Canada – Learning 2030

Equinox SummitI’m delighted to be in Waterloo, Ontario having been invited to be a participant in the Equinox Summit – Learning 2030 presented by the Waterloo Global Science Initiative.


The event brings together a multinational, multidisciplinary and multigenerational group of experts to explore best practices and most promising initiatives and innovations in education that are focused on amplifying students in their creativity and potential.


So in essence I will be spending the week with a fabulous and fascinating cohort of thinkers, doers and activists “re-imagining learning”.


Themed around the year 2030 because a child born in 2013 is expected to graduate from high school in 2030. But what kind of skills will they need? What will our society look like? What will be the basis of our economies?


Various reports from international agencies cite all kinds of shortfalls in our global education systems that indicate that we are ill-prepared for the future. But the future isn’t a place, it hasn’t happened yet and we can’t be entirely certain that it will look like the vision held by today’s technological or economic determinists.


The future is genuinely what we as species and as a global society make it. Will we continue to walk blindly into a digital future where an ever smaller minority of individuals and corporations control the wealth and ultimately human consciousness?


Will we simply accept the rapid decline of the physical economy for the digital that has been sold to us as the holy grail of employment and national well-being?


I’m seriously looking forward to some stimulating, robust and good hearted debates around these subjects where any and all sacred cows are for the slaughter.

Learning 2030

I’ve also been invited to participate in a live television debate that is part of a nightly series on Canada’s TVO station and their leading current affairs show “The Agenda with Steve Paikin“. I’ll be on Monday evening with a discussion about “Disengaged and Excluded” students. I’m told it will also be available online for those outside of TVO’s broadcast reach.


My own personal sense is that our species is at a crossroads. The generations of today and tomorrow face significant challenges and a societal shift that is no less seismic as the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Everything has the potential for change provided we empower our children to do so.

Beyond 2030 

You can follow the discussions at the summit on Twitter and other social platforms via #Learning2030 tag.


Live stream and media assets via TVO


From Beirut with Love

Eastwood CollegeTo be honest I could have easily spent a lot longer in Beirut than the 48 hours allowed by my publisher. I was left wondering how I’d missed the pleasure of visiting Lebanon for such a long time and vowed to return. Although as it happened it was necessary to return home and then onto Spain to attend an urgent family matter that cast a shadow over an otherwise insightful visit.


Lebanon, like many countries I have visited both on this project and others in my life, came loaded with expectation as a result of reckless and inaccurate media reporting. It’s a shame because if you wanted to find a nation where Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East genuinely converge to create their own special culture then Lebanon and specifically Beirut is where you would find it.


The country has a heady Mediterranean feel replete with bad drivers and a party atmosphere that boasts a population who look like they’ve just landed from a Milan fashion parade. That the Beirut Art Week was running at the same time of our visit added to this vision given that the nightlife palpably bubbled with regional and international artists, designers, filmmakers and photographers as well as the well-heeled fashionistas. Difficult to reconcile this with the Foreign Office warnings that only essential visits to Lebanon should be ventured and media reports of an exodus of foreign workers. The population of Lebanon is around 4 million but this number has swelled by the addition of nearly 1 million refugees from Syria meaning that nearly 1 in 4 people in the country will be Syrian which lends a human dimension to the realities of conflict in the region. Like Jordan, Lebanon does what it can to support this draw on its resources and that includes its schools. The immediately visible impact of negative media coverage of Lebanon is a massive reduction in tourism where many of the restaurants, bars, hotels and clubs are undersubscribed.


We were kidnapped at the airport by members of the Khoury family, founders of Eastwood College and were quickly whisked from arrivals to the harbour side restaurants and cafes of Beirut for a meal which can only be described as both opulent and delicious. Certainly a welcome treat following the diet of economy airline food that my team and I have been sampling during this project!


And this was the Khoury family that we got to know over the next couple of days. Passionate, generous, caring and above all incredibly open about their experiences and efforts to constantly improve their school.


Amine KhouryEastwood College was founded by Amine Khoury in 1973 when he was just 19 years of age with Ms Hazel St.John MBE. It was founded on a Christian basis as a private K12 international school. Since 1973 the school in its various incarnations has been bombed, as collateral damage in various domestic and non-domestic conflicts, and reconstructed 3 times, ultimately relocating to its current location some distance from the “demarcation line” of past sectarian disputes. Today the school is effectively multi-faith supporting a cohort of students from more than 40 nations as well as locals. The school also has an intake of students recently joined from Syria as a result of the recent diaspora.


It’s a relatively small school with around 300 students from kindergarten through to K12. Small classrooms with small learning groups of up to 15 students in a class. The school operates what appears to be an American based curriculum within the context of the Lebanese Baccalaureate.


Michel KhouryIt’s on visit to the school that I begin to see how the seemingly disparate locations and contexts of my various visits on this project begin to connect. Eastwood College already has an enviable reputation in the region which is by no small measure due to the efforts of its founder and driving force Amine but the recent return of his son Michel and daughter Joelle to the family concern after periods of higher education and high level careers in the USA are an attempt to maintain the schools success and relevance well into this century.


It’s here that we discover strong links, regard and sharing of knowledge with Essa Academy, the school that we visited during our UK tour and it’s clear to see some similarities of approach as the younger Khoury’s work to transform the learning and teaching in the school.


Like Essa, there are no interactive whiteboards (IWB’s). Instead, each classroom is fitted with flat screen HD televisions and walls that invite being written on. Every teacher and student has an iPad and inexpensive Apple TV devices in every room allow material from any iPad to be shared with the class. Extensive use is made of the free iTunes U software where the school has already created a wealth of material, some of which we saw being shared at Essa Academy in the UK earlier in the week. The software allows teachers to present materials, set tasks and provide students with almost 24/7 access as well as out of school hours email response.


