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Beam Center: From Summer Camp to the Core of Schools (Part 1 of 2)

Over the past couple of years, we’ve been exploring programs in NYC that work both within and outside of schools. In this post, we present a few key take-aways about educational program design and improvement from our conversation with Brian Cohen and Danny Kahn, founders of Beam, a program in NYC designed to “build communities of making and learning that enliven student curiosity, bridge the opportunity gap and prepare youth for the way the world works.” Beam was originally founded as a building-oriented summer camp and has iterated its approach to collaborative, project-based learning as it expanded into schools. It now operates after-school program, weekend programs, teacher workshops, and in-school electives and FabLabs.

Taking Beam as a case of how an out-of-school program devises strategies for expanding its impact by plugging into the traditional core of schools, Beam shows similarities to other programs in NYC that we have looked at, such as Outward Bound Schools, which has developed modular programs schools can select and add to their offerings, and Right to Play, which has sought to scale its impact through leveraging its niche in early childhood education and designing teacher professional development programs. Internationally, the pattern of developing a promising program outside of schools, that then has the potential to reach more students by “plugging in” to schools resembles the approach of Mehackit in Finland and Tandemic in Malaysia.


This week we share the first part of Beam’s story focusing on its origins as a camp in New Hampshire and its move to create an afterschool program and workshop space in Brooklyn. Next week, Part 2 focuses on the development of Beam’s approach to integrating project-based instruction and FabLabs into schools.


PROTOTYPING a promising learning experience in “open” conditions


Music industry executives, thought partners, and friends Brian Cohen and Danny Kahn founded Beam as a summer camp in 2005. Beam’s launch reflected both Brian’s memories of what he called an “idyllic” childhood camp experience and a shared concern that 21st century kids lacked the experiences in collaborative, hands-on making that could cultivate curious, capable, and confident life-long learners and doers. To put “making” at the center of each summer’s experience Beam camp focuses on a single, project —designed by a creative professional—that all campers and counselors helped to make a reality. Projects involve large-scale, multi-part, pie-in-the-sky creations like a giant Nexus Canopy in 2005— modular wood and canvas units that could be rearranged into theaters, mazes, and other spaces; Creatura in 2014 — a 20-foot human-powered vessel floating on the camp lake; and Pipe Tree in 2016 — a “fully-functioning, human-operated pipe organ” nestled amongst (and shaped like) the trees in the forest. Through the process, campers (and Brian, Danny, and the counselors) learn the relevant skills in areas such as woodworking and digital programming, have opportunities to dabble in skills beyond the needs of the project, and develop independence and pro-social skills more typically associated with summer camp.

Beam 1

Nexus Canopy



Beam Tree House

Pipe Tree

These aesthetically and technically impressive projects made the joy of accomplishing something “bigger and better” than the campers could have imagined a central goal. “All we were worried about was getting the project done and getting it done well,” Brian explained, “because of the way kids felt when it was done.” Over those first few years of camp, Brian and Danny constantly reflected on and improved the Beam approach to project-based learning. In the process, they came to see the inclusion of an expert—the artist or architect who designed the project—as one key ingredient. The expert lent authenticity to the endeavor, provided professional insight to guide the process, and brought a sort of creative stardom that inspired campers.  Beam camp also had the benefit of time and space of a few weeks set in the New England forest over the summer and relevant, real and high-quality resources, materials, and equipment.

Brian and Danny spent 5 years learning how to run a summer camp by doing it, just as their counselors and campers were learning creative, constructive skills by contributing to the project.  In this time, the projects became more complex, and the relationship between the expert maker, domain masters, and counselors became clearer and more intentional. Still, as ‘cool’ as the projects were, it was hard to define what exactly kids were learning and Brian and Danny resisted calling themselves educators. Although one parent wrote a letter asking Brian what tangible benefits her child had gotten out of the experience, other parents and campers responded enthusiastically. Brian and Danny knew qualitatively that the experience was impacting campers and worth making available to students who couldn’t afford or didn’t receive a scholarships for the limited space of camp. When Danny and Brian came to NYC in 2011, aspiring to bring the Beam Camp experience to more students through schools, they continued to iterate their approach to a new set of time, space, and school constraints.


