(Transcript) The Right to Learn

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In September this year two young girls were invited by Malala Yousafzai to tell their stories at the United Nations. Marie Claire, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Najlaa, a Yazidi teen from Iraq were selected as advocates for girls’ education.

In an impassioned speech in Marie Claire, she told of how she spent her childhood in and out of education fleeing conflict and how one night, armed rebels broke into her house and murdered her mother.

Conflict changed her life forever, but she refused to let it stand in the way of her getting the education she wanted. Some time later she became the first person in her family to graduate from high school and is now in University in the United States.

The other girl speaking, Najlaa, a Yazidi from Iraq, was taken out of school at 14 to marry. But on her wedding day she fled, in full wedding outfit, heels in hand so that she could run faster. All because she didn’t want to give up her dream of becoming a journalist.

After settling in a new town she had to flee again when ISIS invaded her village and shot her in the process.

Today she lives in a concrete shell of a building in Kurdistan and walks over an hour to school. But she is happy to be free and in a classroom again.

“I am now back in school and still determined to travel the world as a journalist.” She told the world leaders gathered.

“I don’t want any other girl to go through the same as me. Not all of them can fight as hard as I did.”

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT READING THE UDHR TREATY CLIP: “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.”

That’s Eleanor Roosevelt reading from Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A document that was agreed upon in 1948 at the United Nations in Geneva by diplomats from around the world. The declaration recognised the right of people to seek asylum from persecution in other countries.

In 1951, those rights were cemented in another treaty — the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Initially limited to protecting European refugees from before 1951, the treaty was expanded in 1967 to remove all geographic and time restrictions.

This convention mandated that countries treat refugees in the same way as their own citizens in several key areas — freedom to practice religion, public relief and assistance, but also a guarantee of elementary education.

“Elementary education satisfies an urgent need,” the UN secretariat wrote at the time, “and schools are the most rapid and effective instrument of assimilation.”

By the turn of the millennium, the volume of refugees had spread around the world but many countries still fell short on their guarantee of elementary education for the displaced.

Representatives from 180 countries around the world gathered in Dakar, Senegal at the World Education Forum to increase their commitments.

Unfortunately, when 2015 rolled around, only a third of countries had met the goals that they had pledged in Dakar.

In the same year the UN set new targets for education for all as part of their sustainable development goals. But just 2 years later at that visit in September Malala delivered a damning update on the prospect of those goals being reached.

MALALA UN CLIP: “I can not say I am proud of the progress we have seen in the last two years. We have big goals but here is the truth. None of the SDGS, not a single one, can be accomplished unless we educate all girls. 130 million girls are out of school today. They’re pushing back against poverty, war, and child marriage to go to school. The SDGs were a promise that we could fight with these girls. So far we are failing”

In this episode we’ll be speaking to women who are trying to answer that question in innovative ways — from the software companies battling it out for Silicon Valley’s $15 million Global Learning X-Prize, to the low-tech approach to teacher training in Lebanon by a nonprofit backed by Syrian expats.

This is Nevertheless — a podcast celebrating the women transforming teaching and learning through technology. Supported by Pearson Education and hosted by me, Leigh Alexander.

Rebecca Winthrop

REBECCA WINTHROP: “There’s always a lot of creativity in how education is delivered. A school could be under a tree, could be inside someone’s home. It could be in a mosque or a church, it could be anywhere young people can gather safely with adults who can instruct them.”

That’s Rebecca Winthrop. a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and director of the Center for Universal Education. Winthrop, together with Eileen McGivney and Adam Barton, has authored a report that asks whether it’s possible in developing countries to “leapfrog” past traditional education methods into new, innovative ways of helping kids to learn.

REBECCA WINTHROP: “There are some great examples of innovative communities, innovative NGOs, innovative governments who are trying new approaches to delivering education services for very marginalised young people. There’s an NGO in India called Pratham. And this is one of the biggest non-governmental organizations in India. They work on education in many many rural communities across the country. And they’ve been working heavily on improving literacy.”