Joelle KhouryI sat in on numerous classes and discussed what was happening in the school with different members of staff. The Khoury family were eager to know what I thought despite my reassurances that I wasn’t there to judge, review or compare with other schools. My reason for being there was to understand how they were approaching transformation within their own context. Where, for example, at Essa Academy broadband bandwidth was in plentiful supply here in Beirut bandwidth is tightly restricted immediately creating challenges for any school in the nation wishing to benefit their students via connected learning. The restrictions on bandwidth in Beirut aren’t as much for ideological reasons as for paralysis within government where policy decisions are either protracted or just never taken. Digital access just doesn’t seem to have been made a priority within Lebanon as an enabler for economic growth let alone education which seems at odds with other aspects of its forward thinking population.


I really enjoyed being at the school and had a genuine sense that the student cohort were enjoying their experience there making sufficient academic progress that meant that many go on to be accepted at Ivy League universities in the US or similar in Europe or in the region. In regards to the bold “digital transformation” programme initiated by the Khoury’s I believe that they will be successful but what I saw was what I’d regard as a moment in time, the first steps in the right direction rather than what might be regarded as an end result. It should be said that the end results based on the metrics of standardised testing with which we are familiar are very good so what is being attempted here is to keep the school ahead of the curve.


If I had to be critical I would say that what was happening at Eastwood College today was a transition that has yet to impact pedagogy in so far as the initial benefit is that the large number of print books that weighed down a students shoulders has now been reduced to an iPad. Like the example in Ghana this transition does not require a significant change in teaching practice and so is a low skills threshold approach to introducing digital platforms but nevertheless is a Trojan Horse for change.


Classes that I saw seemed somewhat reminiscent of classrooms + technology rather than environments where the technology was embedded within the learning. This is what usually happens when tablets and so on are introduced within a classroom. The teacher inevitably teaches to the platform. But my feeling was that at Eastwood this was a transition to a change in pedagogy, curriculum and timetable perhaps in a similar way to Essa Academy who had taken the benefits of time-saving and efficiencies as a result of technology to allow students and teachers the oxygen of time and space to transform.


TeacherI also felt that the small class sizes and 1:1 approach of Eastwood would lend itself well to the work that Sugata Mitra has been conducting in the field of Self Organizing Learning Environments where students could collaborate together to solve big problems and where the teacher switches from the guide on the side to the critical yet encouraging friend.


But all this is the unintended, unexpected outcome of my travels so far – I’m beginning to see the jigsaw puzzle where different people have different pieces that if we manage to bring them together there’s a chance that we will see the whole picture and change together.


The school motto of Eastwood College since 1973 has been “Children, Our Purpose, And Our Future“. I think this pretty much nails it within the school that I saw and the leadership, staff and students whom I met.


The founder and directors of the school mentioned the word “love” many times before and during my visit. Surprisingly, this wasn’t mentioned in the context of “love of teaching” in what has become a modern cliche use by almost anyone who talks about the teaching profession – does anyone ever publicly admit to hating teaching or hating children? Although I’m pretty confident there are a lot of teachers & policy makers who secretly do. No, the context in which the Khoury’s meant it was the creation of a loving, family environment within the school itself and I can honestly say that is what it felt like in the school. Its pretty hard to fake that sort of thing during an all day visit and I left thinking that the Khoury’s had indeed created something special and that the school would certainly be worth visiting in the future to see how their transformation programme has progressed.


Of course, you’ll have to wait for the Learning {RE}imagined book to come out in 2014 to find out more!



Kids with iPadToday the Learning {RE}imagined team has arrived in Beirut in Lebanon.


Lebanon is a country full of myths and legends with a long history of trade, tourism and investment as a result of its convenient location on the Mediterranean.


With a population of nearly 4 million people the countries largest border is with Syria. The spoken language is Arabic but the Lebanese are often fluent in either French or English and quite often both. The country operates an democratic republic with a parliamentary system and cabinet of ministers. Its constitution is based on the separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers. The 128 members of Parliament are elected for a 4 year term. The country benefits from a typically Mediterranean climate with hot summers and cool winters with snow in the mountains.


We’re in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon and regarded as a link between Europe, Africa and Asia. It’s a modern city that sits on more than 5,000 years of history. It has been razed by 2 earthquakes, a tidal wave and fire. It has been occupied many times but never failed to regain itself and its position as the most important financial and commercial centre in the region.


We’re here to visit Eastwood College a K-12 school that was founded in 1973 and has recently undertaken a digital transformation programme to equip all of it’s students and teachers with tablet computers. It is the first school in the Middle East to replace its entire curriculum and books with iPads.



School Britannia

The United Kingdom was, of course, home ground for me. Having curated and hosted one of the worlds largest summits about learning, technology and creativity for the past 7 years in this country I felt that the pressure was on for me to bring together a challenging cohort of thought leaders and a case study.


Our journey in the UK took us from London to Bristol then on to Cambridge, Bolton and Newcastle.


Makie DollWe kicked off in my old stomping ground of Shoreditch famed for its “Silicon Roundabout”, the digital heart of London and home to some of the most exciting start-ups in UK digital. We caught up with Alice Taylor, formerly a commissioning editor for education and television station, Channel 4, now founder of Makie Lab. Makie Lab brings together Alice’s interests in education and entertainment with the latest in 3D printing technology that provides a consumer platform that allows young (and not so young) designers to create their own action figures online and then have Makie Lab make them with their 3D printers. This novel approach allows people to have a go at making with 3D printing without having to purchase a professional 3D printer and learn any complex design software. Alice see’s a convergence occurring between a re-emergence of interest in “making”, digital fluency amongst young people, the sharing of 3D data and consumer priced 3D printers. In a world of mass production where every looks the same people want difference and authenticity. 


Whilst the physical economy has began to shrink as a result of a shift to the digital economy, i.e. atoms to bits, we’re beginning to see a rebound of bits to atoms – a new renaissance of the physical economy perhaps? Certainly we are beginning to see a desire in retail for authenticity and the physical whether it’s amongst a renewed popularity for craft fairs or farmers markets. A generation of young people growing up fluent with 3D world and object builders such as Minecraft then many are already equipped to design in 3D. But there are also now free versions of advanced 3D design software available for Autodesk and Google that output to low-cost 3D printing devices. The 3D printer would seem to be an ideal tool to add alongside a lathe or potters wheel in any modern school. Perhaps we will also see a growth in the “fab lab” model where maker labs that include 3D printing and other personal manufacturing technologies will appear like the making equivalent of gyms with high-end equipment available for use by the public overseen by specialists. In this world everybody would have the chance to create something then get it made by the “factory in the cloud”.


