Article 26

Take a close look at the photograph above. What do you see? School courtyard? Teachers? Children?

Let me tell you a little about what I see when I look at this photograph. This is East Africa. The photograph was taken a couple of years ago, at an elementary school in a small town. I was standing inside the school's staffroom, looking out the window at the school's playground.

At first glance, there's probably nothing extraordinary about this photograph: it looks like it's recess and the children are enjoying their time away from their desks and textbooks. There are two teachers interacting with the students.

But look closely. Look at the teachers' faces.

This story begins with those faces because they are not happy faces of teachers interacting with their pupils at recess. Both faces are serious. The teacher on the left seems lost in thought. She seems sad.

Let me tell you why.

Only 10 or 15 minutes before I took this photograph, these students were in class. Many of their classmates remained in class. But these students, the ones you see in this photograph, were asked to assemble in the courtyard. If you look closely you will see that the teacher on the right seems to be checking something, perhaps a clipboard or some notes. What she is holding in her hand is a list of students who have been asked to leave their classrooms and assemble here. The reason they had been instructed to leave class and meet the teacher here in the courtyard is because their parents have not paid their school fees. These students are being sent home.

Why am I telling you this? I wanted to share this story because today is Human Rights Day. As a teacher, whenever I think about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whenever I think of Human Rights, and whenever Human Rights Day comes along, I think of Article 26:

Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

And that's exactly what I kept thinking about on that cloudy morning in East Africa, standing in front of that window, looking at a group of elementary school children pulled out of class to be told that they were being sent home. I wanted to help, and I knew I couldn't really do much. I was angry. I was devastated.

All of this took place in a country that had abolished school fees several years prior to this morning assembly that I recorded with my camera. Yet, this was not an isolated incident, and later on the teachers explained to me that this happens throughout their country and many others in their part of the world. Yes, the tuition fees have been abolished, they said, but parents are still asked to pay for meals and for uniforms. In some cases, they have to pay to help cover maintenance fees. In many areas, parents chip in to cover the teachers' salaries. So, yes, it's true, the teachers said to me, the tuition fees don't exist anymore, but education still costs money.

I live in a country where Article 26 is taken for granted. It is taken for granted by teachers, parents, children, teenagers. I also know of many other places around the world where Article 26 is taken for granted. But, I also know of and have visited places around the world where Article 26 and many, many other articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are fundamental human rights only on paper and where, for many different reasons - some of them very complex - human rights, including the right to education, are not respected.

As someone who cares deeply about education, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I can do and what my colleagues - teachers around the world - can do to ensure that education is not taken for granted and that access to education is respected around the world as a fundamental human right. I believe that it is our responsibility as teachers - the largest professional group in the world that currently includes almost 60 million of us - to teach, every day, about Article 26 and the other, equally important articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Whenever I raise this issue, I am often asked to recommend organizations that accept donations to help improve access to education around the world. I am not going to do that here. In fact, I want to challenge you today not to donate money. Instead, I hope that you will do what you do best: teach.

Make sure that the students in your own classroom know about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that they know that education is a fundamental human right (most of them don't, believe me), and that they also know and are deeply troubled by the fact that there are children around the world who do not attend school and who, for reasons beyond their control, cannot attend school. In doing this, you will be helping to build an army of human rights advocates, of young people who will grow up valuing their education and committed to human rights and global peace. That alone, that focus on human rights in your classroom, will do much more to advance human rights than your cash.

Think also about your own professional development. Teacher professional development needs to be more than attending conferences, reading professional journals, and engaging in online communities to exchange lesson ideas or links to valuable resources. Teacher professional development includes a responsibility to raise awareness about issues that affect teachers, classrooms, and students around the world. If our colleagues working in states run by dictatorships or rebels, in places plagued by conflict or poverty, or in places affected by natural disasters, cannot count on their fellow teachers around the world to make their stories heard and work towards global peace, who can they count on?

The photograph I shared with you at the beginning of this post does not depict an isolated incident. You and I know that access to education is being curtailed around the world. According to estimates by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 68 million children of primary school age were out of school in 2008. The reasons are varied, but this fact remains the same: millions of children around the world do not have access to education, to a fundamental human right.

Take a look at that photograph again and imagine being one of the teachers in that courtyard who have been told to interrupt their class, stop doing what they so passionately love, assemble a group of students, check off their names on the roster, and send them home.

