The description from her TEDxAmsterdamED talk perfectly summarises entrepreneur, tech ed advocate and proactive parent Deborah:
Deborah wants to transform children in her community from passive technology users into passionate inventors. To do this, she creates a case for making ecosystems in which kids acquire a strong foundation to understand technology: how it works, why it works and how to think in order to fix problems and invent new solutions. Deborah urges school boards and tells parents what they can do to help kids learn 21st century skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity and collaboration. Deborah has spent years working with entrepreneurs, technology developers, designers, artists and innovation specialists from around the world at work. At home, she has been raising a curious boy who wanted to learn more about technology. When she couldn’t find any, she created NewTechKids, an after-school academy aimed at making children fall in love with technology and computer science. Her aim is to expose all children to the world of technology starting from the real basics.
The Dutch connection
When I was in my youth, I used to love to travel to Europe. Funny enough, I’m British by birth, but I always loved Holland the best. It could be because I grew up in Canada, in an area that had a lot of Dutch Canadians. Who immigrated to Canada after the war, Friesian farmers. I went to a Dutch reform school for eight years, so I learned the values of the Netherlands. They taught us about the Dutch resistance and about the Dutch ‘umpf’, and about their ability to thrive in very difficult challenging situations. And I always admired that. I think that I subconsciously always have been drawn to the Netherlands. I decided — I was working in New York for a year and a half at the New York Times — I was done with North America and with the States. And I thought: ‘Let me go to Europe, just for a year. Just to check it out and get some work experience.’ I reached out to a woman, and she offered me a job, just like that. So I came here thinking that I would only be here for six months or so, and six months turned into seven years.
I would have continued staying, but then there was a tragedy in my family. My younger sister died suddenly after giving birth to a little boy. And, as soon as I heard that she had this stroke, I rushed back to Canada, and I ended up adopting her son. We stayed in Canada for three and a half years, but the whole time I missed my Amsterdam. I missed my Netherlands. And I just couldn’t get it out of my system. Saturdays were the worst. Because I would always think of market day. That was one of my favourite things to do in Holland. I ended up getting my MBA and moving back to Amsterdam with my son. Because I also thought Holland is a great place to raise him. He is mixed race, and I like the Dutch values of openness, tolerance, a world view and this kind of things. So I came here, but I came back a different person. Because before I was single, I had no kids, and I was living a more of a corporate life. And coming back to Holland as a parent was really a revelation to me. Because all of a sudden I’m interested in schools, in education, in expanding my son’s horizons and making sure that he is ready for the future. That was really where the seed was planted for the NewTechKids, my company, of teaching primary school kids about technological innovation, computer science, design and thinking around technology.
I think it had to have happened here in Amsterdam because there is this openness, there are the conditions to do things that are completely different, completely new and to take a change and try something. The reaction has been amazing. Because people understand. They know that we need to start educating children and teaching them about technology so they have a very different relationship with technology, and they will make different decisions, create different technological products based on this understanding. In a sense, it had to be Amsterdam. This new initiative had to reflect new thinking that is really so pervasive here in Amsterdam in terms of the potential to do new things, to experiment, and to see things in completely different ways; the entrepreneurial spirit which is so amazing here.
I think what we’re missing a lot in life is the creation of spaces that take us outside of what we’re used to. We need to create different physical spaces, and we also need to create different mental spaces. Physical spaces are to take them out of the classic learning environment (…) to get them into the mode of discovery, expression and exploration. The other thing is mental space because I think the best thing we can give to kids is a broad space in which to think and learn and discover and explore.
Need for different physical and mental spaces
I think what we’re missing a lot in life is the creation of spaces that take us outside of what we’re used to. With the work that I do, working with children, trying to develop a new way or new relationship they can have with technology and a new understanding of technological innovation. To do that, there are two things that we need to do. We need to create different physical spaces, and we also need to create different mental spaces. Physical spaces are to take them out of the classic learning environment in a school. And that is more to get them into the mode of discovery, expression and exploration. Right now we’re in the library. We do a lot of programmes in the library because it is a beautiful space. It is inspiring and gorgeous. But it is also light, airy and open. You have kids working on tables, on the floor crawling around, they’ll be running around the room. It is a bit of freedom, but they’re still learning. That safety in the space is really important. That use of space is essential. The other thing is mental space. That is something that really gets me excited. Because I think the best thing we can give to kids is a broad space in which to think and learn and discover and explore. Unfortunately, because of the way society is and the way our lives are structured, we tend to get into these little space bubbles, and we are comfortable there. And we don’t explore it.This has huge ramifications.
