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Changing Malaysian education from the outside in?

This post was originally published on

This post is part of a series of reflections on my experiences studying improvement efforts in the US, Finland, Singapore and Malaysia, and most recently South Africa.

Given relatively low levels of performance on recent international tests, the Malaysian education system is rarely a focus for international comparisons. Nonetheless, on my visit last fall to Kuala Lumpur, I was struck by some of the stark differences between education in Malaysia and in neighboring Singapore, generally regarded as one of the highest performing education systems in they world. While both countries have demonstrated considerable economic development since they split apart in the late 1950’s, only Singapore coupled that economic growth with rapid development of a comprehensive education system.  In fact, although a new law in Malaysia will increase compulsory schooling to eleven years, right now Malaysian children are still only required to attend school through sixth grade.  Furthermore, according to a recent Unicef report, over 200,000 primary-school age children in Malaysia are not attending school.  These include children from several different groups – among them refugees, migrant workers in the palm oil plantations, nomadic groups living in coastal areas of East Malaysia, and homeless and street children.  Many are undocumented, and, therefore are not treated as citizens, or given access to free primary education (for more on refugee education in general see the latest post from

The growth of a host of for-profit and not-for-profit private schools in Malaysia reflects the continuing dissatisfaction with the public education system.  Beyond concerns about the quality of schools, restrictions on access and scholarships to some of the highest-performing public schools and universities for those who are not native Malaysian has also encouraged many students to seek out these alternatives.  The alternatives to government-run public schools include private schools often connected to international schools operating in the US and elsewhere, and some newer schools established by Malaysian private universities like Taylors’ University and Sunway University.   There are also new schools associated with alternative school networks in the US like Acton Academy as well as a growing homeschooling movement.  The growth of these schooling options outside the government-funded public system reflects the lifting of restrictions that had previously limited access to international schools largely to the children of expatriate; but in 2006 the Malaysian government allowed international schools to   form student populations with up to 40% of native Malaysian students, and then in 2012, the quotas were eliminated entirely, enabling Malaysian students to enroll in a school of their choice (as long as they could pay for it; as long as they received language instruction in the national language, Bahasa Malaysia; and as long as Muslim students took Islamic studies).

The level of concern with the Malaysian education system is also evident in the development of a variety of efforts to provide workshops, camps, and other learning opportunities outside the regular school day.  A number of these new efforts take advantage of the emergence of digital media to provide support for students learning in school and out. In particular, organizations and collaboratives like Edunation, EnglishJer, and Tandemic have sprouted to address what their members identify as gaps or problems with the Malaysian education system. All three of the leaders of these organizations, Edmond Yap, Abdul Qayyum, and Kal Joffres, see tremendous potential to address social and educational problems and to create new learning opportunities in Malaysia.  My conversations with them were particularly intriguing to me because I learned both how they responded to local issues and opportunities in education Malaysia and how they struggle with some of the same challenges of developing more innovative and effective learning opportunities that those in more developed systems like the US and Singapore face.

Edunation: Free online tutoring for all

“I smile a lot, but I’m actually quite angry with what’s happening all around me,” Edmond Yap, told me as he described the levels of corruption he encountered in his previous work in Malaysia in engineering and construction.  But he locates the source of his effort to create Edunation – which has produced over 4000 hours of translations of Khan Academy videos as well as their own videos of topics central to the Malaysian curriculum – to his work with John, a 15-year old orphan he was tutoring.  When Yap met him, John was one month away from taking the national math exam at the end of ninth grade (the PMR exam, which has now been replaced).  Yap realized that even after years of schooling, John was still unclear about some of the simplest problems.  When asked to add ½ to ½, John responded, after a pause, ¼.  Yap knew, even with his help and with John’s willingness and motivation to come to school every day and go to tutoring, there was no way that John could pass the exam.  The system had failed him.  Yap realized, as he put it, “I can’t even help one kid let alone address the larger problems we have in our country.”  Deeply frustrated, Yap quit tutoring, and after some soul searching, quit his job as an engineer as well.

Seeing the Khan Academy videos for the first time in 2011, however, gave him hope again.  “This is it,” Yap said “this is the way we can make free help available to every Malaysian child.”  The Khan Academy offers access to hours and hours of video that students can use as a resource to get help on many school subjects, but none of those videos were available in Malaysian. With Khan Academy’s permission, Yap joked that he became Khan Academy’s “unofficial translator” for Malaysia as he and then a number of volunteers began translating hundreds of videos from English into Malaysian.  Initially, their goal was to provide what was essentially free tutoring (or “tuition” as it is labeled in Malaysia and many other Asian countries like Singapore) and they looked for videos from Khan Academy or elsewhere on the web that would enable students to get assistance with any of the key topics in the Malaysian national curriculum. When they started mapping the topics of the Khan Academy videos onto the Malaysian curriculum, however, resources for many key topics were missing.  In order to address the gaps, Yap and his colleagues started producing their own videos, and “Edunation was born.”

By the end of 2016, Edunation had produced over 4700 videos, including videos at the primary level in Chinese and Tamil.  But as their stockpile of videos grew so did d their ambitions.  Yap and his colleagues realized that the online content could help many children, but it still might not reach those who lack access to the internet or who might lack the support or motivation to take advantage of the online resources.  With particular concern for those students who have spent years in schools failing and may have lost all motivation to learn, Edunation expanded its goals to focus on providing free tutoring offline as well.  “How do you provide not just free tuition online to all Malaysian children, but offline tutoring as well?” Yap wondered. Their conclusion:  peer pressure.  “You create a culture and community where students help one another.  When you do that, it’s free tutoring by every Malaysian child, for every Malaysian child,” Yap explained.

