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Author: Will Minton

Students Are Not Rational Beings, They’re Emotional Ones

Students Are Not Rational Beings, They’re Emotional Ones

A young girl speaks up first: “Before Maya I wasn’t confident in how I talk with people and I wasn’t sure what my life would be like in the future. But Maya has given me the chance to say ‘Yes, there are lots of things to do in life.’” The kids around her nod and smile. All of the children in the circle are between 11 and 15 years old, and they all come from very low-income communities in Pune, India. In 2014 they were part of an original musical called ‘Maya’ that they performed for over 10,000 people across India.

Another student speaks up, “What Maya was for me, it was a platform for us kids to figure out, ‘what is our light,’ and what is our potential, and how can we use it in different ways, to help other kids or spread the knowledge that we have… I have grown in Maya. My confidence has increased. Now I can talk to people with more confidence…” Most educators would be glowing with pride if their students spoke like this, but Sanaya, the facilitator, has heard this all before and she doesn’t seem impressed. She cuts into the dialogue, “OK, I’m going to push you a little more. All of your confidence has increased. None of you spoke earlier, all of you speak now. What else?” A murmur of giggles rises in the circle and Sanaya looks up to Elizabeth and I, “At the beginning, they didn’t speak more than a few words of English. They were quite shy. They didn’t have opinions and if they did, they were afraid to voice them.” She looks back to the students, “OK, beyond that?”

Teach for india maya

The students don’t miss a beat. A young boy speaks up, “If we don’t know something, we used to leave it. We used to not ask about it. But after Maya, we learned to ask ‘Why?’ If we’ve been taught something we ask, ‘Why does this happen?’ or ‘What is the reason behind this?’ The reasoning skills that we have, have increased.”

Another girl chimes in, “I’m more aware of the things that I want to do in my life and the things that I did wrong. Maybe I’m a little confused about things, and about what’s happening in my life, or around me. But I’ve started thinking more about what’s going on around me. I’ve started to become more wise. Now I ask, ‘What is the right thing to do?’”

Maya is a program of Teach For India, an organization similar to, but distinctly different from, Teach For America. Maya came about because TFI kept telling their adult fellows that they should focus on values and expose students to experiences in addition to academics. The trouble was that they didn’t have any real examples of what this meant. TFI decided to start a program dedicated to values development and student voice. At about this time, there was a fortuitous introduction to someone connected to Tony Award winning talent from Broadway. The arts seemed like a good place to start and the idea for Maya began to form.

The results are unquestionable. Not only did the students eventually perform an original and elaborate musical (about Maya, a princess who fights to bring light back to her kingdom and, in the process, finds the light inside herself) but their academic test scores ended up over 50% higher than other TFI students across the country. Maya did have a minor academic component where they would break down vocabulary and discuss the musical’s script as a text. But there wasn’t nearly enough time dedicated to this type of discussion to account for a 50% difference in test scores.

Maya teach for india values

The students in Maya talk about the group as a family. They highlight the importance of trust and the fact that their individual voices are valued. It turns out that when young people feel part of a positive peer community like this, it has an immeasurably powerful effect that ripples through every other part of their lives.

Too often we treat children like they are rational systems. We have a goal for them, like academic success, and we push them toward it in a narrow and prescriptive fashion. We want them to be motivated because it makes sense for them to be motivated. But children are not rational beings. They are emotional beings. To find the fire of self-motivation they need emotional experiences. Some students can find this emotion inwardly and nurse their motivation in isolation. But the vast majority of young people need programs like Maya to set the spark that will help them find their ‘light.’

  • Will
The Best Pizza in Naples, Italy, and Probably the World

The Best Pizza in Naples, Italy, and Probably the World

The best pizza in Naples is Sorbillo’s. Some locals may tell you that they actually prefer Starita’s, and I don’t think they’re lying. But I’m assuming it’s the shorter wait and no hype atmosphere that they actually prefer because, with the pizza, there’s no comparison.

The pizza at Sorbillos is just whew, wow, damn… To the uninitiated, it’s like trying to describe color to someone who lives in black and white. The cheese is succulent without being oily. The crust has the perfect flavor of fire and brick oven, without tasting too crisp or burned. The unique shape of each pie testifies to the human touch.

And it’s cheap! So cheap! The basic margherita is about 3 euros, and most of the more ornate pies are still under 10 euros. They could easily get away with charging three or four times their prices, and no one would bat an eye.

