Monday, March 10, 2014

Make Things Do Stuff

Digital Learning with Young People in the United Kingdom

[Adapted from a panel talk I gave at DML 2014 on March 7, 2014 in Boston, MA.]

There’s a lot of exciting digital making happening in the United Kingdom, so I want to share the story of Make Things Do Stuff, a network and website of maker-focused organizations -- including Mozilla -- that promote digital learning among young people in the UK.

First, let’s set the scene.
In January 2011, Nesta -- an Innovation Foundation in the UK -- published the “Next Gen.” report, co-authored by Sir Ian Livingstone and Alex Hope. Livingstone was part of the team that supported and distributed games such as Dungeons & Dragons, and most famously Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. The authors found at that time that the UK video games sector brought in over £2 billion in sales, and was larger than both the film and music industries. Between 2006 and 2008 the visual effects sector -- encompassing both film and video games -- grew at 16.8% with most of its talent being local. Just after 2008, however, the industry quickly began losing its local talent to overseas competition, and was forced to source overseas talent of its own to keep sales high.

The over-arching conclusion of the report was that the education system failed to fill the skills gap in the industry. Next Gen. looked at how this problem could be tackled, and gave two major recommendations:
  • Put Computer Science on the national curriculum.
  • Have GCSE (Graduate Certificate of Secondary Education) in all schools.
=> Quick Explanation: Unlike in many countries where high school graduates receive one certificate for satisfactory completion of course work -- a diploma or GED -- in the UK students between 14 and 16 years of age take GCSE exams in each subject -- some compulsory, and some elective.

Stemming from Next Gen. came 2 years of consultation between education specialists, technology experts, and government policy advisers to build a computer science curriculum. The view taken is that coding/programming is an essential skill to join the job force. Thus, starting in Key Stage 1 students aged 5-7 will be introduced to algorithms and logical reasoning. With each successive Key Stage, students will build up their knowledge and skills base, and by the end of the Key Stage 4 (age 14-16) they will be able to code in at least 2 languages, and have the creative and technical abilities for more sophisticated study in CS or a professional career. The curriculum goes into full effect this September.

Learning through making
At the same time, yearly spending on digital education in schools reached into the hundreds of millions, and yet real transformation in learning and teaching remained elusive. Could it be that interactive whiteboards and one-to-one tablet schemes aren’t the final solution?  So Nesta teamed up with London Knowledge Lab and Learning Sciences Research Institute to see how teachers and learners could be more engaged in the design and use of learning technologies. After researching 8 types of learning with technology, they largely concluded that learning through making is one of the more effective strategies. (Decoding Learning: The Proof, Promise, and Potential of Digital Education.)

With solid research in hand, Nesta, Nominet Trust (a funder for socially-minded tech solutions), and Mozilla (a socially-minded engineering organization) banded together to create Make Things Do Stuff. This relationship works not only because we have robust research, funding and tools, but also because we all recognize the importance of bringing together other organizations in the making space, and know that the collaborative effort is greater than the sum of its parts.

With over 40 organizations in our network, we have great depth and representation across a lot of disciplines. Our partners include everyone from small after-school coding clubs and DIY digital making haberdasheries to large tech event planners and government supporters like the Cabinet Office.

But the best part of Make Things Do Stuff is the Youth Editorial team, a group of 25 super talented young makers with interests ranging from programming apps that tackle social issues to musicians with great YouTube followings.  Some speak at youth conferences as evangelists, putting a relatable face on the movement, while others run hackathons in local communities. This stellar team creates content for the website – by young people for young people – and invites others like them to make things and share their stories.

Of course it isn’t all smooth sailing. With so many stakeholders pulling in the same direction, it’s tough to make sure everyone feels visible and that their values are prioritized. As the educational Events Manager helping wrangle everyone, my three main pain-points are:

Audience: We work with organizations, not schools, so a lot of young people we see are already highly motivated to learn through making. While it’s great that we’re reaching them through their passions and building on them, I wonder about the young people we’re not reaching. To mitigate this, we try to attend a variety of events – everything from the nationwide Big Bang Fair with 65,000 young people getting their digital hands dirty over 4 days, to small-scale workshops where 25 school children made robots out of plastic cups, remixed our Keep Calm And…Thimble make, and created circuits out of play-dough at an event hosted by the new Children’s Museum at MozLDN. (Some fun remixes: Live long and Prosper, Freak Out and Throw Stuff, Eat Sleep Rave Repeat.)