Developing such a community for peer tutoring and academic support, however, has not been easy.  At first, Yap thought they would be able to create teacher learning communities – bringing teachers with different experiences together to provide tutoring after school.  After a year, however, he abandoned that plan because of the difficulty of recruiting teachers. Unable to rely on teachers, he developed a pilot program to work directly with students in two schools to establish a community in which they support one another.  As Yap describes it, the vision was like a mix between a typical tutoring center, toastmasters (a popular international public speaking and leadership program) and the Lions Club (an international service organization). Small groups of students met once a week to help one another access videos and other free resources that they could use to prepare for upcoming exams and complete other academic work.  Every two weeks, students also participated in self-directed leadership activities designed to develop skills like empathy and openness. Edunation staff and volunteers helped to get the programs running, assisted students in developing tutoring plans, and provided materials and resources.

Ultimately, however, Yap’s goal is to find ways to influence and improve the education offered during the regular school day as well. In Malaysia, that means facing the significant challenge of trying to work with the government and in government public schools and dealing with all of the red tape and constraints that come with it; or it means developing a private school, which has more flexibility, but which is then disconnected from, and less likely to influence, the public system.   There are basically walls around us,” Yap explained, “and we are trying to find a path through.” The path he has selected at this point is to work with a long-time mentor, Dr. Tee Meng Yew, from the University of Malaya, on a project separate from his work on Edunation to design a low-cost private school. They envision a school that “works for the students,” providing more opportunities for them to choose their educational path (whether that involves taking the national exams, preparing for the International Baccalaureate, or preparing for a specific career). From Yap’s point of view, they are “trying to set an example of what a school could be in a local context” and to make their design and resources freely available (like the Edunation videos) so that they might have an impact on the wider system as well.

@EnglishJer: Social media as a platform for learning

Like Yap, Abdul Qayyum never planned to work in education.  His college degree was in Law, but throughout his university studies, he also served as a digital media consultant for a number of companies and clients.  In that work, he uncovered what seemed to be a promising opportunity. “Social media is littered with the young, the opinionated, people with power,” Qayyum explained, “but there’s not much attention to education.” From his perspective, those who were using social media for education were mostly using it to publicize and promote what they were doing offline, outside of social media, rather than using social media as an educational tool.  In contrast, Qayyum has decided to take educational activities that might take place offline and try to bring them online.  In the process, he sees his role as using social media to create engaging opportunities for young Malaysians to develop their language and communication skills, to use English, and to find ways to express themselves in English. To accomplish these goals, he created a twitter account @EnglishJer, and leveraged his knowledge of social media to start twitter conversations about issues like the weak English skills of Malaysian youth, the problems with the Malaysian exam system, and general issues in the teaching and learning of English.

At first, he just saw @EnglishJer as an experiment, a way for Malaysians to connect and come together on a familiar platform to talk about the challenges and possibilities for learning English.  As Qayyam described it, “’jer’ is a colloquial form of the Malay ‘sahaja’ which means ‘just’, as in ‘it’s just English (you don’t have to worry).’”  But even Qayyum was surprised at how quickly the twitter conversations took off after the launch in January of 2015. Within three months, @EnglishJer had almost 6000 followers.  A few months after that, Malaysian educators started to take notice, and he began to get requests to come to talk to students and to provide workshops on topics like public speaking and creative writing.  At the same time, Qayyum also started getting inquiries from followers who wanted to help share the work with others. “It started as a twitter account, but I didn’t know where it was going to go from there,” Qayyum said, “So when people started asking me, ‘are you an NGO or a private company?’ I said ‘I don’t know’, but if you want to join us just tag along.”

After about 15 months, he got an offer from a local foundation to create a  “camp” to bring fifty Malaysian students together to develop leadership and communication skills. When over 200 people applied, he knew they were on to something.  Soon Qayyum and a growing group of volunteers found themselves developing more camps and holding events like poetry slams and live “quizzes.” They got requests to create curriculum modules and, at the request of a local media company, they created a series of videos.  Building on the success so far, they will be launching a nationwide tour to take the workshops, camps and other events to every state in Malaysia over the next year.

In each case, the work has been driven more by the growing demands from followers than by a particular vision. For example, the quizzes came about through an invitation to participate in a literary festival.  The organizers asked them to do a workshop, but Qayyum told them “Everyone else is doing that, so why don’t we do something different and try out a quiz show?”  That show became a model for a series of interactive events that Qayyum sees as a kind of combination of improv shows like “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and game shows like “Jeopardy”.   The shows include teams vying to answer questions like “Can you guess which words have Greek origins?” and then participating in challenge rounds such as a water gun spelling bee. “We’re innovative in terms of method, rather than content.” Qayyum explains. “There’s still a stigma about speaking English here, so we first convince people that it’s okay to learn English, and then encourage them to use it.”

In order to make the work possible, Qayyum and his colleagues are all volunteers.  As he said, “no one works on this full-time,” and they rely to a large extent on small donations and in-kind contributions (for prizes, spaces, etc.) as well as occasional support from a private foundation. They also work with a number of partners, like Project Ihsan, which provides free tuition for students, and they draw on both the enthusiasm of their followers and the power of EnglishJer’s social media presence, which helps to attract support from celebrities and local educators and merchants alike.