Alan O'DonohueContinuing with the theme of making we met with Alan O’Donohue, teacher and founder of Raspberry Jam – a self-organising group of enthusiasts for the low cost Raspberry Pi computer who meet regularly in many parts of the UK and now overseas to share their work and learn from each other. Alan tells me that Raspbery Jam is like the computer clubs he was part of when he was a kid where people of all ages and backgrounds came together to show what they’ve done or help newbies get started. The point, he tells me, is to share and learn together and the open source nature of the Raspberry Pi tends to encourage a high level of openness and willingness to share. Alan is an incredibly energetic and passionate teacher who decided to stop teaching Powerpoint to teach computing. He doesn’t subscribe to the idea that every kid must be able to code but does believe that every kid should have the opportunity to have a go. Alan tells me that it’s not just about coding but also to help kids understand what’s in their smartphone or tablet as well as being able to develop problem solving skills and computational thinking.


Clive BealeWe headed to Cambridge to the headquarters of Raspberry Pi in Cambridge to meet with their Education Director, Clive Beale. Coincidently, or maybe not, Raspberry Pi occupy the same office building as Hermann Hauser, co-founder of Acorn Computers the creators of the BBC Micro that kick started massive interest in computer programming amongst young people in the UK during the 1980’s. As a result of this in a rapidly growing personal computer sector the UK took the lead in video game design. Alas, like many things where the UK initially took a lead a lack of investment and vision meant that its leadership was short-lived and its talent pool much reduced as focus shifted from creating to consuming computing from computer science to ICT.


Since Bletchley Park (my birth place) and Turing to the BBC Micro and Tim Berners-Lee the UK has had an enviable lead in computing so how did we lose the plot?


It was pretty simple really and we can already see it happening again in mobile and other technologies. Our policy makers would cosy up with the large vendors of computing platforms that essentially had set up sales and marketing offices within the UK. Not practicing any actual development work in the UK these vendors had no interest in hiring local development talent so when asked by policy wonks to advise on UK strategy for IT they sagely responded that people with ICT office skills were what the country needed if only to fulfil the vision of the future using their applications which they had been peddling. So, as they say, mission accomplished, the UK became a nation of office workers, Powerpoint somnambulists and spreadsheet jockeys. And then they ask where’s the UK equivalent of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, etc? Cue “Smooth Criminal” by Michael Jackson.


So Raspberry Pi is a valiant attempt to stall that strategy in its tracks and re-engage the population with what happens under the hood of a computer. Ever wondered how your tablet computer worked? Well you can just make one with Raspberry Pi at its heart. Want to make an outdoor automated camera system to see who’s stealing the nuts you put out for the birds? Build one with Raspberry Pi.


Cheap enough to lose, the Raspberry Pi is no more than $35 wherever you are in the world, it is a flexible, low powered, decently spec’d computer for us to explore the digital world with and I don’t just mean surfing the web or updating your Facebook profile.


When Raspberry Pi was introduced it was thought that the total market was just 10,000 units so that’s how many were made. They sold out in less than an hour online and Raspberry Pi has since shifted 1.6 million units in one year with no sign of things slowing down.


Now it has to be said that a large proportion of these Pi’s have gone to middle-aged geeks like me but the Raspberry Pi Foundation are now taking steps to assist schools and teachers to get to grips with the device and will shortly be publishing a series of online how-to’s, projects and lesson plans which are sure to brighten up the computer science class and provide something for people at every level to have a dabble.


Keri FacerChanging gears we travelled to Bristol University to meet with Keri Facer, Prof. Educational and Social Futures. Keri has a long and distinguished background in the education world and technology have formerly been Director of Research at Futurelab, a UK venture to explore new ways of learning with technology. Keri is less enamoured with the implied rush for technological transformation that is the buzz of the education sector. She makes the point that the future isn’t a real place, that it doesn’t exist yet and it will be what we make it. Thus the idea that technology will determine how we live and what we value may be flawed. The purpose of education, Keri tells me, is to prepare someone to lead a life that is fulfilling to the individual and the well-being of the society in which they live. The rush to the virtual that somehow dismisses the physical as something less valuable is a recipe for a dystopian future she believes. This doesn’t mean that Keri is opposed to technology but that she hasn’t got carried away with the technological determinists worldview that currently appears to have control of the agenda. The physical experience, the learning by doing and understanding how we learn is ever more important. Our education systems have become industrialised processing facilities focused on a result measured in tests. For this to change, Keri suggests, there must be a transformation of the Higher Education institutions. Rather than be the end monetization point for consumers of education universities should be a place where society has the opportunity to think and enrich the civil society. The shift to MOOCs would suggest that HE institutions are today like rabbits caught in the digital headlights rushing to “deliver a product”.


Essa AcademyWe then travel some 4 hours north to Bolton and Essa Academy. Our host at Essa Academy is Abdul Chohan who, under the leadership of principal Showk Badat, has lead the transformation of the school from its difficult origins of a challenged school in a challenging area.


We arrived on a day when all of the new entry of year 7 children would each receive an iPad mini tablet provided by the school. Parents and the child would arrive in the evening for a short introduction from Abdul and a quick run through iTunesU the central system used by the school, teachers, pupils and parents to manage their learning career at Essa. There was a real air of excitement as the families collected their new iPad and I’m sure the kids were walking 2″ taller.


This was in stark contrast to the printed copy of the Oxford English Dictionary that my daughter received last year when she joined year 7 at a school in Lewisham, London. She also received a warning about not bringing her smart phone or iPad to school.


Now it would be easy to just call Essa Academy the “iPad school” or, as one BBC news item called it “the school without books” but this would be to completely misunderstand all of the work and innovation that the staff at Essa Academy have developed. The real transformation doesn’t lie so much with the iPads but what they’ve been able to do as a consequence.


