I am currently in Bombay, India at the MIT India Initiative. I was invited to talk about Re-thinking Education. Here is my talk – I hope there is something in it for you!


That’s an audio file of my talk.


When I went to school I always felt like an outsider.
I never had many friends.
I didn’t always follow the rules.
I was easily bored and yes, easily distracted as well.
I asked the kind of questions my teachers didn’t like.

My parents were called to the headmaster’s office pretty often.
And usually not for the reasons most parents would hope for.
At the age of 10 when we had to decide which high school I should go to – the teachers strongly advised NOT to send me to a girls only school, because the moment they turned their eyes away from me I was on the ground fighting with the boys … 🙂
They simply thought I was way too wild for “girls only!”

In high school I remember some “magic moments”.
Like when I figured out some proof in maths way before the others did.
My maths teacher, Herr Kempf, was really stunned.
I still remember him saying: “How did you figure this out?”
Or when I scored best in German grammar tests.
That even surprised my classmates 🙂
These were subjects I was drawn into. Subjects I really liked.

But I also had some very dark moments – especially when it came to French grammar.
Or when a murmur of shock and surprise went through the classroom when my near catastrophic final exam results were announced.
But this really didn’t matter because I knew I was going to study economics.
So no top grades were needed.
Basically they accepted anyone!
Which I thought was a pretty fair deal.
Who could guarantee that a top grader would become a good doctor?
In those days you needed top grades to study medicine …

So I was lucky with my choice!

University I found … interesting.
I could make my own schedule.
I could choose the professors I was most interested in.
I understood that the university would provide me with the tools I would need later on to tackle a problem.

It was a conceptional framework I learned.
A framework which included multiple perspectives on the same thing.

I had to work while I was studying.
I had to part-finance my studies.
And I was lucky that I found an interesting and challenging job where I could apply the theory I’d learnt into practice.
For more than four years I worked with the biggest public TV channel in Germany, the ZDF.
I became the right hand of the guy who then was responsible for bringing TV into the digital age ….
A daunting task and even greater challenge in so many ways.
And this guy, Hanfried Schäfer, just threw me in the deep end and trusted that I would swim … and I did swim because I knew he’d jump in and save me if need be.

He was a true mentor.
In India you’d probably say he was a Guru.
Someone who didn’t care where I came from or what I was today.
But who cared a great deal about what I could become tomorrow.
For him what I could become tomorrow was of the greatest importance.

And I’ve been lucky to have quite a few such gurus throughout my life.

Now you’re probably wondering why is she telling us all this?

There’s a very simple reason: I was invited to talk to you about “Re-Imaging Education” 🙂
And all these little stories of my life, which I haven’t selected randomly, provide us with all WE need to re-imagine education.

But do let me say one thing first:

I do NOT like the word education so much.
Because education is something you do to someone else.
I rather prefer the word LEARNING.
Because learning is something you do to yourself!

So when you ask me how I would re-imagine LEARNING I will say:

– for all “teachers” it should be of greatest importance what the learner can become tomorrow!

– learning is lifelong so it’s important that you learn very early on in life what learning is all about. You need to learn how to learn – this is much more important than learning facts. Only when you learn to learn can you create a solid basis for dealing with all the new things you’ll encounter later on in life.

– learning is practical and provides you with a set of tools to tackle real life problems

– and allows multiple perspectives on the same thing or issue.

And I would also add: No choice of school – all schools should be the same! Just like they are in Finland which is internationally known as the best education system in the world!
The Delhi government schools have started to implement some of the Finnish principals – and the outcomes they have, show that this was a smart move!

Only when we introduce “no choice of school” can we create the biggest pool of talent and creativity a country has to offer. It’s an inclusive model.

Competition among schools is exclusive and minimizes talent and creativity.

So to sum up, it’s:

Learning trumps education!
It’s all about process and potential – what can the learner become tomorrow?
Learn how to learn!
Practice and Perspectives. Multiple perspectives.
And no choice of school.

Well, that’s the theory!

So now the big question is how can we create something very practical out of this theory which really helps and brings learning to the next level !!

Implementation is the magic word 🙂
And the HUGE challenge.

I’ve been working in a remote village for the last 6 years …
The name of the village is Janwaar.
It’s located in the heart of India, in Madhya Pradesh.
It’s a small village, only 1200 people live there.
We have 250 kids.
And two government schools, one for 1-4th grade, and one for 5-8th grade.

The quality of learning is a disaster. To put it mildly.
The kids are not even capable of writing Hindi correctly.
They can hardly read when they leave school.
Forget about any idea of “understanding” or critical thinking!
And even if the kids go to high school in Panna, the next bigger city, the outcome still doesn’t really improve.

