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.
It’s not often that I find myself in a very beaten-up old car with no windows, being driven through the Nicaraguan countryside by a taxi driver named Elvis. It strikes me that Elvis is probably not his actual name, and that it is more likely a nickname deriving from Elvis’s penchant for clapping and clicking along to 1970s power ballads. As All By Myself blasts from the radio, I am returning to the airport to commence the final leg of my WISE journey. For the past 4 days I have been in the depths of the Nicaraguan rainforest, spending time in a remarkable school, La Bastilla Technical Agricultural School, whose educational motto is ‘learning by doing, learning for a living.’
Elvis’s driving technique seems to involve swerving over to the wrong side of the road to avoid slowing down on corners, accelerating towards any ill-fated animal that happens to be crossing the road as our vehicle approaches, and enthusiastically beeping his horn at anything which moves. After 20 minutes on the road I am already green with terror and car sickness (my only consolation is that the poor Madonna on the dashboard seems to be faring a lot worse). In much the same way as survivors of plane crashes report that their lives do actually flash before their eyes as the plane descends, this rare occasion prompts me to reflect on and give thanks for everything in my life that is good (stringently enforced UK road safety laws aside).
Firstly, I am grateful for living in a nation that expects and demands democracy. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Nicaragua. When I first met the founder of La Bastilla Technical Agricultural School, a Swiss-German businessman who in 2004 became the CEO of a coffee estate in the Nicaraguan department of Jinotega, he expressed his frustration about the corruption of the socialist regime. Along the 200km journey between the airport and Jinotega, the road is lined by trees, lampposts, bollards, bus stops and even cliff faces which are painted in the colours of the National Liberation Front: ugly red and black stripes despoiling the otherwise stunning Nicaraguan landscape. Perhaps even more sinister, these stripes are overlaid by the number 2 – just in case anyone should forget that this was the number – the Santonista’s number – which they were expected to vote for in the last election.
According to Markus, living and working under such a regime is difficult and frustrating: layers of meaningless bureaucracy, penalties doled out for dubious reasons, suspicion and mistrust characterise everyday life and business dealings in Nicaragua. “The system is set up so that you get penalised regardless of whether you’ve done right or wrong. The Nicaraguans have never had a good government. They no longer believe that they can change things for the better. They feel powerless.”
Secondly, I am grateful for living in a country where the majority of people value the importance of education. Of course, a lot of work needs to be done. Our education system is hopelessly outdated, designed in and for a time that was quite different to the globalised, hyper-connected world in which we now live. With information available to us at the click of a button, we no longer need our teachers to be the transmitters of information that is often far removed from and unrelated to the futures into which we will graduate; we need teachers to be facilitators, mentors, guiders, moral compasses. We need them to tell us right from wrong, useful information from useless information. We need them to learn alongside us, and to design projects and learning experiences that enable us to explore our passions and the wider world. Certainly, the UK education system has a long way to go before it has an education system which adequately addresses these needs, but few people would dispute the value of education – and that, at least, is something.
As a successful businessman embarking on the rejuvenation of a struggling coffee estate, Markus wanted to give something back to the local community. In the area surrounding the school, he witnessed immense poverty: large families living in dilapidated tin shacks, eking out a hand-to-mouth existence on tiny plots of land. Malnourished cows grazed at the roadside on the route to La Bastilla – many of these families had never had any formal training in farming or indeed any formal education at all, and did not have the skills or knowledge to work more collaboratively, efficiently and productively. Markus therefore wanted to build a school which would offer high quality secondary education to the local youth, both giving them the option of pursuing higher education as well as empowering them to become more effective – and more highly paid – agricultural workers.
But he had not anticipated how difficult it would be to change the mindset of the locals that education is an unaffordable luxury; in Jinotega, only 20.1% of 15-19 year olds attend secondary school. As Markus ruefully reflects, “the lesson I learnt is, I suppose, a fairly obvious one: it takes longer than 5 minutes to change a statistic like that.” Recruiting students to attend his school has been one of the major challenges he has faced.
Thirdly, I am grateful for living in a country that has a long history of innovation and innovators. During my stay at La Bastilla Technical Agricultural School, I had the fortune to hear about a British banker-turned-social entrepreneur, Nik Kafka, who in 2006 set up the NGO Teach a Man to Fish. The organisation works in deprived parts of the world to promote entrepreneurship and self-sustaining models of education that enable the poorest children to attend school while at the same time gaining vital business acumen and skills in self-sufficiency and leadership. In 2007, La Bastilla Technical Agricultural School became a Teach a Man To Fish-certified school, and with the help of Teach a Man to Fish attained the funding to set up a series of businesses – from an Ecolodge for tourists to egg, milk and vegetable production. Not only do these businesses enable the school to be financially self-sustaining (so far it is 60% self funding), they also give the students practical and relevant learning opportunities, and the effect that it has had on the motivation and confidence these young people – and more importantly their belief that they can create better lives for themselves - is nothing short of amazing.