“Brand Soup”: Although all of the organizations are under the banner of Make Things Do Stuff, we also have responsibilities to our individual organizations to increase visibility and brand recognition. When we’re at events sometimes all you see is a bunch of logos on a sign, and I wonder, what are we really promoting?  To make sure we don’t get lost in the politics of brand soup, we bring it all back to our shared mission and message: we’re here to help everyone move beyond digital consumption to digital creation. We focus on the young people and remember that we’re here for them, not the other way around. And suddenly, it’s clear skies ahead.

Gathering Data: Again, because we’re not partnered with schools it can be difficult to measure the effect our efforts have on the overall learning environment. Moreover, it’s near impossible to come up with a universal definition of effect; are we measuring national test outcomes? Are we looking at job-readiness skills? This one continues to be a challenge, but as the maker landscape changes, I look forward to seeing solutions surface.

Despite our difficulties with data, I’m happy to share that we reached 100,000+ young people over 3 months last summer – our first summer – thanks to our collaborative efforts. Make Things Do Stuff will also continue to change and grow as new technologies enter the field, and as young people find new ways to use old technologies. It’s an exciting time to be in this space, and I hope you’ll become a part of our ever-evolving story.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Remix Learning: The Web is the Platform

[Adapted from a presentation given at iThink Therefore iLearn? conference in Manchester, UK; 27 February 2014.]

Many of you know Mozilla as the makers of the Firefox browser. We’re also breaking into the mobile space with FirefoxOS, and have just announced plans to make a £15 (USD$25) smartphone. FirefoxOS is a phone operating system, sure, but its bones are web-based. Mozilla is also making educational products and programs like Webmaker, which I’ll share in more detail later. 

While we are largely defined by our products, the reality is that we wouldn’t exist without our community. We are an international company with about 800 employees and over 10,000 volunteer contributors, and we are all Mozillians. This is one of Mozilla’s strengths: convening people around a shared mission, and making the whole greater than the sum of the parts. And if we’re going to talk about future technologies – especially in education – we have to talk about connecting people and communities.  

Mitchell Baker says “Mozillians are people who make things. Moving people from consumption to creation is Mozilla’s goal.” We support the making movement, whether that’s online or offline, and we see coding as one part of that movement – one of the many ways to express creativity and personal interest.

Remixing is a way to do just that.
My exposure to remixing was music, specifically electronic music. The more I came across the concept in the education setting – through the idea of collaging and mosaic making – I realized that remixing doesn’t have to be just about copy + paste. Remixing can be a recipe – taking little bits and pieces from existing materials, adding a pinch of your own original flavor, combining according to personal taste/style, and then baking (incubating/(taste)testing) as necessary.

When I was teacher drawing up my lesson plans I did exactly this, and I didn’t even know I was remixing. I would take one activity from the curriculum-mandated textbook, find a corresponding YouTube clip, perhaps get the students to apply the idea to their own lives and provide examples, then have a final presentation of sorts – usually outside!

So how can we surface the process so it becomes integral in learning? As educators we often teach skills without being explicit about it. Take writing for example; rarely do we assign worksheets with grammar exercises. Instead, we look for creative, fun ways to introduce, practice, and perfect these skills together as a class. I remember starting or closing class with a little independent writing; it could be diary writing or a reflective entry about something the students experienced that day. Sometimes we wrote plays as a class, bringing in elements of classic stories and adding our own twists. Storyboarding was my favorite activity, where we drew our stories, and then were forced to keep things short and concise when telling it.

The answer to “How can I remix in the classroom?” is “You already do!” But let’s add another element: the web.

