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The Global Search for Education: Teachers Without Borders

"At this very moment we have a community of 350 passionate teachers across 75 countries, offering free Skype lessons.” – Koen Timmers

In the era of globalization, interactions and learning between students of different countries have become a necessity for classrooms. Koen Timmers, an award-winning educator, researcher, lecturer and author, is a firm believer in “borderless” education. Already working with teachers and students across 6 continents, Koen is focusing on connecting students globally to solve real world challenges that can promote skills such as “creativity, empathy, critical thinking, and collaboration.” More recently he began collaborating with Jane Goodall and her “Roots and Shoots” initiative, a youth service program that aims to foster respect and compassion for all living beings, and promote understanding of cultures and beliefs. The Global Search for Education welcomes Koen Timmers, the Founder of the Kakuma Project, a global climate action and innovation lab, to talk about his initiatives and changing global education.

Koen, please tell us more about your Climate Action project?

In our Climate Action project, students across 90 countries focused on climate changes. They took the lead in their learning process and explored, brainstormed, connected, and shared their findings via weekly videos that are published at my website. Students were able to learn from each other in their own class and then from their global peers. This was really powerful because climate change varies from country to country. For example, schools in Ireland were closed for the very first time in history due to hurricanes. In Sierra Leone, students were killed because of mud flows. In the Arctic Canada, ice is melting rapidly. Every nation has its own issues and students can get direct insights into the other participants’ lives. Learning was not only authentic, but it was engaging.

In our Kakuma project, I shipped my own laptop to a Kenyan refugee camp housing 200,000 refugees. I started to teach the students via Skype. With the help of a crowdfunding campaign, we were able to bring our own internet connection to the camp, and by teaming up with an American teacher, Brian Copes, we have been able to develop a solar suitcase which offers free power supply to the schools involved. At this very moment we have a community of 350 passionate teachers across 75 countries, offering free Skype lessons.

What do you think makes your project unique?

I believe that the scale is unique. The fact that we are using simple, free tools in a global context allows us to do something powerful. We are able to increase the level of education in a massive refugee camp, and education is their only way out as they are locked in the camp. While most people are charmed by the project, they usually forget the fact that we are doing more than offering free lessons of Math, Science and English. We offer students across the world a fair perspective on the refugees’ lives and we allow them to have informal chats about habits, cultures, hobbies and art. We are fighting polarization by allowing students to experience something they will still remember in 5, 10 or even 20 years, and at the same time instilling empathy by allowing students to have an intercultural exchange. We are not dependent on agencies since we all are volunteers. The power of a network!

The world is becoming so much more about appreciating global perspectives. How are schools adapting to this learning method and how is it more effective for children? 

Not everybody agrees that self-inquiry, project-based and collaborative learning works. Some researchers still exclusively believe in direct instruction. But they are making one mistake. The right pedagogy depends on the students’ age, topics to teach, schools and cultures. Education needs to be customized and teachers need to focus on learning rather than teaching. Students do need a proper introduction, context and background to a topic before they are able to have a successful discussion or solve problems. Sometimes teachers do need to “guide” their students rather than “instruct” them in order to point them to the right direction. For example, an American teacher, Tara, found out that her students believed basically everything they read on the internet. Therefore, her major goal during the Climate Action project was tackling fake news. Other teachers were surprised by the fact their students came up with mind-blowing solutions: Canadian students 3D printed coral reefs, Nigerian students created their own biomass plant, and Tunisian students developed their own video game. Belgian students used Lego to create stop motion videos, and students across 50 countries simultaneously created an eco-friendly world in Minecraft. Learning has really become a fun activity. Teachers need to create a willingness to learn, since we don’t want our students to stop being eager to learn once they graduate.

What are the challenges you’ve experienced in this journey? What lessons have you learned and how have you modified and improved the program for global classrooms?

One of the biggest challenges is, unfortunately, the lack of resources in some countries. While most European and American students were able to work on computers, African students usually had to use pen and paper. However, they were still able to have a discussion, to brainstorm, to create, and to share their findings. In most cases, the teacher used Whatsapp – an app which proves to be the most performant – to send short videos.

Also, English was an issue in most South American countries. But naturally, students and teachers there created their own Spanish-speaking community.

In terms of the wide age range of the project (we have students from 10 to 21 participating in the project), teachers all take different approaches, utilize appropriate pedagogies, and employ technologies differently on various age groups, as it is key that content, pedagogy and technology are in balance. It’s the teachers who are pedagogical engineers who need to judge which tool and approach need to be connected to certain topics.

If an educator wants her classroom to be a part of your global program, how does she get started? What are the steps?

I’m launching these kinds of projects throughout the year. Educators can go to Innovation Lab Schools, where they can find updates or follow me on Twitter.

How would you describe your achievements to date and what are your longer term goals for the project?

I recently started a collaboration with Dr. Jane Goodall and her “Roots & Shoots” initiative. Together we will equip 3 innovation lab schools. The project involves our own curriculum based on the UN Sustainable Development Goals with connections to STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math). I aim to develop Innovation lab schools in 10 countries this year and plan to offer free and quality education to 1 million students by 2020. By setting up these schools we intend to bring content, pedagogy and technology in a perfect balance by shifting to a different style of learning that puts students at the center of their education journey. We will also have a global teacher community of 1,000 teachers offering free Skype lessons around the world. This way we are able to equip students with the right skills (collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, empathy, etc), which have become increasingly important with the advent of the fourth industrial revolution. These skills will shape them to be the global citizens we need.

C.M. Rubin and Koen Timmers

Thank you to our 800 plus global contributors, teachers, entrepreneurs, researchers, business leaders, students and thought leaders from every domain for sharing your perspectives on the future of learning with The Global Search for Education each month.

C. M. Rubin (Cathy) is the Founder of CMRubinWorld, an online publishing company focused on the future of global learning and the co-founder of Planet Classroom. She is the author of three best-selling books and two widely read online series. Rubin received 3 Upton Sinclair Awards for “The Global Search for Education”. The series which advocates for all learners was launched in 2010 and brings together distinguished thought leaders from around the world to explore the key education issues faced by nations.

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