While Qayyum admitted he felt like they are often “winging it,” he and his colleagues are also constantly engaged in surveying and researching the needs and interests of the youth they hope to reach. “What’s actually your problem with communicating in English? What annoys you about learning English?  Why are you still having problems with English after so many years studying it in schools?” In fact, in addition to providing workshops and helping to train locals to offer their own camps and workshops, the tour is designed to enable them to talk to followers from all regions of the country and get their input.  With all this input, Qayyum and his followers then try to identify those issues that are not addressed in Malaysian schools and that they feel their followers will respond to.  But they see another need for that information as well: Following the nationwide tour, they plan to use that knowledge in talks with policymakers and education stakeholders to improve the system.  “If we do this properly, maybe people will take notice,” Qayyum said.

Tandemic: Social Innovation as an Opportunity for Learning

Kal Joffres started Tandemic to provide consulting to help companies develop their social media strategy, but almost immediately he saw opportunities to use social media to advance social causes.  In particular, he saw the success of start-up weekend in the US and adapted it for Malaysia.  Instead of helping participants to start their own companies, however, Tandemic created a series of “make-a-thon’s” where the goal was to bring teams together to identify social challenges and design and proto-type possible solutions.  The make-a-thon’s were “less focused on the pitch at the end and on the business model,” Joffres explained. “And more on the solution, and designed to have a broader appeal.”

The make-a-thon’s took off almost immediately, and Tandemic developed a series of what they now call “Makeweekends” that they have taken to a variety of different locations, particularly local universities. Right from the beginning, Joffres felt that the participants found the freedom and encouragement to design “anything” particularly powerful. “Participants would come to our Makeweekends, and they would ask ‘you mean we can build anything we want?’ It was almost like it was a freedom that they had never had.”  As he put it, “For 13 years people have gone through a system where they have created only one kind of product – the essay/paper/report – and they finally create something tangible, and I think that light bulb goes off.”

With growing interest from participants as well as from the government and other funders, Joffres and his colleagues at Tandemic developed a wide range of Makeweekends and “hack-a-thon’s” over the next four years, primarily for 16-24 year olds in Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia.  For this work, the focus was on social causes of all kinds, but the experience also gave Joffres and his colleagues ample opportunity to develop their own educational approach to design thinking.  In particular, they sought to deepen and extend the Makeweekends to encourage participants to go beyond the design stage and to try to put their ideas into practice.

Not everything Tandemic tried worked at first, however.  One change to the make-weekend design was to focus on what Joffres and his colleagues called “ideation” workshops.  In this approach, participants came to the design workshop for two weekends in a row – spending the first weekend developing their idea and the second focusing on design.  That approach foundered as they found it was hard for participants to block off the time and make a commitment to both weekends.  They even tried adding a Friday night session to give participants more time to develop their ideas, but, ultimately, they settled on a two-day (Saturday-Sunday) structure, because as Joffres explained “Each time the participants have to leave the venue and come back, there’s attrition.”

Tandemic has also worked on strengthening the impact of the makeweekends by building in more support for the participants to test out their ideas. As Joffres explained “We want participants to go out and find out ‘is this thing that we’ve created something that people really want? Or is it just something we’ve fallen in love with?’”  To that end, Tandemic has developed an approach in which they ask participants to establish “home” and “away” teams.  While the “home” team comes to the workshop, the “away” team stays in their local neighborhood to help gather information and pilot ideas as the “home” team continues to refine their ideas. For example, one “home team” wanted to help address problems of infant malnutrition back in their village in Nepal. They had already found that although food was available, many babies were being fed the wrong foods at the wrong time.

To address the problem, the home team developed a bracelet with color-coded beads that the new mothers could wear.  The bracelet served as a memory aid by linking the colored beads to different developmental periods and to the appropriate foods. The success of the bracelet, however, depended on developing effective training. Over a four-hour period, the home team stayed in touch with the away team back in Nepal as they interviewed a few young mothers and looked for potential trainers.  In the process, the teams learned that the best time for the training would be while the mothers were at appointments at the local health clinic.  However, they also learned that the group of medical professionals they expected to provide the training were only available on Saturdays, but on Saturday the health clinic was closed. In the end, the away team was able to identify a group of nursing students who were required to do volunteer work and could do the training during the week. From Joffres’ perspective, the home and away teams provide a structure to help people examine their core assumptions – “walk people back” from their initial ideas and then “walk them forward again.”  As Joffres explained, “You can’t just have ‘experts’ come in and tell people their ideas are problematic. They have to find it out for themselves.”

Joffres describes Tandemic’s work on the Unicef Youth Innovation Challenge as the culmination of all their work on using design thinking to address social problems.  The Challenge, held at the end of 2016, invited young people from all over Southeast Asia to submit applications to address a pressing social issue in their community. From 660 applications, 77 were chosen to participate in a 6 week mentorship program focused on design thinking; 43 came to a three-day “boot camp” in Kuala Lumpur; and three finalists were chosen to get continued mentorship to help them to take their ideas to the next stage, and, ideally, get funding.

Looking ahead, Joffres is seeking ways to have a more direct impact on the Malaysian education system as well.  The creation of a donor’s choose-type website for Malaysia took one step in that direction.  That initiative raised over 300,000 Malaysian Ringit in crowd-sourced donations for projects that teachers proposed.  But Joffres worried about the challenges of tracking the impact of those donations and is now changing focus to take Tandemic’s design thinking experience directly into schools by creating what he’s calling “innovation labs.” That work would involve teachers in identifying key problems that they face; Tandemic is looking for funders to support a small group of teachers who want to collaborate to try to solve those problems; and then Tandemic will provide the mentorship and structure to help those teachers to collect data, develop prototypes, and test them out. Joffres envisions this innovation lab as producing tools and resources that are relevant for many teachers and capable of spreading throughout the system with appropriate funding and support.

