to do three things. The first is to create a custom search mechanism, an organization system that enables the student to type in what interests him and to pull from hundreds of courseware and gameware and tutorial sites and e-libraries content relevant to him. And then to build that into a personal learning plan. So literally on the landing page, it says, why are you learning? And you have to type in why you think you're learning. It says, what inspires you? What have you always wondered about? And this is where a student could type in anything. It doesn't have to be, you know, I'm interested in trigonometry. It could be, I'm interested in helping my town lose weight. I'm interested in helping my pregnant sister. I want to know why countries go to war with each other. And it will pull up all kinds of content to suggest that the student might pursue. And by enabling the student to pick and choose and build that into a day-by-day plan and then to track his progress and generate printable reports, the hope is that it makes individualized learning feel more organized and credible and legitimate, not only to the student but to parents and teachers. So that's the first aspect. The second aspect of the site is this chat marketplace, and that is taken from the first company which we tried but dissolved. That is a marketplace where you can see people from around the world with different experiences and backgrounds who are setting out their profiles and setting their price for chats that are typically from 20 to 40 minutes long. They may take place on Viber or WhatsApp or Skype or Messenger. And the prices are generally between like $2 and $15 for a session. The payments are conducted by PayPal or Zoom or in a few country cases MoneyGram or Western Union. And they're super flexible. So the student really communicates directly with the chat provider and sets the timing of when these conversations would happen. And the conversations, like any conversation, are freeform. They are not according to any particular format. And I try to demonstrate that these people are not tutors. They are just fascinating people. So that's the second part of the platform. And the third part of the platform is a marketplace of local learning clusters. And what we mean by learning cluster is a small group of people who share an interest to study or think about or talk about a particular topic. And so it starts with an adult who creates a profile as a cluster mentor and sets out what is his experience or background, what does he bring to the table. And he offers to convene a small group in a place like a cafe or an office that is offered to share a small room or a classroom that's empty and available. The reason I mention this is that Breakaway Learning has no offices or any rented space of our own at all. And so as we got started in Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, those were our starting countries, these clusters are very ad hoc. They are meeting in any place that will share Wi-Fi and electric sockets with a small group of students. We then expanded into Myanmar and Cambodia and Tajikistan and Eastern Ukraine. And I'm now working on expanding in South Sudan and in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. It solves a problem for young people who, as I mentioned earlier, are feeling alienated from a system of education that doesn't really get at what they need to learn.
CM: So to clarify here, a student essentially goes on BreakawayLearning.org, they type in things that interest them, and they pay a small flat fee like $5 an hour to learn anything from like life under the Taliban to taking a piano lesson. I asked the logistics behind time zones and payment.
Colleen: Yes. And it's good that you brought it up because the logistical challenge of it is real. And it seems to have been one of the key considerations for integrating into the classroom system. Teachers were struggling with how do I make the timing of this coincide with my class when there are time zone differences. So that an American class that is happening at 10 a.m. might be very late in the day for Cambodia that is 12 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time or a class that's at 2 p.m. trying to connect with Naivasha Kenya, the Kenya Wildlife Service. There's also the question of payment because teachers might not have the ability to use a PayPal account on behalf of the class. And it's not easy for an individual teacher necessarily to solve how they would come up with PayPal funding or in the more difficult cases of payments to places like Afghanistan, Western Union payment on behalf of a class. And so in that respect, it has been easier for homeschooling and unschooling students who have the flexibility of parents paying on their behalf to arrange payment.
CM: In my opinion, it's really worth checking out. I have a few students in my class that really want to interview some interesting folks on there for various projects and they're already active in doing it. Teen also want to share about a completely separate initiative in higher education.