Madhav Chavan and Rukmini Banerji, who run Pratham, asked themselves whether kids in rural areas are really getting the skills they would need to survive and thrive in the future. Most of them are in school, they’re getting basic literacy, but Chavan and Banerji questioned whether this was enough.

REBECCA WINTHROP: “They did an experiment. They bought a bunch of very sturdy little tablets. Downloaded them with lots and lots of educational content that they that they had made from their decades of work and education in India, so it’s local content in Hindi and English on all sorts of things. Video games, movies, worksheets — you know little problems, interactive problems, lectures etc. They went to 400 communities and they said look your kids are in school. They should stay in school. But if they’d like to spend a little extra time. For the the kids who are in the upper elementary ages and middle school ages we will give you we’ll give you these tablets.”

The tablets came with two conditions; the kids ad to work together in a group on the tablet after school and one adult has to be in charge of each tablet each night to charge it. That was it. No programing. No instructions. Nothing.

And what ended up happening is that the kids self-organized. And they began to — in their groups of five or six per one tablet — they began to develop their own little self-learning communities. When I visited the program some of the little groups had decided that you know one kid would choose what they get to play on Monday and another kid would choose Tuesday etc.. Some of them were taking inspiration from me from the things they were saying and basically trying to copy with their own twist they were making plays they were making little episodes and drama. They were interviewing people…

Just by having a chance to engage with high quality content for extra hours off line in groups and in a self-directed way saw literacy and numeracy scores jump. There was a particular jump in their English But that wasn’t all. The NGO program officers who were visiting every week started noticing something else.

REBECCA WINTHROP: The kids were asking more questions, were asking questions of their adults, were asking questions in class and were basically learning digital literacy skills and collaboration skills and teamwork skills. Some of these softer transferable or transversal skills — as the people in the education committee sometimes call them — that are so key for their success in the future.

Winthrop’s work is centred on what she calls the “rapid transformation of education”, which means tackling the 100-year gap between the education levels of rich children and poor children. In most countries around the world — even rich ones — schools serve some children well and some very badly.

REBECCA WINTHROP: “The two twin problems I see in almost every country — not every one but almost every country — is the problem of making sure that today’s education services are equally provided to all kids. But at the same time we do have to reorient most education delivery towards thinking about preparing kids for a world where the labor market is not static, and things will be changing quite rapidly. Whether they’ve changed today, they certainly will be changing in the future — five ten years from now — based on the rapid pace of technology, automation, artificial intelligence etc. and also the type of global social problems that will be increasingly complex. So it’s not just the world of work. It’s also the types of challenges we’re going to face in an increasingly interconnected, perhaps polarized, world.”

There is no shortage of technology-oriented solutions to this problem. But in September 2014, Silicon Valley’s X Prize Foundation joined the fight, launching the Global Learning X Prize.

PETER DIAMANDIS: “Turns out kids dream big no matter where they’re from. Unfortunately where they’re from makes a big difference of whether they’ll ever realise their dreams”.

You’re listening to X Prize chairman Peter Diamandis speaking on a launch video.

PETER DIAMANDIS: “250 million children from around the world can not read, write or do basic arithmetic. Many live in developing countries without access to schools or teachers, and it would take over one and a half million additional teachers to meet this unserved need. It’s clear, this traditional approach will not scale. But what if technology could help?”

The X Prize foundation is offering a $15 million prize pool for entrepreneurs to create learning software — meaning apps — to teach people how to read, write and do basic maths.

Emily Musil Church

EMILY MUSIL CHURCH: “My name is Emily Musil Church. I work at the X Prize Foundation and my primary project right now is the Global Learning X-Prize.”

Since the launch of the Global Learning prize, the foundation has chosen five finalists — US entrants CCI, Kitkat School, and Robotutor, India’s Chimple, and the UK’s Onebillion — each of whom will get a million dollars to develop their idea further.

We talked to Emily about the how they narrowed down the field to their five finalists.