The challenges of influencing education systems from the “outside in”

All three of these endeavors draw on ideas and resources that cross boundaries, like digital videos, social media, and design thinking, to create new kinds of educational activities that fit the Malaysian context.   While unique to Malaysia, these initiatives also share some of the goals and concerns of “bottom-up” efforts to build on the ideas and experiences of educators (such as the iZone in the US and eduLab in Singapore); of peer-learning education models that have taken off in countries like Mexico and Columbia; and of the work on improvement science in education and health.

Furthermore, despite the differences among the three initiatives, all three have spent the bulk of their time developing their initiatives outside the public education system in Malaysia, but all three are becoming more and more concerned with exploring ways to influence the government-run school system as well. While they have to contend with a highly centralized and regulated system with relatively limited capacity, they also face some of the same basic challenges that confront those who want to create new kinds of learning experiences in the US and Singapore. Most importantly, like those who create charter schools and afterschool programs in the US outside the regular public schools, they gain some freedom from government regulations to develop their ideas, but then they also have to figure out how their work on the “outside” can find a way into the regular system to influence the day-to-day education of most Malaysian students.

At the same time, even efforts to provide educational alternatives “outside” government schools still cannot escape the system entirely. All of these organizations still have to deal with the facts that attending university and participating in many careers in Malaysia means passing national exams and meeting national curriculum requirements (even those with law degrees from other countries have to take a course and get credit in Bahasa Malaysia in order to practice law in Malaysia for example).  That means trying to “innovate” and develop alternative educational opportunities while still conforming to many of the existing constraints on conventional schools.

— Thomas Hatch

Lead the Change interview with Dr. Kim Schildkamp

Dr. Kim Schildkamp is an associate professor in the Faculty of Behavioural, Management, and Social Sciences of the University of Twente. Kim’s research focuses on (professional development in) data-based decision making and formative assessment. She has been invited as a guest lecturer and keynote speaker at several conferences and universities. She has been appointed as the president elect of ICSEI (International Congress on School Effectiveness and Improvement), and she is the chair of the ICSEI data use network. Furthermore, she is the chair of the AERA division H international relations committee and she is an executive member of the newly established AERA data-driven decision making SIG. She developed the datateam® procedure, and she has won awards for her work. She has published widely on the use of (assessment) data, for example she is editor of the book Data-based decision making in education: Challenges and opportunities, published by Springer.

In this interview, which is part of the Lead the Change Series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest GroupSchildkamp shares her excitement about the potential for data use in education:

The use of data can improve the quality of decision making in education. I have seen several examples where the use of data resulted in increased learning and achievement. We have worked with schools that had experienced student achievement problems for many years. These schools had tried to solve these problems in so many different ways, which never worked. By using data to investigate the causes of their problems, they were finally able to identify and introduce solutions, which resulted in increased student achievement.

This Lead the Change interview appears as part of a series that features experts from around the globe, highlights promising research and practice, and offers expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change. Recently Lead the Change has also published interviews with Diane Ravitch, and the contributors to Leading Educational Change: Global Issues, Challenges, and Lessons on Whole-System Reform (Teachers College Press, 2013) edited by Helen Janc Malone, have participated in a series of blogs from Education Week.

Urban Refugee Education: A report

This week, we share the first ever global study on urban refugee education. This report, “Urban Refugee Education: Strengthening Policies and Practices for Access, Quality, and Inclusion,” is based on a study conducted by Mary Mendenhall, Susan Garnett Russell, and Elizabeth Bruckner of Teachers College, Columbia University.  The authors surveyed 190 professionals working with UN agencies as well as national and international NGOs that help deliver education services to refugee populations in 16 countries. They also conducted an in-depth study of urban refugees in Beirut, Nairobi, and Quito. The authors discovered that, as refugees blend into poor, urban communities, they experience the problems afflicting other marginalized and vulnerable groups in the host population. Minors often need to work and earn money rather than attend school, or they lack safe transportation to and from school. Local schools are often too crowded to enroll refugee students, or they lack adequate supplies and trained teachers.

As the authors share in the Executive Summary,

The image of refugees living together in camps is no longer the norm. Sixty percent of today’s refugees live scattered and embedded across large urban areas. The urbanization of refugees is creating new obstacles for refugee children who find it difficult or impossible to attend school, even though they are entitled by international law to do so. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, half the world’s displaced people are children under 18. Half of refugee children are enrolled in primary school, 22 percent in secondary school and only one percent in higher education. Adding to the complications of urbanization, longer conflicts have increased the average worldwide duration of refugee status to 20 years. Millions of refugee children are spending their entire childhoods in exile without ever attending school, despite their right to obtain an education.

Findings in this report show that there is a gap between policy and practice in education for this refugee population. The authors argue that this gap exists because of 1) lack of capacity in government schools, which are already crowded; 2) lack of civil servants to interpret and enforce policy; 3) local and school administrators have autonomy, which sometimes make the education of refugee children impossible or difficult; and 4) there is discrimination and xenophobia by host communities.

