In partnership with the World Innovation Summit for Education we have written ‘Learning a Living,’ a new book that focuses on radical innovation at the education/work interface. In anticipation of its release in mid-November, we are launching a month-long campaign to celebrate and bring attention to some of the most powerful thinking on, and examples of, initiatives which hold out the hope of radically new approaches better fitted to the conditions of the 21st century. Read more about the book here.
Sao Paolo, June 20th – the first day of winter in Brazil. The sky is furrowed with grey clouds and the gutters run with newly fallen rain. But people aren’t talking about the weather here – it’s traffic which is the local obsession. ‘How was your journey here?’ they ask one another by way of greeting. And it doesn’t take long to see why. Congestion and town planning are so bad in this sprawling city that the simplest drive can turn into a nightmarish crash course. A 5 km journey commonly takes over an hour. Pile-ups involving 6 or 7 cars are an everyday occurrence. And as vehicles collide, frustration mounts. Traffic, after all, is only one piece of the Sao Paolo puzzle. “This city is crazy,” the locals say. “We pay almost 40% in taxes, and what do we get for it? Roads choked with traffic night and day. Health care that we have to pay for. Security issues. A failing public education system. And an inept government that can’t find a solution to any of these problems.”
Brazil is in desperate need of problem solvers. The public want their leaders to be problem solvers. Businesses want their employees to be problem solvers. And parents want their children to grow up to be problem solvers. At the beginning of the 20th century, the main educational issue in Brazil was a basic one of attendance: as late as 1940, 25% of 5-14 year olds were enrolled in school. Now, that figure has increased to 97%, but the goal posts for education ministers have shifted. The majority of the19 million inhabitants of Sao Paolo are steadily gaining in wealth and status, and they are demanding more of the city’s beleaguered public services. In short, Brazil shares a challenge that will be familiar to educators in the UK: education must now be about much more than attendance - it must also be about genuine engagement and excellence. It must seek to foster the world’s best minds.
I’m in Sao Paolo to visit Lumiar Internacional, the oldest of three primary schools for children aged 0-14 set up by the SEMCO Foundation (now called the Ralston-Semler Foundation), the charitable arm of the Brazilian company SEMCO. The visionary behind this project – SEMCO’s former CEO Ricardo Semler – enjoys celebrity status in Brazil and in some international circles because of his unusual but highly successful management style, publicised in his best-selling book The Seven Day Weekend (2003). Amongst other things, Semler believes in a decentralised, participatory business style in which employees are trusted to exercise freedom and autonomy, setting their own working hours and even their own salaries. For those who might be sceptical of this approach, the figures speak for themselves: Semco’s revenues increased from $4 million in 1984 to $212 million in 2004. After achieving this success, Semler turned his attention to education: what would happen if he applied similar principles of autonomy and democracy to schools?
And so in 2002, in central Sao Paolo, the first Lumiar school was born. Stepping into Lumiar you might be forgiven for thinking that you have just stumbled into a storybook creation, something from Alice in Wonderland. Set in a converted house, its innovative use of space is the first thing that strikes you. There are hardly any doors. This is a school made up of spaces rather than rooms, which seamlessly open out into other spaces – from indoor to outdoor, from play area to dining room, from dining room to library. The tables are draped with floral fabrics and the walls hung with the students’ colourful creations. Imagination and creativity decorate every nook and cranny.
And what of the learning design? Learning happens everywhere here– around the dining table where all of the children eat lunch together, in the play area and even in the hallway. Classes are regularly conducted outside. It is exploratory and organic, with the students working in a genuinely collaborative way with the teachers to design projects that accord with their interests. If students do not feel engaged in a lesson, they can choose to go elsewhere - perhaps to read a book in the library, or to take part in another lesson that they find more engaging. Furthermore, there are no teachers at this school either; instead, duos of ‘tutors’ and ‘masters’ work together to maximise the students’ learning and wellbeing – the tutors are responsible for the pastoral care of the child, and the masters are generally energetic young people – often university students – who can offer expertise on and interest in specific area, from history to carpentry. Passion for learning in this school is tangible: it flows like water.
One of the most unique features of Lumiar is ‘The Circle’, a weekly meeting in which all students and teachers gather together to discuss issues affecting the school and vote on key decisions. It is a cornerstone of the school’s democratic philosophy: all students aged 4 – 14 must participate, and on this particular day I am fortunate enough to be invited to join them. They learn how to debate, how to express their opinions, and how to respect and value one another’s contribution. The little ones don’t always ‘get it’ - “I had rice for dinner!” comes from one enthusiastic 4 year old. But the older students are patient: they remember what it is like to be that 4 year old, bewildered but eager.
One of the main points up for discussion this morning is the fact a tea set was found smashed in the school kitchen. The culprits – a teenage boy and girl - admit to the mistake almost immediately – they were running, one of their coats caught the tea set, and it smashed. Mistakes of this kind are not punished in this school, but they do often present problems – and those problems need to be solved. In this particular case, a number of suggestions are put forward.
“We should pass rules which say that we can’t run in school!” one student pipes up. The meeting co-ordinator, 8-year old Paulo, writes this suggestion down on the board.
“Maybe we should divide the cost of the tea set between ourselves and the school can buy a new one.” This from one of ‘the culprits’, a small yellow-haired 13 year old.
At this point, someone interjects. “You know, money can’t solve all problems. If they simply give the school money to buy a new tea set, they might not learn from their actions. Their parents will give them the money and it will be too easy for them. How about the school gives them the money, and they have to do research themselves about where to buy a new tea set, and then go and buy it themselves from the shop in their own time? That will be more of a challenge.”
There is a collective ahh. That was a good idea. That was a good solution to the problem. The problem solver who came up with this suggestion sits quietly proud. His name his Bernardo, and he is 6 years old.