Abdul Chohan“Computers”, Abdul explains, “help us do a lot of things faster and more efficiently. Not so long ago if I wanted to do some banking I’d have to take some time out to actually go to the bank, stand in line and so on. Today I can do the majority of these banking tasks on my phone”. It’s these time savings that let us focus on more important or more relevant tasks in our day. So much teaching staff time was spent doing tasks that weren’t directly involved with their day to day teaching. Tasks like marking textbooks would take a significant amount of time not to mention having to take 30+ books home each night and then think of written responses when commenting. By using the practical capabilities of the technologies in the school where every child and teacher has an iPad, every room as one or two HD TV screens or projector with its own inexpensive Apple TV unit to allow easy beaming of an iPad screen to a large screen the school has saved time and money. There are no Interactive White Boards in the school, Abdul tells me, and there are no VLE’s etc. The money saved on IWB’s, VLE’s, management systems and laptops as allowed for the iPad per child policy. The time saved has allowed teachers to get to grips with the platforms and rather than a termly inset day where great ideas are discussed but never implemented the teachers have time to meet each other weekly and share practice. The traditional timetable for students of 1 hour periods has been jettisoned in favour of 2 x 3 hour subject sessions per day and pupils are streamed by stage rather than age.


The result has been a calmer, happier environment. Student attainment has continued to climb since Essa was opened in 2009 where now every student achieves the requisite number of passes at GCSE level but also due to the “stage not age” policy there are some children leaving with 12 or more GCSES.


I’m going to cover Essa Academy in more detail in the Learning {RE}imagined book and film resources but needless to say that I was genuinely impressed and I felt that a transformation was taking place but one that wasn’t entirely technology driven but where technology provided the space for resistance against what Abdul calls “pedagogical oppression”.


Now about a third through my trips for this project I’m not certain that we’re going to see in the education sector the kind of radical transformations that digital platforms have brought to, say, the communications sector or music industry. The reasons for this are legion and will be discussed at length in the book but something we continually come back to is the tyranny of assessment, the same standardised tests designed for the last century upon which we insist on testing the kids of today. It’s like giving them a bicycle test on a Penny Farthing when they’ve got a BMX.


Sugata's OfficeWith this in mind we travelled to Newcastle to meet Prof. Sugata Mitra who is famed for his research using “hole in the wall” computers in slum parts of Indian villages to see if kids would use them to learn and more recently he won the £1 million TED Prize to develop his ideas for Self Organizing Learning Environments (SOLEs) and the “School in the Cloud”.


When you win such a large prize and become accepted as part of the TED intelligensia you pick up your fair share of detractors and Sugata has certainly had his but he is philosophical about it. He tells me that he hasn’t set out to change the world nor is he an expert on education and learning. He is, in fact, a theoretical physicist who was employed in the private sector for many years in India in a good job with all the accoutrements that that brought but he did become interested in what might happen if children without digital access or good schools were provided with access. Thus the “hole in the wall” project was born. Cited as a reference by Danny Boyle when making the hugely successful feature film “Slumdog Millionaire” Mitra’s modest project suddenly took on a life of its own and since then Mitra has become curious about how children learn and whilst he may on occasion state what is obvious to academics of education he also brings a different and fresh perspective to subject.


Sugata has been developing his thinking around SOLEs (you can download his toolkit for free here) which shows that children tackling difficult questions together with the encouragement of a critical adult friend and access to the internet are learning at an impressive rate. He is developing these ideas as well as using the cognitive surplus of retired people, “the granny’s in the cloud, to act as friend/cajolers for the kids which may form part of his “school in cloud” programme.


Sugata MitraI asked him what his work and research meant for the teachers and schools of today. He offered the following as a possible scenario. Many years ago pens and paper would have been very expensive so education would have been very much in the oral tradition, the sage on the stage. As a student you would be required to listen carefully and memorise. As pen and paper became cheaper it could be used to record these sounds, these words which was a transformational technology. At this point the sages role needed to change when, after all, the words once spoken could simply be read in books so what would they do now? The educators argument was quite sensibly that they would direct what the student read and then ensure that they had read it, the “guide on the side”.


Today all of the books are on the internet where they point at all the other books, information and media that you could want. So what role does the teacher have now? Mitra suggests that it is the role of the critical friend who asks questions and offers encouragement.


The challenge then is that we continue to assess in a Victorian manner. Although it should be noted that the Victorians were quite progressive in their examinations given that the technology of the time was allowed in the examination room unlike the examination rooms today.


Mitra suggests that the real transformation will occur when we allow present day technology into the examination room in exactly the same way that the Victorians did. “Why ask a question in an exam whose answers can be found in a few seconds online, what is the point of that?” asks Mitra.


United Kingdom

The Learning {RE}imagined team has arrived in the United Kingdom. For me this is home ground and we’ve carefully selected a number of thought leader interviews and a case study to give a flavour of the innovations and new thinking in learning from this green and pleasant land.


Alice TaylorFirst off we are in Shoreditch, the digital heart of London otherwise known as Tech City, where we’re meeting Alice Taylor the founder of Makie Lab to discuss 3D printing and the digital maker movement. Makie Lab produces what it calls “Toys of the Future, Made in London” where you can design a perfectly customised action figure online and then send it for 3D printing at Makie Lab’s HQ in Shoreditch. Once created the toy is dispatched to you. Alice has a long history in gaming and education starting this new venture after being a commissioning editor for education programming at Channel 4 one of the UK’s popular television stations where she lead their online digital ventures.


Also in Shoreditch we’ll be meeting Alan O’Donohue, a teacher with staggering energy who gave up teaching Powerpoint to teach computing. He has since been on a mission to persuade other teachers to do the same and is the creator of Raspberry Jam,  a rapidly growing global network of user groups that meet every month to support hobbyists, developers, teachers, students, children and families – in fact, anybody that would like to put their Raspberry Pi to good use.


We head to Bristol in the south west to meet with Keri Facer, Professor of Educational & Social Futures to learn about “anticipatory sciences”, the future of universities and the role of technology.


Then we’re up to Cambridge to visit the creators of Raspberry Pi themselves to meet with their Director of Educational Development, Clive Beale, to learn more about their plans to place their ingenious $35 computer at the heart of digital creativity for children developing their computational thinking.


