Game changers

Meet the visionary educators revolutionizing the world of learning.

Jimmy Wales
Co-founder of Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation, USA

Twelve years, and 30 million articles (and counting) in 286 languages after its launch, the Wikipedia website is one of the most prominent and influential learning channels anywhere in the world.

It started with a single, stark vision of co-founder Jimmy Wales: “Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.”

“That original vision has always remained complete,” says Wales, whose first web project, Nupedia – an encyclopedia of free, expert-written content – launched in 2001. “This is not something we expanded into; it is where we always wanted to be. And that’s why it became successful so quickly, because this grand big vision really excited people.”

Wikipedia revolutionized online learning and continues to dominate the sector, taking millions of visitors each month down its ‘rabbit-hole’ of links to discover new ideas, places, people and information. No homework assignment is complete without a visit to the site, and while many teachers will see its ubiquity as a double-edged sword, its role in advancing the sum of human knowledge is beyond doubt.

This site is possible thanks to the support of a dedicated, well-informed community; a model that schools can seek to emulate through their own online knowledge sharing. “We do have some staff,” says Wales, “but in terms of writing entries, it’s volunteers of all kinds who get involved, ranging from young people who get very interested in a topic and find that they have something to contribute, all the way to retired academics who still want to be a part of the intellectual community.”

But Wales – who taught at Auburn and Indiana Universities while studying for a PhD (which he never finished) – believes there’s much more to education than the “old-fashioned” teaching of facts by rote. “It has become more important than ever that we teach students how to do research, and how to evaluate different sources of information,” he says.

“An enormous amount of learning goes on outside the formal framework, and kids learn more on their own than they do in school – that is really quite a critical observation; it makes a big difference.” While the Wikimedia Foundation’s Wikibooks project is working to write free textbooks and educational resources for students in deprived areas, Wales agrees that the lack of access to the internet is now the biggest barrier to study. “But that is changing incredibly quickly, faster than most people realize.

It’s only a matter of time until internet access is as ubiquitous as television and radio. It’s going to bring around a huge number of social changes that are going to be quite amazing.” And the beauty of the online world, he believes, is that absolutely anyone can get involved and make a difference.

“We are still in a very early stage of the internet. I think we are still very much in a time where a small group of people can build something really big and popular, and it’s easier than ever to get started because a lot of the old barriers to entry have become a lot cheaper.”

Salman Khan
Founder of the Khan Academy, USA

Salman Khan has big ambitions; not content with establishing a not-for-profit online ‘school’ – the Khan Academy – that can boast more than six million unique users a month, he wants to revolutionize the way students are taught in classrooms too.

At the moment, says Khan, “the time [in classrooms] is fixed, and the outcome is variable. I think this model will change to a competency-based system where it’s much more about the outcome, and the level of mastery you attain – making the time in the seat variable.

“The nature of the classroom itself will change too; it’s not going to be based on a lecture anymore,” he says. “It’s not going to be a passive model of sitting in seats and taking notes, a model where the whole class is together on the same page. It’ll be a model where students go to achieve their goals, with the help of their mentors and peers.Education is about teachers using all of their time to talk and guide, and form connections with students.”

Central to this seismic shift, Khan believes, is using technology to understand what students know and what they need to learn next. His Khan Academy software platform, which has grown from a spare-room project to a Microsoft- and Google-endorsed venture and has been lauded in TED talks and among educational commentators across the globe, is already well on the path to achieving that goal.

“It’s a platform that gives you some questions, understands where you are and, based on that, uses pretty fancy learning science to advise you on your path. It can also give feedback about students’ progress to their teachers and parents,” he explains.

The Khan Academy is already part of the educational establishment, but its founder believes its possibilities are limitless: “About a year ago, I got a video from a girl in Mongolia. I assumed she was at least middle class, since she speaks English so well and has access to the internet. But a group of volunteers from Silicon Valley had set up computer labs in orphanages; she was an orphan. And now she’s our number one creator of content in the Mongolian language. It’s kind of like a movie that an orphan in Mongolia might become the future for her people.”

