In the past year, I gained more insights into the education system than ever before. Social entrepreneurs across Europe and a peace activist with a very special grandfather, showed me how changing the way we teach our children could eventually change our societies – and the way our world works.
It started last summer when I witnessed a baby – an innocent newborn baby – teaching empathy to children in deprived areas. The programme, invented by Ashoka Fellow Mary Gordon, is a ‘gift to classrooms’ around the world. Through simply observing the behaviour of a tiny baby who visits the school once a month, pupils learn to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, feel their feelings and recognise their own.
Perhaps the most interesting fact I discovered is that several years on, pupils who have experienced Roots of Empathy don’t just show better behaviour in school, but also perform better academically. Policy makers are amazed, yet teachers involved say it just confirms what they instinctively knew – despite working in a system that is all about test scores – you cannot teach an unhappy child.
A few months ago, on a remote island off the coast of Stockholm, I met another Change Leader who has truly re-imagined learning for the 21st century. Following a tragic case of vandalism in which his school burnt down to the ground, principal Lennart Nilsson asked his local community what they wanted their new school to look like. Parents, policy makers, teachers and pupils collectively decided on a new kind of learning environment – rooted in the ‘real world’ and based on the natural ways children learn.
Pupils work in mixed-aged teams of around 75 children and have sub-teams within that group. Instead of following lessons in classrooms, they create projects in flexible, open spaces. Depending on the task, they work with learners of their own age or get together with others who share the same interest. Every two to three weeks they cover a new topic and tackle it from different angles. The idea is that this kind of learning is closer to what happens in life after school, and in the world of work.
Nilsson says that teachers around the world can re-imagine learning, simply by walking into any classroom and asking a pupil: What are you working on? Why are you doing it? And what will you use it for? He explains: “I am convinced that in order to learn, every child should be able to answer all three. It needs to make sense to them why they do what they do, and how it relates to their lives.”
Not long after meeting Nilsson, I had the opportunity to discuss education with peace activist Arun Gandhi (81), grandson of the great Indian spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi. Over tea in Brussels, I asked him what changes he thinks are needed.
He confessed that he is “very sad” about the dominant education system in most parts of world: “It is based on giving young people a career to go out and make money. Schools are building a labour force for big industry to exploit and expand. That is not education. Education is where people learn about themselves, their character and their connection with each other. That part doesn’t happen at all, there is no emphasis on that.”
He continued: “I say this to students in the US where I teach: you come together from different races and nationalities. You are here for four or five years to study and live together in close confinements, so this is the opportunity for you to learn about each other and the differences that exist. But nobody pays any attention to that. You’ll find the Indian students association separate from the African American or the white students association. Everybody has their own association and there is no coming together. You have Black History Month, where only the black students learn about that history, and the same for Women’s History Month. Why not everybody? Education is really lacking in building the character of a person and building a more cohesive society.”
We talked extensively about the way individuals, institutions and organisations can make change – inside and outside of school. Arun explained how he thinks the next generation can practice everyday activism without being overwhelmed. “Young people are very enthusiastic; they want to change the whole world”, he smiled. “I keep telling them: we don’t have the capacity to change the world, but we do have the capacity to change ourselves, so let’s try to do that first. We can [then] help others around us change so the ripple effect will grow and the world will ultimately change.”
Bringing babies into the classrooms of a million school children seemed impossible at first. The job of creating a whole new primary school design too, looked like a huge mountain to climb. And yet, everything is possible if we start by dividing the journey into manageable distances, says Arun Gandhi. “We all have to set ourselves goals that we can achieve. We know that we have the capacity to do that. Once you achieve one goal, you set yourself another one and keep going up.”