But is this the kids’ fault?
Can we seriously blame the kids for this?
Should which “education” you have access to be defined by caste, sex, place of birth or income ?
Aren’t all kids born with equal talents and capabilities?
And don’t we need EVERYBODY to master the challenges we are facing?

Just think about this for a second!
And think about what brought you here!

I feel it’s rather the system we need to blame!
And it’s the system and its curricula we need to re-think!

No?

Our initiative – building a skatepark – was like a bombshell for this village.
Like an earthquake!
The skatepark has disrupted village life, shaken old traditions and given kids a voice!
All of a sudden things started to move in the village!
Something NEW was going on and it touched nearly everyone.
It was inclusive and offered everyone the chance to participate!

And this is nothing specific for this village.
The same would have happened in any other village.
And we see this happening in four other places where our model has been replicated.

One outcome of this eruption was that new opportunities opened up for the kids.
Guests were coming in.
The kids started traveling. In India and abroad.
They become really good skateboarders, two of them went to the Skateboarding World Championships in China.
And some of them are now reigning Indian champions !
They became self-confident and kind of proud of themselves!

The skatepark and the Villa have given them an identity way beyond caste and income.
They’ve opened the door to a new world.
New horizons now came within their reach.
The skatepark and the Villa have created a desire to learn among the kids.
Not all of them buy into it, but more than enough!

For those who stood out in the village and stepped forward we’ve defined an experiment which we call The Open School Project. We are doing this together with the Prakriti School in Noida which to a great extent also subscribes to the same pillars of learning I explained earlier!

Prakriti is one of the rare schools in India I’ve seen which is affordable, progressive and “open” to everyone. Differently abled kids, village kids and the city kids are all happily learning TOGETHER!

Just like in real life 🙂

Together with Prakriti we assessed 30 kids (10-16 years old) – not only in terms of their academic abilities but also paying particular attention to their social skills.
We were rather assessing their “potential” than where they actually stand today.
Everything that you can summarize under the term “soft skills” was of great importance to us.
Basically all those things you usually don’t learn at school 🙂

We were assessing which of them has the potential to become a future leader in the village and bring the other kids forward.

And one of them, Anil, he is actually here today.
He is participating in the public-spaces-workshop.
And I think he can tell you a great deal about public spaces in rural villages.
He can tell you at first hand what roles they play in the village …
and what the difficulties are ….

Anil with one of the MIT mentors

For me the biggest moment yesterday was when someone in his group asked him about the public spaces in Janwaar.
Anil’s spontaneous answer was: water pumps!

The “city students” were quite stunned – they couldn’t grasp his answer nor were they able to put it into “their” context!
But now just imagine the typical scenario in “development aid” – it’s exactly this kind of “educated” city student who is going into the villages and telling the people there what to do!
This cannot work!

Their worlds are just way too far apart.

Empathy is needed. Common understanding and common ground!
This is why I feel it’s so important that kids like Anil participate in such events!
This is how we can bridge the existing gap between rural and urban!
How we can create a common understanding!
And co-create solutions.
And I am very thankful to the team of the MIT India Initiative to have made this possible.
It will surely enhance the outreach of the program and workshops.

But back to our Open School Project!
We are one year down the road.
Half time so to speak!

The questions we are trying to answer are:

Have these five village kids after the period of two years

A) a solid grounding in Hindi, math, sciences and English

and B) the capability to pass on their learning to the other kids in the village while at the same time continueing as open schoolers and eventually passing 12th grade under the Open School curriculum in India ?

If this model works we’ll have a blueprint to bridge rural and urban India.
Then we can stop the rural exodus.
Then kids can stay in their healthy and beautiful rural environment and HAVE access to a kind of learning which really suits their needs!
Then we can stop the cities from collapsing!

To this end we’ve rented an apartment in Noida for our five kids.
Right opposite the Prakriti School. Just a minute away.
At Prakriti they attend regular school sessions according to their levels – not their ages.
In addition we’ve also hired science, English, math and Hindi facilitators – one for each subject. These facilitators work only with our kids.
The sessions are quite intense because the facilitator/learner ratio is good.
Very good actually.

All this takes up half of their time.

In the other half we focus on their soft skills and their “independence”and personal development as human beings.
The kids work with special facilitators on media literacy, leadership skills, media production and storytelling, conflict management, identifying and understanding problems, team building and via Skype/whatsapp we bring in friends from around the world who help improve their conversational English.

Every month they go back home to Janwaar for a week for a very specific project which they prepare in Prakriti and try to get up and running in Janwaar.
And whenever one Open School kid is in Janwaar, one of the Janwaar kids will go to Noida.
So there is a constant flow between Noida and the village which has created an awareness and eagerness to learn among the kids in the village.

This also helps our kids to survive in Noida – because they know they can escape Noida’s concrete jungle and pollution at least for one week a month 🙂

The kids get breakfast and lunch at Prakriti school.
Dinner they have to manage on their own.
They have a monthly budget for food, metro, internet, electricity, stationery and travels – and they have to operate within this budget. They do their budgeting in an Excel sheet … and we take this quite seriously.
They need to keep the house clean, do their own laundry and learn to live together – which is not always easy between boys / girls and Yadav and Adivasi, the two different castes.

Our results after the first year are rich and diverse!

Sometimes it was a very bumpy ride – I have to admit!
It wasn’t at all easy for all of us.
It was stretching my nerves to the limits.
The changes we saw were very marginal … and sometimes I lost faith that we would ever succeed.
Sometimes I even lost trust in our kids.
But then something very positive would happen which kept me going.
Bharti, my counterpart so to speak, at Prakriti, is much more patient than I am … and with her perspective we kept on going!

The entire process is laid out with loops of iterations.
So we were able to continuously adjust our way forward.

And here is where we stand today:

– we expect that at least 3 of the 5 kids will soon reach the point that they can connect the dots and start thinking and learning with crosslinks – meaning that they’ve learnt to learn.

– Anil, the one who is currently here at this workshop, has become the most advanced learner in the team. He has grown as a person significantly over this period and has caught up with his academic learning. He no longer stands “behind” his older brother Arun and has found a gentle way to speak for himself. He will most likely take 10th grade exams under the Open School Curriculum by the end of this year!

– Asha and Arun, our two “frontrunners”, will spend more time in the village over the coming year. They’ve received an Ashoka Fellowship program in cooperation with Connecting Dreams. Asha wants to work with children and we are planning to open a little school at our Villa. And Arun, probably our best skateboarder, will try to become a skateboarding trainer – now that skateboarding has become Olympic there will be a need.

Both of them will be home schoolers and will try to pass 10th grade as well.

– Brijendra and Ajeet, two guys from our first batch, are stranded though. Even after one year they haven’t understood what the program is all about and always put personal interests over team and learning. For them Noida was a personal ticket out of Janwaar – they didn’t care about community development nor were they interested in Janwaar kids. So we had to make this cut! We still have to see what we will do with the two open slots which became available.

– Today we’ve a much greater pool of kids in Janwaar who are eager to learn and make their village a better place. So we do not face any issues to find the next batch in the year to come. Some of them have already had a “taste of Prakriti School” – so they know much better what to expect out of the Open School Project.

– and probably our greatest achievement in the last year, is that the kids have found their own section 8 company, The Barefoot Skateboarders Organization.
Primarily their work focusses on the development of the children in the village. With the skatepark and the community center “Villa Janwaar” at its heart, this NGO will broaden the work which has been done over the past five years and transfer it into marketable services.
The kids hold skateboarding sessions, they run home stays in their village, they have done merchandising and appear on public stage. Skateboarding has catapulted Janwaar onto the international skateboarding map and it has become India’s skateboarding hotspot.
As I said earlier some of our kids are reigning Indian Champions and Asha, one of the directors of the NGO, and Arun represented India at the World Skateboarding Championships in China in 2018.

Furthermore the “Janwaar” model has been replicated in three other villages in India (Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Rajasthan) – so our kids become ambassadors of change there !
Their help is needed in these new places!

They have become RURAL CHANGE MAKERS and they keep the ball rolling!
The skateboarding bug is spreading 🙂

This Open School experiment is a full time program.
It’s laid out over the course of two years.
Then the next batch will come in.
And the ones who passed the two years will become home schoolers and pass Open School exams, they will have mentors who accompany them on their onward journey and implement whatever they want to as employees of the Barefoot Skateboarders Organization.

The program costs us about 1 lakk rupees a month. That’s roughly 1400 USD. We finance this on our own. Everything is crowdfunded!

Three things I’d like to end with:

1st:
You will never ever reach out to everyone! So it is perfectly fine when you start the “revolution” with a few.

2nd: Change won’t happen over-night! Change does take time! And it is never ever a tea party!

And 3rd:
I truly believe you cannot change a system from within.
You have to build something new which makes the old obsolete.
And hopefully the Open School Project is showing us a way!

So before I leave you with my thank you note – I would like to show you a short video the American film-maker Danny Schmidt has edited ….

Yeah, this is it!

So thank you Anil, for being part of this!
Thank you Prakriti, for being with us!
And thank you all here, for listening!

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