Starfish Education: a reflection on 2020

Nicky Wilkinson
Firetree Philanthropy
8 min readFeb 26, 2021


What an awful year 2020 was. No words I can think of can capture it.

This blog is to openly and briefly share what we, as Firetree, did in the awful madness that was 2020.

First, just a brief structural reminder that Firetree is a slightly unusual organisation in that we operate as a group structure under the Firetree Trust. Our ‘group’ encompasses:

Starfish Education is an integral part of Firetree’s DNA, being the program most directly connected with the work of Dick Haugland. Starfish’s mission is to provide all children in Thailand with an equal opportunity to access quality education through innovative learning programs and technological solutions that seeks to fill public education gaps through public and private collaboration. Starfish is not directly funded by Firetree Philanthropy as it has a dedicated endowment within the Firetree Trust. You can read more about how Starfish and Firetree are related here.

Firetree Philanthropy, which funds people, grassroots organisations and networks that are building more inclusive, equitable and just futures in the communities in which we collectively work. You can read more about our partners here. We are a small team with one dedicated staff member on this, working part-time.

Tondo Community Initiative (TCI), a collaborative initiative in Tondo, Manila working with our long-time partners Stairway Foundation, with support by Starfish Education and a number of community organisations. TCI is a Filipino non-profit that is currently fully funded by Firetree Philanthropy. You can read how TCI fits with Firetree Philanthropy’s work here.

Starfish Education:

Dick moved to Northern Thailand in 2004 to start a program to help children from ethnic minorities learn how to read and write Thai well enough to access public schools. At that time, this was something almost impossible for Lisu, Lahu, Mon, Shan and Hmong children, among other groups.

Thanks to the leadership of Dr. Nanthaporn Seributra (also known as “Prae”, who worked for Starfish from 2007 to 2014 and returned after Dick’s death in 2016 to lead the organization) and the 86 dedicated staff members, Starfish has evolved beyond Dick’s most optimistic dreams.

Starfish’s mission is to provide all children in Thailand with an equal opportunity to access quality education through innovative learning programs and technological solutions that seeks to fill public education gaps through public and private collaboration. Starfish strongly believes in preparing students with the necessary skills and competency for the 21st century.

​To achieve this mission Starfish Education directly runs a school (which allows them to be fully aware of challenges faced by teachers and educators), professional development programs and EdTech initiatives, while constantly advocating for the sharing of best-practices in the education field.

The following is a brief reflection on 2020 from the Starfish team. It has been translated into English from the original Thai.

“Providing all children in Thailand with equal access to quality education” is the commitment that Starfish Education strives to adhere to, and the past year has been no exception. Starfish Education continues working to achieve this ambitious goal and is delighted to show that it has made a positive impact at the national level in 2020.

Baan Pla Dao — Model Innovation School

In 2020, Baan Pla Dao School was nominated for and received awards at the regional and national level for its Makerspace learning center. Under the “One School, One Innovation” initiative, the Secretariat of the Teachers’ Council of Thailand evaluated and selected Baan Pla Dao as the winner from a total of 354 competing schools nationwide. As a result, 243 teachers from 13 schools and organizations visited Baan Pla Dao School to learn about the program.

Additionally, Baan Pla Dao School also participated in a national project called “Teachers For Students — Creating Knowledge for Connecting Online” which was organized by the Equitable Education Fund and Siam Commercial Foundation, a charitable foundation established by the Siam Commercial Bank. This project is the title of a book by Dr. Vijarn Panich, a leading education expert in Thailand, and is meant to be a guide for teachers to change teaching and learning in the classroom to be in line with 21st century learning approaches, with an aim for students have more control of their learning. Baan Pla Dao School was selected as one of five model innovation schools nationwide.

At the same time, Baan Pla Dao School collaborated on a project with the Equitable Education Fund that supports the development of teachers and schools via continuous improvement and whole school transformation, also known as TSQP. This program was in its second round of participating schools in 2020, and Starfish Academy (see further below) was a driving force in its implementation by focusing on the development of an entire school system in order to bring about change through the STEAM Design Process, which is a core innovation of Starfish Education. Baan Pla Dao School played a role in this program by serving as a model self-development school and resource for 90 participating schools.