For more information on the education of refugee populations around the world, see earlier IEN reports including “Educating a new population of refugees in Europe,” and “Scan of Ed News: U.S. Travel Ban and Higher Education.” We have also collected the following recent news reports focusing on the education of refugee populations:

EU, IOM Help 2,500 Refugee, Migrant Children to Attend Greek Schools (International Organization for Migration)

A haven for Europe’s newest refugees | NRC (Norwegian Refugee Council)

Living in the Shadows, a Family Tries to Secure Its Children’s Future – Women & Girls (

Government votes down plan to help more child refugees (The Independent)

UNICEF Refugee and Migrant Crisis in Europe: Regional Humanitarian Situation Report #20, 15 February 2017 (Relief Web)

Education vital to keep Syrians from extremism, EU says (Anadolu Agency)

Living in the Shadows, a Family Tries to Secure Its Children’s Future (

Syrian refugee kids find joy and success in these classrooms. They are a lucky few. (PRI)

3rd Migration Forum stresses EU countries share migrant responsibility (GEO)

Unaccompanied Gambian minors receive free education in Italy (The Point)

Growth of Multi-Academy Trusts: do we need to put the brakes on?

The following post was written by IEN contributor Melanie Ehren. It was originally published on the IOE London blog

Yesterday, the House of Commons Education Committee issued its report on Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) with the key headline of: MPs concerned about performance, accountability and expansion of multi-academy trusts’.

The report issues a number of recommendations, all of which are aimed at supporting  further growth in the number of academies and Multi-Academy Trusts. As the report states (p.6) ‘the Government expects that in five to six a years a “tipping point” will be reached where most schools have converted and joined a MAT’. Given the current numbers of academies in MATs, this would see a total of 15,767 state-funded schools convert to academy status and become part of a MAT over the next couple of years. Another 1,618 academies that are currently operating on a stand-alone basis would also need to become part of a MAT.* The numbers are impressive and given the difficulties in too rapid expansion of existing MATs, it is no surprise that the Education Committee is calling on the Government to ‘only promote expansion of MATs that prioritizes performance.’

But how should we prioritise expansion on the basis of performance? What are high performing MATs and what does sustainable growth look like?

The government currently uses a ‘health check’ to help decide which MATs can expand. The health check includes five areas: standards and track record, people and leadership, governance capacity, financial sustainability and management of risk. Particularly MATs with a large number of schools with good or outstanding Ofsted grades and performance data, and who have clear governance structures and financial control in place are allowed to grow. An experienced CEO, a finance director, a board member and a member of the trust will be ‘inspected’ by a Regional Schools Commissioner to identify ‘where there may be potential issues that need to be addressed before that trust is ready to go to the next stage of development’ (p.28).

The Education Committee supports the health check approach, but also criticizes the lack of research underlying it, suggesting further work in this area to inform a more evidence-based approach. In my view, an evidence-based health or growth check needs to incorporate two distinct frameworks: one which describes the performance of a MAT, and one which looks at their growth trajectory.

High performing MATs

Research indicates that effective school networks have specific structural features, as well as effective relations between individuals and schools in the network. These include clear procedures for decision-making, geographical proximity and high levels of trust between people in the network. Provan and Kenis also explain how effective networks have an optimum make up in structure and relations, for example where large Trusts need to have stronger central coordination to be effective, compared to small Trusts, and where there is also a greater need for central coordination when schools within the Trust don’t trust each other. Including these three elements in external accountability frameworks enhances our understanding of how the functioning of networks can be improved to more effectively fulfill their purpose. The research also suggests that there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer to understand high performance of MATs, but that a much more nuanced approach is needed, looking at an ‘optimum fit’ of size, geographical location, governance structure and relations and collaboration between schools.

Sustainable growth of MATs

As MATs grow over time, so will the ‘optimum fit’ change: adding new schools will affect the portfolio of schools and assessing whether a MAT should grow raises a range of questions, such as:

  • do new schools share the vision and mission of the MAT?
  • do they have similar systems (e.g. around curriculum, assessment, time tabling) in place?
  • are they geographically close to other schools in the MAT, but not too close to compete over students?
  • what will they contribute to the MAT?
  • or how much of the resources will they draw from the MAT?

A number of studies have explained how networks have a natural life cycle which generally consists of four stages of development:

  1. Formation: building relations, establishing norms, negotiating and setting values and direction, non-brokered governance
  2. Development and growth: building on and leveraging relationships, addition of new partners, securing legitimacy, mobilizing actors to translate common ground into shared vision, introducing more brokered forms of governance
  3. Stability and routinization: reduction of costs of continued interaction by basing collaborative actions on shared strategic vision and embedding coordination and collaboration in local norms, building relationships of trust, collaboration embedded in local norms, brokered coordination of collaboration in the network (lead organization or NAO) and supporting infrastructure
  4. Extension or phase out: imposition of sanctions for not contributing to the whole, strengthening position of the network, recognition of the worth of the network and potential outreach to other partners through incidental collaboration on parallel projects. Or: phasing out of the network when collaboration brakes down and partners exit the network.

Any health check and assessment of growth needs to understand the specific phase a MAT is in and how adding new schools to the Trust would affect that process. As Trusts that have done well so far have expanded slowly in a relatively limited geographical region, the ambition to have all schools in a Multi-Academy Trust by 2022 needs to be treated with caution.

* In November 2016 there were 21,525 state-funded schools in England of which 1,618 were stand-alone academies and 4,140 schools were in MATs.

Building Hope In South African Education

This post was originally published on

I’ve only spent a week in Johannesburg, but it is hard not to be overwhelmed and inspired. Overwhelmed by the realities that many Black students in the Townships and the poorest communities still experience – strikes, violence and other disruptions that mean they may not get to school at all.  But even when many of these students are “in school” as one of my colleagues here told me, “they are getting no education.” In fact, The Economist recently declared that South Africa has “one of the world’s worst education systems”, while the BBC pointed out that roughly one out of four South African students failed their end of school exam last year.   All at the same time that many students continue to excel in long-established and high-performing private and ex-model c schools (formerly white schools).

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Inspired, however, by the efforts of so many working in and with schools and school systems here to create and expand real opportunities for learning.  Those include the “new private” or “low-fee” private schools that are designed explicitly to keep costs low.  Some of those, like LEAP Science and Math Schools have been around for several years and have already expanded.  Others are new, like Streetlight Schools, developed specifically for Jeppestown, an area where many students make former industrial buildings home.

Inspired as well by those in after school programs, summer programs, museums, and youth development programs that seek to create meaningful learning opportunities outside of schools.  Some programs, like IkamvaYouth, the Kliptown Youth Program, and Olico provide places for students to get help with homework or additional instruction, get support from peers, mentors, and teachers, and get the access to electricity, books, computers, and the internet that many can’t get at home.  Ultimately, ideally – after years of walking from school to these after school programs and then from the programs back home, keeping up their daily and weekly attendance – the hope is that all their work will pay off with access to university placements, scholarships, or jobs.

While the Kliptown Youth Program is unique to Kliptown in Soweto and Streetlight Schools is built directly into the Jeppestown neighborhood, other programs and school networks like IkamvaYouth and LEAP have expanded across provinces, and some like City Year South Africa build on programs in the US and elsewhere. But regardless of the unique aspects of the work in South Africa, I was struck by the shared challenges and the similarities in the development of these South African organizations and those I’ve been studying in New York City, Singapore and Malaysia.  All of these groups have to wrestle with the fundamentals of organizational and instructional development: they have to pull together or create the basic materials – registration forms, curricula and assessments, training manuals, and workshops; they have to find ways to attract students, recruit teachers, tutors, and other staff and volunteers; and they have to establish the relationships that create and sustain a safe and trusting environment inside their organizations while they spend time building broader networks of support among parents, community leaders, funders, and, sometimes, politicians. They have to do all of this, even when the electricity or the internet goes out; when their own equipment is stolen away (as at the branch of IkamvaYouth I visited); and when the whole political system is embroiled in controversy and conflict.  In South Africa, they have to do all of this as well amid a shift from a focus on the possibilities of post-apartheid democracy to a focus on the realities of sky high unemployment and limited, and costly, opportunities for higher education.  Coming to South Africa makes strikingly clear that the greatest crisis is a loss of hope. But experiencing the work being done by so many in Kliptown, Jeppestown and in so many other places across South Africa shows that hope is not just a dream about the future, it is built, day by day, step by step, like a ladder that allows us to reach higher than we ever have before.


Thomas Hatch


A “Right to Play” in Daily Education

As part of an ongoing series looking at the evolution of educational support organizations around the world, we recently spoke with Kevin Frey, CEO of Right To Play International and Jared Carroll, Director of U.S. Programs, about their work with Right To Play and the organization’s global work around play-based educational programming, particularly discussing work going on in New York City.

Right To Play demonstrates that play is both an integral part of daily life and a fundamental right by bringing sport and play-based programs to children around the world. Their work challenges assumptions that equate education with exclusively cognitive engagement through and healthy development with intellectual development and builds on the idea that play can be as rigorous and useful as other types of engagement.

_dsc9504Right To Play grew out of Olympic speed skater Johann Olav Koss’ experience as an athlete ambassador for the organization Olympic Aid.  One visit to Eritrea, in particular, helped to spark the idea that providing sports equipment, coaches and mentors – three important elements in Koss’ own development – the act could create crucial opportunities to support the development of children living in some of the most difficult circumstances.  Yet when Koss returned to Eritrea after having won 3 gold medals and having raised almost 18 million dollars to bring sports equipment to the children he had met, Norwegian critics wondered why he wasn’t bringing basic necessities like food and medicine. But the President of Eritrea at the time told Koss:  ‘This is the greatest gift we have ever received. For the first time, we are being treated like human beings–not just something to be kept alive. For the first time, my children can play like any child.”

Koss built on this experience by developing Olympic Aid into Right To Play and committing to bring sports equipment, coaches, and mentors to children in Africa and many other parts of the world.  While Right To Play’s initial focus was on sports, they quickly expanded to engaging children in games of all kinds.  In the process, they got to know these children and to hear what the children needed and wanted.  Through these initial activities, Right To Play staff identified problems with health, gender, and other issues that they could address through sports and play. Kevin Frey, current CEO of Right To Play International uses the example of a game called “malaria tag” to encourage children to use malaria nets for protection from mosquitos rather than for fishing (which seemed much more useful to many of them).  “If you sit a bunch of kids down, and simply tell them how malaria is transmitted, none of them are going to go home and use mosquito nets because there was no opportunity to engage with the learning,” Frey explained. Right To Play is founded on the belief that play and learning are synonymous (not only for kids, but for adults as well). “If you design a game called ‘malaria tag’ the kids get totally activated.”  To help children turn that activity into practice, Right To Play staff ask students to reflect on their experiences during the game, connecting those experiences to their own lives and then explore how they can apply what they learned moving forward.

_dsc9466With headquarters in Toronto, Right To Play has grown to operate programs in eighteen countries, primarily in Eastern Africa and Southeast Asia. Initially, the organization operated using a centralized model, with frameworks and models developed in Toronto and shared with local offices. These models involved creating games and professional development sessions for educators working in community-based organizations that program staff could implement in their communities.  Over time, however, the organization has adapted and changed to include more self-direction based on local cultural settings and specific needs. These adaptations are distinctly visible in Right To Play’s programming in in the U.S. The organization’s work in the U.S. began in in New York City. After conversations with the New York City Department of Education (DOE) and the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) it was suggested that Right To Play work within an early childhood education context. Initially, the organization followed the typical model for DOE professional development, where Right To Play designed sessions that its employees would deliver for members of partner organizations (all participants were early childhood education staff from non-profit community-based organizations) at a centralized NYC location. In Carroll’s words, these early sessions “positioned Right To Play as experts sharing knowledge” rather than as collaborators of learning opportunities.

In this first US iteration, Right To Play sought to help integrate play-based learning into early childhood education settings by connecting with a number of local organizations that shared their philosophy and goals. After Right To Play provided professional development, the partner organizations incorporated the Right To Play model into their work with schools. By 2013, however, Right To Play began to change this initial professional development approach. Carroll recalls the shift as coming to view these organizations as partners in making, rather than recipients of, Right To Play’s programming. Right To Play sought to focus more directly on educational equity and to respond to the specific obstacles and challenges that the partner organizations described. Right To Play first stopped holding their training sessions at a single, central location. This way, they did not have one general session that was targeted to all the visitors from various organizations. Instead, session facilitators went to the partner organizations and worked with the entire organization.  Furthermore, Right To Play shifted from delivering a more overarching, general professional development session to one designed around the expressed needs of partner organizations and rooted in interactive, participatory practices.

Today, a typical professional development session involves Right To Play employees going to a partner organization site to work on a session such as building community cohesion and using that as a foundation for collaborative work. For instance, if session facilitators from Right To Play and local educators identify building trust as a key issue (either for the organization or as something to help the children develop), a session will involve an activity that both requires and demonstrates trust. Carroll describes one such activity as using large elastic bands with a bucket placed in the middle of 4-5 people. Each person must pull on the elastic band and then let go at the same time in order for the band to fall into the bucket. Groups play this game for a while, working together and discussing strategy. Afterward, the whole group engages in a conversation about the purpose of the activity and how similar challenges with trust translate to their work together and how it can be used or adapted to early childhood settings. Later in the day, this theme is further explored in the context of necessary skills or understandings learners might need to engage in the classroom community in this way. As with the game of mosquito tag, the sequence of play, engagement, and reflection is central to learning for the children, as well as the educators who can then build on this experience to develop more activities.

In 2014, newly elected mayor Bill de Blasio launched an initiative for universal pre-K in the city. as pre-K expanded in New York City, Right To Play’s presence in the city expanded as well. As efforts for universal pre-K rolled out, demand for grassroots and community-based work grew. The list of community-based classrooms waiting to work with Right To Play has, in the last year, grown from 50 to 300.

As the organization moves forward, Right To Play is establishing a new leadership program and support network, focusing on early childhood education leaders. The three-year long leadership program builds on their partnership approach to professional development by undertaking a needs assessment with leaders, spending time with them in their sites, and through a cooperative inquiry approach developing a yearlong process of training.  The leadership program has, in some ways, been a natural growth of their professional development partnerships as some preschool leaders come to the leadership program after their teachers have participated in Right To Play. Right To Play also actively recruits leaders, looking at demographics in the city and engaging communities they believe would benefit from this type of work. Finally, as Right To Play develops this partnership approach in the US, they are also shifting to a more networked approach with Right To Play organizations around the globe. As this next phase unfolds, Carroll’s work is changing as well as he is devoting more time to work with his colleagues in other international offices.

Right To Play has created a strong presence of play-based learning opportunities in New York City. Their impact, however, is not solely in the work they do but in the ways they have opened and collaboratively built a place for this type of engagement with education at an early childhood level. As these organizational changes occur, Right To Play finds itself working in increasingly diverse contexts, both in terms of educational and geographic settings. It will be interesting to see then how the organization responds to its commitment to deeply situated and contextualized work as it begins moving toward working more as a transnational network.

A new model for integrating technology in schools? The work of eduLab in Singapore

This post originally appeared on

While we in the US often put our stock in the efforts of pioneers and entrepreneurial organizations to disrupt the conventional education system, my visit to Singapore last year made clear that Singapore takes a much more systematic approach to fostering new educational practices. Singapore’s current approach focuses on expanding learning opportunities to foster students’ 21st Century competencies and includes considerable “top-down” support – most recently from the Fourth Master Plan for Technology – that seeks to seed and scale promising developments across the system.

At the same time, reflecting its “centralized-decentralized approach,” Singapore has also invested heavily in supporting “bottom-up” initiatives in which teachers and schools develop their own new ideas and practices.   Since 2011, eduLab has served as a key vehicle for the support of bottom-up initiatives by funding a wide variety of projects proposed by teachers throughout Singapore.  Educators who receive funding work with eduLab staff, test out their ideas and develop prototypes, with all successful eduLab projects published on their website and in publications.  In addition, drawing on its current location at the Academy of Singapore Teachers (AST), Ministry of Education and eduLab staff and Master teachers from the Academy support the diffusion of eduLab supported tools and resources by facilitating workshops and supporting subject and theme-based communities of practice.

While the extent of Singapore’s central investment in development of productive uses of educational technology is unusual, eduLab shares a number of functions with organizations in other systems (like iZone in New York City for example), which also focus on finding, seeding, and spreading innovative practices that take advantage of educational technology.  Some of the parallels may reflect responses to the rapidly evolving character of educational technology in general.  In the late 1990’s and 2000’s, schools and systems in developed education systems like those in Singapore and the US were focused on building the infrastructure for educational technology in schools – establishing wired and then wireless connectivity, getting equipment, and building “platforms” to host online activities.  In that context, schools often faced multiple and competing bids from companies who could provide a “one-stop” solution with the expectation that the school, teachers, and students would adapt their activities to the chosen platform, computer system (primarily windows or mac), or technology (e.g. interactive whiteboards).  In that process, millions of dollars were spent on those computers, computer labs, other hardware and online platforms, but often without clear benefits (see for example the experiences of the New York City Department of Education in launching and then abandoning a 95 million dollar data system created originally by IBM).

Now the landscape has changed.  In 2016, students and teachers use a variety of different devices – laptops, desktops, ipads, kindles, mobile phones etc. – and access a wide range of applications developed by individuals as well as not-for-profit and commercial companies.  In some ways, these developments have flipped the technology “bidding war”—instead of schools having to decide which set of machines to buy or which platform to adopt, some teachers may be using google classroom, some may be using Moodle or Blackboard, and some may be cobbling together their own mix of tools and apps.

This shift from platform and equipment-based ICT to more application-based technology integration puts schools and educators in Singapore and the US in a different relationship with technology companies.  Where they were once consumers, listening to pitches from tech companies and having to decide which platform to pick, now schools can identify specific problems that address their students’ needs and ask tech companies to produce apps and applications in response (for one US edtech industry perspective on how to sell products to schools see “Choosing a ‘top-down’ vs. ‘bottom-up’ approach in edtech sales”). In this scenario, edtech companies have to figure out how to meet local demands and scale, rather than focus first on general issues they believe will scale most quickly, leaving it up to educators and schools to figure out how to adapt.

Today, organizations like eduLab can serve as a key link between educators and the resources and expertise in the educational technology community by helping teachers find the right partners, sorting out the qualifications of bidders, evaluating bids, facilitating the development process (with user tests and iterations of the proposed “solution”), negotiating contracts, and dealing with fundamental rights and responsibilities including issues of intellectual property. These relationships both give eduLab teachers access to the latest technologies and allow those companies access and opportunities to develop and adapt (and in some cases commercialize) products that meet the needs of teachers and schools.  In one illustration of that process, a chemistry teacher in Singapore noted a problem that many of his upper secondary school students faced:  remembering the specific nomenclature used in their beginning chemistry course. In response, the teacher developed a card game in which he found that students learned the vocabulary most effectively when they were involved in discovering the rules that governed the use of the terms. Building on that discovery, the teacher and several colleagues were given funding to pursue an eduLab project that started in 2014. Working with staff from the Ministry of Education and eduLab as part of the team, a comparative study was carried out that demonstrated the benefits of the game. Designs for an app were then developed that enhanced the game with visualizations and that allowed teachers to get data on students’ performance to inform their instruction. Finally, eduLab worked with local start-up developers to build the app, which is now commercially available (both on iTunes and through Google Play).

Reflecting the complexity of these relationships, eduLab has developed several different ways of working with vendors.  For resources and applications that educators have already developed, eduLab may simply put the project out for bid.  For example, teachers at one school in Singapore developed a tool for automatic marking of students’ papers that an industry partner commercialized and helped to make widely available. At the other end of the spectrum, in cases where solutions have not yet been developed, risks are high, and success uncertain, eduLab might help search for industry partners who will take on the development costs themselves.  In one instance, a school wanted to explore the possibilities for adaptive learning in science and sought a tool that would help tailor content and activities based on students’ performances. An industry partner took up the request and created a tool that both gives students’ feedback and helps teachers to assess each student’s development.

Of course, industry partners are most likely to respond to and invest in projects that they believe have potential commercial benefits.  As a consequence, intermediaries like eduLab also have to engage with research organizations and non-profits who might be willing to invest in issues that are crucial to students and educators but may not have as much commercial potential.

In playing this kind of intermediary role, eduLab benefits from its close ties to Singapore’s Infocomm Development Authority (now called the Infocomm Media Development Authority or IMDA) and the National Research Fund, managed by the National Institute of Education (NIE) and the Ministry of Education (MOE).  Those ties are formalized as members of the Ministry, NIE, and IMDA all serve on the committee overseeing eduLab.  These formal connections also facilitate a wide range of personal relationships among educators, policymakers, and researchers who participate in various aspects of eduLab’s work.

Of course, neither having educators engaged in developing eduLab projects from the beginning nor making them widely available guarantees that they will be used or used well.  To that end, eduLab is turning more attention to issues like assessment and evaluation.  Those issues include how to develop assessments that focus on competencies that are not addressed in current tests; how to evaluate projects that are designed for small groups of teachers (like those teaching introductory chemistry in high school); and how to deal with reliability and validity in uncontrollable classroom contexts and other challenges of “rapid cycle evaluation and improvement.” (In the decentralized US system, however, with few “intermediaries” like eduLab or iZone, many districts are left to their own devices and have to rely instead on the development of edtech evaluation tools like Mathematica’s EdTech Rapid Cycle Evaluation Coach or leverage other private sources such as the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s work on improvement science.)

While there is no simple measure of what impact eduLab projects might have on Singaporean students’ educational experiences overall, eduLab’s current work presents a very different image of how technologies may influence teaching and learning.  Rather than affecting all aspects of a teachers’ practice and transforming conventional instruction, in many cases, eduLab projects develop tools and resources adapted to specific instructional “niches” – such as the teaching of vocabulary in a beginning Chemistry class.   In these instances, the novelty of the tools and products and the extent to which they support conventional teaching or more student-centered learning may be less important than the fact that organizations like eduLab provide a new means of bringing together the professional expertise and local knowledge that educators have with the technical expertise of those in the edtech community.

— Thomas Hatch