Colleen: This is completely outside of Breakaway Learning, but I share with you and many others who care about teen education this heartbreaking frustration that teens seem to go through these years with blinders on, that they will often say they feel like they're not having any more fun. They feel like learning is something that is applied externally to them and that they are passing down a narrow corridor and have to satisfy the requirements of all these gatekeepers, but the individual requirements don't add value to their lives. What is the actual value to your life of the SAT, for example? And I realized that so much of what creates the tunnel vision in teen education is the expectation of enrollment in four years single institution undergraduate education afterwards. And that at the same time, we're living in changing times. That's an understatement. I mean, Udemy has been around for about a decade, Coursera and EDX almost a decade. We're living in times where the potential for individualization and unbundling of tertiary learning is there, but the cultural imagination has not reached that point yet. That you could actually pursue advanced learning in a completely individualized and unbundled way except for the expectation that's placed by your family, your community, and your thought that future employers would expect that a bachelor's degree must be done. And it's happening at the same time that there's this rapid expansion in student loans in overall volume, in the number of people carrying student loans, and in the years of one's life that one is in repayment so that there are many more people over the age of 40 repaying student loans than ever before. Brookings released a study last year suggesting that by 2023 there would be 40% of U.S. student loans in default. There's currently 11% of U.S. student loans in default and another 13% in deferral or forbearance. So it's also an economic problem that every taxpayer in the U.S. should be concerned about. But going back to teenagers, teenagers' entire experience seems to be motivated by the expectations and the burdens that are created by believing that upon their 18th birthday the thing to do is to go to a four-year college. And so I really believe that it is urgently needed to push for an unbundling and an unbranding of four-year university not only to avert a financial disaster that seems to be coming down the road, but also to discover that hidden value of what teenagers could do and might become if they were not straight-jacketed by the expectation of applying to four-year colleges.
CM: Unbundling, unbranding is Colleen's idea, an initiative to essentially shift four-year colleges to a la carte classes, removing degree requirements, and focusing individually on the learner. I went back and forth including this part in here, but we had sort of a falling out on this process in the Human Restoration Project. Initially, we were going to promote this idea heavily and do a whole recruitment thing around it, as shifting to any kind of more equitable or affordable system in college makes a lot of sense to me. But unbundling, unbranding is seeking allies in spaces that I'm personally not willing to go with, such as Brian Kaplan, who's the guy who wrote a book about ending public education. I still think the idea of unbundling is solid, I just don't think we're radical enough to say that we should do away with all current systems. I'm morally opposed to the idea of getting rid of public education. And to clarify, I'm not saying that Colleen is, we just don't want to get involved in that type of space with those types of people. Anyways, here is Colleen's explanation of what this initiative could do.
Colleen: I'd like to think through what would be the reverse impact when college is unbundled and unbranded of the expectations throughout adolescence and the teenage years. I think that college is tidy right now, and it's that tidy appearance of a four-year all-in-one place undergraduate degree that contributes to the tunnel vision that high school should be this very mechanical process that has to achieve specific knowledge, content mastery, specific items being memorized and produced on exams. If you unbundle and unbrand college, it becomes a scary thing. It becomes messy. It becomes uncertain. It's well, I could spend three months living there in an Airbnb and trying to intern or be a volunteer for such and such, or I could be bagging groceries while I'm trying to complete this online course and maybe I'd take a face-to-face course there. And so for sure, it's a worrisome thing for parents and for young people because it throws so many of the decisions back in your face, not from year to year, but from month to month about what am I doing and how am I going to make ends meet. But I think that for one, by unbundling it, people look at the price tag and what they're getting in a much more level-headed, cool-headed way so that they, as with any unbundled product, they hold everything to the light and say, now, is this really delivering value to me? This particular thing here, whereas with a whole tuition process, especially when it follows a long multi-month process of multiple university competing applications, the student is just thrilled to have gotten in so that the consideration of the dollar for dollar value that they're getting from the tuition is really an afterthought. But in a much messier situation, more responsibility for the path you're taking in life falls back on your shoulders and anticipating that when you're 15 or 16 years old really should give you pause to think, well, maybe I don't like this trigonometry class, but maybe I'll never do it again. Maybe this is the end of my experience with trigonometry and the thing that I really want to look at is X or Y or Z. Maybe what I really want to do is find a way to prevent elephant poaching. And I've been talking to this guy in Naivasha at the Kenya Wildlife Service, and I would like to learn more about that. And maybe when I'm 19, I'll be in Naivasha volunteering. That would totally invert the process and turn it into one that starts with what the student is interested in.
CM: Personally, I think that we should all be pushing for a free college to be offered at state institutions because I think that the process that Colleen is explaining here, maybe not for the most ethical reasons, but would probably be put in place because it would save the college money. They're probably not going to want to pay for four year degrees for everyone, so they'll offer micro credentials in order to save that money. You know, again, I believe we should support any initiative that allows children more opportunities in life to explore and learn. And last but certainly not least, here's Evan Schwartz of the global classroom connector Belouga.
