What can possibly be better than learning about global issues directly from each other? This brilliant question is the very foundation in the recently completed project Human differences. A project, that would inspire more than 50 schools in 37 countries around the globe to connect and build bridges for co-creating a brighter and better future, based on empathy.
Founded by the Belgian educator and author Koen Timmers, and MIE Expert Tammy Dunbar from the US, the project went on five weeks. Every week a new theme in the form of a global challenge, was researched, explored and collaborated by the students via Skype. Challenges that were discussed, debated and questioned, based on cultural contexts and personal experiences. In addition to the Skype meetings, the students worked with weekly presentations in Sway and OneNote to share their findings and discoveries. Texts, films, photos and songs were some of the creative forms used. One could define the creations within the project as a Netflix of learning possibilities, where teachers and students from all over the world contributed to the content.
In practice, one of many great examples were the students from countries like India and Pakistan, countries that carry the burden of decade long conflicts. How these young people all of a sudden were in direct contact, reflecting about their feelings and focusing on similar experiences due to these endless conflicts. This way they tore down the walls, built trust and confidence that could be the start a new approach and hopefully replace conflicts ahead. In some cases there was a third country moderating the discussion and asking questions where the students could co-create an up-to-date truth about each other. Hence understand each others context in the shade of these traumatizing conflicts. And what is more important, the fact that we are all equal, no matter where or what. Collaboration, not conflict, is the way to go.
Another example is the Skypesession between Northern Ireland and Ireland where Belgian students asked questions passed on by Canadian students. Until the end of the 1990ies there was a guerrilla war going on in Northern Ireland. All the students learned about this in different ways. Some of them interviewed their parents. That way they got to take part of som very powerful testimonials of what happened.
21st century skills and the 2030 sustainable goals
We could with this article have chosen to describe how Human differences has brought our world closer to reach the sustainable goals of 2030. Be fine with that and move on. But the work that has been done in this project is far more important and therefore deserves everyones attention. So let us focus on what really is at stake here. How the the lives of thousands of young people have changed through an awareness that never can be recached by lectures or books in a classroom. How true empathy was born and raised through a series of thought provoking meetings and tasks to solve.
The transformation that took place here is all about what happens when teachers dare to move outside their comfort zone and start collaborating globally. It is all about how teachers and students have worked together to create value for each other and the surrounding society. How they have worked together in order to tear down invisible walls, in al sorts of fields; gender equality, war and conflicts, walls due to political decisions and so forth. It is about how global challenges have been understood and tackled at a local level to make a the change needed for a better and more equal life ahead, where you live your life. Challenges lit to life as they take the form of your own experience, and you discover that you are part of something bigger. In many ways a sort of oppression that we all cling on to until we wake up, discover and question why we were thinking in a certain way about ourselves, and about each other…
All of a sudden we are all connected
So, how did it all start? I am sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee next to my laptop. It is 6 am in California, 3 pm in Sweden and Belgium. A time difference that won´t stop the teachers I am about to meet from having this exceptional Skype conversation. As a journalist I am about to take part of a unique global collaboration that has had an enormous impact on a lot of people over the past few months. Koen Timmers from Belgium starts out to tell me about one of the most important aspects of setting up and running the Human differences project.
-The most important goal has been to provide an opportunity to construct and re-construct the students own knowledge about differences between people and cultures all over the world. The way to do it? It is all about letting the students ask the questions. Questions based on situations they experience in their everyday life. This has been a student-centered project from beginning to end, because we believe that is the only way to go when we want to change the future. Connecting on a global level is a passion of mine and I really do believe that we as educators have to bring empathy into our classrooms, as well as languages and maths. Learning and understanding takes place when we travel and experience cultures and people we have not met before. Skype is an incredible resource and tool for this, Koen continues. I want students to learn how to use digital tools in order to reach such knowledge, not to teach them about the tool itself. It is all about creating value and at the end of this project, the hope was that all participating students would be able to take their newly self-constructed knowledge and transfer it to new situations in the future to help build bridges instead of walls and make our world a better place.
When Human differences makes all the difference
Tammy Dunbar, a teacher, MIE Expert and 2016 California Woman of the Year, Assembly District 12, who collaborated and developed Human differences together with Koen Timmers, is with us online. Even though it is only 6 am, her enthusiasm is in full bloom and it is contagious. Listening to her reflections gives me comfort and hope about the future. She definitely is one of these teachers that affect children and young people for the rest of their lives, by listening, encouraging and believing in their potential to really change the world. Tammy represents courage. Questioning authorities if she has to, in order to give her students the best opportunity to learn. She finds ways to make the impossible possible. In order to create an environment in which her students thrive and grow confidence, she crafts experiences that allow students to ask the questions and collaborate to find the answers.
– The overall aim of education, is to provide tools for students to be better global citizens. Citizens that feel an urge to contribute by actively participating in doing good for others, facing challenges of our time and find ways to solve the problems previous generations set off. I met Koen in 2015 and was very inspired by his work. He is kind of a rock star in the teaching world. We started working on a project back then and I just loved the creative process that took form when students got to ask and answer meaningful questions. It had this amazing snowball effect and the response from the students was huge.