Webmaker Tools
With Webmaker, you have three main tools for teaching the web. X-Ray Goggles, Thimble, and Popcorn Maker. There are loads of great templates on, but my favorite is the comic strip.  The idea here is to look at coding as a skill rather than as a content focus, and by doing so you’ll see how easily this could be integrated into any class.

Here we have a comic strip created by a student:    

Let’s look at the many elements:
  • Images
  • Colors
  • Text
  • Speech bubbles
  • Placement of the text and speech bubbles    
And most importantly, the story line.

When you click on the remix bottom, you see the code on the left and a preview of your webpage – in this case the comic strip – on the right. By changing the code of certain elements on the left, you change the content of what’s on the right.

Story telling through coding
If I had had this program when my 9th grade students were learning about Ancient Egypt, I would have asked them to create stories about the pharaohs or explain the building of the pyramids using comic strips.

First, they’d have to think of the story => exactly the same for any written work. Then they’d have to look for images to fit their story. Students who are good at drawing/graphics could produce their own, upload them, and include them in their comic strip; students who aren’t that good at drawing could look for images that fit their story. We’d be working with their strengths. And then they could fiddle with the background color, the text color, and the placement of the speech bubbles, all of which is customization. Most importantly, they could share their work with their peers, family, and the wider world.  

As a teacher or community club member, you can create the template if you’d like: you can choose the images and have learners build the story around them. Or, you could write a vague story and have the student build the story with images. Alternatively, you could have half of the class do one, and the other half do the other. The options are limitless!

We also encourage teachers to remix online, using their own creative lesson plans for content. With our teaching kit template, you can write up your lesson plans and share them with others. Or, you can remix other people’s teaching kits by picking and choosing the bits you want to keep, adding elements from a different resource, and so on. When you create a teaching kit, you can see how other people have remixed it for themselves; you get a visual feedback loop for your own work.

These skills – remixing, coding, sharing – are part of a wider Web Literacy Map that was designed by community members comprised of educators and people in the tech industry. When you look at this map, you see that there are 14 core competencies defined by three overarching themes; but only one of the competencies has anything to do with coding. And Remixing is its own core skill. For us, Web Literacy is larger and more nuanced than just coding; it’s about understanding privacy and security, what it means for the web to be open, and how to be a member of a larger community.

This is where community – the people—comes into the mix. Remixing learning isn’t only about bringing new materials or tools into the classroom, but also about taking those materials to different contexts, bringing in new people, and integrating learning with the community. In the UK, there’s a network of makers called Make Things Do Stuff. Last year Nesta, Nominet Trust, and Mozilla joined forces to promote and support digital making among young people.  Here in Manchester, there are handful of Make Things Do Stuff partners that run free, workshops for young people: CoderDojo, MadLab, Code Club, and YoungRewired State.   

Our partners meet young people where they are and take them further by connecting through their passions, and teaching new skills by building on what they bring to the table. Yes, this movement is about digital making and providing the skills to do so. But it’s also about sharing, about meeting other like-minded people – whether you’re a geek, a nerd, a sneakerhead, or a hip-hop dancer – and knowing that you’re not alone. For some people, especially adolescents, that can make a big difference.

Mozilla promotes this kind of community building all around the world. Make Things Do Stuff is a national network here in the UK, but we have the Hive LearningNetworks that are city-based initiatives, located in Toronto, New York, Chicago, and Pittsburgh. In Japan it’s called Mozilla Factory, and they aren’t focused just on young people. We support many different versions of the approach to promote making.

A Call to Action
So I offer all educators – whether you’re a teacher, a parent, or a community leader – a  Call to Action: Remix learning. Invite your local maker clubs to your classroom. Take something you made at school and explore it with your kids; and share something you made at home at a hackathon. Remake the web as you connect with other people and their ideas. Let’s open up learning and make all of our lives richer.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Earning Bett(er) Badges

2014 started off with a maker-enthused bang! From January 22-25th, the Bett Show took over London ExCel with 688 exhibitors showcasing their educational wares. Webmaker and a number of Make Things Do Stuff partners were fortunate to be invited to share the Stone Computers stand to run hands-on activities for teachers and students.