Evin Schwartz: We launched a platform about two and a half years ago, but it's funny, my background is actually not from the educational side. My background is social impact in the startup technology world. I used to run a marketing agency in New York for a number of years, consulted with different NGOs, organizations, government groups, literally worldwide. And about three years ago at this point, kind of that middle of the night light bulb idea goes off, really just speaking with different buddies around the world and them asking me, you know, what's going on stateside, with politics, with homelessness, with hunger, with gun violence, the traditional headlines in so many words that they're just seeing on their media. And, you know, just reflecting on a little bit, they're not so interested in the U.S., they're interested in me as a person, so I kind of thought about that for a bit and started reflecting on, you know, how are we as Americans looking at the rest of the world and, you know, dictated down from the media and, you know, putting perceptions around certain groups in certain regions. And at the same time, this I'll never forget, I flew up with my wife to Toronto, we spend a lot of time up there. And the first thing we did, we looked on the news and we saw the terror attack in Paris where they shot a theater and, you know, the horrible situation, a lot of victims there. And both those situations, personally, my life just kind of came together and said, you know, we're just not doing a good job laying the foundation for this next generation. Right. And how do we improve and kind of plant that seed in each other, similar to my relationships with friends overseas, you know, just connecting over common interests to start and then growing from there. And instead of trying to create this overnight solution, what's the industry that really can make a difference here at its education? Right. So Belouga really started with that entire concept. We use a term on our team called emotional equity. It's having a personal investment in another culture, religion, race, ideology. And with that feeling invested. So Belouga really just started as, hey, how do we get kids around the world learning about each other first in a very social type of manner to break down the barriers and create bridges. But then from there, with education in mind, how do we get them working hand in hand and creating solutions ideally for a better tomorrow than today?
CM: Here's how Belouga works. You go onto their website, create a portfolio for your class and have a few students sign up with you. Then you'll see a map of the world with other classrooms looking to connect. As a teacher, you can view their pages and request further communication. And then once you do that, you can either communicate over Belouga's built in video or text communication software or otherwise. But it's not only that.
ES: How are we actually moving past just seeing each other or hearing each other? So what we really did and as much of a social entity as we are, we're a content company through and through. So we have this whole social initiation layer. But once there, we looked around the world and said, how do we create a better world is just bringing the world into the classroom. So we've aligned with different organizations worldwide, literally from groups in Tanzania protecting the elephants to climate change organizations, solar power organizations, museums, the United Nations, UNESCO, a lot of ministries of education have brought their work that they're actually doing in the field into Belouga. And we call them our deep dive series. It's our little version of Netflix over here, if you will, where we're taking just raw assets from these organizations, so images, videos, case studies, and with educators on our team have molded it into educational series that are engaging, touch on real world learning initiatives, relate back to common core. So how is, let's say, elephants in Tanzania related to earth science or music or art or history? And then at the end of it, we have missions. And our missions really rely heavily on sustainability and the UN global goals. We're taking these giant global problems, relating it back to our own communities and giving students and outlets both individually and collaboratively with their own classmates or partners from around the world to work on a project that could actually make a difference. So is the goal of your platform to build out a curriculum or for teachers to create projects and use their curriculum to connect with a larger global community? We have teachers that come on here specifically towards their curriculum and syllabus needs and saying, hey, we're working on ancient Rome and we want to connect with the classroom in Rome. We have other teachers that might come in and say, aside from just the communication, we want to work on a project with a classroom in Rome. Or we have teachers that come in and say, listen, we're not even so concerned about the communication. We're just going to consume this content because we know it hits on those real world learning initiatives. So we try to mold Belouga to really be as flexible as possible for teachers. We have some teachers that log on once or twice a year. We have some teachers that log on every single day. So I think it really depends on the subject matter, obviously the tech adoption. And when I say subject matter also, we probably started language, social studies, history is kind of the low hanging fruit here through the content have really been able to hit those other subject matters that you probably wouldn't necessarily expect so much in that term. Global education such as math, art, science, and I mean, STEM and STEAM are huge in our platform too. So it really kind of is dictated by the teachers and ideally the students own curiosity and creativity as well.
CM: And Belouga is unique because it's not necessarily a video platform, although it can be. You can record messages and chat back and forth and it's posted in like a Facebook style wall with other classes. Therefore time zones and alignment is slightly easier to do. Personally, I ran into a lot of issues and attempting projects like this in the past because students liked wifi access at home and we couldn't easily connect to, let's say Vietnam because there's a 12 hour time difference. But there's another element of Belouga as well, right?
ES: We realized that in early stage two, that there's no better place in the world that appreciates badges than education, right? So we realized, how do we incentivize students and teachers also to really post rich organic content? So kids around the world that might say, I eat pizza for dinner, that's great. And there's some real value to that, but how do we get them to show what their pizza looks like? And compare that from New York to Columbus, to LA, to Tokyo. So from our side, not required action, but we basically just started assigning points in our platform as gamified process for student interaction. And it includes their own profile, it includes participating and communicating with partners, and it also includes completing different episodes and series. So all those points are able to be gathered up and badges as well for different levels and accreditations and things along those lines. From the student side, what we realized is, how do we put these points to work and not necessarily just focus on cultural skills, but how do we focus on humanitarian skills, empathy skills, right? Those big buzzwords that are out there. So again, really looking around the world, speaking with different organizations, and just seeing what really is needed in the classroom. And I don't mean the traditional things that most of us might think of, where it's more PD or more tablets or things along those lines. We work with a lot of different countries. Our network range is about 84 countries and counting right now. And from our side, how do we plant that emotional seed in a child to really understand what it's like to walk in someone else's shoes? So what we did is really just start aligning with different organizations, mostly NGOs and educational programs and projects from a grassroots level that are really just in need of support. And it's that everyday support that's going to make a huge difference in the lives of their students and teachers that isn't costing that much money, that isn't some mind-blowing concept. It's things like Wi-Fi or clean water. We did a program for sea salt and cement to build a new structure. And generally, they do come from emerging markets, although what I'll say is, we need just as much help here locally as globally, too. So we do like to support our own backyard, but definitely have a lot of work on overseas throughout Asia and Africa and South America, too, where ultimately what we do is we just feature the story and its images, its videos, and understanding why X item is going to make a difference and not just a short-term difference, but a real long-term sustainable difference. We feature that program. We set a point limit, really kind of a benchmark to complete a campaign. Students around the world are able to donate their points. Once those points are accumulated, it triggers the reward for these schools in need and really provides those items. Our company provides about 90% of those items, and we work with other organizations globally to really help us scale our mission. I'll give you a great example of really what these items mean to schools. And it's not just necessarily from the giving standpoint. It's the whole educational focus around it. So right out of the gate, this is maybe dating about a year and a half ago, we did a campaign for a school in India. And it was this one school, really, we'll call it a makeshift school in so many words. But there's this one group of students that are living on the streets. So street kids, to an extent. These local teachers came across them. They see them coming home from work every day and said, we got to help them out. We all know what happens in that situation. So how can we really make a difference? So these teachers came together. And after school, they would go out into the street and teach these kids until it got dark. Like absolutely amazing concept. The issue, though, was that once it got dark, they couldn't do anything else. No one could see. So the kids were left to themselves. Ultimately, we worked with their group and said, all right, how can we make a difference here? And it came down to just electricity. So thinking about the resources locally, we donated and set up a campaign for solar power lanterns. The campaign got hit immediately. If you go on to Bolivia, you could see a video of the reaction from the students receiving the solar power lanterns. I mean, it's just amazing to see that moment where they realize what this means to their own lives in education, where these teachers get to stick around a bit longer and just educate them that much more on a day-to-day basis. But the interesting thing is that's an avenue in. And I mean that by other students around the world now see this, obviously they're building empathy and they feel passionate about it, but they want to know more, right? So how are we focusing on, let's say, solar power, right, and how is that harnessed? And now it's a great opportunity for science teachers to bring that into their classroom or cultural or history teachers. Why is this region in India in poverty and how do we make a difference? So it's really bringing that exposure to the table. The Impact Campaigns have been a really nice calling card for our company. It's not just about giving, it's about that whole educational journey alongside of it. From here, we shifted our discussion to talking about ed tech in general.
CN: It seems rather difficult for ed tech to implement revolutionary ideas when teachers feel so pigeon-held into test prep. Here's what Evin thinks.
ES: And I think that's an industry problem. And I think everyone in this educational sector experiences that. I think it's kind of a top-down feeling where it's coming from the top and teachers are getting banged over the head, and I feel for them, to be honest with you, where creativity and curiosity is getting stripped out of the classroom because we have to hit numbers and check boxes. But what I'll tell you is, from a collaboration standpoint and just kind of bringing the world into the classroom, what we're trying to position really is not necessarily playing so much into curriculum. We're hitting core curriculum or ISTE standards or PISA or OECD and, you know, working globally for us, it's literally impossible to focus on one core curriculum as it is. But structuring programs around, you know, those core subject areas like math, science, history, art, music, and then bridging down from there. So biology, chemistry, earth science, and things along those lines, that's kind of how teachers have been using it, not necessarily just as, you know, a, hey, here's a fun activity, but a real substitute to their traditional, we'll call it the textbook type of route. Some, I'll give you an example, like one school over in St. Louis is actually using Belouga as their entire curriculum with the SDGs as an alignment. So instead of focusing on like the statewide, you know, and granted, there's a lot of flexibility in this one school, but looking at it and saying, well, we could really focus, you know, the SDGs aren't going anywhere. We have at least another 11 years with these things, and understanding that the students that are in grade school now are going to be voting age, and the professionals by the time these things roll around, you know, how are we understanding and aligning our curriculum to this model. And that's kind of how we've seen teachers get really innovative with the platform and process is taking their traditional, but just using the material as the vehicle to accomplish their goals.
CM: What role does EdTech have in this revolution in classrooms? Often EdTech is sort of like at least sometimes pitched as MOOCs or where students do really traditional stuff just at their own pace. You know, it's a decent theory, but really what that makes is an even more roboticized classroom. How can we shift that to being really revolutionary?
ES: You know, looking at the space, one, and I always say this, technology is more available than ever. And even emerging regions and developing markets have access to internet. A lot of it is taking place on mobile, but this information is going nowhere, right? It's getting quicker and quicker by the day. And the issue is that, you know, the schools that are pushing back against it, and I understand why, right? Change is difficult for everyone, but looking at it and saying, you know, we can have technology or we're limiting screen time or we don't want our kids to have phones in the classroom are really at a disadvantage. And I mean that in the best way possible, but it's hurting the individual educator and especially their value in the market too, where I believe the individual educator, their goal is to be the journeyman or journey woman, right? And how do we position each child in the best situation, excuse me, possible to really hit their goals and their objectives as a student and ultimately as a professional, right? So like you look in a classroom and one teacher is still teaching to 25 students the exact same material from the exact same source and expecting the exact same results. It's literally impossible. The biggest issue is that one kid now or the 25 kids walk out of the classroom, they flip on their phone and have access to the world, right? So you start talking about curiosity and creativity and content here. And that's just, you know, it's a vicious cycle, right? Then it goes up to the higher ups and the institutions and, oh, we're not hitting check marks here. You know, like that's a negative on a teacher, which it shouldn't be. That's not fair. So from the ed tech side, and we honestly, I don't love that term ed tech. I think it's a, you know, this wild, wild west space still, where you think about some of the leaders in the space and some of the work that they're doing, but how are we really making a difference? And I think personalization, I don't want to call it professional development or personalized learning, but personalization is the biggest thing in technology, especially from the education side. Like we work, again, there are a lot of different markets. I was down in Columbia about two months ago and you walk into some schools and there's, you know, one teacher teaching 60 kids English, right, are all the kids going to get a benefit from that? No chance, right? Like, I don't care how great the teacher is, I don't care how great the students are. It's not going to happen because you're not playing to their individual levels. So how do we utilize technology, one, at the entry point from a curiosity and creativity standpoint to plant that seed in a kid and understand, even as adults, right, we flocked what we're interested in, but how do we plant that first in a child and then play to their interests with specific material, with specific assessment, and understanding the journey and from the teacher side, how do they then use the technology and the resources to really achieve their goals too as an educator, right? Like we see amazing work from educators every single day, but how are we knocking down the four walls of the classroom? Bring everything digital, and again, understanding that takes time, but bring everything digital where it's global networking to the fullest, right? So it's not just a teacher or a student going on their own anymore. So that personalization, just access really more than anything else, and that's something our team always focuses on, really is our core values, is just making education accessible and impactful. So I think if all of us have that mentality in mind, looking at ed tech over the next upcoming years, I think that personalization is everything.
CM: And that about sums things up. Thank you again for listening to Things Fall Apart from the Human Restoration Project. If you want to talk more about equity and global ed and everything of that nature, make sure to check out first off our blog and other podcasts, which you can find on humanrestorationproject.org, or give us a shout out on social media and we'll have a conversation there or potentially invite you on this podcast. I hope this conversation helps you feel more confident, inspired, and ready to push the progressive envelope. If you have time, I'd love for you to leave us a review on iTunes, social media, or anywhere you see fit. The more people that share this, the more people will feel comfortable having these conversations and doing what's best for our kids. Continue to push for equity in education, and don't let anyone tell you that public education can't change to support students everywhere.