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Baan Pla Dao School has also adapted its strategy for teaching and learning in the form of remote learning, most specifically by helping students through its Learning Box program. It is designed to be used both offline and online in cooperation with parents, and was delivered to the more than 200 students of the school. It facilitates learning at home through Project-Based Learning management (PBL), Makerspace activities, and “3R Innovation” curriculum-based lessons for children to read, write, and perform arithmetic. The actual Learning Boxes themselves included a booklet, various equipment for Makerspace activities and a STEAM Design Process poster, while the program also included community outreach initiatives and use of our online learning platform, Starfish Labz, which you can learn more about below. It also included a real-time communication channel between all parties involved, with the objective of helping students from remote areas to more consistently continue their learning while reducing the occurrence of “learning loss”.

Starfish Academy — Adjusting to Become a Professional Development Resource for Teachers at the National Level

Our team began working with the Equitable Education Fund on the TSQP program in 2019. As previously mentioned, it was designed to support the development of teachers and schools via continuous improvement and whole school transformation. In 2020, Starfish Academy stepped forward to play a prominent role for mentoring, counseling and assistance in coaching over 90 schools on systemwide school development through the use of Nine Elements needed for a goal setting, including the use of data for school management as well as for teaching and learning, professional development, and classroom development. In total, there were 58 schools that participated in the first successful round of TSQP, and currently there are 33 more schools in the second ongoing round. These schools are located in the Chiang Mai, Lamphun, Samut Sakhon, Nakhon Pathom and Ayutthaya provinces of Thailand.

Additionally, Starfish Academy has also developed Thai educators on the Active Learning teaching system, authentic assessments for developing learners, and applying technology as an educational support tool for more effective student learning. It has provided professional development for over 2,000 teachers and educators in the past year.

Finally, Starfish Academy has also produced educational content in the field of teaching management tools that can deliver innovative ideas, inspirational stories, and more that is relevant to education. Out team (in conjunction with a network of experienced educators, some of whom specialize in specific areas) have created content in the form of 140 online courses, 260 articles and numerous videos.

Starfish Labz — Rapid Growth for Our Online Platform

The number of members registered with Starfish Labz increased dramatically this year, starting with 312 members in January and ending with 126,421 members from 18,232 schools.

As of now, Starfish Labz has 141 online courses along with 12 course “collections”, 269 videos, and 357 articles. We collaborated with 8 knowledge content dissemination organizations and 11 knowledge content publishers, which has led to more than 85,000 active members on a monthly basis, showing that online learning has become more popular in Thailand.

Due to its practical content, ease of access and contribution to professional development (users benefit by receiving a certificate of completion immediately after completion of a course), Starfish Labz answers the needs of users wanting an EdTech solution in Thailand. However, it has also worked well for parents via organized activities in a Parenting Learning Series, with expert speakers providing ideas and encouraging parents to increase their knowledge as well as building an understanding of positive parenting. There were four of these online activities held in 2020, with more than 400 parents in attendance.

Starfish Class — Day By Day, an EdTech Solution that Answers Needs

Authentic assessment has been a common practice in the education industry for a long time. Starfish Education has incorporated technology via the Starfish Class application to assist teachers with skills assessment, assessment of student competencies, and simplifying classroom management by reducing paperwork, so teachers can spend more time with their students. Teachers can set up student profiles that allow them to track and improve skills, and also can share reports with their administrators and co-workers online.

After its first launch online in 2019, there have been 735 app downloads and 1,000 users. As an example of the application’s functionality, 2,906 student profiles have been created, with 5,514 records created that collect data or evidence of student skills and performance. These are incredibly useful for modern teachers that are ready to build the classroom of the future.

Next Steps For Starfish Education:

A successful transition towards the registration of our social enterprise, Starfish Education Social Enterprise Co. Ltd., has given us more flexibility in working for societal change by contributing to society as a whole and working to create positive impact. We have worked over the past year to be part of a new generation of change agents that are ready to drive the change in Thai education. Dr. Seributra, CEO of Starfish Education, has worked together with a national network of partners; namely, working in partnership with the Equitable Education Fund, serving as a participant to share ideas with educators across the country in sessions organized by the Ministry of Education, meeting with young educators, working with the Thai Education Partnership (TEP), and collaborating with the Thai Research Development Institute Foundation (TDRI) to exchange and introduce new ideas for Thailand’s education development in tandem with research projects.

Finally, we managed to open Starfish Hub, a working space in Bangkok where partner organizations in the fields of education management, EdTech and education innovation can meet, share ideas, and work together to improve their programs. It has a variety of resources available for use, including a media production room, workspaces, meeting rooms, and even accommodation areas for those visiting for training or events. We look forward to fully utilizing this centre after the pandemic.

All of this amounts to another important step forward for Starfish Education that we have striven for, and we are looking forward to evolving even further in 2021.