African Leadership Academy

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

The above Margaret Mead quote marks the walls of the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa. Today I had a chance to briefly visit the six-year old academy and speak with one of its cofounders, Chris Bradford. It was inspiring to hear from Chris on the role that the ALA is playing in supporting young African leaders, not just in their educational journey, but in their lives across the 44 African countries represented thus far. Indeed, ALA’s young leaders have already started making an impact on Africa. Current students and alumni have launched 44 non-profit and for-profit enterprises since its inception.

Dining hall with flags from all represented countries at ALA

Dining hall with flags of countries of origin for students and staff.

The curriculum of the ALA is particularly interesting with its focus on African studies, ethical entrepreneurship, and leadership. These are in addition to ‘academics’ delivered through the multi-disciplinary IGSCE, in which the hard work of the students and staff has enabled many graduates to attend the world’s best universities. This holistic view based on real-world impact guides students to first discover their potential, and then maximise their passion for the benefit of others. Chris spoke of many alumni working in diverse fields, seeking and finding real-world solutions to community specific problems, a process aided no doubt by their learning at ALA.

The ALA curriculum model:

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Reflecting on the ALA model through my own experiences in education, I certainly see parallels with community schooling in remote Australia. My firm belief is that local communities must be true partners in education, and the links between school and community need to be strong. In remote communities we have often struggled with the perceived ‘relevance gap’. Integrating community needs and values, expanding and building capacity in local and visiting staff, and empowering students for meaningful engagement with modern Australian society are all vital components. This is also, however, complex to achieve and takes time. In fact, as all educators know, there is no end point, only the process of continual improvement.

Meaningful change comes from leadership with shared values and through significant collaboration with stakeholders. The synthesis of divergent and different type of knowledge can also lead to greater innovation when finding solutions. Thus diversity in teams isn’t just nice, it’s essential (as this HBR blog attests).

For all the talk of contextual differences, there are clear universals in education regardless of location or level of social and economic (dis)advantage. We need great teachers in every school backed by a supportive leadership, community, system and society. Through the work of John Hattie, AITSL and others, we know what great teaching is and how teachers can refine pedagogy to maximise their impact in raising student achievement. Likewise, supporting the development of students’ positive self-concept within a growth mindset, especially for those from areas of disadvantage, gives them some of the tools they need to live a fulfilled life as lifelong learners.

ALA aims to achieve this through challenge, deep understandings, and promoting the students’ sense of agency, all which contribute to the success of the model. I very much look forward to seeing Chris Bradford again in Melbourne this October for the Education Changemakers conference, EC14, to hear more on how education at ALA is changing lives and communities.

The power of education

In my last post I alluded to the impact we all make in our daily lives, but it is also clear that some people deliberately choose to leave a definitive positive mark on the world. This often arises from people practicing other-centredness in their daily actions and I feel the Winston Churchill quote below sums up this notion perfectly.

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One clear example of this was at an orphanage I visited recently in western Bali, Widhya Asih 5. My partner Jessica Dubois had volunteered there some six years ago and on her return we were warmly met by her old friend and current employee Komang.

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In short, Komang was a living inspiration: vivacious, passionate, focussed and, along with the other staff, clearly making a difference to young people in need. Through the orphanage, the teenagers are sponsored to attend school and are assisted into university or employment post-graduation, something that would have been unlikely otherwise. They rely principally on donations.

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The good nature and dedication of the teenagers and the tireless work of staff was deeply moving. It is so obvious that supporting these vulnerable teenagers is inherently good work and I was blown away by the energy, patience and positive interactions between staff and students.DSC_0105

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We don’t all work in an orphanage or hospital where our impact on lives is so visible or constant. But we do all live in a world filled with possibility, particularly if you are fortunate to have been born in a wealthy country. Of course, it is not just about giving resources where they are needed but about building local capacity. Indeed “voluntourism” may do little for the community if it is only focussed on the volunteer; a thought provoking ABC Radio National looks at this. If you want to contribute to Komang’s work, have a look at the Facebook page and get in touch.

When considering current and future foreign aid models and the dangers of “voluntourism”, I often think of Spark International, an organisation focussed on alleviating poverty. Their model is different as they take the position that local changemakers already exist in impoverished places and have great ideas to take their communities out of poverty. They just need the right type of support to make it happen.

