If we were honest with ourselves, we’d admit that many of our educationsystems prioritize things other than whole-child development.
“We’ve got an obsession in believing that literacy and numeracy and content acquisition are the principal objectives of school systems,” said Andrew Bollington, Global Head of Research and Learning at the LEGO Foundation. “We do have a world that, in reality, has a mismatch between what we know is important for us as human beings and for taking a full place in society versus what our education systems are optimized and set up to produce.”
Education systems are designed to develop and then test young people for literacy and numeracy, and value students’ arriving at the “right answer” over their process of discovery. According to Bollington, this is leaving our children ill prepared for life in the 21st century.
While it is not possible to fix the world’s education systems overnight, there are innovators around the world that are making whole-child development a priority. They’re building lesson plans for diverse classrooms around essential “changemaker skills” including empathy, teamwork, creativity, problem solving, communication and leadership skills, while still ensuring that children can read, write and multiply.
Meet three players to watch who are re-imagining learning for the 21st century, identified by the LEGO Foundation and Ashoka:
Alison Naftalin: Nigeria and Uganda
In sub-Saharan Africa, Alison Naftalin is providing a structured curriculum of play to mothers through her Lively Minds Play Centre. The mothers are trained to serve as learning guides to groups of children between the ages of three and six outside the reach of traditional, formal education systems. The volunteer mothers—many of whom never graduated grade school and were never taught vital childcare practices—facilitate instruction using games made from local materials.
As children play, they learn to recognize numbers and learn to count, identify colors and patterns and shapes, and with interactive building-type games they develop problem-solving skills while fine-tuning their motor skills.
Over the past five years, Naftalin has expanded her program and her development team to prepare more than 2,200 mothers to run 78 play centers in northern Ghana and eastern Uganda, reaching as many as 14,000 children. The benefits are two-fold: children learn numeracy, literacy, language and social skills through play and storytelling activities, while mothers are trained to be better caretakers—equipped with malaria and diarrhea prevention techniques, conflict resolution skills, and knowledge of personal hygiene and nutrition.
“It’s a cheap, sustainable and scalable way to empower the most deprived families to provide their own early childhood education,” said Naftalin.
Ir Suporahardjo: Indonesia
In Indonesia, one rural village is using the traditional performance art (egrang, or stilt walking) to draw children into a community-organized curriculum that promotes peace and conflict resolution. What started as a weekend activity for primary school and junior high school students has grown into a performance that reinforces local pride.
In doing so, Ledokombo Village has transformed into a tourist attraction in East Java. But more important, Ledokombo’s youth, acting on their own initiative under the “Tanoker” banner, quickly demanded access to lessons in reading, writing, mathematics, and English, in addition to courses in cooking, music, dancing, art, and sports. The community around them—largely made up of migrant workers, taxi drivers, teachers, and domestic helpers—has rallied to support their cause, with support and guidance from the Jarimatika Salatiga Foundation, Surya Institute Jakarta, and Yasmin Learning Centre in Jakarta.
Ledokombo has recently been connected to the Web, allowing Tanoker kids to learn from others both inside and outside the country via teleconference, and new spaces are being designed and built to support the Tanoker program and partners.
“The kids’ creativity sparked hope in the community to rise from the condition [of poverty],” said Dr. Ir Suporahardjo, the project’s chair.
Natalia Duarte: Colombia
In a handful of schools in Cartagena and Soacha, Bogota’s most populous suburb (home to many working-class Colombian families), children are using recess time to engineer solutions to school challenges through play.
Re-creo mi Colegio (Re-think my School), an initiative developed by a sociologist, a psychologist, a social worker, and a teacher, encourages children to be drivers of their own learning, with support from educators, professionals, and community leaders.
The project is spreading in the region—and has even captured the interest of the Colombian Ministry of Education as an idea that could in the future be a core part of the country’s education system.
Unlocking Play: Unleashing Potential
Given the early success shared by the learning innovators described above (and the hundreds of others like them), perhaps a new world of learning isn’t so far away. These three up-and-coming forces in education innovation have already had transformative effects they’ve had on both the young people in their programs and the communities that support them.
Whole-child development, often achieved through playful learning, enables children to think like children (and get really creative). That’s a smart alternative to the increasingly global curriculum of test prep, as Tony Wagner, expert in residence at Harvard University’s Innovation Lab, recently noted:
“Cheap multiple choice tests say nothing about career, work, citizenship, or learning readiness, let alone teacher effectiveness.”
Wagner also believes that bringing back play—which has been shown to unlock learning and development benefits that last a lifetime—will help students imagine and create with a passion and purpose.
That’d be a good thing. The world can always use more changemakers.