Then, imagine walking back into your classroom to face their classmates, those fortunate enough to be allowed to stay, and to learn.

There's a lot of work ahead of us, but I am hopeful that we'll manage. After all, there's almost 60 million of us.

Teaching How to Learn

The Living and Learning with New Media (Ito, Horst, Bittani, et al., 2008) report was published in November 2008. I read it right away in its entirety and have been thinking about it ever since. Specifically, I've been thinking about how the findings of this project can assist teachers and teacher educators. What, I kept asking myself, can educators learn from this report? More importantly, how can these lessons then be applied in our classrooms and teacher education programmes? As I read and re-read this document I kept returning to its final section, "Conclusions and Implications." The final heading in this section struck a chord because it closely aligns with my doctoral research study and my current interest in assessment. The authors of the study state:

We see peer-based learning in networked publics ... in these settings, the focus of learning and engagement is not defined by institutional accountabilities but rather emerges from kids' interests and everyday social communication (Ito, Horst, Bittani, et al., 2008, p.38).

The study then goes on to state that "peers are an important driver of learning" (p.39) - not a revolutionary statement by any means, but important here in the light of what follows:

When these peer negotiations occur in a context of public scrutiny, youth are motivated to develop their identities and reputations through these peer-based networks, exchanging comments and links and jockeying for visibility. These efforts at gaining recognition are directed at a network of respected peers rather than formal evaluations of teachers or tests (p.39).

It's not surprising that interactions with peers and even adults in an interest-driven community are more engaging and more fulfilling than traditional classrooms where teachers and their textbooks and tests are often presented as more important than independent thinking and personal growth. Motivation emerges from interactions that take place online where anyone can see and participate in them. This "context of public scrutiny" is of great importance here. The safety of the self-contained classroom, one separated (by walls and firewalls) from the rest of the world - the world we are supposed to prepare our students for - goes against everything that surrounds young people today and prevents them from learning how to navigate the complex online world. Instead of separating our students from the world they're getting ready for, instead of cocooning them in protected classrooms, we need to give them opportunities to learn from and with people who share their passions. We need to give them access to communities "where they can find role models, recognition, friends, and collaborators who are co-participants in the journey of growing up in a digital age" (p.39).

What this means to me is that we need to seriously re-think not only our classrooms (we've known that for a while), but also, more importantly, our assessment and evaluation practices.

According to the report, we need to give our students access to "passionate hobbyists and creators" who share their work and passion in interest-driven communities, and who are valuable educationally because "youth see them as experienced peers, not people with authority over them"(p.39). Clearly, reducing access to these communities and the interactions they afford to letter or percentage grades is going to make our practices not only irrelevant but also, frankly, irresponsible. Opening up our classrooms to allow interest-driven interactions with people who "are not authority figures responsible for assessing kids' competence, but are rather what Dilan Mahendran has called 'co-conspirators'" (p.39) means that we have to start thinking very seriously about preparing our students for these interactions and helping them reflect on and learn from them.

How do we do it?

Some suggest that the tools teens embrace outside of school need to play a more prominent role in the classroom. Yes, these tools can help promote meaningful interactions, self-expression, and reflection. But let's not forget that merely bringing Web 2.0 tools into the classroom misses the point. Yes, they do promote peer-based interactions and self-expression. But adding blogging or wikis or even global collaborative projects to our curricula is not going to magically transform our static classrooms into interest-driven communities, and it certainly is not going to prepare the students to safely and effectively navigate "networked publics" (Ito, Horst, Bittani, et al., 2008, p.8). These tools are not going to magically create interest-driven communities. I have visited eight classrooms over the past four months, and in all but one I was shown both a class blogging community (or an online collaborative project) and also a list of teacher-generated prompts or assignments to be completed by each student for that very project. Will Richardson once referred to this as "assigned blogging" and, let me assure you, the phenomenon is alive and well.