EMILY MUSIL CHURCH: “We initially had about 700 teams who said they were interested in competing. So to get down to five — we just in the beginning were thinking how are we possibly going to have this, how’s this going to be manageable? There’s an independent judging panel that works with us. There are internationals around the world. We have neuroscientists, we have leading game designers, we have cultural experts. So it’s just really diversity of people who are on our 11-person judging panel.”

In the coming months, the ideas of these five finalists will be tested in the field. Each will be given a collection of pupils in rural Tanzania, who’ll be tested before and after using the contestants’ software.

EMILY MUSIL CHURCH: “The one who has the highest learning gains between next month and when we end the competition in early 2019 will get an additional 10 million dollars that will be the total $15 million prize purse. They want to buy a yacht they can buy a yacht. Most of them are already have spent a lot of money you know doing this development work hiring a staff. So you know really what what investors are getting is people who are crowdsourcing all of these ideas even the people who didn’t make those five finalists have put in so much time work. Ideas many of them are still out trying to get market working getting funding. They’re still doing their work. And there’s really some incredible incredible technology out there.”

You might be thinking that optimising for learning metrics and throwing money at a problem all sounds very Silicon Valley, and you wouldn’t be alone in that. Early on, Church admits that the prize had its fair share of doubters.

EMILY MUSIL CHURCH: So we did get some questions and criticisms in the beginning saying “Who are you guys. Is this some Silicon Valley you know dropping tech and you want to go into Africa. Do you have any idea about any of this. Is this neocolonialism” I mean all of the critiques, rightful critiques — I would say — that somebody should ask in this type of thing. So absolutely. The question of how do you go into an area and not have it be just something that is dropped from the sky and that is using people as guinea pigs.

So how did Emily and her team answer those questions?

EMILY MUSIL CHURCH: So the answer to that for us was; one making sure that it was in a language that communities wanted and that made sense scientifically and two even more importantly that we were constantly talking to people that we were working with people from the community. So we are actually handing out these tablets in just about two weeks. So from 2014 when we launched in August of 2014 to now this entire time we have been working very closely with people on the ground. All levels. You know — parents, teachers, community leaders, village leaders, village council, district leaders, national leaders — you know, the government, international bodies — making sure we’re really talking to people explaining what the project is and making sure people wanted us there.

In addition, the foundation mandated that anything created should be designed for both girls and boys. As well as the advisory board featuring gender diversity, the foundation worked with its partners in Tanzania to ensure that there is gender equity there too.

EMILY MUSIL CHURCH: “We also built in a part of the competition where there are village mamas or Bambos but primarily a village mama for each of the 200 villages who is reporting back about what is happening in the village and who sort of problem solving.”

The importance of female role models is very clear from the data. In Indian villages with female elected officials, for example, there are more than eight percent fewer girls who want to be housewives, almost nine percent more who want to wait to they are 18 before marrying, and almost nine percent who want jobs that require formal schooling.

Emily wants the X Prize to be an opportunity for voices who haven’t been seen or heard before to be able to come forward and invent things that inspire girls…

EMILY MUSIL CHURCH: “I’ll give you a personal anecdote actually from this weekend I was with my daughter. We were reading a book about Miss Todd and that was the title. Miss Todd Flies or something like that to go back. But it was about a woman who created a flying machine. But they said you know women can’t compete. And I was reading this story with my daughter and somebody there was a woman who took interest in Miss Todd and gave her a place to create and build these airplanes. And we happen to be sitting near a place where there’s napkins and paper plates. We finished the book and the car sat there for a second and she ran over to the plate and I asked her what she was doing.

“She said well I’m building my own airplane. I can build an airplane too.”

Church hopes that the eventual winner of the prize will be able to make a real difference in areas beyond the Tanzanian field trials.

