Five Educational Lessons I Learned from Kids Around the World

by | Aug 2, 2012 | Uncategorized

Why I’m proud to serve as the Goodwill Ambassador for the One Laptop per Child Project

I’ve been a teacher, writer and researcher for over thirty years and like many, I’m haunted knowing that millions of children on our planet will never receive an education or walk into a classroom. Imagine! I’ve pondered again and again how we can give poverty-stricken kids-especially those living in remote areas where teachers, textbooks, classrooms or even running water don’t exist-a chance for hope. I did find the answer, and ironically, it came from children far from home.

It all began with a most unexpected phone call. General Mills contacted me to ask if I’d like to be a spokesperson for its “Win & Give” campaign where U.S. kids had the opportunity to win an XO laptop from One Laptop per Child (OLPC) and trigger a donation of the same laptop to kids in Africa. Would I be willing to travel to Rwanda to visit schools and help deliver the laptops to students? Well, I jumped at the chance! I knew these were no ordinary laptops. The XO laptop is made from durable plastic so it can withstand tough weather conditions (think Africa or the Sahara Desert), is childproof, even looks like a toy and has instant connectivity. It comes fully equipped with curriculum in a child’s native language (29 languages and counting now), retails for $185, is designed by some of the world’s most brilliant minds at MIT Media Lab and was developed based on sound theory that supports how kids learn best.

So three weeks later found myself flying to the small East African nation that had experienced unspeakable horrors of genocide. Within 24 hours of landing a few amazing children taught me valuable lessons on how to close the achievement gap. Here are those five lessons I learned about education from kids around the world.

LESSON 1: Never underestimate kids’ ability to be master of their own learning 

My first Rwandan visit was to the Murambi School in Kigali for deaf and mute children. In addition to being handicapped and destitute, many were also orphans. I walked into the first classroom and admit I had  low expectations. Instead, I was mesmerized.

First, the room was bare–no books or school supplies could be found. I saw only old wooden desks, one blackboard, a cement floor and a teacher. But I also noted that each child was working intently on an XO laptop.

Here were kids with limited language skills and no verbal abilities, who were engrossed in learning and their excitement was contagious.

I knelt to see what they were doing on those laptops, and got the surprise of my life: these nine and ten-year olds were programming! Any doubts I’d ever had about the impact computers can have on impoverished kids’ died on the spot. I saw that specially-designed computers can support a child’s learning and thinking, and when a child cannot talk-or hear–he still is not limited. These children were clearly learning to “talk” to their XO computers in their own way.

They also confirmed Seymour Papert’s brilliant words from long ago: “If we really look at the “child as the builder” we are on our way to an answer.” I was looking at a solution to closing the achievement gap in third world countries: forget spending the money on schools, provide an enriched educational curriculum that was child-directed.

LESSON 2: The “Right” Technology” can excite kids about learning

My experience with OLPC in Rwanda was extraordinary, but I had to see more. Will the effect of these XO laptops impact children living in other cultures or regions? So over the next weeks I visited a Title 1 school in an impoverished area outside Miami, flew to Managua, Nicaragua to interview teachers, ferried my way to a remote island called Ometepe to talk to kids, and even interviewed scientists who invented the XO laptop at the MIT Media Lab at Cambridge. Everywhere I heard two common themes: 1. “Students are far more engaged in their learning after receiving XO laptops.” 2. “Parents report that their kids are using the computers to learn at home.” What’s more, kids in my travels verified those opinions.

Seven-year old Lidia, also from Nicaragua, who said that her XO is helping her as well as her family learn. Her mother and father now know how to use the computer, because she is teaching them. “All kids should have a computer like me, so they can learn,” Lidia told me adamantly.

Nidia Raquel Morales Alvarez, a long name for a precocious ten-year old I met in Managua, told me that her XO computer “greatly advanced my learning.”

When I probed for details she explained: “Yesterday I learned about industrial agriculture. Tomorrow I’ll be giving a presentation in my classroom about farming techniques.” She added that her favorite laptop activity at home is doing research on Wikipedia. Her goal, she said, is to become an engineer. I have no doubt that she will.

Kids in Africa had echoed those same sentiments.

Jean Luc, a young boy from Rwanda, admitted that his computer is his ‘new life.’

“I always make sure my XO is charged before I take it home, and then I work on it all night. Right now I’m composing music. Do you want to hear my song?” he asked. “Would I ever! And so my new friend shared his composition. (Memo to Bono: “Watch out, your competition is coming up! This kid is talented). Jean Luc also divulged that his secret hope is to grow up and become a musical programmer. It’s my hope for him as well.

LESSON 3: Computers can increase student collaboration

Another adult concern I often hear is that computer use will make kids more self-focused and squelch their abilities to become collaborative learners. But in dozens of OLPC observations I found the opposite: In those classrooms enriched with technology-and ones in which teachers are trained in best teaching practices–there is more-not less-socialization amongst students. Educator training in collaborative instructional strategies certainly helps, and teachers I observed were not only trained by OLPC trainers but continued learning effective ways to utilize technology in monthly staff development trainings. I saw the benefits on their children’s achievement.