Technology Will Save Us were there, running a very cool session on programming their DIY Gamer. On a sheet of paper filled with blank boxes, the maker first designed an avatar and its movements in response to different key combinations on a game console. Then, by doing some simple programming on a computer, the maker brought to life his/her video game.

Next to them, Webmaker ran a Thimble workshop, introducing HTML and CSS code through the "Keep Calm and…" starter make. A few days earlier, I met 4 very cool young makers at Lutthworth High in Leicestershire. These E-leaders were recruited to attract teachers and show them how to do some simple coding at Bett. We spent Monday afternoon making things on Thimble, exploring different variables to play with, and discovering what worked and what didn't in a short period of time. After doing some homework (teaching a family member or friend how to make something on Thimble), they were geared up and ready to work at Bett. And work they did! Alongside community Webmaker mentors, FuzzyFox, and myself the E-leaders brought teachers to the stand with their smiles, and walked them through designing their very own "Keep Calm and…" make. Some of the #Bett2014 makes are pretty creative!

For teachers looking to get ideas before delving into digital making, Stone Computers organized a stand where various educators could share their thoughts and tips on getting digital in the classroom. There was an impressive line-up over the 4 days, including Mozilla's Doug Belshaw and Tim Riches talking about the value of integrating badges, and how they're aligned with our Web Literacy Map. Doug's slide deck is here. I had the opportunity to share how coding could be used as a medium for creative expression, and how it doesn't have to be the content focus in any classroom. I encouraged teachers to get their classes involved in upcoming campaigns, like International Privacy Day on January 28th and celebrating the 25th birthday of the Web this year. My slides are here.

All of these activities were neatly tied together with badges -- in fact, participants were earning badges for every activity they completed! Digital Me and the Badge The UK teams were buzzing about issuing badges for achievements and talking to teachers about incorporating badges in school. It was beautiful to see everyone excited about the upcoming Badge Kit, and discussing how this could be relevant with their students. It'll be even more interesting to see how everyone integrates it into their systems.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Engaging in 2014

January 1st, 2014: I jumped out of a plane over Las Vegas, determined to start this year with excitement (wind-induced face lift included). Week 3 of this year already promises plenty of adventure, as I head off to Vancouver for the first time with a spring in my step knowing where I am in the complicated (yet simple) network that is Mozilla.  I'm in for a week of challenge and fun, including zip-lining down Grouse Mountain and hours of brainstorming and engaging with my team.

Where do I fit in?
In my current role in the UK, being on the Engagement Team means continuing to work closely with our Make Things Do Stuff partners and participants to ensure good communication about what everyone is doing. Using the Make Things Do Stuff website as a platform, our Youth Editorial group is spreading the word about their digital experiences, things that our happening around the UK, and fun ways young people can get involved online from home. Supporting these amazing, creative young people is a major goal of mine. Through April of this year, I'll help spread the word about digital making by running Webmaker workshops and supporting our partners at various events, and by speaking or judging contests at conferences/events like Bett (22-25 Jan), Manchester Digital (11-14 Feb), EPIK: Code the World Around You (17-19 Feb), iThink Conference (27 Feb), DML (6-8 Mar), and Oppi Helsinki (11-14 Apr).

Aside from the larger, public events, I'll be inviting groups like The Children's Museum to use our fantastic Moz Space in London to run their own events. By supporting these friends we not only expand our network of partners, but also keep our finger on the pulse of all things digital in the youth sector in town. And, they let us play with their cool toys! I'm also starting to collaborate more with the awesome MoCo devs in London, getting them more involved with activities with young people, and perhaps being asked to work on some of their cool international FFOS projects.

Beyond April, when I leave the UK and transfer to the US (visa issues…ugh) I plan on building up and using my networks in Latin America and Asia. Currently, I'm helping out with MozEdu, an initiative of the Mozilla Hispano community that goes into schools in the region to promote principles we share in our Web Literacy Map. With Mozilla Japan, I've been working to expand their reach in the country via the MozBus program they sprung into action in the fall. They're now off on the second tour, down to southern Japan. The Mozilla Factory (similar to HIVE) has been generating much more support for promoting digital making among young people, but has yet to turn the focus towards fundraising. Come May, perhaps a shift in the winds could help with that.