Raspberry PiNext up we’ll be in Bolton, to visit Essa Academy who have transformed their school, learning and teaching by implementing a successful 1:1 iPad scheme across every teacher and student.


Finally, we head to Newcastle to meet with Professor Sugata Mitra, recent TED prize winner for his “school in the cloud” project and also famed for his research into the “Hole in the Wall” computing kiosks in India.


As an extra surprise we hope to interview an “Anonymous” guest before we leave on the next leg of the tour 😉


Check back here in a few days for our update!


Zaatari Refugee Camp – Jordan

“Education is, quite simply, peace-building by another name. It is the most effective form of defense spending there is.” – Kofi Annan


Children of ZaatariOf the 2 million Syrian refugees, who have escaped conflict in their home nation, 1 million are children. According to the UNHCR, refugees in what it terms “protracted situations” can expect an average camp residency of 17 years. One would hope that this would not be the case in the Syrian crisis but what is certain is that many of the families and children currently residing in camp will be there for a number of years. This is in addition to the nearly 5 million people who have been displaced within Syria itself. These numbers are set to increase in the event of an escalation in conflict or one that spreads into neighbouring countries. And this is the tip of the iceberg, there are many other refugee camps in different parts of the world with a total population of some 10.5 million people that are of concern to the UNHCR. On average, 850 children are born every day in the worlds refugee camps. So it’s not hard to join the dots here, there are an awful lot of children spending a large part of their lives growing up in these camps.


I’ve been interested in what happens in regards to education provision for child refugees since a chance meeting with a friend from my entertainment industry days, Alek Wek, British supermodel, former refugee and goodwill ambassador for UNHCR when she attended last years WISE Summit to help launch the Educate A Child initiative.


kids in zaatariThe provision of education in the form of schooling within refugee camps is not only an on-going investment in the children’s future well-being but also provides a sense of normalcy in otherwise challenging conditions. Statistically children who are attending school within camps are less likely to be taken into military service and are less at risk of sexual abuse, violence, crime and disease. Few people would deny that basic schooling is a humanitarian right like water, shelter, food, security and sanitation. Yet education programmes for child refugees has longer term political significance as well as immediate humanitarian consequences. Education pushes humanitarian action beyond an endeavour to save lives to a project that also shapes futures. Therein lies a tension of what kind of education is provided, what is taught and what is its purpose.


School in ZaatariThe fact is that I am not yet in a position to answer the thousand or more questions that I have about education provision in refugee camps but my journey began in Jordan where on successful approval of visiting passes I and the Learning {RE}imagined team were granted permission to visit the refugee camp in Zaatari which lies on Jordan’s border with Syria.


The camp is the now the 2nd largest refugee camp in the world with a population approaching 150,000. It opened just over a year ago with just 100 families so the rapid growth and expansion has been intense. With many thousands more expected to arrive in Jordan a new camp for a similar capacity to Zaatari is being prepared in Azraq. This interactive article from BBC News presents some startling statistics for Zaatari


After receiving our permissions we travelled 90 minutes out of Ammam towards the Syrian border. Arriving at the camp we were ushered through several checkpoints where our paperwork and passports were verified before arriving at the administrative and police compound for an interview with the site commander who would have the final say on whether we could access the camp. Explaining our mission we were granted approval and provided with a guide who would take us to points of interest and to meet families on the camp.


mother & child zaatariArriving in the afternoon it was too late to visit the schools whilst they were in session but it was possible to see from the buildings and inside that there had been considerable effort from organisations such as Unicef with supporting nations to provide a good schooling infrastructure. Although that said, given the rapid expansion of Zaatari it has been reported that two-thirds of the 30,000 child population eligible for school do not have a place. We learned during our visits to schools in Ammam that some Jordanian schools are operating double shifts to accommodate child refugees into their schools. As one might imagine, having a rapid influx of people with a similar population to the UK city of Norwich or the US city of Knoxville joining your country presents an enormous challenge on resources.


Considering the challenges presented the camp is well-organised and we are welcomed by the majority of those whom we meet who are often willing to tell us their stories. Children are especially happy to see us and stop us to ask questions, play or have us take their photograph. There are “high streets” where entrepreneurial refugees have set up shops and trading posts for those who have money so an economy of sorts operates within the camp. The main street has been jokingly called the “Champs Elysee” athough as you’d expect it’s somewhat different from its Parisian counterpart.


Whilst at first impression there is a festival like feel to the camp that idea is quickly eroded when one considers the reasons why people are here in the first place and uncertainty of what they might return to.  Rather than a temporary safe-haven for many this will become a permanent settlement and whilst we arrived on a hot summers day it will soon be winter when it is cold – it snows in Jordan. Life can also be harsh with the biggest challenge being security. Gangs are now operating in the camp and violent attacks are becoming more frequents particularly against women. It’s a staggering challenge for the Jordanian government and the UNHCR that one can only respect them for taking on. I have no doubt that they will be successful but it will take time, resources and, inevitably, things won’t always go to plan. 


tired child zaatariI was unprepared for the size and scale of the camp. It is absolutely enormous and leaves you in disbelief and then utter shock at the consequences of human conflict. I have the utmost respect for the spirit and welcoming kindness that many of the people living at the camp showed me. 


I can honestly say that my visit to Zaatari was life-changing. It has made me question a lot of things about the human condition, our society, the media, our global leadership and myself. It has given me a much needed shove to consider what I do next with my life but in the meantime my hopes and wishes are with those who have been displaced.


Additional pictures from Zaatari and Learning {RE}imagined maybe be viewed via our personal Instagram channels – Graham Brown-Martin, Newsha TavakolianRaphael Yaghobzadeh


Jordan Education Initiative

Rana MadaniI knew that I was going to get along with Rana Madani, the Deputy CEO of the Jordan Education Initiative (JEI), when we initially spoke on Skype whilst I was in London scoping out the visit to Jordan. She wanted to make it clear that I wasn’t coming to Jordan to make comparisons with westernised implementations of technology in schools and that I would understand the context in which the JEI were working.