So when he and I started talking this Spring, we melded together our two big ideas: gender equality and the literal walls people build between each other. We crafted big questions around the literal and figurative walls around us. This opportunity we created for the students to take part of each others’ work and feedback set off an incredible engagement among them. They even worked in their free time. The insights that came with this project were amazing. We could for example immediately see that bullying decreased and stopped taking place. Empathy and compassion grew. It is really powerful to be part of this kind of collaboration. Magic happens when we as teachers step outside our comfort zone and let the students experience real learning, learning for life.
A global shift in learning.
We are moving from instruction to collaboration and collaborative learning, where students create content and teachers guide and support the discussions that rise. Human differences is an example of giving students the freedom to research and thereby reach new important insights that will impact our future.
– When we started talking about Gender Inequality in my classroom, my students had no clue why it would ever be an issue, because it is not a part of our lives here. But as they began reading, researching, it was heartening and amazing to watch them become aware of some of the issues others face around the world. It was eye-opening for my students to see projects from other countries like India and China in which gender inequality is a real challenge. One of my students wrote: “If a man and a woman are both doing the same job, they need to get paid the same. I think it’s not right and unfair. Everyone should be treated equally no matter their gender, color, race, religion, or what they choose to do in their life. Gender inequality is something that needs to be changed immediately.” Having the opportunity to hear the story someone else’s challenges and having a real conversation with them – especially when they are peers – makes those “on the other side of wall” suddenly a real part of your world.
Empathy eliminates fear
When Tammy and her students first started Skyping with global classrooms, most of her students were shy and scared because they did not know the other kids.
– What on earth can we talk about with them was the big issue. But once on Skype, when we first met the other students’ smiling faces, our fears seem to suddenly melt away. My students love finding out that students in Romania know how to “dab,” students in Nigeria are amazing songwriters & singers, and that students in Vietnam love baseball, too. When you make connections with others around the world, that bond creates not only friendship but empathy and compassion. By seeing how easy it is to connect and collaborate with anyone around the world through Skype, my students know that they have an amazing personal learning network that they can depend on and work with to make the world a better place. Our Human Differences Project allowed us to break down both invisible and visible walls and build bridges of friendship, understanding and compassion. For my class to start in a place of “This isn’t a problem” and end up in a place of “This is a huge problem we need to fix” means this project is having positive effects which we didn’t even expect Tammy concludes.
The power of listening
Emma Nääs is one of the teachers that took part in the project with her students. They are based in Sweden and as they started working her students first found it a little difficult to define challenges that felt relevant.
-When I introduced Human Differences in the class it took some time for them to identify challenges that concerned them and their everyday life. In these situations it is extremely important that we as teachers give them time. Time to discover their own context and reflect on their own experiences. How? Through using our ears and listen, I believe we have two ears and one mouth for a reason, Emma smiles. What happens when we wait and tune in is a fantastic experience, Emma continues. It is extremely important that we do not always provide answers to everything. It is a true personal development that takes place as you have to question your chosen truths about reality and sometimes replace them with new answers. This gives us the opportunity to deconstruct and construct an new way of taking on life, with empathy and understanding for different choices. From a teachers point of view this is all about discovering what your students find interesting and motivating. The human differences aspect took this a step further, through examining gender inequalities locally, the students had something to share with each other on a global level. Their curiosity about people in other parts of the world grew, and they couldn´t wait to hear what the other student groups worked on and were about to share. They all developed great feedback skills and enjoyed praising each others work. A couple of the students in my class happily shared some insights.
-I thought it was a lot of fun and when it´s fun it´s easier to learn. I learned a lot. I did not get nervous when we did our Skype calls and I felt safe because it was just fun and exciting. At first when we discussed gender equality I thought everything was equal but when we looked into it I realized it was not. This was the most fun projects this year. I hope we will continue to have contact with the classes we Skyped with.
-I have loved working with this and I have learned a lot. I have never thought of all the differences there are between people and between men and women, boys and girls. I think more school classes in the world need to talk about differences and especially inequalities between boys and girls. I have come to realize that we really must stand up and change things in society so it will be better for us in the future.
To sum it all up, a number of countries in the world face challenges concerning education and development of society. Quite similar when you look into the matter. Let us therefore follow this eminent example and start working together, no matter boundaries, to find the solutions we all need. The challenges are in many cases the same, so let us work together. Collaboration is the only way to go and a pure definition of building a sustainable present – and future society.
GLOBAL VOICES ON THE OUTCOME OF HUMAN DIFFERENCES
”The students learned that even if our nationality, cultural backgrounds, nations and religions are different, our ideas are not so different”.
– Mio Horio, teacher in Japan
”Unity is not uniformity and that if with our differences we are able to work together and see ourselves as one, we can achieve greatness and peace in the world”.
– Olalekan Adeeko, teacher in Nigeria
”The most important outcome is although we are different from each other we all have a life to live and a future to build. We share a goal and that is a peaceful and sustainable world. To reach that we need to connect, work and support each other”.
– Soheir Zaki, teacher in Egypt
”The HD project was an incredible ride that woke up my students to extremely important issues. It made them think, do research on the topics and made them realize that the things they took for granted are not easy to achieve in other countries”.
– Manuela Valentim, teacher in Portugal
Tammy Brecht Dunbar, M.Ed., S.T.E.M.. She is a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert (MIEE). 2016 California Woman of the Year, Assembly District 12.