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!


UAE – Education versus Market Forces

Diversion AheadAs mentioned in my earlier post, Dubai struck me as a significant contrast to my experiences of visiting schools and educational establishments in Ghana and Cuba. Although, one can only really put this into perspective after the further visits and with Singapore, Jordan, UK, Lebanon, Canada, USA and Brazil coming up in the next 2 months I’m sure we’ll find many more surprises on this learning journey.


Described in the New York Times as “Las Vegas on steroids, without the gambling” the emirate is populated by migrant business people from all over the world and migrant service providers supporting them. As a non-oil based economy Dubai is essentially a commercial centre within the United Arab Emirates with a buoyant tourism industry.


25 years ago Dubai was a desert town with a population of 350,000 people. Today it numbers closer to 2 million people plus the 6 million people who visit each year. The minarets and mosques that once defined the skyline have been eclipsed by an incredible growth in some of the most ambitious secular constructions to attract the world’s wealthiest people and those seeking wealth. For many it is the land of opportunity.


GEMS EducationEducation is a business here in Dubai, it is as competitive, ruthless and as fierce as any other and like many corporations it likes to protect its secrets with a strange kind of corporate paranoia usually reserved for Silicon Valley tech companies or those in the pharmaceutical industries.


Perhaps I am overstating the case for dramatic effect but there were times during our visits here where things felt, for want of a better description, odd, where our presence was treated with a kind of suspicion when in reality we had come to learn and to discover how educators were innovating. That’s not to say that the people we met weren’t friendly, passionate about education or hospitable – read on!


Our first visit was to GEMS Modern Academy otherwise known as Dubai Modern High School which is affiliated to the Council for Indian School Certificate Examinations, New Delhi, India. Founded in 1986 the school is operated by GEMS Education, founded by successful entrepreneur Sunny Varkey, and opens admission from kindergarten level to 18 years. The school offers a day boarding system that offers academic tuition during the morning session and then “Activities for Curriculum Enrichment” (ACE) in the afternoon consisting of study groups, clubs and sports.


The environment is welcoming, the pupils of all ages polite, interested, confident and, from those we met, extremely bright. The school is very well equipped from fibre optic digital networks and AV systems to fully spec’d science labs.


We sat in on a chemistry class with a boys group of 15-16 year old’s in the schools 3D lab. Like a pre-cursor to the sort of “holodeck” facilities found in TV science fiction series like Star Trek the 3D lab allows students wearing 3D glasses to review multimedia presentations that float off a projection surface.


3D science classInitially I thought this might simply be another techno gimmick where very little is added to the learning experience and where students are simply asked to watch something on screen and then answer a few questions. However the 3D lab and the experience came to life in the hands of a very skilled teacher, Anju Shajan, who rather than simply deferring to the 3D video presentation used it as a launch pad that resulted in a dynamic exchange between students and teacher about the Inductive Effect.


This abstract concept, difficult to understand from simply reading a book, was made more tangible where the teacher, acting as facilitator or ringmaster, encouraged comments, questions and explanations from the students.


A discussion with teacher and students after the class showed that far from the technology replacing the role of a knowledgeable teacher actually demanded the skills of teacher unfazed by the platform and able to guide, cajole and include all of those in the room in a class that was clearly enjoyed by all. I felt myself also drawn into the lesson.


Could the teacher have performed this class without the technology? Yes. Was the class enhanced with the use of this 3D experience? Definitely. I mean you could read about the Inductive Effect on Wikipedia but would you really get it? The point of this class was to ensure each student understood the concept and actually made it as fun as this kind of chemistry can be.


We were joined during the lesson by the PR communications representative of GEMS Education who had recently joined the organisation and whilst a pleasant enough person I suddenly felt myself in a controlled environment reminiscent of when I used to interview popstars for a popular newspaper. There was a sense that any interviews and reporting should be “on message”. This was certainly a new experience for me in the education sector. But it was I imagine to be the “corporate effect” of privatised education within this market.


Our next showcase was a primary class of 8 year olds using iPads in a session about rocks and minerals. Once again the class was in the hands of a skilled teacher who rather than taught to the technology was simply encouraging the children to use their devices in an ad-hoc manner in response to her questions. The teacher was unconcerned that her charges were faster at finding the answers than she was as well as understanding her role was no longer to be the fountain of all knowledge from which the children should drink but someone who facilitated, guided and nudged. When the internet went down, the teacher continued the lesson without panicing and running for the tech team.


Again the lesson I took away here was that it was the skill of the teacher that was at the heart of any transformation in learning using digital platforms as well as the students being in a socio-collaborative group to share thinking and solve problems. It’s true that the classes we visited were very much the same spaces, desks in rows, like 19th century classrooms and this might change over time but the techniques we saw at the teaching level were as much about encouragement than control.


