I started picking up my travel pace 7 years ago. Life quickly became a whirlwind. And the most AMAZING whirlwind ever – life was and still is a dream. I’ve racked up enough sights, adventures, connections, and life moments than many people do in their lifetime!

Now it’s time to start making sense of these experiences. I want to connect the dots for myself and extend my travel experiences to my family and friends, to the travel bugs out there, to anyone interested to get a view of the world beyond their own.

Last night I gave a talk at Incitement, a global movement to spread positivity and spark change, hosted monthly at Mindvalley’s Hall of Awesomeness in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. February event theme was, “What is the Right Kind of Education?”

Traditionally, we think of learning and education as something that happens IN the classrooms.

Here are the 6 lessons I learned FROM the classroom experiences I’ve had in 6 countries (these will be 6 separate blogposts at a later date!):

1) Classrooms and Schools Need to Be a Safe Learning Environment

[Lesson from respecting diversity growing up in the American education system.]

Has a teacher ever told you that your answer was stupid? Or saw a teacher do this to a classmate?

I asked this at the talk and about 50 people raised their hands, or half the crowd. I’m sure many probably have seen a teacher publicly humiliate or punish a student as well.

As far as I remember, I would say no to both questions. So I learned that my perspective, my thoughts and opinions held value. I learned that my peers’ did too. The teacher respected their answers, so I did too.

A safe environment strips away the fear of being judged for who you are. It allows you to accept different possibilities, to respect others’ opinions.

And it’s only when we feel safe to ask the stupid questions, can we begin to ask the right questions.

2) Schools Should Involve the Whole Ecosystem to Confront (not expect) Inequalities

[Lesson from teaching English in Morocco]

Schools can be a platform to attack certain inequalities by involving the whole ecosystem.

Children should not be raised and conditioned to think that the world is underlined with an “us” vs. “them” or “unprivileged” vs. “entitled” reasoning.

Any inequalities such as race, gender, social class should be addressed. There should be an approach that overcomes and encourages equal opportunity, slowly but surely.

Education systems can work with nonprofits, civil society orgs, parents, with communities and their leaders to nurture a child’s learning experience. If we work on fortifying the whole ecosystem for the child with education as priority, then students will grow up knowing they have plenty of opportunities.

These kids could be the key to pulling their families out of poverty, to making positive changes in their community and country. It’s paramount that the parents or community do not work against a child’s education. 

3) Including Students in the Solution Process

[Lesson learned in India seeing local friends observe how the poor would live + during a workshop with local uni students on how to promote safer driving]

An educator’s role should include facilitating dialogue on current local and national issues.

Only if we include students in addressing issues can we begin to tackle them by identifying key problem beliefs and behaviors. Through discussions, brainstorming potential remedies, sharing concerns and ideals we can see where the problem areas begin.

Additional benefits include providing, a) a sense of belonging, responsibility, and awareness of others, b) taking peer support 1 step further by encouraging a culture of helping juniors find their way, and c) positive behaviors that can be taken forward by their family and community, to hopefully start what could be a big change in society and environment.

4) Promote Peer Support at the Student and Educator Levels

[Lesson from Finland seeing 100+ teenagers dance carefree]

Schools should follow a diversity model, not a medical model, where education is catered and enhanced because of learning differences, not learning disabilities. Individual strengths should be valued, not suppressed. Together, teacher and student should find workarounds for any “weaknesses.”

Teachers and educators should take collective responsibility in a student’s progress, not a single teacher in a single subject matter.

Educators should also engage in peer support – observing one another, providing feedback, lesson planning together – to continually improve and innovate on the curriculum and teaching methods.

The group success of students AND teachers should be encouraged by way of collective teamwork and peer support.

5) Building Social Reward-Based Programs

[Lesson from joining education NGOs in the favela slums in Brazil conduct literacy program graduation ceremonies]

The Bolsa Familia program in Brazil is a very successful social welfare reward-based program. The Brazilian government provides financial aid to poor families if their kids attend school and are vaccinated. It’s a conditional allowance program to keep kids healthy and in school.

The program also launched exchange programs for students and professors with stronger partner countries in fields like tech sciences. Private university partners could allow poor students to attend for free should they do well on exams. That’s powerful in a country where the best and hardest universities to get into are public, whereas those who score lower can still attend private, which is unaffordable for the poor.  The program works with parents, aids in employment for mothers, and addresses problems like domestic violence and child labor in the favela slums.

The success metrics for the Bolsa program are incredible. 12 million families participated, or 25% of Brazil. Within a few years, the number living in poverty decreased by 28%. The job market improved and 98% of kids 7-14 were enrolled in schools.

Countries should consider implementing conditional cash transfer programs. Bolsa Familia is the largest, but such programs do not have to start out so large scale.

Off the top of my head, the programs could look like this:

  • Where adult literacy is low, launch reading/writing programs for the family. The more books or projects a family completes, the family is granted a “cash transfer” into the child’s university savings fund.
  • Where HIV/AIDS rates are high, communities could be rewarded for education and prevention measures.
  • Families in rural villages could be rewarded for good hygiene or dental practices, and villages in finding sustainable ways to make resources like clean water or staple produce more readily available to the people.
  • Families and restaurants/shops/companies could be rewarded for recycling and compost practices.

Education should begin to take a more active role in improving social and economic limitations to enable greater opportunities and positive social behaviors.

In the short term, these can provide a solution to the educational barriers due to poverty. In the long term, the people and country benefit by reducing poverty and increasing human capital. Social reward-based programs can interrupt the vicious cycle of poverty.

6) Give Students the Chance to Take Ownership as Project Managers

[Lesson from my group Incitement Growth’s work with refugee schools in Kuala Lumpur]

Just as companies have projects and project managers, schools should as well.

Students should be encouraged to own their education experience. They could propose new initiatives or groups open to anyone in the school or community, and with guidance as needed, lead that group while shaping the objective and outcome.

These programs are flexible, they can be based on interests, academics, support groups, hobbies, anything. Leaders can take them forward and projects can spill into the next semester or school year.

With a more collective support from schools and a gentle push to step up, students can actively find, learn, and practice their passion in action. 

From bits of time in classrooms in the starred countries here, I believe these 6 lessons can be adapted to each of those countries to evolve the learning experience into something more impactful and greater in scope.

I’ve read many articles on why certain countries have it right, what makes their education system succeed. And I’ve read many on why certain education systems are broken, why certain policies or practices are doomed to fail.

However, you cannot extract the models that are successful in certain countries and inject them into another and hope, Boom!, you get high marks and happy students.

Why models work in, say, Sweden and Finland, which consistently receive high rankings in many subjects, may actually depend heavily on the social culture and society of Scandinavia, to what internally motivates individuals, to what drives their economy. What works there may not work in a country like China, where students are much more competitively driven in a collectivistic culture and with the weight of their parent’s hopes and dreams riding on their only child’s shoulders.

But no need to start from scratch or solely learn from trial and error either!

We can extract key takeaways from many countries’ education systems, and apply those models in every country while adapting them with respect to the local cultural and social context.

If today’s children will determine the world we soon live in, let’s equip them to be as positive, happy, intelligent, ethical, strategic, solution-minded as they can be.