And personally, I will be making a much more concerted effort to share the great things that are happening within these different contexts with everyone else, both in the hope to get the word out and to get advice from others doing similar things.

What can we do better this year?

It's been a year full of explosive growth, so "things we can do better" can also be "things/people/resources we need to rally." The ReMo community is an incredible asset with expansive networks that are eager to be a part of the open web we all champion. It would be good to reach out in a much more systematic (i.e. organized) way to this amazing group of talented people, listen to their views on needs/local realities, and work closely with them to build tools and connections. There have already been a few issues around this, including the formation of legal entities for fundraising and whether or not they can use the Mozilla name, so a clarity on what we're asking of them and what they can do would be more than beneficial.

Within our various teams, the recent shuffle promises more streamlined communication. A more focused conversation that is action-oriented rather than an exercise in reflection/navel-gazing could be helpful. Yes, reflection is important; but because people are productive at different times, and because we're spread out across multiple timezones, requiring everyone to "silent ether-pad" at the same time doesn't always translate to higher productivity or effective communication. Perhaps "flipping" our communications -- i.e. independent thinking/sharing/writing before our calls -- could be an interesting approach to try.

What should we make sure not to lose?

Given what I wrote above, I think as a team we are FANTASTIC at communicating! We're creative with our sharing, and we learn from each other (case in point: FuzzyFox's recent notes from the Mentor call).

Our external face is very unified, and we're all adept at weaving together all of our tools and initiatives. We're good at thinking about "the team" and pushing forward Mozilla's main message about putting the web in everyone's hands. We shouldn't forget that we're awesome at working with people.

What do I most want to get out of the work week?

This week for me is about learning and sharing. I want to learn more about the comms side of things, about how I can bring my networks into the fold, and how I can better share the stories about all the fantastic things happening around me with all of you.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Mozilla Japan!

MozFest in Tokyo


With an enthusiastic “Welcome to MozFest in Tokyo!” Chibi, the Chair of Mozilla Japan, kicked off the first localized Mozilla Festival on September 15th at Shibaura House in central Tokyo. Despite severe typhoon warnings, over 120 people came to experiment with and learn from 27 different sessions across 4 floors, loosely divided into themes:
  • Animation
  • Make the Web Physical
  • Webmaking for Mobile
  • Mozilla Factory groups
Weaving everything together was Mozilla’s open-source ethos; even the venue, with its floor-to-ceiling windows and balcony-access stairs, contributed to the day’s openness.

After one-minute introductions from each session, participants spread out to celebrate monozukuri  – literally “making things” – the tradition of making that is an integral part of Japanese culture. With this year’s Maker Party campaign encouraging a learning-through-making philosophy, the festival was abuzz with excitement as traditional concepts and modern tools came together in cutting-edge, sometimes odd-looking, projects.

On the ground floor, Maker Party was in full swing with Popcorn Maker fired up for remixing. A national media conglomerate shared access to some anime characters, so middle school students and university professors alike created original stories like this one.

  Of course, no festival in Japan is complete without manga: Html5j showcased their animated manga maker that, using html5, converts video into black and white anime in real-time.  People lined up to make funny faces, recite poetry, and give shout-outs to their friends in manga form. Since a picture paints a thousand words, here are some unique manga gifs.

In Make the Web Physical, activities used the web as a medium to connect the tangible with the virtual. For example, Make the Web Haptic uses a DIY amplifier producing inaudible wavelengths to create vibrations in connected objects. When running a mouse over a textured surface on a screen, the mouse vibrates to create the sensation of feeling the texture.  So far, ideas for using the Techtile Toolkit focus on Internet shopping; come “touch the web” at MozFest in October, and share your ideas!
 Plant de Interface was all about integrating natural phenomena with technology. One project proposed attaching very small solar battery cells to phototropic plants to increase the exposure to the sun. This is still very much in the idea stage, but it would be cool to see if/how/where this goes.