When chatting with the teacher to camera I wondered whether she felt that kids might end up spending too much time in front of screens. The question, which wasn’t intended to be confrontational resulted in an unexpected pause in the conversation. Our PR chaperone said that the teacher didn’t need to answer that question which relieved the teacher but left me with a weird feeling. Surely these 8 year olds also spent some of their day painting, glueing, moulding clay, playing and all the usual things that kids do. I didn’t think the question was that tough but I’m certain that it is a concern of many but I guess in this case we’ll never know.


Herver MarchetLater in the day we repaired to the HQ of GEMS Education to meet with their recently appointed Chief Technology Officer, Hervé Marchet.


Hervé joined GEMS from Apple where he was the Director for Apple’s business in the education sector from EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa). With education being such an important part of Apple’s business this position was a vital role within Apple and the fact that he left to join GEMS is demonstration of both how GEMS see’s the role of technology in its future plans as well as how Hervé see’s GEMS.


We recorded a filmed interview which will be available when the Learning {RE}imagined book is released next year and whilst we were guided away from matters relating directly to GEMS my conversation with Hervé was, as expected, insightful.


Hervé is certainly somebody who has a great depth of understanding and views about the role and potential for technology within the learning and teaching environment.


When asked why technology had yet to show any significant impact on improved learning outcomes his answer was pragmatic suggesting that many of us had set unrealistic expectations given the weight of the challenge and the stakeholders involved from parents to learners to teachers and policy makers. Marginal improvements have been made and whilst there have been some excellent pilots the scaling of these pilots is a complex issue when it’s not simply a matter of “rolling it out” like a recipe given that it’s individual’s learning that we are talking about rather than baking cakes.


I asked him my question du jour which is what he thought would be a 100 times better education system rather than the few % improvements that most schools like to see. His answer was that one providing access to 100 times more students. Which for my money is a great answer.


United Arab Emirates

Dubai at nightThis week I have been in Dubai taking part in the “iThink Therefore iPad?” conference as a keynote speaker. The conference was attended by an enthusiastic gathering of local school leaders and teachers who have implemented 1:1 iPad and other tablet device programmes within their school. This presented me with a terrific opportunity to meet a broad range of educators working in the region.


You could hardly think of a greater contrast of Dubai when compared to my earlier visits to Ghana and Cuba. A city of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai is the playground of the wealthy or those aspiring to be wealthy drawn to the city by the seemingly endless opportunities presented by staggering growth and investment in construction and infrastructure. It feels like the Singapore of the Middle East – where the pinnacle of the capitalist dream meets Arabic ambition. Dubai is one of the seven emirates and has emerged as a sprawling cosmopolitan metropolis that is a global city providing a cultural and business hub for the Middle East and Persian Gulf. Adopting a Western style business approach the emirates drives its economy through tourism, aviation, financial services and real estate.


Dubai is a place of innovative construction projects from the worlds tallest building to man made islands and even a domed snow and ski resort. For some, however, it’s not all as glitzy as it appears and like many thrusting capitalist nations it has been criticized for the treatment of its mainly South Asian workers who reside in the more favela like districts outside the city limits which most us will never see. 


Rated as one of the best cities in the Middle East to live in it seems that almost everybody or at least every culture is represented. And there lies the crux of the official part of my visit for Learning {RE}imagined.


The majority of the teachers that I met at the conference were either British or Australian many attracted to Dubai by significantly increased salary opportunities as well as quality of life. A teacher confided in me that 6 years ago he was literally living on pennies as a teacher in London after meeting his rent, travel and subsistence on an entry level salary. Today he lives in a private villa with its own swimming pool and drives an American sports car. Dubai is a work hard, play hard culture and he loves his job. There was a consensus amongst the teachers that I met that the working week in Dubai is brutal but the weekends and lifestyle are a compensation. Of course, everyones time in Dubai is limited. You can be here for 30 years but eventually you will need to return home. Unless you are an Emirati you’re a temporary fixture.


Whilst there are a number of public schools that serve the children of Emirati and expatriate Arab communities the majority of the schools in Dubai are private, serving the children of the majority population of expatriate workers from Europe, Asia, America and beyond. This creates a certain dynamic in regard to educational provision where parents are customers who vote with their wallet. Whilst unfettered from the kind of league tables and government inspections typical found in the UK competition in Dubai to get “bums on seats” is fierce. 


The government in Dubai does make annual inspections to each school and the results are published but the pressure really comes from the parents who almost without exception are seeking an “authentic Harry Potter experience” for their children that promises to deliver their kids at the end of it with a complete set of high test scores and examination passes. This leaves very little room for innovative teaching practice or deployment of digital platforms given that at the end of the day in a free market economy it’s only the test scores that matter. Showing off a bit of technology or 1:1 iPad programmes look good on the website when pitching for parents hard-earned cash but if the test results don’t match the school fees it won’t matter.


Herein lies the challenge for educators in Dubai, how do you innovate with or without technology in what is both a government and market-force regulated sector. Innovation is by nature risky and who is prepared to risk test scores when in reality they are what pay your salary and keep you in laa laa land?