As it turned out Rana had nothing to worry about and our visit was one of the most enlightening yet with genuinely forward thinking and well implemented digital strategies that were entirely relevant to the context and cultural aspects of the nation. The passion for positive change and improvement of the Jordanian education system was palpable amongst Rana and the JEI team as well as all of the teaching staff, principals and learners whom we met.


The JEI was established as a public-private partnership involving both local as well as international partners aiming to improve education in Jordan through effective use of ICT that would create a model of education reform for other countries particularly in the Arab world. The initiative was launched at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in 2003 at the Dead Sea attracting 17 global corporations, 17 Jordanian businesses and 11 governmental and NGOs working together with the Jordanian government and with the support of their Majesties King Abdullah and Queen Rania.


Rana explained that the whole idea was to bring innovative ideas to change the education system in Jordan that ran in parallel with two other programmes running at the same time, the Education Reform for Knowledge Economy (ERFKE) programme and the roll-out of national broadband that was initiated by the Ministry of ICT. Involving local businesses in the JEI was an intrinsic aspect of the initiative to ensure local knowledge as well as enterprise creation.


The work from 2003-2007 resulted in 3 main pillars, the first being infrastructure to enable a number of “Discovery Schools” to pilot working practices that embedded digital platforms where 100 schools were chosen in Ammam, the capital city of Jordan, to discover what worked and what didn’t. The concept from the start was to learn important lessons about implementation so that successful practices could be scaled up to all of the schools in Jordan. Rana emphasised that it was not the mandate of JEI to roll out to every school in Jordan which would be the function of Jordan’s Ministry of Education. The role of JEI has been to act as an innovation lab or think tank that explores, tests and evidences new ideas for learning for the Ministry to inform their education reform process.


class in jordanThe 100 Discovery Schools were chosen in Ammam based around their location to the data centre and broadband provision at that time. That said there are 2 distinct areas of Ammam being the more affluent districts in the west of Ammam and more densely populated, more socially diverse districts to the east. Upon our visits this seemed somewhat similar to the split between West and East London in the UK perhaps comparing the Borough of Kensington with Newham or Hampstead with Peckham. This was an important aspect of the initiative to judge impact within different social conditions. In practice most of the schools were in the east in areas more in need of change in their education provision with the result that the 100 schools (55 boys schools, 45 girls schools, across primary and secondary) were a good representation of what was happening in Jordan as a whole. 


Wireless and broadband connectivity was a core aspect of the JEI programme and whilst prior to JEI technology was being used in schools in the form of computer labs etc., it was JEI who were pioneering the use of digital platforms across the curriculum and within each classroom and each student. The focus was to explore how digital and connected technologies could be integrated within the curricula and not limited to a computer lab where ICT was a subject in itself. Thus 1:1 access for each student and ability to access wireless networks wherever they are within the school was key.


The 2nd pillar was the creation of digital content. Rana explained that simply introducing infrastructure and devices into the classroom would not mean that teachers would be ready to create their own content. This is a particular challenge when there have not been many resources in the Arabic language. There is plenty of material on the internet on all subjects, there are lesson plans galore but these are not in Arabic. So an important part of JEI’s work has been to create digital content rather than using content that has been made overseas and then simply translating and customising it. The idea has been to bootstrap a local industry of digital learning materials and content that can be used in the region. As part of the partnership with international corporations, for example Cisco, it would be the case that this partner would support digital content development by working with a local partner in Jordan such as Rubicon Studios.


child laptopThe 6 areas of digital development were around Maths, Arabic, Science, ICT, EFL and Civics (citizenship) deployed via the EduWave learning management system where every teacher, student and parent is provided with a login.


The 3rd pillar of activity was the professional development training of teachers that was initially provided by the projects commercial partners and content developers before a train the trainer approach was adopted to ensure local expertise that would provide ongoing CPD.


In 2007 USAID funded a comprehensive impact assessment to measure the impact of JEI. The study found that JEI was an effective catalyst in growing the work and activities under the partnership able to facilitate sharing of global expertise of innovation with local expertise of Jordanian schools, culture, values and needs. It also identified areas for improvement that lead to the next phase of JEI that would lead to an expanded team (between 2003-2007 there were just 7 people) and methods of monitoring and evaluation that would provide diagnostics to identify where improvements were occurring or where additional focus was required.


Capacity building and change management have become important activities within JEI where ongoing CPD for teachers has become vital but also CPD programmes and workshops that they have developed themselves rather than brought in. Rana tells me that relevance is everything, “if teachers can’t see the benefit of using technology they won’t use it” she explains.


I will report in more detail the activities, challenges and successes of the JEI in the Learning {RE}imagined book that will be accompanied with a filmed interview with Rana when it’s published in 2014.


Rolling forward to our visit JEI invited us to visit 3 schools. The Princess Rahma School, one their leading innovative schools in West Ammam, Shefaa Bint Awf School also in the West and described as a “mentor school” and finally Balqees School situated in East Ammam that featured a laptop per child approach.


Enthusiastic TeacherPrincess Rahma School is an elementary that was buzzing with activity and full of enthusiastic learners in every class we visited. In one 2nd grade class I witnessed one of the most energetic and enthusiastic teachers that I have encountered in a while practically jumping around the room engaging her young pupils in a geography lesson about the Arabic countries using a blended combination of her own physical theatre combined with a physical globe, poster map and driving an interactive white board in way that wasn’t exclusive to herself – frequently young pupils were encouraged to join in and use the board. A 4th grade science class about atomic structure where each child had their own Classmate laptop featured an acted out play by some of the students in costume explaining by showing the different characteristics of atomic particles. It was quite obvious that the children here were enjoying their lesson and learning by participation and doing. In another class a group of grade 6 children are debating (in English) the relative merits of using technology for learning, no doubt for our benefit but never-the-less very impressive, with well reasoned arguments although the motion for the use of technology was upheld!