Mozilla Factory, a holistic initiative that brings together student-mentors, NPOs, universities, and employers around the central themes of openness and making, showcased as well. Sessions included building Firefox OS apps using geolocation to insert images into photos, testing new Firefox OS phones being developed by KDDI in Japan, and remixing cell phones. This session was led by two middle school students showing how to create your ideal cell phone by mixing parts from several phones.

A slightly more serious program, OpenStreetMap Foundation/OpenRelief shared a prototype of a remote-controlled airplane with a wingspan of about 1.5 meters that will collect geographic data to create maps of remote areas. Its first trip will be around the Fukushima devastation site for everyone to see. The project leader is a driving force behind MozBus and its relief efforts.

Speaking of which…

Thursday afternoon saw the launch of MozBus, a giant, orange camper van outfitted with a satellite dish on the roof, a 3D printer whirring away inside, and plenty of space to cart making materials around the country. Japanese media, university students, and Mozilla community members heard Professor Jun Murai -- Father of the Internet in Japan and 2013 inductee in the Internet Hall of Fame – Moz Japan’s Chibi, and prominent Japanese engineers and professors explain the rationale for this Nomadic Web Factory.

The concept of MozBus rose from the ashes of the Fukushima disaster, when victims were without any means of communication for weeks. Reports were strictly controlled by the government – including the famous picture of the roads being fixed just days after the earthquake. With cell towers knocked down, information coming out and going into the area – when there was any – was heavily censored. Professor Murai refers to this experience as the line that divided recent history into “pre-Internet” and “post-Internet” in Japan.

MozBus not only bring Internet access to remote and/or devastated areas, but also provide printed goods when needed, and education about everything from how to make Ethernet cables to the importance of the open web. As 3D printing gets more sophisticated and accessible, the range of printable items increases. At the launch, plastic whistles that had been printed moments earlier were displayed as examples of how printing could be used for relief. You see, in some parts of Japan wild boars threaten residents; an energetic tweet from a whistle can scare them off to give people time to get to safety. A simple plastic whistle that scares of a couple boars may seem inconsequential, but as the bus moves along relief will become customizable and printable.

MozBus will set out on its maiden voyage in early October, heading north to Fukushima with the OpenStreetMap Society/OpenRelief team aboard. The current vision includes multiple buses across Asia, starting with disaster prone areas. No doubt food, water, and shelter are a priority when travesty strikes; still, Fukushima made the argument for communications also being a high priority, to let the world hear from the suffering communities about their needs and realities, and not blindly accept what the talking heads have transmitted.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

What do words mean?

As an educator – or educationalist as is often said in the UK – I’ve had the opportunity to attend numerous conferences on the abysmal state of education, and how to fix it. I used to be bothered that words like empowerment and accountability were batted about as if they had only one connotation, but I’ve gotten over it; at least they’re actual words!

Conferences I’ve been to lately seem driven by a made-up lexicon that causes the tongue to dance around gnashing teeth, and an assumption that mashing together two words results in something with one definition. When presenters use this jargon, I wonder who they are speaking to, and what they are trying to say (many of these words have found their way to the Twitter #wankwords feed). Instead of decoding their messages, I’ve written a little poem to release that valve of frustration whose ugly head pops up from time to time.

An Edupreneur’s Plea

Over the past 6 months
                                                                I’ve heard many a conversation,
                                                                Whether it be at the Google conference,
                                                                Or another on technovation.

                                                                Chaired by thinkfluencers,
                                                                Panels reach a consensus on innovation:    
                                                                Change isn’t enough anymore,
                                                                Real disruption is needed in education!

                                                                Listen to changemakers
                                                               With synergistic thinking,
                                                               Those who took STEM to STEAM;
                                                               They’ll save learning from sinking.

                                                               Don’t focus on topping league tables
                                                               In schools across the UK,
                                                               Kids need commercial coding skills;
                                                               Teacherpreneurs lead the way!

                                                               Apps and iPads are their game,
                                                               Teachnology is their bread and butter,
                                                               GCSEs don’t determine your fate,
                                                               And Michael Gove? He’s a proper nutter,

                                                               Educationalists see money in edutainment;
                                                               But attracting girls is key.
                                                               Womenomics could save the world,
                                                               So let’s lean in; get techy.