I don't mean to say that there is no point in bringing technology into our classrooms. No, we have the responsibility to help our students learn how to effectively and safely use these new tools to extend and share their knowledge, make competent decisions, navigate "networked publics", and connect with those whose experiences can enrich their lives and their understanding of things they are passionate about. Our students need places where they can learn how to safely construct their online identities. They need to practice and acquire new media literacies. But the mere presence of technology in our classrooms is not going to help our students acquire these new literacies. Neither will using them to complete teacher-generated assignments. We have the responsibility to open up our walls and show our students that we want their passions and interests to grow beyond our physical classrooms, our class blogs, our textbooks, and our lesson plans. We also need to show them how to do it safely. It's time to reach beyond what we traditionally mean when we use the word "school."

But when our students reach beyond our classroom walls - even if it is with our permission or encouragement - we're not quite sure what to do. We stand there a bit sheepish, and we start thinking how to fit what they're doing into the course curriculum. How do we justify that brave act of opening our classroom walls? More importantly, how do we grade what the students have done? As Michael Wesch recently argued,

All of this vexes traditional criteria for assessment and grades. This is the next frontier as we try to transform our learning environments. When I speak frankly with professors all over the world, I find that, like me, they often find themselves jury-rigging old assessment tools to serve the new needs brought into focus by a world of infinite information. Content is no longer king, but many of our tools have been habitually used to measure content recall. For example, I have often found myself writing content-based multiple-choice questions in a way that I hope will indicate that the student has mastered a new subjectivity or perspective. Of course, the results are not satisfactory. More importantly, these questions ask students to waste great amounts of mental energy memorizing content instead of exercising a new perspective in the pursuit of real and relevant questions (Wesch, 2009).

In other words, "the pursuit of real and relevant questions" is too complex for our rubrics, checklists, and multiple choice quizzes. I believe that it demands that we get involved as co-investigators who assist students with their independent research and who also, through personal engagement as online learners and collaborators, model what it means to be successful as a learner. We have to become "co-conspirators" or, to use Vygotsky's famous term, "more capable peers," whose job is not to measure and evaluate but, primarily, to promote and support reflection and analysis in our students. As educators, we need to work on our role in the classroom as "passionate hobbyists and creators," we need to engage in learning in our classrooms, and in doing so we need to move towards a different model of assessment and evaluation.

"Become Students Again"

And that is precisely what I'm interested in - how do we redesign our outdated assessment and evaluation mechanisms to support our students as they venture outside of our classrooms and into interest-driven online communities?

I suggest that we follow and support our students. This isn't just about granting them leave to learn from and with somebody else in some online community that we've approved. This is also about traveling with them, not to supervise or hold their hand, but to advise as more experienced peers - to explore, learn alongside them, and help them reflect on what they are learning. It's about creating classrooms where, as Michael Wesch recently said, we can "become students again, pursuing questions we might have never imagined, joyfully learning right along with the others" (Wesch, 2009). We need to be there for them to show them how to learn. We need to show them that we're learning too, online and off. We need to show them that we reflect and set goals. We need to model those processes and learn to support our students in these new environments and interactions. It is our responsibility to help our students understand that learning how to learn means acquiring "a collection of good learning practices ... that encourage learners to be reflective, strategic, intentional, and collaborative" (James et al., 2007, p.28). Teaching our students, not as whole grades, not as classes, but as individuals, how to learn in the world where knowledge resides in webs, nodes, and multifaceted connections and correspondences is now our greatest responsibility.

Of course, the biggest question for me right now is: what does all of this look like in practice?



Ito, M., Horst, H., Bittanti, M., Boyd, D., Herr-Stephenson, B., Lange, P. G., Pascoe, C. J., and Robinson, L. (2008). Living and learning with new media: Summary of findings from the digital youth project. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Reports on Digital Media and Learning.
James, M. et al. (2007). Improving learning how to learn. Classrooms, schools, and networks. New York: Routledge.
Wesch, M. (2009, January 7). From knowledgeable to knowledge-able: Learning in new media environments. Academic Commons. Retrieved January 7, 2009, from

Virtual Kenyan Classroom

In August I traveled to Kenya with Teachers Without Borders - Canada. We delivered teacher professional development workshops to elementary and secondary teachers in a rural region, located about eighty kilometres outside of Nairobi. When I returned, I started looking for a creative outlet to reflect on my experiences. I wrote about my experiences on this blog, but merely writing about them didn't seem sufficient. So, I started sifting through almost 3000 photographs that I took while in Kenya and it occurred to me that they tell a story that is much more powerful than anything I could ever hope to convey in a blog post. The next day, I started building a virtual exhibit in Second Life.