Our visit to Sheefa Bint Awf School was equally inspiring. An IWB was used in one science class as a multi-touch collaborative surface by the students. I have often had my doubts about the benefits of IWB’s in classrooms but here the device was used skilfully by the teacher as a device for the students to use rather than to simply project Powerpoint slides in a preset lesson plan. In all cases there was an abundance of locally created Arabic content as had been described by Rana in our pre-visit conversations. Once again students were involved in a theatrical performance as part of a maths class discussing the concept of volume via play-acting involving a popcorn seller filling cones. This struck me as an engaging way to learn whilst at the same time students were creating their own digital content about the subject, digital animations using Oracle’s Alice, to share on the maths groups Facebook page.


Yes, that’s right every teacher and student is encouraged to use Facebook as a place to share learning. Indeed the Principal was very keen to show me the YouTube channel that she had created and maintains for the school.


Digital ContentI asked one of the students, a 13 year old, how she’s learned to create such interesting digital content. Well, she gave me the same look as my own 12 year old daughter does when I ask a dumb question, a look like I’m an idiot which, of course, I am 🙂


It was at this school where we also met the annual intake of interns that join JEI to spend an entire year mentoring and assisting schools that are participating in the JEI programme. Most of these interns are from an IT background and join the programme to both gain working experience whilst at the same time provide vital support and encouragement to the teaching faculty in the schools.


Our last visit was to Balquees School, located in the district of Jabal Al-kalaa on the eastern side of Ammam. The school is nestled between the dense conurbation of buildings that are perched on the side of a large hill. The school building is, in fact, a converted house, providing education for local children from less affluent homes. Despite its size and very small classrooms the school is bright and positive. This school isn’t one of JEI’s “Discovery Schools” but one of Jordan’s Madrasati’s (meaning “my school”) which is an initiative to repair and rebuild schools with community support to make them better places for learning.


The students at this school and others like it lack access to the kind of digital platforms for learning made possible by broadband internet and so JEI in collaboration with Qualcomm are supporting a pilot that provides every child in the school with a 3G connected laptop computer that they use both in the school and take home to their families.


TeachersDespite a reduction of space and resources there is nothing to suggest that the children in this school are receiving less of an education. The atmosphere is positive, the children clearing enjoying the freedom and access they have via their laptops supported by hard-working, commitment team of teachers. I ask a pupil what they plan to do when they are older and she tells me that she’s going to be a heart surgeon. There is a sense that anything is possible for these children regardless of background.


I came away from my 2 days with JEI genuinely impressed by the determination, ambition and the ongoing learning that is happening within the team and the participating schools. They have truly grasped the understanding that innovation is messy, that it is risky, that mistakes will be made and that you must have courage. 


In short, I believe that JEI has nurtured an environment that encourages innovation, a place where teachers can explore new ideas and new approaches without fear and that is something I think we can all learn from.




Jordan MapWe’re now in Jordan, officially know as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, an Arab kingdom in the Middle East. Geographically it’s on the East Bank of the River Jordan extending to Palestine bordering Saudi Arabia to the south and east, Iraq to the north-east, Syria to the north and Israel to the east where it shares control of the Dead Sea (which if time permits we hope to visit and take a float!).


Arriving at 4am, from Singapore via a stop over at Abu Dhabi, today was a bit of rest day and orientation where I’ve been introduced to the delights of Turkish coffee (delicious), Backgammon (which I haven’t played for years) and strawberry flavoured sheesha – all of which I could get used to. The people we’ve met here are amongst the friendliest we’ve met on our travels so far with a genuine pleasure that we are here. I was even welcomed on arrival at the airport by a local character who exclaimed “lovely jubbly” an expression of English origin which I haven’t heard in a long time.


We’re here to visit and learn about the Jordan Education Initiative (JEI), a non-profit organisation established under Her Majesty Queen Rania, whose objective is to foster and maintain partnerships that launch multi-million dollar initiatives that have a strong impact on the modernisation of education within the nation that contribute to the development of the local private sector in ICT and professional development. Collaborative by nature the programme tracks within JEI concentrates on  Research and Innovation, Expansion and International Outreach.


The JEI was conceived at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January 2003, when the Governors of IT and Telecommunications agreed to sponsor an initiative for education reform in a developing country. Jordan was chosen as the pilot country and was challenged with developing a proposal “of significant scope and size” that would catalyze a process of change and create value that transcends its borders. The JEI was formally launched at the Extraordinary Meeting of the World Economic Forum at the Dead Sea, Jordan in June 2003.


Relevant use of technology is at the centre of developments within the JEI programme as they implement Discovery Schools that serve as test beds to attract and pilot further innovations in education. After successful piloting JEI works through an expansion phase to scale up working models within the Jordanian education system. Innovations are intended to be shared with other nations as part of JEI’s international outreach programmes.


After 10 years since inception the Learning {RE}imagined team is here to learn what has been achieved.


Jordan has, of course, been in the international spotlight as a host country for Syrian refugees of which more than 500,000 of the 2 million have sought refuge in Jordan. This humanitarian crisis inevitably requires an enormous amount of resources to sustain where half of the refugee population are children of which two-thirds are now out of school. When one considers as Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen points out that education is an essential human capability that is integral to the overall well-being of a person this children are at significant risk. Education serves a variety of practical purposes in addition to gaining skills and knowledge for future endeavours. Children in schools are at a decreased risk for military recruitment, sexual violence, disease, crime and substance abuse. The structure of education provides a vital sense of normalcy for children living in refugee camps providing them with a break from the tedium of everyday life. In essence, society either pays now or pays later and it is my belief that these kids need a break when the world around them is shattered.


I’m looking forward to learning a great deal whilst I am in Jordan, I sense that some of it will be difficult for me as I will be as far out of my comfort zone as I have ever been but in a sense that is what this journey is about.


You can follow our live updates via Twitter and Instagram and I will report back here in the next few days.





Design Thinking in Singapore?


National Institute of EducationDesign Thinking for Education is a real buzz in the sector at the moment and something that we hope to learn more about if we get the chance to meet with the folks at IDEO on the USA leg of our Learning {RE}imagined tour. The central premise behind design thinking is about adopting the approach used to design successful products or services such as education or healthcare. In a sense it’s a jaw-droppingly obvious approach to improve public services. According to the British Design Council “Design is what links creativity and innovation, it shapes ideas to become practical and attractive propositions for users and customers. Design may be described as creativity deployed to a specific end.”