Working towards community-informed solutions is something we have focussed on strongly at Mimili Anangu School, through the school’s relationships with the community and families as well as the professional and personal relationships between the local teachers (Anangu Education Workers) and the non-Anangu teaching staff. Building both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal staff capacity through developing an effective school culture is a huge priority, just as my capacity has been built by working with the local Anangu community: a crucial part of my work as a school leader.

Mimili Anangu School teaching staff (Term 1 2014):

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Teaching, just like social entrepreneurship, is a great way to make a positive impact and I implore anyone thinking about making a difference to become an educator. It’s the young people of today who will one day hold the fate of the world in their hands and teachers are a crucial part of that development. In a US survey of 20,000 teachers, 85% said they became a teacher to “make a difference to the lives of children”. 4% said it was for “the earning potential”, a testament to the motivations of teachers.

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In a community, country and world where everyone has their basic needs met, including access to high-quality education, we all become richer. For whatever your positive contribution is and what it will be in the future, humanity thanks you.

Making a Difference

 

An empowering notion on making a difference

An empowering notion on making a difference

It was great to see Jane Goodall on the Q&A panel of elders last night as she has a truly wonderful perspective on life. The above quote is one my favourites and I try to base my daily mantra on this, particularly for my work in education. The impact that we all constantly make on each other is profound even if we consistently trend towards incognisance.

Like many educators, I am in the empowering yet humbling position of impacting the lives of children and young people on a daily basis. Our species is social in nature – we not only crave interaction it is a prerequisite for our survival and to thrive and learn. Learning may be a cognitive process, but it fundamentally requires feedback and synthesis through interaction with the physical and social world. This is never more obvious between a parent and a child or a teacher and their student.

But against the notion of empowering individual impact and consequence is the astronomical perspective, in which the word ‘inconsequential’ may come to mind. If you haven’t seen the below clip of Carl Sagan outlining the Pale Blue Dot, a picture of Earth from 6 billion kilometres away, it is worth a watch as it is enlightening.

This all may may seem overwhelming (it does for me), and as Sagan states:

There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.

Despite this, Jane Goodall’s notion holds true. We do just by our very presence in life make a difference in the world, often being reminded of the opportunities there are to make positive changes for ourselves and for others. Working in service professions where helping others is inherent, such as education, is powerful and I applaud those who realise this and choose to pursue dedicating their lives to the benefit of other people. In the end, the image of the pale blue dot, if nothing else:

“underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the only home we’ve ever known: the pale blue dot.

Regardless of who you are, what you do makes a difference. You need to decide what kind of difference you want to make.

A Beginning

So finally a beginning. I’ve put this off for a while for two reasons. Firstly, trying to find the time and prioritise it within the time-poor profession of education.

And secondly, well there are just so many amazing blogs all over the place and many are  done so well. Do I have anything meaningful to add? In any case, I’m sure blogging is as much a personal learning experience as a networked one and I hope to share this journey through this blog as I continue to develop as an educator, making mistakes and search for a better way.

I’m completely convinced that blogging is a powerful professional learning tool. In fact, I first set up this blog during a session I attended by George Couros at the recent CEGSA conference in Adelaide.

Also, two of my colleagues have recently started blogs; Jessica Dubois and Lauren Waller and it has become even more obvious that they are both reflective educators, enabling meaningful conversations and connections to occur from across the globe.

I’ve come to realise that one must beat the perfectionist’s curse; waiting until everything is just ‘perfect’. I have found this a challenge across my life but good intentions without actions will never generate meaningful change.

So, educators are time poor. But the main question from my involvement in Education Changemakers still rings in my ears:  What is my most powerful contribution?

It is often passion that creates powerful contributions. So what am I passionate about? Well, I love languages and linguistics, technology, connecting with students, building capacity and educational leadership. But in the end, I am just totally enamoured with learning.

I try to take my mantra from the great Mahatma Ghandi.

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”

Although I couldn’t claim to live as if it were my last day on Earth (things would inevitably be much more interesting), I do endeavour to embody the latter philosophy.

The context in which I work is highly complex and I hope that through blogging I can come to reflect in a more meaningful way, improving not just the outcomes of the students with whom I work, but also my growth personally and professionally.