Again, Sorbillo’s is the best pizza in Naples. Be warned though, this is not a secret. Here’s a shot of what the ‘line’ outside looked like in early December:

sorbrillos naples, italy napoli

We went for a late lunch at around 3:15 and were lucky to only have a 50min wait. We heard from people who went at peak times and waited upwards of 3 hours. So, you may want to build your whole day around this meal and show up at an especially odd time, like 4:00 or something.

OK, it’s true, we didn’t do an exhaustive pizza tour of Napoli. Maybe there’s some hidden jewel that people like to mention as being better so they can feel cool. Maybe. But it seems to be an uncontroversial line of reasoning to say that, ‘Since Italy has the best pizza in the world, and Naples has the best pizza in Italy, and Sorbillo’s is the best pizza in Naples, then Sorbillo’s is the best pizza in the world.’ No argument from us on that. Pope Francis apparently agrees. This is who he called when he wanted to bless a pizza. Starita’s is still coasting on their photo of John Paul II.

Buen Provecho!

  • Will

 

 

How to Bargain for a Carpet, Rug, or Other Goods

How to Bargain for a Carpet, Rug, or Other Goods

I remember the first time I went shopping in a price-tag free environment. I was 20 and alone in Morocco, and rugs were piling up in front of me. A tray with tea magically appeared. I had no idea how to bargain. Details about the amount of work that went into the rugs and how great a time this was for me to purchase, swirled around my head. It was a disorienting experience. I didn’t even want a rug, but I ended up buying one and paying a lot more than I needed to.

A lot of people are put off by bargaining and don’t quite know how to go about it. Over the last 12 years, I’ve found myself bargaining more than a few times, and I’ve come up with a process you might find useful.

  1. Start a negotiation at 1/3 the asking price. If the person is talking a lot and making a big show, you probably want to lower this to 20% of the asking price. I know it seems like a lot, but you’re aiming to pay 50-66% of the original price. When they tell you the price, it helps to look hurt or surprised and say something like, “Very beautiful, but I’m only prepared to spend ___.” Then smile. This is the most uncomfortable part of the negotiation but also the most important.
  2. The dealer will probably respond by repeating all of the special traits of what you’re buying and reminding you that this is ‘quality stuff.’ Then he’ll probably talk about a ‘cash discount’ (if they take cards at all) and bring it down by 5-10%.
  3. Whatever amount they decrease the price, that’s how much you should increase your bid by. It also helps to wait an uncomfortable amount of time before speaking. Settle in, this conversation may take a while.
  4. Next the dealer will talk a lot and also wait an uncomfortable amount of time. He’ll tell you he’s already giving you a better price than he should. DO NOT SAY ANYTHING until he gives you a new price. He’s trying to awkward you into raising your bid without having to counter.
  5. Look dissatisfied and then generally repeat these steps until you’re near the 50-66% percent range you’re aiming for. Then, wait an even more unusually long period of time during which you seem, excited, pensive, and generally deep in thought. Then smile and say conclusively, “OK, (an amount ~10% lower than his last number).” Then offer your hand to shake, and say confidently, “It’s a good price.”
  6. If he then tries to squeeze an extra couple of bucks out of you, go ahead and let him. There’s no pride to be taken in hustling this guy out of a few dollars that, will certainly mean more to him than you.

Now, all of this advice is for actual high-quality handmade or delicate stuff. If you’re buying something that’s machine made you can normally start closer to 10% and end up paying 20-40%.

On the other hand, there are usually 1-2 shops in a market that will give you a much better starting price than other stores. The main rug in the feature photo for instance. One shop showed a rug of the same size and quality with a starting price of $1200. The shop I ended up buying from had a much less over-the-top dealer and gave a starting price of $450. Our friend Sarah wanted the other two rugs so, we bundled the deal and I ended up paying $350 for the main one in the photo. So, less than 1/3 the price at the first shop but only a ~20% discount from where we actually bought it. Maybe we could have squeezed a slightly better deal, but we were happy with the price. Point being, it pays to get initial quotes from a few places.

Also, my experience comes mostly from Morocco, Egypt, and Turkey. In South America bargaining is less of a thing, and people will kind of stop talking to you if you start as low as I’m recommending here. I look forward to trying this method in India and South East Asia in the coming months, and I’ll amend this post if I find things are drastically different.

Happy Shopping!

  • Will
The Art of Banksy: A Review with Photos

The Art of Banksy: A Review with Photos

Flyers are a bit old school but, when traveling, they’re still a great way to learn about cool stuff going on in a city. So, when I saw a row of flyers with a Banksy print stream by the window of the metro here in Istanbul, I immediately went online to learn what was going on. It turns out that, the world premiere of “The Art of Banksy,” the largest Banksy exhibition ever assembled, was about to open its doors just a few minutes walk from our hostel.

Banksy, as you probably know, is awesome. For a long time, I used to twist my lips at political art. I had seen a lot of it, and it all seemed too heavy-handed or too dependent on convoluted symbols. Banksy, however, changed all that.

Banksy’s themes are grand, mostly war and commercialism in this exhibit. But his statements are clean and simple.

He mixes the religious and commercial in a way that forces you to think about the ways the two are changing to resemble one another:

Art of Banksy Sale

Art of Banksy Christ

 

He juxtaposes violence and oppression with the playful and innocent and the absurdity exposes just how far from innocent systems of power usually are:

The art of Banksy flowers

The Art of Banksy

 

Two pieces seem to suggest a vision of triumph or rebirth:

Art of Banksy Rainbow police

Banksy urban rebirth

 

And just in case you have doubts about his back-to-basics talents with oil and canvas there are these museum style landscapes with a little modern Banksy twist:

Art of Banksy Helicopter landscape

Banksy Guantanamo Bay

 

I’ve seen a lot of art, especially on this trip, but no other exhibit has been at all like this. Every single work offers something to think about. The exhibit forced me to see more clearly. It brought me more in touch with the modern world.

  • Will

There are over 100 other works not pictured here in the exhibit. The layout of the exhibit is also unique and adds to the experience. Here’s a final piece for lagniappe that didn’t fit nicely into the themes above, but Elizabeth says it’s her favorite:

Banksy shopping carts spears

Rigorous Relationships: Lessons from One of the Best Schools in Switzerland

Rigorous Relationships: Lessons from One of the Best Schools in Switzerland

Olaf and I were wrapping up our time together when I asked him a final question, “What makes an excellent teacher?”

“There is not ‘the excellent teacher,’” he said. “There is the teacher who can make a connection with the students. The student has the feeling that, ‘he likes me.’ He can be hard, he can be loud, but the student always has to have the feeling that, ‘he likes me.’ This is the relationship piece.” He went on to add that the teacher should know their subject and how to make it exciting. They should know ‘how we talk’ at the school, and they should add insight to school discussions. But it was clear that the relationship between students and teachers was the keystone for everything else.

As soon as Elizabeth and I decided to focus this trip on education, we knew that we had to go to Switzerland. According to the last PISA test (talked about here), Swiss teenagers are both the happiest and highest performing students in Europe. We would have been happy to visit any school, but we were lucky enough to be invited to Ruggenacher, which had recently been nominated as one of the best schools in Switzerland.

Olaf, the school principal, picked us up from the train in his Nissan Leaf. During the short drive to the school, we made small talk about our trip and the unusually warm weather. Once in his office, he gave us some materials and started to explain the approach of the school, “We think the most important thing is to have a good relation from teacher to student. If there’s a good relation, and if teachers are in their topics very well, then we have a good school. That’s the bottom of our thinking.”

students at a school in switzerland

Switzerland is known for its affluence and this is one of its best schools so, we were somewhat surprised to learn about Ruggenacher’s demographics. The majority of the students are working class and over half are from immigrant families. Olaf spoke as much about the supports offered to students who act out or fall behind, as he did about anything else. On the way back to the train station, he told a story about a representative from PISA who came to visit. He asked the man about how he can tell if a school is good or not. “It’s all in how a school treats the bottom 10%. That is everything,” he said.

Now, I’ve heard lots of schools talk about the importance of relationships, but how this priority actually looks in a school can be a tricky question. I asked Olaf what they do to make sure relationships are a lived priority in the school, not just words in a vision. He was quick with examples.

  • Longevity. Instructionally the school is organized into ‘Lelas.’ These are groups of 3-4 teachers who follow students for their 3 years at the school. So, a class of students will have the same three teachers for their entire time at the school. In this way, teachers are able to build strong relationships with each child. The lelas also have a lot of autonomy to plan instruction and come up with support systems for individual students who need it. As Olaf said, “We have no change. It’s very important that we have stability in all of these groups. That’s the point, and why I think we are quite a good school. Because we have good teachers and they work together for a very long time.”
  • Student Coaching. Every four weeks each student has a meeting to discuss with their ‘coach/advisor’ about how they are doing and what their next steps are. If a student needs it, these meetings can be more frequent, sometimes 2-3 times a week. The teachers get special PD on how to facilitate these coaching sessions effectively in both the short and long-term.

desk at school in switzerland

  • Independent time. There are large rooms at Ruggenacher that are filled with 50 student cubicles each. All 50 students are never here at once, so they could share, but Ruggenacher knows that having their ‘own space’ is important to teenagers. Students can personalize their cubicles with photos and their organization chart. Each student spends 7-8 hours a week here and they’re able to manage their own work time. Of course, they’re responsible to complete work, but they have freedom in how they prioritize their tasks. It’s basically a study hall, but taken much more seriously. I think it’s interesting that Olaf mentioned this as part of the relationship strategy. It’s part of a deeper understanding that we saw in Switzerland that, increased responsibility can strengthen a student’s relationship with school. We asked students what they thought of this time and they lit up. It’s clearly one of their favorite parts of the day.
  • Earned Privileges. Students who show they are ‘good’ by being respectful and curious can earn extra privileges like the ability to take home a digital device or get a pass to stay inside during recess. In the US we often take privileges away for misbehavior. I think I like the idea of earning privileges with good behavior better. Students may earn one distinction but not another, and very few students have them all.
  • Respect. The most important aspect of student-teacher relationships at Ruggenacher is something that Olaf mentioned several times: students and teachers can talk with each other. Their communications aren’t defined by a power dynamic, their defined by a mutual respect. This piece is necessary to make everything else work, “Strong teachers can talk with students eye-to-eye. You don’t have so much ‘Teacher and Student.’ They can discuss as normal people should discuss. So the students, you will see, they are difficult in some situations, but mostly you can talk with them. From the first day they come to us they are partners. You can feel it.”

It’s true, we could feel it. The students at Ruggenacher are no different than students at any other school we’ve visited, but unlike students at schools with similar demographics they feel that school is for them. They feel that school is on their side, and they feel this way because of how they are treated when they’re there. Relationships are a priority and the systems of the school actually reflect that priority. Of course, there are other factors in Ruggenacher’s success and we’ll talk about them in future posts, but positive relationships, Olaf insists, are the foundation of everything.

  • Will
Reflections on Terror from Istanbul

Reflections on Terror from Istanbul

Yesterday a suicide bomber approached a German tour group by an obelisk near Sultanahmet square and took the lives of at least 10 people. Less than 24 hours before, Elizabeth and I were walking around Sultamahmet with our friend Sarah. We talked about the layers of history around us and lamented that American students aren’t exposed more to the richness of culture and history in this part of the world. We stood before the obelisk and realized that, a thousand years ago, we would be in the midst of racing chariots. This was the Hippodrome where emperor Justinian once massacred tens of thousands of protestors.

Elizabeth and I were at breakfast on the other side of the city when the explosion happened. We didn’t hear anything. There were at least a million people closer to the blast than we were. We heard what happened like most people several continents away, on the TV. As details emerged, we began to feel increasingly uneasy. This was the exact place where we had stood the day before. We thought of our families and worried for the groups of German tourists we’d seen around the city. We were lucky.

Blue Mosque 01

Photo Credit: Sarah Payne

We were perhaps too cavalier when we dismissed the concerns from our friends and family about visiting Istanbul. This is a country whose eastern border is an active war zone. The crossing with Syria is porous, to put it mildly. On our first night here, we met a journalist who joked about taking us to the east. As we left, he made sure to be a bit more serious, “Do not go to Syria,” he said. “You will be kidnapped, 100%.”

So, many people are reacting to yesterday’s attack as something that’s tragic but unsurprising. For me it’s underlining a different reality: Nowhere is ‘safe.’ Boston, Paris, Cologne, San Bernardino, an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. I have friends who were personally affected when a gunman opened fire in a movie theater in my home state of Louisiana. Black people in our country live with the fear that routine interactions with the police could end in death. Sending their children to play in a white part of town has become an act of courage. Terror is everywhere. I don’t feel any less safe today than I did on Monday.

One of the most startling things about yesterday is how quickly a place can appear normal. Yesterday evening people came back to the hostel having just learned what had happened. One man had spent the whole afternoon near Sultanahmet square without knowing a thing. Public transportation in the area was briefly halted, but it’s running again now. Of course the political ripples will continue much longer, and for many people life will never be the same. A certain melancholy hangs in the air. Periodically I imagine what the scene must have looked like and feel sick.

Data shows that the world is actually safer than it’s ever been. But the ways it’s unsafe today are unfamiliar, and they are especially susceptible to narratives of fear and aggression. There is a temptation to define an ‘other’ and rage against them. The broader the ‘other’ we define, the more satisfying our anger will feel. But fear and unquestioning anger will only further radicalize people in all the fractured pieces of our world. I am not a pacifist, but I know that strength cannot be righteous without compassion.

Last week I visited the hill in Turkey where, it’s believed, Saint John wrote his gospel. When I returned I decided to read some of it before going to sleep. I was reminded that Jesus also lived in turbulent and oppressive times. His guidance was clear, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.” I don’t think you need to be a practicing Christian to think that there’s truth in that idea. In times that seem dark, maybe each of us should do our best to find the light we wish to carry. It’s difficult, but it’s a more uniquely human ability than fear.

  • Will
Spice of Life in Zanzibar and Dar Es Salaam

Spice of Life in Zanzibar and Dar Es Salaam

Dar Es Salaam is big and dirty. Cars and motorbikes swerve around pedestrians. Potholes fill with murky puddles. Parts of the sidewalk by our hotel were taken up by people welding a variety of metal contraptions. But the city is also a vibrant mix of peoples and cultures. Mosques, churches, and Hindu temples can be found just a few minute walk from one another. A variety of tea shops offer masala (chai) tea and an assortment of delicious snacks. There’s at least one sprawling vegetable market that wraps around two sides of a large city block and some of the best Indian food we’ve ever had. Coming from Malawi, Dar seemed like a return to civilization, but it’s also the sort of place that can tax your energy just getting from one place to another.

Most people come to Dar Es Salaam on their way west to do Safaris in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro crater or to take the ferry to Zanzibar. Dar doesn’t have any ‘attractions’ per se, but it’s definitely an interesting place to explore for a day or so. And, seriously, if you’re there, find some Indian food.

We stayed at Safari Inn. We had our own room. No frills but affordable.

Ferry to Zanzibar

The Ferry is pretty straight forward, but follow basic travel advice when buying your ticket. 1) Ignore the people who are telling you they’ll take you to where the tickets are and just go in the building that’s obviously marked as the place to buy tickets. 2) There are a ton of porters who will ask to help you. Our taxi driver emphasized that we should not let them take our bags.

Stone Town

stone town square

Some people go straight to the beach and only do Stone Town as a day trip. This is a mistake. Stone town in unlike anywhere else in East Africa. There are narrow streets, a variety of stores selling clothes and spices, and an outdoor eat-on-the-spot seafood market that makes for an unforgettable experience. There are ‘sights,’ like a couple palaces and museums but they’re pretty run down and not really worth the effort. The church where the old slave market used to be makes for an interesting and powerful visit though.

The real joy of Stone Town comes from wandering the streets, buying snacks from local shops, and perusing the textiles and crafts, before heading to the seafood market for dinner. The hidden treasure there though isn’t the seafood at all, it’s the Syrian kebab stand on the edge of the market. Delicious.

night market zanzibar

We also took a day trip to a spice plantation from Stone Town, which surpassed my expectations. We walked through the forest and our guide pulled spices and fruits from the trees around us. Black pepper, bark from a cinnamon tree, cardamom, roots for turmeric, and several fruits whose names I’ve forgotten. We got to taste it all. You don’t see the manufacturing side but I preferred the hands on, spices-in-mouth approach much more.

zanzibar spice tour

We stayed at Zanzibar Lodge. At first we thought we walked into a woman’s home but we had the right place. Free breakfast, affordable private room, and great location.

The Beach

Zanzibar sunset

There are several ways to do the beach in Zanzibar. The northern part of the island has a reputation for being more developed and having a better nightlife. We didn’t stay there. Instead, we opted for the undeveloped east side. And that’s what we got. There really isn’t much here at all, other than a few hostels and one mid-size hotel. We could walk for a mile in either direction on the beach and only see a handful of other people. There are a few options for activities. I took a traditional sail boat to go snorkeling one day, which was awesome. Other people at our hostel took day trips to Stone Town and to the jungle in the middle of the island where you can see red backed monkeys. One night there was a birthday party for a guy who works at the hostel and we were invited to take shots and eat a goat they roasted, but I don’t think that’s a common thing. Mostly we just lounged and relaxed at the back and in the hammocks around our hostel. It was perfect for what we wanted. But if you’re looking for more of an active scene you may want to check out other parts of the island.

swimming zanzibar

Tips: check the tides before heading to the beach. At low tide the water slinks back behind the seaweed and it’s pretty tough to get to.

We stayed at Sagando Hostel. It was nice. Sand floors. Lots of hammocks. There’s one local restaurant on the other side of the dirt path, where you can eat for a bit less but options there are limited. We ate most of our meals at Sagando where the food was a bit more expensive but outrageously delicious.

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This two week stint in Tanzania was the final chapter in our Africa adventures. At the airport, I began to feel a premature nostalgia for the continent we were leaving behind. But once we got to Italy that feeling quickly slipped away. Stay tuned for more.

  • Will
Special Message from a Singing Christmas Tree!

Special Message from a Singing Christmas Tree!

While wandering through the old city in Zurich, Switzerland we stumbled across a “Singing Christmas Tree” surrounded by delicious food vendors. It was one of the greatest surprises of the trip so far.

We saved this short video so we could share it with you all today:

Hope you’re having a wonderful holiday!

We’re celebrating in Venice.

Many new posts are coming in the New Year. Stay Tuned!

  • William & Elizabeth
Charity v. Solidarity: Creating a Community School in Rural Malawi

Charity v. Solidarity: Creating a Community School in Rural Malawi

One of the first things ‘Love Support Unite’ did when they began working with the school in Mkunku village, Malawi was to create a women’s group. They had noticed that women didn’t speak up in the larger community meetings so, they wanted to create a space where women could share their thoughts and experiences. Here women could support one another and speak freely about taboo topics such as sexual abuse and their role in the community.

After the women’s group was established, the organizers at Love Support Unite noticed that women began to speak up more in the larger community meetings. At one meeting, there was talk about new construction related to the school. The male leaders declared that the women would carry the water necessary to make the bricks. In the past, this sort of direction went unchallenged. But on this day, the women spoke up. They said that only some women would carry the water and stipulated that they would not do so during the hottest hours in the middle of the day. The men would need to adjust their schedules around what the women were willing to do.

I love this story. It’s a story of women standing up for themselves in a community where their voices have not been historically valued. But it’s also a story of how outsiders can believe deeply in the importance of local self-determination without sacrificing their own commitment to cross-cultural rights like women’s empowerment.

We met with Lara, the co-founder of LSU, at a small table in the eating area of our hostel. She wore a purple t-shirt and spoke with passion about LSU’s approach to their work, “The village will say, ‘We need desks for the school, can you give us desks?’ And we have to remind them that we don’t give away resources. That’s not the type of work that we do.” This frustration with the historical approach to aid in Africa was echoed by another non-profit director we met. She said, “It’s difficult to teach people to grow their own food when, the next week, UNICEF or Feed the Children might show up and say, ‘Don’t worry about growing your own food. Here’s a check, go buy some.’”

School in Malawi

The type of work LSU does has less to do with resources and more to do with sharing technical knowledge and facilitating conversations. They bring in volunteers from England, but the community always does the vast majority of the work to keep the projects growing. Their greatest contribution seems to be expanding the community’s idea of what’s possible.

Of course, all of this work is centered around the new village school. Mkunku is operating in a context where they can’t expect anything from the government. This reality has forced the community to come together to problem solve a variety of challenges. The result is a school that’s remarkable in many ways. 1) The community built it, literally from dirt and water. 2) They are beginning to grow food to feed the students and the teachers. 3) They want to grow excess food to sell to be able to pay the teachers. 4) They are starting small businesses such as, a solar powered phone charging station and barber shop to further finance teachers and the school as a whole. 5) There are no desks, and that’s ok for now. Active engagement has a far more powerful effect on a school than material resources.

I find Mkunku a remarkable story. It’s a story that’s left me pondering the power of a community to find solutions when the possibility of resources from the government is written off completely. It has me thinking more deeply about what it means for a school to be part of a community, or more specifically, how a community can be part of its school.

  • Will

Photo Credit: Emma Scarborough

Educator Voices: What’s the Purpose of Education?

Educator Voices: What’s the Purpose of Education?

Whenever we visit a school we try to make our questions responsive to that school’s unique context. But there are a few questions that we like to ask everywhere we go. This is the first in a series where we compile the voices of the people we’ve met around those questions.

First up: What is the Purpose of Education?

Miluska, Instructional Coach with Ensena Peru:

“To help form people who are sensitive to the needs of others and the feelings of other people. Also, there’s a lot of social responsibility. There are always challenges to accomplish this; the labors of a teacher, not enough time, documents… But we need to better prioritize. We need to ask what our children need.”

Elementary Teacher at SPARK Schools in Johannesburg, South Africa:

“We’re not teaching content. We’re using the content to develop skills where they can use those skills in different areas. So, yes, the content is important, but that’s not our main focus. It’s equipping students with skills and personality traits so that they can deal with conflict so that they can independently go into university and be successful. So, it’s teaching them those additional critical thinking skills, problem solving skills and using the content to drive their development with that.”

Shaun Simpson, Headmaster of Rondebosch Boys High School in Cape Town, South Africa:

“You often read things that say, ‘The days of the teacher as the holder of information who gives it to the kids who are the receivers, those days are over now. It’s the time of the kids engaging and the teacher being a facilitator.’ That’s the sort of talk, and I agree with that. I don’t necessarily disagree with that… But intelligent conversation requires having a little bit of knowledge about a number of things. I don’t want to be standing as a stunned interloper in a conversation thinking, ‘I’ll quickly google that thing.’ Education should give you a very broad grounding to interact, to be able to draw from different places. When you listen to intelligent people speaking, they don’t just speak about their specific area knowledge. They draw from everything to make their points. And I think we’re doing kids a real disservice if we say that, ‘We don’t need to give the knowledge. We don’t need to give them information anymore.’ We’d live in a void.”

Senora Mamani, Principal of a school in Arequipa, Peru:

“Education is the only way for children to progress, to move forward and achieve big things in their life.”

Javier, English Teacher at Domingo Santa Maria in Arica, Chile:

“School, besides giving content and showing the way, needs to be inspiring. Yes, we should be inspirational, not just informative. And we should always help develop and cultivate values, human values. We should help students see the joy of finishing work. Now, they just do it because it’s graded or to avoid punishment. We need to get students to embrace learning for its own sake. Schools should be taught how to do that.”

Mr. Bamda, Head Teacher at a rural school outside Nkhata Bay, Malawi:

“As a developing country we have problems in our villages. We need leaders who can actually lead people into doing the right things. A good leader thinks of his or her own people. What are the problems they’re facing? How can those problems be sorted out? We are looking at that. If you can entrench someone who can look at the needs of the community, the needs of the village the needs of the family, then you’ll be achieving something substantial for development.”

Shannon Watt, Head of Elementary at Southern Cross in Santiago, Chile

“To help students acquire knowledge and common social skills that will enable them to be good citizens and help this country grow… As a whole, education should be the way a country helps itself be what it is.”

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These are lofty, and surprisingly consistent, ideas about education. For me, they underscore the fact that there are two seismic shifts taking place in the relationship between education and the greater world. The first shift is social. Paul Griffin pointed out at the very beginning of this trip that, schools today have a greater obligation to create community and teach character than they ever have before. People point to a variety of reasons for this: parents are working more and there are more single parent homes, neighborhoods are more isolated and community organizations are on the decline, students socialized in virtual communities are slower to learn the physical and verbal cues that are such an important part of polite interaction, and there’s a growing recognition that ‘soft skills’ are just as important for success as knowledge. In this environment, the school has become a clear center of community and an obvious place for social-emotional development to be considered in a patient and deliberate way.

The second shift is economic. CEOs have been saying for years now that, skills like critical thinking and the ability to work in teams to solve problems, will only become more central to their work in the decades to come. Managers now focus less on how to do something and more on just what needs to be done. Even entry level positions require people to be able to think creatively. People on a factory floor used to be engaged in repetitive movements, but now they must diagnose and solve problems on their own.

And so, education is changing in fundamental ways. Or rather, we know education should be changing in fundamental ways. Unfortunately, the education community tends to be more thoughtful with goals than execution. As Dee Moodley pointed out, “Listen, people always say, ‘We teach critical thinking.’ But what do you mean? How do you teach critical thinking? If you really drill down when individuals say that. No one can give you an answer… And changing seats doesn’t mean that it’s a collaborative space where the teacher is a facilitator. It could just mean that you’ve seated the kids in eights instead of twos.”

  • Will

Photo credit: Emma Scarborough