I think the key words here are “users”, “customers” and “specific end”. Those of you who have heard me talk on this subject or seen my TEDx talk will know some of my thoughts on this matter and I think we really need to think hard about who we think the users and customers are for education and what the specific end is that we have in mind. Is the purpose of education to indoctrinate a compliant population that will maintain the status quo for a specific economy or is it to enlighten an inquisitive population of independent thought and opinion?


It’s with this in mind that I reflect on my short time in Singapore which given the nature of my visit can only be the first impressions of an informed layperson.


It occurs to me that design thinking for education is not a new concept at all rather these ideas have been deployed either consciously or unconsciously in the way we structure our societies with particular outputs in mind. I blogged about the notion of “superstructures” some time ago drawing on the thinking of Marx, Bourdieu, Gramsci, Foucault and Chomsky. 


The history of Singapore is an interesting one and after gaining its independence from Malaysia in 1965 the nascent republic had to become self-sufficient facing problems of mass unemployment, a shortage of housing and a lack of land and natural resources such as oil. It was under the leadership of prime minister Lee Kuan Yew from 1959 to 1990 that unemployment was curbed and the standard of living was greatly improved. The nations economic infrastructure was developed and racial tensions were largely eliminated. This was design thinking in terms of public services and an economy at its finest.


By most global metrics this has been a success and education has been an important part of this transformation. But it has come at a price. The question is, after achieving the goals that Lee Kuan Yew set out, what next?


WISE recently published an interview with me where I was questioning the real role of technology in education and the obstacles for it in what we constantly refer to as transformation or disruption. My suggestion is that rather than using technology to transform we use it to reinforce the status quo of predominantly 19th century practices and objectives in education.


Student Study ZoneBy the international metrics that seem to matter such as OECD’s PISA, Singapore is one of the leading nations where the majority of its student population are achieving results in high stakes standardised testing that are the envy of the world. So my interest and focus whilst in Singapore was to understand what was happening at the teacher development level. Thus I had the opportunity to meet and interview with two of the leading thinkers at Singapore’s National Institute of Education (NIE), Prof. Chee Yam San, Associate Professor in the Learning Sciences Academic Group and Prof. David Hung, Associate Dean of the Office of Educational Research. Their interviews will form part of the Learning {RE}imagined book but I will give you a short summary of my “takeaways” here.


To become a teacher in Singapore you must have meet the requisite academic performance criteria set by the Ministry of Education (MOE). On successful application future teachers are contracted by the MOE and then entered into a training and academic programme provided by the NIE during which time teachers are salaried and their training provided by the state. This provides a consistent output of teachers that are equipped to deliver the national programme of schooling for the nations children to a determined standard.


One of the issues I raised with both Professors Chee and Hung were around the compromises between having an education system that delivered the needs of the state as customer versus the needs of the student in terms of independent thought as user. It’s a thorny issue and my questions precipitate a certain level of discomfort. That said there have been research initiatives that have explored the nature and use of technology to improve or even transform the learning and teaching experience but there is a tension between the use of technology to teach versus technology to learn in a child-centred explorative manner.


Professor CheeSince 2011 Prof. Chee lead a research project into the use of video games to encourage a new kind of learning. One of these games, Statecraft X, was an attempt to allow children to explore the notions of citizenship and governance in a simulation game that like the famous SIMS game gave the child the opportunity to balance the needs of individual happiness against the needs of productivity required for economic growth. The game was designed and made in house and was delivered as an app running on iOS devices. Prof Chee tells me that the game by its nature promoted independent thought and critical thinking amongst its players leading to dialogue and questions about how society operates. Another game was designed as a multi-user chemistry experiment which required students to collaborate in creative as well as unpredictable ways.


Prof. Chee’s research findings have been interesting but it’s not clear whether such games that are effectively designed as technology to learn are valuable within the Singaporean education system at this time given that they don’t specifically add anything to the objective of student attainment in standardised tests however much they encourage challenging out of the box or even disruptive thinking amongst its users. As a result the Games Lab project within NIE is, like Scotland’s Consolarium game based learning initiative, being curtailed at the end of this month.


Challenging Prof. Hung on the same subject he explained that the issue around technology for learning really comes down to attainment levels. These levels are already very high in Singapore so the question is why change a winning formula that is delivering the desired results required by the state, i.e. the customer? Indeed, in one teacher training session that I attended the lecturer made a point of showing how the use of technology or transformation of a working system wasn’t important.


Further research is ongoing around technology that supports teaching and the existing system and Prof. Hung continues to show an interest in seeing how the gaps between how to nurture creative innovating thinking amongst the student body against the demands of government in delivering high achieving students at the standardised test level.


The challenge will come ultimately when Singapore sets a new goal for its economy and where it see’s future growth coming from. In the event that it determines that disruptive thinking and innovative ideas are the future drivers of its economy then it’s quite likely that we’ll see another radical shift that only the long term planning that Singapore has proven a master of can deliver.



Statecraft XThe Learning {RE}imagined team are now in Singapore.


There’s much to admire about the Singapore education system ranked as one of the best in world according to those in the know at organisations such as OECD. Indeed, from my own experience, the UK’s Secretary of State for Education is often reciting the countries merits.


In Singapore 15 year olds are 10 months ahead of their UK counterparts and 20 months ahead in maths. Other nations in the Pacific Rim such as South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan match Singapore’s educational achievements so what can we learn?


Well, of course, that’s what we’re here to find out and whilst on this leg of our journey we are looking forward to meeting Professor Chee Yam San of the Learning Sciences Lab at the National Institute of Education (NIE) to learn about the innovative work being conducted in schools using video games as part of Singapore’s Game-Based Learning Initiative.


Later in the week we will be meeting with Professor David Hung, Associate Dean, Education Research also at NIE to learn about how Singapore prepares its teachers and keeps them abreast of latest developments and techniques.


We look forward to reporting back to you later in the week – stay tuned and follow us on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook!