How to hack the education system with culture?

Learning and Behavioural Sciences November 18, 2022

This is a reflective essay written as part of the WISE Emerging Leaders program.

Today we are not only experiencing a global health crisis due to the pandemic of Covid but an education crisis where more than 77 million children have been out of school for nearly two years. As the schools closed in the first year of the pandemic, we saw the difficulty to continue to teach online and how there was a huge gap between those with access to the internet and those without access and connectivity. If before the pandemic we had a gap in education, this global crisis increased it and brought into light the necessity to address the challenges in education from a different perspective. In this moment of history, we must go beyond Covid-19 and reclame and reflect about the future of education. We need to have a broader conversation about the quality and type of education we are having today in schools and other education institutions. 

A crisis can make an invisible problem visible. This is the case of the mental health and social emotional crisis that is emerging in the world. This means today we not only have cognitive gaps but emotional and sentimental challenges that kids are encountering. Therefore, we need to think of education not as a process of transmitting knowledge, but a process that inspires and connects us to the territory and the world we live in. We can no longer see it as a transitory period where you go to school, university and never study again. Education must be seen as a lifelong learning process where we must constantly adapt, relearn and be curious to discover new ways to approach life and our professional experience. This is where culture can help us disrupt the status quo and move us forward to reimagine education and the way we learn today. 

Five years ago, in Comfama, we started an adventure to explore education models in the world. Following Larry Rosenstock, founder of High Tech High, recommendation when he said: visit the world and the best schools. Talk with the teachers and students. From each experience take a tile and create your own mosaic. This is exactly what we did.  We explored more than 100 education and cultural models from ten countries and talked with more than 500 teachers, families, and education leaders. We visited museums, parks, theaters, artists, workshops, and crafts. What did we learn from these explorations? 

We understood that education doesn’t only happen in educational learning spaces but also in the city and the cultural centers. The city itself is a learning ecosystem where children, teachers and communities interact. There is an interdependency between education institutions and the territories they inhabit. We must break the walls and rigid mentality of school’s infrastructure and foster interactions with an ecosystem of actors and instructions that surround these spaces. Neighborhoods should be designed and transformed from a school-centric perspective where schools become the catalyzers of conversations and interactions to make society better.

We also found in theaters the magic of discovering the unknown. Maybe education should be rethought as a theater play where you go without knowing all the answers and you find characters, stories, and joy. In a theater, the stage is set up to take you through a story and an adventure. You are dazzled and amazed by the capacity of the actors to move, engage, and create dialogs. The base of a good theater play is the capacity to create a memorable story. Why don’t we think of every educational experience as a theater play? 

When we visited orchestras and music centers, we saw the directors guiding a group of musicians where each instrument and musician had different sounds, talents, and capacities. They understood that each player was unique and distinctive. It’s within that individuality that the director was able to find the maximum potential of everyone to create a coherent rhythm and harmony in the group. In some education systems everyone is seen as “one-size-fits-all” and must follow the same path with the same talents. We need to understand that each child is unique and talented. The challenge of the teacher is to understand that uniqueness within a collective group and guide each one to find their own potential and sounds that create harmony for the world. 

Also, when we explored High Tech High (HTH), we understood the power of arts and physical spaces as interactive museums that empowered the learning experiences. When you walk these schools, you are surrounded by projects through arts that give you a sense of memorable learning experiences. HTH breaks the walls of a classroom and builds cultural centers to enhance interactions between students, teachers, and a learning community. They transformed the classroom into collaborative spaces with crafts, laboratories, and circular spaces for discussions. HTH is more than a school, it’s a space for creation, and discovery. Teachers at these schools are artists that perform and create interdisciplinary learning experiences through movement, arts, and projects.  

After this world exploration we came back to Colombia and created Cosmo Schools, a cultural movement that wants to transform education in Latin America. We don´t have classrooms but laboratories and creative spaces to explore. Our physical infrastructure are centers of experiences or cultural centers. We don’t have regular classrooms but moments of inspiring learning. We don’t have instructors but mentors that guide and inspire through arts and movement. We don’t give grades but conquests because we understand that each student is unique with their own rhythm and talents that they must conquer.  We are not trapped in the school walls. We explore the city parks, museums and engage with different communities that enhance a learning ecosystem. 

In our school, education and culture are interconnected. We believe culture gives us a sense of being. It connects us to our territory and our identity. It challenges who we are and our role in society.  When you go to a play, you listen to music, you disconnect from your daily problems. You find mental calm and spaces for creativity. Culture can help us connect with each other and engage in spaces that connect us to who we are. It can make our mental health thrive positivity and create social connections to develop our socioemotional skills. Thus, culture is essential today to transform our mental and social emotional crisis. Culture can help us hack the education system to make it more human and connected to the realities we encounter in the world. It can help us understand what we are and what we want to become as a society.