Robin Richardson
Specialist in education, Equality and diversity, UK

All children must be viewed equally when they step through the classroom door. But in a world where religious tensions pull at the fabric of societies, Robin Richardson, a leading British thinker on global education, says there is still a lot of work to do.

Religious intolerance, argues Richardson, “is still a problem, more than ever”, with Islamophobia a particular concern. Richardson works with educators to tackle prejudice in education and, in 1997, he worked with the Runnymede Trust, a UK think tank, to publish a report about anti-Muslim prejudice that rose to prominence following the series of international events triggered by the terrorist attacks in the USA on 11 September, 2001.

“We didn’t predict – no one could – what would happen; 9/11 happened, [the London bombings of] 7/7, the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq – all sorts of things beyond our control.” “The common-sense view of combating anti-Muslim prejudices and views is that we must teach more about Islam, and then it would be alright,” says Richardson.

“Common sense is common, but it’s also often inadequate – and, if we want to teach about Islamophobia, we must teach about Islamophobia, not about Islam. Teaching about Islamophobia will include teaching about Islam, but it certainly won’t be limited to that, and that’s not the main priority.”

Richardson suggests tackling this by making sure children are “learning experientially, as well as intellectually or cognitively, and learning together”: concepts that are already key components of the IB’s programmes.

Roya Mahboob
Founder of the Afghan Citadel Software Company

Roya Mahboob and her – mostly female – team of IT consultants are doing more than breaking down gender barriers to education in Afghanistan, they’re pioneering new learning techniques that have yet to become mainstream, even in more developed nations.

“Our vision of education is a direct connection between the educational institution and the world of digital media and professional services, such as blogging, social media, filmmaking and software development,” she says.

Mahboob draws on her own experience of “the incredible power of social media and IT” for inspiration. “I thought that I could apply this to Afghan women to empower them to change their life,” she says.

“Education is free and open to everybody, but it still depends on society and family traditions, and whether or not families will allow their daughters to continue their studies,” Roya continues. “Supporters of traditional society and culture believe that education isn’t a good idea for women.”

Mahboob is planning to build 40 internet-enabled classrooms across Afghanistan that will allow thousands of female students to learn together and connect with one another.

Access to the web is complemented by Mahboob’s online channel, Women’s Annex, a multilingual blog and video site, and Examer, an interactive learning website. “Female students can develop professional skills and generate revenue to support their families – while still respecting local traditions – so they can change the culture and improve Afghanistan’s economy.”

The democratic and international nature of technology means that Mahboob’s ideas and dreams could reach far beyond her country’s borders. “The most important factor is to allow students to access the internet so they can develop their ideas with the support of young people from all over the world.”

Twesigye Jackson Kaguri
Founder of the Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project, Uganda

Getting an education is the only way to break the cycle of poverty and deprivation,” says Twesigye Jackson Kaguri, who returned to his native Uganda to help AIDS orphans do just that. Kaguri, the youngest of five children, pestered his father to send him to school.

“My siblings were already in school when I was four years old,” he recalls. “I remember sneaking out of the house to find out where they were going every morning – this happened for about a month, but every time, my Dad would catch me and say: ‘No you can’t go, you are too young to go to school’.”

Eventually “he said: ‘I will pay for you to go to school tomorrow if you promise never to fail an exam’. So that was my incentive; I wanted to do well in school, because my Dad would not let me go back if I didn’t.” For many families, says Kaguri, “education becomes an investment for the whole community – an investment in human capital, for the parents’ retirement, healthcare and social security. They put everything into their children’s education, hoping and wishing that when they graduate from university, the children will come back to the village to care for them.”

Tragically, Kaguri’s brother and sister both died of HIV/AIDS, leaving behind four children who needed to be looked after. Having moved to New York in the early 1990s to take up a post as a visiting scholar at Columbia University, Kaguri was the children’s only hope: “If it wasn’t for me, an uncle who is still living and working, my brother’s children would never have got an education.”

This inspired him to establish the Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project in 2001, which seeks to remove the barriers to education faced by HIV/AIDS orphans, such as poor nutrition, health and financial support.

“My dad had one pencil and split it into five so my siblings and I each had a pencil and a means to educate ourselves,” says Kaguri. “In my village now, a child will still drop out of school because they can’t afford a fifth of a pencil.”

The project provides students with uniforms, school supplies, medical care, good food and clean drinking water, and works closely with their surviving relatives.

“The grandmothers who carried me on their backs when I was sick, when I fell out of a tree at nine years old, and the grandmothers that carried me for three-and-a-half miles to the nearest hospital are the same grandmothers who come to me with their orphaned grandchildren, wanting the best for them but unable to provide it.”

The project aided nearly 7,000 mukaakas – grandmothers of orphans and students – in 2012 by providing micro-financing, agricultural equipment and grants for houses and home improvements. Student numbers also rose last year to nearly 600 children; more than 95 per cent of whom have no living parents. Kaguri dreams of growing the project into the rest of Uganda and Africa; his short-term plans are to introduce vocational classes, provide boarding facilities and to build a solar-powered technology centre.

“God has given me so much, and for me to be able to give someone else that opportunity – there is nothing more fulfilling than that,” says Kaguri. “I want all the students to be mini-Jacksons one day, to travel all over the world and become successful, but never forget where they come from.”

Sugata Mitra
Creator of the Hole in the Wall project and 2013 TED Prize winner for the School in the Cloud, India

A traditional lecture is the equivalent of invasive surgery,” says the occasionally controversial Sugata Mitra, who has made his name researching student-led learning.

In such lectures, he argues, “you are literally opening up the brain and inserting things and ideas inside it.”

Mitra is an advocate of what he dubs ‘minimally invasive education’, which takes a radically different approach: “[It] says, ‘you know your brain can work everything out, if I just tell you an interesting problem and if you agree this problem is interesting, you will want to find out the answer’.”

His research into unsupervised learning began in 1999 with the first Hole in the Wall project: a hole was carved into a wall in a New Delhi slum, and a computer was installed in it. Children were given no instruction, but quickly learnt how to use the computer and internet. The project has now spread to 23 rural locations in India, and to Cambodia.

“Kids taught each other how to use the mouse and browse the internet.” he says. “Education should be a group exercise with children, peers, teachers and families working together to understand the world.”

Mitra believes that education is overdue a substantial shift in learning practices. “We need to take a look at the whole thing. Take out the outdated methods and replace them with new ones that are appropriate to the times we are living in. It’s not a broken system, it’s very successful – it’s highly structured and has proven methods of results – but it needs to be brought up to date and we need to take advantage of modern-day methods.

The IB is a glowing example of a system that has managed to wriggle out of the old model as much as possible.” So how can teachers start this revolution? “Don’t struggle against the system, but alter things quietly,” he says. “If enough people do that, then one day the system will change.”

Ian Gilbert
Founder of Independent Thinking Ltd, UK

Ian Gilbert doesn’t want to prescribe changes or actions. “The last thing I want to do is tell students and teachers what to do or how to do it,” he says.

“All I can do is get you to ask the right questions and give you some ideas, but it is the educator’s job to make learning happen.”

Gilbert’s organization, Independent Thinking Ltd, was founded more than 20 years ago to give education innovators a global platform to share their ideas.

His aim is to get children to think for themselves, rather than regurgitate the messages relayed to them in class, and he encourages educators to prompt this type of learning with a series of techniques including asking ‘Thunks’; beguilingly simple-looking questions about everyday things, that help them look at the world in a new light.

“You can use the same question to teach a child of five as you would a 13-year-old,” Gilbert says. “The question, ‘is it right to bully a bully?’is the same across the board, but the reaction and answers might be very different dependent on the age, culture or experience of the student.”

Education in the future might make more extensive use of technology and online courses, but Gilbert says this is no substitute for a brilliant teacher: “We need great educationalists who will motivate and encourage – we can’t just sit kids in front of a computer and expect them to learn. We need to teach kids to think for themselves, fire off questions in class and totally change their outlooks.”

Lin Kobayashi
Founder of the International School of Asia, Karuizawa (ISAK), Japan

Every teacher hopes his or her students will go on to do great things, but few go as far as founding a new school with the explicit aim of “educating the next group of international leaders for Japan, Asia and beyond.”