                                                               Break through silos, tear down walls;
                                                               Let’s move forward together and edcelerate!
                                                               We can unpick ideas and drill down later;
                                                               For now, step into your bigness and celebrate.

                                                               So much inspiration and motivation;
                                                               The speakers put on quite a show.
                                                               I look forward to learning more,
                                                               But enough of the portmanteau!

Friday, June 14, 2013

What if the boys in Lord of the Flies had experienced Escuela Nueva?

Scale up, then down
On Monday, Vicky Colbert, founder and Executive Director of Escuela Nueva, stopped by for an informal chat in the green pod over wine and cheese sticks. Charlie Leadbeater guided the conversation, with about 15 others asking questions about her journey of creating an innovative and viable educational model, scaling up to Colombian national policy, then shrinking down to an NGO when the government decentralized. 

In a nutshell, Fundación Escuela Nueva is a Colombian NGO that offers a model of cooperative, self-directed, democratic education aimed directly at the child. Realizing in the 1980s that teachers were ill-prepared and using teaching-centered pedagogies, Vicky and her team collaborated with local governments and civil sector partners to restructure the classroom with round tables where students problem-solve together, built learning corners for science and art using local materials, and set up voting stations to practice democratic rights. The emphasis on leadership skills through empathy is prevalent in other Escuela Nueva models, like EN for emergency situations, and EN for women (you can read more about the models and their recognition here).

So what do collaborative, self-directed, empathetic, democratic children look like? Let’s apply the Escuela Nueva lens to the boys in William Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies. The novel addresses the age-old struggle between good and evil, represented as civilization (good) vs. savagery (evil), embodied by adolescents and little boys (Littluns). 

Golding’s argument that humans are inherently savage, kept in check only by society, is played out between a few boys: we have Ralph, who represents civilization and order; he leads the boys to build huts and find a way to be rescued. When Jack – power-hungry and violent – becomes obsessed with hunting and preys on the group’s fears, the boys ditch Ralph and turn to a life of destruction and blood-lust with Jack at the helm. Then there’s Simon – spiritual, human goodness – who believes in the inherent value of morality. He is kind to the Littluns, and recognizes that the Lord of Flies is the beast inside everyone; still, Simon is killed at the hands of the others.

Skills, not spears
If their boarding school had followed the Escuela Nueva model, the boys would have been more productive in their group work. Instead of relying on one leader to tell them what to do, the Littluns would have known how to work together using materials at their disposal to find solutions. 

Their self-regulated learning would have prepared them to be more confident and less distracted, ultimately saving their new homes – even a friend – from a raging fire. With a profound understanding of democratic education, Jack would have been more gracious when losing the election, and found other ways to be an effective leader, while the voters would have respected the outcome instead of destroying their fragile system. Hunting still would have been a struggle, but their empathic mind-set could have supported Jack and not let him get isolated with his violent obsession. 

Equipped with analytic thinking skills instead of spears, the boys would have questioned the sudden appearance of the beast instead of blindly accepting the parachute to be evil. And the officer who rescues them would have been proud to see proper British boys building a society, instead of appalled by the destructive nature of the blood-covered, barbaric little boys crying with fear and shame at the depths of their inhumanity.

Open-source wounds
The Escuela Nueva model is already in over 16 countries, helping 5 million young people realize their potential for good through collaborative problem solving. In Colombia, rural students outperform their urban peers in all but the largest cities. The peace-building efforts to rebuild the social fabric after decades of violence are literally grassroots. It is a testament to Vicky’s vision and drive that the organisation is the longest running successful NGO coming out of the global south, but the road ahead for Escuela Nueva promises to be difficult. 

As Charlie Leadbeater said in our talk, Vicky was open-source before open-source really existed. This has led to widespread use, but the same openness has distanced the organization from potentially useful feedback (and profit). The lack of access to data outside of the Colombian context means Escuela Nueva doesn’t know how the program has been adapted, and to what ends. As they join forces with new partners to spread the relevance and ride the wave of digital education, the organisation’s scaling strategies will be crucial for its continued success.