Nicaragua is one of the most impoverished in the western hemisphere. One in three Nicaraguan children are chronically malnourished. OLPC has delivered hundreds of XO laptops to classrooms.

I observed a number of classrooms in Nicaragua and saw a variety of cooperative classroom lessons in schools who had used XOs computers for a few months: Sixth graders working in base teams learning how to mind-map different types of calendars (Mayan, Greco, Julian). Third graders were paired with partners and identifying bird species. First graders learning how to use the XO drawing program and discovering beginning programming skills with their “learning buddies.” Fourth graders who were mentoring younger students who needed “catching up” on computer skills. “We help each other,” one boy explained.

I also saw the same collaborative spirit in OLPC classrooms in Liberty City, Miami. I watched a young girl having trouble navigating between programs. She turned to a classmate for help, and within seconds the boy was by her side teaching her basic computer skills. That same cooperative spirit happened in Managua as kids sat beneath mango trees with XOs in their laps helping their classmates learn new computer skills.

Classrooms with computers can come alive as children worked, shared and created together on their laptops. Each click of the mouse was helping them become more connected to the world and to a brighter future. Computers can support collaborative learning practices and increase-not reduce-student interaction.

“We teach each other!” a young Nicaraguan boy told me, but I was already convinced.

LESSON 4: Technology can inspire kids and teachers

In my visits I’ve seen the impact XO laptops has on children’s education, but I’ve also witnessed how those computers enhance a powerful concept called, “Teacher pride.” In every classroom and in every country I saw educators excited about teaching.

A teacher at Holmes Elementary, a Title 1 school in Liberty City, Miami, had tears in her eyes as she described how the laptops affected her teaching: “I can’t wait to come to school now. My students are so exciting about learning! You can’t believe what a difference those laptops have made on my children’s lives.”

I can also validate the impact. Holmes was in danger of closing due to dismal test scores. Within two years, their “D” school rating is now at a “B” level-and rising. Inspired teachers, a powerful principal, and the right curriculum can make all the difference on children’s lives.

Gloria, a sixth grade teacher in Managua, was exuberant about the OLPC project. “I’ve taught for twenty years,” she said, “but I’ve never seen anything that has helped my students or my own teaching better than these laptops. In just one week, the children learned not only how to use them, but how to teach themselves. I can’t keep up!”

A teacher in Nicaragua admitted that her initial hesitancy about computers. “I didn’t know how to use them,” she said. “But my students told me not to worry. They taught me!” Then she smiled and said, “The laptops have changed my teaching!”

One of the students was listening in at the door. “So is it true?” I asked. “Did you all help your teacher learn to use the computer?”

The boy looked up with a huge grin and nodded sheepishly. “Yep, she likes the computers now just like us,” he said.

It can’t get much better than that!

LESSON 5: Parents are grateful when their children are given the opportunity for a future

My last day in my African visit had been in a most memorable school. There was no running water, toilets were primitive makeshift outhouses, school supplies were scarce, play equipment consisted of tattered jump ropes and maybe a few cans or balls to kick. The village was poor, but the place was buzzing with excitement. This was the day OLPC would deploy 300 XO laptops to their students. The whole community-parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, storeowners, clergy, and even mayor-had walked miles to the school to witness the momentous occasion. Drums were beating, students were dancing, teachers were ecstatic, and parents were literally beaming. I saw what was clearly “joy and hope” on the faces of these moms and dads. They knew their children would shortly be receiving an extraordinary gift: the chance for an education.

The students lined up to receive their green and white XO computers, and were literally shaking from excitement. I can’t begin to describe how thrilling it felt to give kids those laptops. Each child waited for what must have seemed like an eternity, and when their turn finally came would take the computer oh so carefully, utter words of thanks, and then this look of absolute elation would emerge. Pride? Hope? Wonder? Awe? I’m not quite sure, but it was priceless. I’ve never experienced anything so riveting.

I watched one boy staring at his computer with a look of almost disbelief. “This is really mine?” he seemed to be thinking. Then he turned, walked back to me and pointed to a small pin that I was wearing that bore the initials, “XO.” He then tapped the same letters engraved on the top of his computer.

“Yes,” I said as if to let him know that the XO laptop and I were somehow connected.

The child grasped his new laptop closely to his chest, and then suddenly tears started to flow down his face. That did it-it was impossible to contain my emotions, and the tears started. We sat down on the grass with his laptop between us, hugging and crying. Believe me, we made quite a sight. Somehow-despite our differences-we understood the enormous significance of that day. The moment reminded me that best lessons often come from a child’s “silent” words.

Making the Easiest Decision of My Life

That was the day I became convinced that the answer to providing education and hope to children in third world countries is the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project. I told the OLPC members who were with me I would do anything I could to support their mission. So when the One Laptop Per Child project asked if I’d serve as their Goodwill Ambassador, it was the quickest decision I’ve ever made: a resounding “yes!” My next stop for OLPC is delivering laptops to children in Armenia who are not even recognized by the United Nations.

Children–all of our children-deserve an education, and a chance for hope. Extraordinary kids living in remote, impoverished areas of the globe taught me that hope is possible.

Now it’s up to the adults to listen to the children.