But this is Lin Kobayashi’s mission for the International School of Asia, Karuizawa (ISAK), which will open its doors in 2014 to 50 Japanese and international students who will study the IB Diploma Programme.

“No one else has really been able to start a school from scratch in Japan,” she says. “There are about 70 co-founders of the school, mainly aged in their 30s and 40s – young, successful people – who are really eager to change and to reform the education system in Japan.”

Kobayashi came to cherish the values of international schools when she was an IB Diploma Programme student in Canada. “I owe who I am today to those two years,” she says. “It trained me to think critically and always look at different perspectives.”

“I also did a lot of volunteering, which made me think and appreciate true diversity. And because the school I was at was part of the United World Colleges (UWC) movement (ISAK is also aiming to become a UWC), I got close to students from Mexico who were on full scholarships, and who I visited during the summer break. That was a life-changing experience for me, and really taught me how fortunate I was to go to school.”

Despite being an international, privately funded school, ISAK plans to have a diverse student population: “We’ll hopefully provide scholarships to 30 or 40 per cent of our student body, which will ensure socio-economic diversity as well as national and cultural diversity.”

Living on-site in small dormitories, ISAK’s students will be “required to self-govern their house. That of course creates a lot of chaos,” acknowledges Kobayashi, “but that’s part of it – they need to learn how to run a house with students who have different values and backgrounds. That in itself is a huge learning process.”

The school aims to take what it calls an “holistic” approach to education, combining the IB Diploma Programme with an outdoor education – where “anything can happen” – as well as an emphasis on the “importance of self-awareness and respect for others”, the confidence to take risks and the ability to set agendas.

“In an Asian context, leadership is about being a good listener,” says Kobayashi. “Asia is very diverse; we have so many cultures, so many religious and historical backgrounds. Listening to other people and embracing diversity is a critical part of leadership, and is much more important than talking or presentation skills.”

Ponheary Ly
Founder of the Ponheary Ly Foundation (PLF), Cambodia

Ponheary Ly works tirelessly to give Cambodian children the stable and solid start to life that she was denied.

As a young girl, her father – a teacher – and several other members of her family were murdered during the brutal rule of Pol Pot in her native Cambodia, during which around 1.4 million people were executed in one of the worst genocides in human history.

Today, her namesake foundation helps children get an education that puts them on the path out of poverty and gives them the skills to shape their country’s future.

“The kids in Cambodia are very smart, but many of them don’t have the chance to go to school,” says Ly. “I wanted to help them because in many cases their parents don’t understand the value of education. My father was a teacher, and I used [my education] to start my life again. I kept studying, and used this to build my family life. I want to show children the importance of education and encourage them to go to school.”

The Cambodian government has built a network of state schools, but parents often don’t encourage their children to attend.

“The parents don’t understand about education, about school,” explains Ly. “Their children go to school or they don’t go to school, they don’t mind.”

The Ponheary Ly Foundation supports students by providing school supplies, such as textbooks and uniforms, and by making school an environment that children want to be in.

“[We] make the school the place where they can play, they can eat, they can be safe from violence in the home,” says Ly. “They love school, and when they want to be in a lovely place like that, to go to classes and listen to the teachers, they get the knowledge that is vital to their future.”

Children who complete primary school and live far away from their nearest secondary school are given bicycles, so they can travel to class and continue their education. The foundation also provides practical support in the form of medical care – funding on-site nurses in schools and paying for hospital visits if necessary – and nutritious meals, as well as teaching training.

Although the foundation can only touch the lives of a small fraction of Cambodia’s children – it’s currently working with 2,500 students – Ly’s quest continues to be driven by the overwhelmingly positive outcomes of her programmes.

“My work makes me very proud, when I talk about the students who finish high school and get good jobs,” she says.

“Before we helped them, they never expected to go so far. “I think about the children’s future a lot; about them building their own families and communities, and things improving thanks to education. The more they study, the better lives they will be able to lead,” says Ly.

“My hope is that education can help our people to rebuild the country and, ultimately, the whole world. It will take a long time, so we have to be patient.”