Gavin Dykes on how a London meeting about education for ‘real world’ problems sparked the real thing

The meeting’s challenge was to inspire action to solve ‘real world problems’: “How can we support greater courage and innovation among teachers, and encourage us all to open our eyes to different challenges across the world?”

The responses came quickly: “Would focusing on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals help?” “Yes, but not goal 4, on education! Education should address ALL the goals.” And they had a great outcome: the Maverick Teachers Global Summit 2016 in India.

Ramji RaghavanRamji Raghavan, Agastya International Foundation founderThis meeting had taken place in London a couple of years ago, with two good friends, Ramji Raghavan and Jim Wynn. Jim is the CEO of Imagine Education based in Bristol and Ramji is founder of the Agastya International Foundation based in rural India on a campus two and a half hours from Bangalore (see also "Sustainable mavericks and disappearing sparrows").

Our conversation continued. “Let’s not use the word innovation – we hear that all too often. And we don’t want a conference overloaded with presentations – if we are travelling from across the world, people should learn from each other and work together to build something. We should seek to build understanding between participants, and explore ideas that we can act upon, that anyone can act upon.”

By the time we got to coffee things seemed to be coming together:
“We should invite innovative and creative, yes, maverick teachers!”
“Clearly children should play a key role in developing ideas, leading learning and guiding work”
“It should take place at Agastya’s campus…”
“We should call it the Maverick Teachers Global Summit.”

Heading for the Maverick Teachers Global Summit

Just about two years later, in July 2016, I was heading for Bangalore for the Maverick Teachers Global Summit 2016. Of course, in the interim we’d prepared the programme, developed ideas, recruited participants and chosen the goals on which to work.

Our aim for the summit was to bring maverick teachers together to work in teams and build innovative pedagogic practices that would lead us towards achievement of the UN’s sustainable development goals. We trusted that these practices could be designed to be adopted and adapted for local circumstances of schools and communities across the world.

We set the challenge for our teachers to work in groups to address United Nations Sustainability Goals (UNSDG 2015) in one of the following areas: Food and Water; Consumption; Gender equality; Energy, Infrastructure; Climate; Habitat. Teachers and facilitators were drawn from countries including Belgium, Canada, Chile, Finland, India, Malaysia, Netherlands, the UK and the US.

The design process — based on Sustainable Development Goals

Teachers and facilitators worked in multinational groups, with each group assigned to one of the chosen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The groups prepared their thoughts on the challenges associated with their associated SDG, then came up with solutions and finally prepared prototype approaches. Of course, this all took discussion and time and learning about fellow participants’ different thought processes and approaches.

At each stage, when discussions and hard work had led to something to be shared, the groups then worked with local rural children to understand what they and their teachers thought of their work, and how it might be improved.

These conversations were wonderful. The Climate Habitat group talked with the children about their goal and sought to discover how it related to their thinking. One child responded by describing a conversation with his grandfather about the sparrows that used to be common in their village. Now sparrows seemed rare. Where did they go? (See "Sustainable mavericks and the disappearing sparrows".)

THe climate group, with Tony ParkinThe climate group - 'Where have all the sparrows gone?'That story led to discussion of the local ecology, and the climate/habitat’s influence on the birds’ access to food and water and nesting sites, how the climate had changed and whether anything could be done about it. Then came a whole bunch of ideas around how to address the issues for the birds. Ultimately, the project came alive as “Where have all the sparrows gone?” It included elements of data collection, simple science, working on water cleanliness and bird behaviour — dust bowls were provided where sparrows could clean themselves and access to food was improved by nurturing appropriate plants.

Across the whole of the Maverick Teachers Global Summit, contributors included people with extremely wide areas of expertise. These included: Origami and Kirigami (and using these practices to help improve slum children’s mathematics); toy making; ecology and the natural world; visual design thinking; photography and film making; language; technology; maths; the performing arts; science; music; poetry

And as we worked through the days, Sven and Robert from Jongens van de Tekeningen, a Netherlands-based design agency, used their design skills to help each group arrive at creative solutions as well as pulling together a magnificent visual record of the whole event.

We spent most of our time in at Agastya’s campus working in the spacious auditorium. It was with the children who were coming to Agastya to do that practical hands on learning of which the discussions with our maverick teachers from across the world were a part. And I think it's fair to say that among all who played a part, we are all impressed and delighted by the interest and engagement of the children and the fun we had in learning together.

Ramji Raghavan often talks about the "Ah, aha, haha" route to learning. There’s the noise you might make when you first hear something, "Ah". Then there’s the "Aha" when you understand, and finally the "Haha" you exclaim when you express your enjoyment in learning.

Perhaps our collective "Haha" moment came on the final evening of the Maverick Teacher Global Summit. That was the evening when the Agastya International Foundation took us out into the villages around Agastya — a long way from the ends of the surfaced roads — where we visited local schools. Without a shadow of a doubt, that experience brought everything together. These were farming villages – with a very different way of life to that which most of us experience, and set into context something fundamental about the importance of understanding and lack of presumption were required when developing our approaches to learning. The children were those we had met on campus, but now we were seeing them in their own context.

The sum of the learning was greater than the parts

Friendships and working relationships were built in that week in India, together with a growing desire to link learning with real action. In conclusion I learned:

  • Mavericks by definition, don’t follow rules;
  • Language influences the way we behave and work;
  • The value of following a design process;
  • Learners’ and teachers’ voices are critical;
  • Empathy with culture and background makes a huge difference to understanding;
  • Freeing thinking through working in other countries and cultures can be a spur to innovation and improving work back home.

As we all left and and were homeward bound I wondered, 'Would I do it again?' Of course I would, at the drop of a hat!

Gavin Dykes is an independent education adviser and consultant, programme director of the Education World Forum and Asian Summit on Education and Skills and director of Cellcove Ltd



Thanks to:
Agastya International Foundation (Ramji, Ajith, Tapasya and the whole Agastya team)
NEA Foundation
British AIrways
Jongens van de Tekeningen
Straw Hat Visuals
All the teachers, children and facilitators who helped make the Maverick Teachers Global Summit such a wonderful experience

See also "Sustainable mavericks and disappearing sparrows"