Dubai_by_day.JPGMy photographic team join me this weekend and we will be meeting the Group Chief Technology Officer of GEMS Education, Herve Marchet. Before joining GEMS Herve was the Director of Apple’s EMEA Education Markets so knows one or two things about deploying technology in educational environments at least from an Apple perspective. GEMS Education has a history of high profile hirings and is clearly serious about being the major player in private education in this region and beyond. GEMS operates a number of schools in the region catering for different parental budgets as well as offering a choice of curriculum including the International Baccalaureate and England’s National Curriculum. That in itself is an innovation, the fact that in an international context like this you can pick and choose the curriculum that you would like your child to be processed through.


I’m looking forward also to visiting a number of GEMS schools to gain an insight into private education provision within a multi-cultural, multi-contextual environment.


But first some sight-seeing!






Cuba: Revolución Educativa?

Family in CubaWhen I was a child in the 70’s (yes, I’m that old!) I enjoyed a film called Logan’s Run, a science fiction film set in the 23rd century where humans lived under surveillance in a perfect society enclosed in an environmentally controlled dome called “Sanctuary” where all their material possessions and needs were met. There were catches, of course, one of them was that citizens were forbidden to travel beyond the safety and controlled existence of their dome. Curiosity was not encouraged but inevitably some would wonder what laid beyond.


Reflecting on my recent trip I wondered if the society beyond our dome might be Cuba.


It’s fair to say that I was in Cuba on vacation with my family in between the official visits that I am making as part of the Learning {RE}imagined project so inevitably I viewed the country through the rose tinted sunglasses of a tourist but we did manage the occasional escape from the resort dome to explore a bit of the culture and people of this nation.


Being the summer break in Cuba and without official permissions to visit schools I was unable to dig as deep as I would have liked but I left inspired to return and discover more.


In response to my shout-out on Twitter to meet educators in Cuba I received one response from a friend who suggested that I wouldn’t find much to interest me and my project there given that Cuba was the least “connected” country in the region and that few people, if any, have access to the internet at home and very few have access to it in public offices such as schools. 


For me this was probably the most interesting aspect given that without a hysterical rush to adopt “21st century” platforms and capitulating to PISA league tables Cuba has achieved, according to the instruments and indicators applied by international organisations such as OECD and UNESCO, one of the world’s best educational systems. An education system that is free to all students from primary to higher education and has achieved almost 100% literacy amongst its population. An education system that has lead to a key export of Cuba being skilled healthcare and medical professionals as well as an effective literacy programme that has been exported across Latin America and as far as Australia and New Zealand.


This comparison between the educational systems of Cuba and Finland by prominent Ecuadorian educationalist, Rosa María Torres, makes interesting reading.


But for me what really stood out were the casual conversations with Cubans that I met along the way. One evening in a bar sampling local produce it occurred to me that out of the 11 people I was chatting to 7 were educated to degree level of which 3 held a master’s. No offence to my neighbours but it’s not like that in my local back in London.


Lima De La CruzNaturally, not everything is perfect in Cuba. It’s a socialist state and since 1957 the economy has been regulated meaning salary levels are nothing like you would find in Western nations. Some Cubans would complain about increasing unemployment now running at a reported 2% but even if that was under reported it would have some way to go to match 20%+ across Europe or Greece which has been effectively bankrupted. Occasionally I would find myself in “grass is greener” type conversations but I couldn’t help thinking that a university student in Cuba could complete a medical degree and not start their career already tens of thousands of dollars in debt.


After the revolution in Cuba education and healthcare were given the highest priority under Fidel Castro and whatever other challenges are presented it has succeeded in this goal. There is 1 teacher to every 40 citizens in Cuba. How it will change in the coming years with embargoes lifted and the influx of western brands remains to be seen but something a taxi driver said to me on a journey resonated “Cuba is a safe country because of education”.


On that basis I say “Viva la Revolución Educativa!”



Ok, so this isn’t an official project destination however I am excited to be traveling to Cuba with my family for what is intended to be a vacation but never-the-less is an extremely interesting place in regard to the Learning {RE}imagined mission to search the world seeking innovation in learning.


Cuba, after all, has been a highly ranked educational system for a long time where it spends 10% of its central budget. By comparison the UK spends just 4% and the US 2% (source UNESCO).


Children CubaSome interesting points to note are that regardless of income or location in Cuba education is free at every level, school meals and uniforms are free, the maximum class size for primary education is 25 children, in secondary the class size reduces to 15, school days often extend to 12 hours to provide morning or evening child care, half of Cuba’s 150,000 teachers have 5 years experience of higher education of which half is at Masters degree level.


According to the World Bank, Cuba’s literacy rate is now 99.83% which by any standard is phenomenal.


Whilst I’m on “official” leave this blog maybe quieter than usual but you can still follow me on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook and if I’m fortunate enough to meet any Cuban educators whilst I am away then you’ll hear about it on this blog – my kids and the pool notwithstanding of course!