Spaces where things are different
About a month and a half ago, we were teaching at two schools in Haarlem. Haarlem is a very affluent city in the Netherlands. We walk into this school — we’re based in Amsterdam, so we take for granted multiculturalism, multiracialism, diversity and inclusion — and we get to Haarlem, I was looking around, and there was literally no colour. Zero colour. We’re teaching these kids, and in the back of the head I’m thinking: my gosh, it is so sad that they don’t have a mental space that puts them into contact with things that are different. Experiences that are different, perspectives that are different. And how does this impact them as they grow older? As they become more active citizens and players in society? To me, it was almost a tragedy that this was happening. I think it is really up to the school, and it is up to parents to create these spaces where kids can be put in touch with things that are different. Things that confront them and change the way they think make them more empathetic make them more understanding and tolerant. Because these enclaves of conformity and sameness are, I think very dangerous. They really don’t have a place in a multicultural society and a world that we want to create for people. Mental space is something that is super important.
I think it is really up to the school, and it is up to parents to create these spaces where kids can be put in touch with things that are different. Things that confront them and change the way they think make them more empathetic make them more understanding and tolerant.
An inclusive learning space
When it comes to technological innovation and education around that — again, creating the mental space, we teach all kinds of kids. And for the first four years of our existence, we played to kids that love technology. Here you go: boys, white, affluent, grew up with fathers who were really involved with making stuff, programming, building models, and doing scientific experiments. It was all great. But we were not really getting the girls, the kids of colour, the kids of low-income communities. We talked about this, and we came to the conclusion that we had to totally reorient our focus. To go away from the usual suspects and to focus more on the unusual suspects. Because they are the underserved folks, that are not being engaged with technology, and they are the folks that are literally going to transform the technology industry and industries that rely on technology. We have changed the way we teach. I give you some examples of that.
Before, when we started a class for instance on programming and robotics, we would start saying: ‘Today we are going to build a robot, it moves, it follows a line, etc.’ But immediately the boys got going, and the girls did not know where to start. What we do now is, is that we take a step back. We take a theme, and we talk about technological innovation. What happened in the past? What was the development? And what is it now? What is the technology that we’re using now? We talk about that, and we observe the differences and why we think these differences have taken place. And you know what that has meant? That has meant that from the getgo, the girls just come into the conversation. They want to talk, they want to share their observations. And that is the first engagement that you need.
Before you even give them programming, technology, robots, whatever. That engagement, that thinking, that critical thinking is key. Then we provide them with a bit of computer science and theory, but not too much because we don’t want to scare these kids. Then we give them a challenge. We say today, we have learned how robots are being used in agriculture. Your challenge today is to develop a robot that helps with the farm. That fulfils a task on a farm. We give you the framework for that, but you choose what it is. We relate the conversation about automation and technological innovation to the actual challenge. And the girls really like that. In the first phase, we give them a pen and paper. They all work in small teams or pairs. Before they touch technology before they start programming on a computer, they sit, and they sketch with a pencil, a piece of paper to focus their thought. To brainstorm and to begin the collaboration process. And once that they show us that they thought this out and that they have some idea, then they get to do the building and the programming. Next challenge: the girls have typically not had the same kind of exposure to building and designing. The knowledge of physics, their ability to actually conceive and translate that into a tangible idea is not there. So we have what we call these cheat sheets that we give to them that help them to start building fast. Then they build a basic robot. Then they can focus on the functionality of this robot and what it is going to do around the farm. And just with this little tweaks here and there and our different approach to education and to creating a space that girls and underrepresented kids can thrive in, we have seen tremendous results. Huge results in terms of engagement. And the interesting thing is, when we evaluate the quality of the prototype and the thinking behind the prototypes, girls often come up even higher than the boys. This has been a real learning in terms of creating a different kind of learning space for underrepresented kids in technology.
For my son it is also a process for him to claim his space here. He is a mixed race boy, as he gets older coming to the conclusion that he is different. (…) Even though he is in a very open en tolerant environment, various signals are telling hem that he is different. And I guess part of my job as a parent who has gone through this process is to help him to navigate that. And to help him see it not as a negative thing, but just as something that makes him special that adds a richness to his life.
Claim your space
The thing with space is that you have got to claim it. This has been something that I have learned in life. I grew up as a black woman in Canada in a very white area. Over time, you come to claim your space, and you find your place in your space. When I brought my son to The Netherlands, maybe I was a bit naive because I know it as a very tolerant place, but it has also been a process for him to claim his space here. He is a mixed race boy, lives in a very tolerant city, but even now, as he gets older coming to the conclusion that he is different. And even though he is in a very open en tolerant environment, various signals are telling hem that he is different. And I guess part of my job as a parent who has gone through this process is to help him to navigate that. And to help him see it not as a negative thing, but just as something that makes him special that adds a richness to his life. I try to give him experiences. He goes to a predominantly white school. There are some minorities, but not really. So I try to search out these opportunities where he can connect with different cultures. One concrete example. Two weeks ago, my company organised a special programming boot camp for a group of 50 kids from Lagos, Nigeria. These kids are from very privileged backgrounds, from the best private schools there. Unfortunately, they don’t get exposure to technology education. They’re all travelling through Europe through this special programme, and they asked us to come up with a programme for a day and a half. I did a very naughty thing, I took my son out of school for half a day. So that he could experience what it was like to be in a group of kids that looked just like him. And to be ‘normal’. And to be not the other, but just part of a bigger group that is all the same. For me, it was beautiful to see. He took to it so naturally. I get teary eyed when I talk about this. Because it was so easy for him, so natural for him to be there. The kids even said: ‘You could be Nigerian!’ They talked about football; there was just no ‘other’. It was just him in his element. Helping them with programming and stuff. As a mother, I thought: I feel a bit sad that I haven’t been able to give him these kinds of experiences. But, I’m more aware of it now, and I will definitely seek out more opportunities for him. It could be, these were Nigerian kids, maybe I will take him to China. Maybe I take him to Thailand. Maybe I take him to, I don’t know, another place where he can experience the beautiful flavour of difference in a very positive way. It was beautiful to me. It was so amazing. These kids were so articulate. So engaged. So clever. And it is sad that we see, that we have this dominant perception of Africa as this poor place dependent on western technology and western ideas. Let me tell you: it is not that way. Africa is rising. It is a very young society. The vast majority is under the age of 30. I think over time that is going to change. You see it in the creative industry. I hope that somehow, there is a connection with my son. That he goes to Nigeria, he works with them. Or he goes to Africa… The future is so bright, there are so many opportunities that we don’t even know about right now.
We see over and over and over again that parents are making all kinds of assumptions that limit the space where their kids can grow and explore. Typically, this is the worst with girls (…). We really have a lot of work to do in helping parents create mental spaces where kids can thrive, no matter who they are.
Parents perception limits space
As a mother and also as a business owner, involved in technological innovation education, one thing I see that we really need to address is the idea of parents perception and how this perception affects kids. Because we see over and over and over again that parents are making all kinds of assumptions that limit the space where their kids can grow and explore. Typically, this is the worst with girls, parent assume that the girls are not into programming or technological innovation education, like the boys. That is not true, necessarily. But just of the bat, it excludes them from a place where they need to be. In fact, they need to be at this place even more so than in the past. We want to work with parents to challenge assumptions to give them the tools to start engaging boys and girls in the same way around technology. We have always felt that we don’t want to do sex-segregated programmes. There is a lot of organisations that have girls-only coding classes. Or girls-only robotics classes. That is not us. We believe that there is a benefit of boys and girls learning together. Girls have a very different learning style than boys. And boys have a very different learning style. And it is these two very different learning styles that combine, work together and morph into something really beautiful. That is where we are focussed on, preparing boys and girls for the world that exists. Not the world that we want, not the tech industry that is guy-focussed, white male or Asian male focussed. And not the girls-only environment that is pushed a lot by women in technology, inclusion and stuff. But more on this integrated world. And parents: it starts in the home. And it starts young. We really have a lot of work to do in helping parents create mental spaces where kids can thrive, no matter who they are.