EMILY MUSIL CHURCH: “One of the things we’re also looking at is trying to do some alternate field tests in other environments. We’re looking to do one in a refugee camp that would be in Arabic. We’re looking to do one with our English language software because what we’re hoping to show people who will you know we hope and assume this will work is technology will work and then it will be that’s just the beginning. Then it is how do we scale this and make this something that can be in any language anywhere and quickly.”

“So if there’s an emergency or just a basic need that we will be able to quickly easily get this into that context. And for people who are going to invite this technology into their communities you can bet they’re going to want to know what are the effects on my children. How is this going to affect family structure. All those things so we are really doing our best to, outside of the competition, look at those elements to make sure that’s a question that we can answer as best we can. When we get our final results in early 2019.”

But you don’t always need a $15 million prize fund to tackle this problem.

FATHIMA DADA: “I’m Fathima Dada. I’m the global managing director for Pearson’s English Schools businesses.

Fathima’s focuses specifically technology and bringing digital enhancement into the learning process and the learning experience. In that context a lot of work being done in countries ranging from China, Hispanic America, Brazil, South Africa, other African countries and in India as well as places like Canada, the U.K. Australia and Italy.

FATHIMA DADA: What’s interesting about that is that we tend to have exchanges between the very technology enhanced countries that have great infrastructure and great access to learning tools and we try and bring those learnings to some of the emerging markets as well. The markets that have a lot of poor students who also need access. But a trend that I’ve seen developing recently is taking the kind of frugal innovation that’s taking place in places like India and Brazil and South Africa and taking it to the west as well to Italy Australia or the U.K.. So that’s really really quite exciting.”

Dada has been working with a Pearson team in India to see what can be done with a more affordable approach to learning, and the results so far are impressive.

FATHIMA DADA: “We’ve been looking at how we can at a very in a very affordable way develop a holistic learning experience. And in fact it is a world class model which I haven’t even seen effectively in some of the developed markets and for a really really low price it’s something like $20 for the entire primary school curriculum for all subjects for a whole grade.”

“We offer parents support through a parent app helps parents with supervising their children’s homework. We provide curriculum materials in print and in digital form to enhance the learning experience. So you’ll find in rural India in really low cost private schools children who don’t have access to things like science labs would be able to view science experiments in live video and then go back to the learning content. We are also providing really great formative and summative assessments the summative assessments are digitally driven so we’re able to collect great data and be able to provide personalized dashboards and reports for students and for teachers to be able to see where each of their students are at individually.”

Some have found that trying to implement technology brings its own problems.

Suha Tutunji

SUHA TUTUNJI: “We tried several times to bring in technology into the classroom. It didn’t work.”

That’s Suha Tutunji. The academic director of an NGO called Jusoor.

SUHA TUTUNJI: Jusoor runs an informal education program for Syrian refugees in Lebanon aged between five and 14. We also do some courses in English for our other cities are above 18 and we work on psychosocial the well-being of the students and the parents and the teachers. We do plenty of training for our teachers and we try to also bring in some technology within our classes”

She’s found that working with refugees often means that conventional technological approaches don’t work.

SUHA TUTUNJI: “One of the reasons why it didn’t work is connectivity. Sometimes the connectivity isn’t good enough. Another reason is that 90 percent — I can say — 90 percent of the teachers do not know how to use their computers. They are not IT literate and so we would start you know to talk about you know we can do the PowerPoint presentation or or a game on the video and it didn’t work out.”

Tutunji’s numbers are supported by the research. A 2016 study found low levels of IT use in Lebanese classrooms, and barriers hindering any improvement. To solve this problem, Jusoor partnered with an NGO called Salam that works with teachers to create computer-based activities that fit into the lesson plan.

SUHA TUTUNJI: “They have a big mobile lab which is a bus that they’ve emptied inside and turned it into a computer lab. The children go onto the computer onto the bus and they play games or they do some work on their computers that are related to the skills that they are learning in class with the teachers.”

“I can give you an example of what happens. So let’s say the teacher is doing number additions or they’re doing… let’s say, I don’t know prepositions in English. So Salam finds activities that have to do with the addition, or prepositions in English, and they download them so they don’t need connectivity. They download them in their centers.”

“They come to school the children sit in twos — each two on one tablet and they go through an activity on the computer that has addition. Like a frog for example it may be jumping on lily leaves, jumping in twos or some kind of game — or they have to match five apples with five children and they get 10 apples something like that.”

Human Rights Watch noted in a 2016 report that the Lebanese government imposes substantial educational restrictions on Syrian refugees. In recent years, the government has withdrawn support for NGOs to provide anything but the most basic educational services to Syrian refugees — numeracy, literacy and social studies.

SUHA TUTUNJI: “They don’t have art, they don’t have sports, they don’t have music. That’s it. They just go to school in the afternoon that’s around 3:00. They do some math, English, social studies and then they leave school at half past six.

“It is frustrating yes because the best case scenario is to integrate arts and sports and IT into the lessons and not have it isolated from from the lesson itself. And I don’t think that it works as well. It should be integrated for it to work better and the children to be to benefit from it that should be integrated within the subject.”

But they do play a crucial role in keeping kids — particularly girls — in school, trying to prevent them from being married off at a young age. They do this by speaking directly to the parents.

SUHA TUTUNJI: “It’s a bit trick y . We try to tell them, you know, look at your situation now you’re in Lebanon. And if you have had an education — most of the parents are not educated — you would have had a better future, or you wouldn’t have had the conditions you’re at now. Maybe you have found a better job and you would have provided better for your children.”

“But we work mainly on the mothers because the mothers have lived through being married at an early age. And how difficult it was for them to raise children. And we focus on this point with the mothers and most of the time the mothers say no — we don’t want our children — our girls — to live the same life we lived. And they work on convincing the fathers.”

But one of the biggest hurdles that many organisations face when confronting the challenge of educating refugees is finding enough trained teachers. In sub-Saharan Africa, the average number of pupils per teacher is 42 — a figure that has barely changed since the turn of the millennium.

The solutions aren’t easily forthcoming either — a 2014 report in the Guardian found that some developing countries rapidly increased their teacher numbers and lowered their pupil-teacher ratios by simply hiring people without training. Others have simply lowered the entry requirements. Either way, trained teachers are in short supply in both developing and developed countries, and employing untrained or poorly-trained teachers harms the quality of education.

That’s why it’s notable that the biggest successes that Jusoor has found have been in training teachers, rather than students.

SUHA TUTUNJI: “I mean they have come a long way, the teachers. Because in Syria they were used to the traditional form of teaching — teacher centered rote learning. And now I can see the difference. It is dramatic. It’s phenomenal the way they were when they first started. And what they did and how they teach now. Activities, including the children in group work, getting them to think critically, to solve problems. And the thing is that the teachers that they always tell me you know: “Misawa me go back to Syria. We will never go back to teaching in the same way that we were taught or we were asked to teach. We are going to use all these new methods that we are learning because they’re fun and interesting and we feel that the children are really learning learning this way. So I think this is fabulous.”

By working so closely with educators and children the innovators we’ve spoken to are finding genuine solutions to urgent problems. They are playing their part in helping girls like Marie Claire and Najlaa fullfull their potential and pursue their dreams.

And whilst all the other women we’ve spoken to in this episode are deserving of the attention, Suha would rather save the praise for someone else.

SUHA TUTUNJI: “The teachers are the forgotten soldiers. They are refugees themselves. They’ve gone through a hard time. Some of them live in tents as well because they can’t afford to rent small apartments or you know or decent housing. And yet they still have to stand there in front of the children and put up you know a strong face and be good role models and show the children that everything’s you know life as usual. Look at us. We’re doing well. And you can do that as well.”

“And they are the true heroes in my opinion.”

Nevertheless is a Storythings production — writing and editing by the team at Storythings, music and sound design by Jason Oberholtzer, Executive Producer Nathan Martin, supported by Pearson Education, with this episode presented by me, Leigh Alexander.

For show notes go to neverthelesspodcast.com