TWB-Canada Exhibit Poster for the 2008 jokaydia Unconference

But in the process of building this exhibit, I also realized that it could be so much more than just a virtual gallery - it could become a learning environment, a place that anyone interested in education in Kenya could visit and explore. So, the initial virtual gallery idea quickly morphed into "unfinished ..." - a project to build a virtual Kenyan classroom, a typical classroom in a typical rural school in Kenya.

Virtual Kenya Exhibit - Second Life

Of course, some will say that I didn't have to use Second Life, that a blog entry, a Flickr set, or a PowerPoint presentation (or maybe all of them combined) would have been just as effective. That's why, before I began, I asked myself: What can I do in Second Life that I cannot do on the world wide web? Why do I need a multiuser virtual environment?

I wanted the visitors to be able to experience, even if only virtually, what it is like to stand in a typical rural Kenyan classroom. I can’t do that on my blog, but in Second Life I can create that classroom. I can try to re-create that environment. Of course, as a visitor to my classroom exhibit in Second Life, you won’t feel the fine Kenyan dust on the floor - the kind of dust that penetrates into everything in Kenya. You won’t be able to interact with Kenyan students or look through their notebooks. I cannot create tactile experiences in Second Life. What I can do, however, is create a visual experience that is very close to what I saw in Kenya. I can create a replica of a typical classroom and then use it as the setting for tours, presentations, or conversations about education in Kenya. I can create a virtual environment that provides a meaningful context for discussions about education in developing nations.

That environment wouldn't be complete without photographs of children and school life that I took while in Kenya. You will find them scattered around the exhibit. You will see photographs of children and classrooms leaning against a virtual fence or the classroom wall.

Miti Mingi Primary School, Kenya

Again, an argument could be made that all those pictures could have been shared on Flickr. True. I did share them on flickr, but as soon as I uploaded them I realized that they didn't fully represent my experiences, that individual photographs, when placed against the white backdrop of a flickr photo page, lose their richness and become just another snapshot. In Second Life, however, I can create an environment for them, a context that will help the visitor see them as part of a larger story.

When building this virtual space, I tried to make the environment as reminiscent of the actual schools in Kenya as possible. Many of the textures I used for walls or corrugated iron panels were extracted from my own photographs of Kenyan schools and imported into Second Life. Before I built the desks for the virtual classroom, I scrutinized the pictures I took of student desks in Kenyan classrooms. Before building the classroom itself, I carefully analyzed my pictures of rural schools in Kenya.

Why "unfinished ..."?

I chose this title because when I first walked into a classroom in rural Kenya, everything around me seemed ... unfinished - the bare walls and gaping holes instead of windows all contributed to that impression. It seemed that the classrooms were still under construction. Of course, the sad truth is that the classrooms I visited were all finished - there simply isn’t enough money at many of the schools in Kenya to put in windows or buy new desks. There simply isn’t enough money to put plaster on the walls, buy bulletin boards, or put up posters.

Not every classroom in Kenya looks like the one I created in Second Life. Some schools are better equipped than others. Some classrooms have windows and plaster on walls instead of bare bricks. Some have new desks. Many have electricity. The classroom I built in Second Life, however, is not atypical of rural classrooms in Kenya. It represents rural schools and the country itself quite well. In Kenya, many things, including roads, schools, buildings, and public services, seem ... unfinished.

The work that Teachers Without Borders - Canada has begun in Kenya is also unfinished. We had initiated great projects, worked with many teachers, and established valuable contacts with ministry officials and other NGOs. We look at these accomplishments as work in progress and an opportunity to continue to move towards our goals. One of those goals - and my goal for this virtual exhibit - is to raise awareness of some of the challenges faced by teachers, students, and administrators in developing nations.

I hope that you will take the time to walk through the exhibit and experience school life in a rural Kenyan classroom. The following link will take you into Second Life, to the island of jokaydia where the project is hosted: (SLurl to the Virtual Kenya Exhibit).

Virtual Kenya Project Machinima (Link to the original file on

Interested in a Tour?

If you like what you see and would like to bring your students or colleagues into this space, or learn more about education in Kenya or the work of Teachers Without Borders - Canada, please feel free to contact me. I've given a number of tours already and would be happy to chat about the space or help you build a lesson around this virtual exhibit.