This iterative approach opens up an organization to spandrels of opportunity: challenges that force creative responses and unanticipated avenues for growth. As Brian reflected on their approach, he observed that “what we’ve learned are all the dead ends you can take when you do a project, you have to edit the project so they are getting something authentic…”

Brian and Danny encountered more ‘dead ends’ when they attempted to work with NYC schools. As they had with Beam Camp, they jumped into NYC planning to figure things out on the go. While they were incorporating as a 501c3 (a type of non-profit organization) and trying to figure out how to create school partnerships, they ran an after-school program inspired by the weekend-long Inventgenuity festival, which had been successful in attracting lots of families and school-aged children. They tried varying the workshop time and configuration (4 weeks, 6 weeks, 8 weeks) but found that it was harder to break from the model of an expert teaching kids skills for a small “table-top” project for a few periods. It lacked the magic of camp—the bigger imagination of an immersive, intensive project that tapped into kids’ curiosity and imagination and led to, by most accounts, transformative experiences.

it wasn’t clear how to start a relationship with a school and after-school or weekend program were not producing the same intensive, deep experiences as Beam Camp. Without anything Brian or Danny could have planned for, a serendipitous opportunity arose. While they were serving students through afterschool and weekend programming, Brian and Danny made a “fortuitous” connection with  Rob DiRenzo, from the New York City Department of Education’s Digital Ready, a major initiative to expand technology use and student-centered learning in New York City schools. Rob was visiting the Invisible Dog gallery and, since it was an open space, happened upon Beam in the midst of a project with high school students. In Brian’s words, Rob “was interested in what we were doing, and we told him a story about this project we had done with teens, because that was the thing we wanted to do again, and he said, oh well I’m part of an initiative at the DOE that’s doing that exact thing.” As Brian explained,  Rob “put them in a room” with funders, other local organizations and staff from the DOE, “and I realized we had stepped in shit because we had a plan to do the kinds of things they wanted to do with teenagers in schools and that’s where we started to have to figure out what we were actually doing.” That one meeting introduced them to their first funder, and Beam started working with Brooklyn International High School in 2012.

Brian describes Brooklyn International as an especially perfect “petri dish” for the kind of projects and youth development work that  he and Danny were interested in.  More than just a place to experiment, Brooklyn International also served as a kind of crossroads where Brian and Danny’s vision for Beam literally intersected with a growing demand in education and New York City more broadly to foster passion, and project-driven learning opportunities, especially in digital media.  In fact, in 2013, Beam’s work at Brooklyn International was featured at the official launch of Digital Ready.  The press materials included a quote from Brian, explaining Beam’s contribution: “Thanks to Digital Ready, students from Brooklyn International High School will learn programming, carpentry, metalwork and digital storytelling skills while building a giant interactive sculpture as part of our BeamWorks Project…We think this kind of mentor-driven collaboration enables teens to discover the value of meaningful work and passionate interests of their own…” From their origins as a camp in New Hampshire, Beam was suddenly front and center as part of a signature project of the largest public-school district in the US.

Headlines around the world: PISA (2015) Collaborative Problem Solving

This post originally appeared on

When PISA results are released, my colleagues at internationalednews and I often scan the headlines to see how media around the world are responding.  This month OECD released the results of the Collaborative Problem Solving assessments carried out for the first time in 2015.  The OECD notes that the assessments attempt to measure the extent to which students can “maintain an awareness of group dynamics, ensure team members act in accordance with their agreed‑upon roles, and resolve disagreements and conflicts while identifying efficient pathways and monitoring progress towards a solution.”  Among the highlights in OECD’s summary:

  • Across OECD countries, 8% of students are top performers in collaborative problem solving, but, on average, On average, 28% of students are only able to solve straightforward collaborative problems, if any at all.Infographic CPS-Full-Ranking 70
  • Students in Australia, Japan, Korea, New Zealand and the United States perform much better in collaborative problem solving than would be expected based on their scores in science, reading and mathematics, but Beijing-Shanghai -Jiangsu-Guangdong scored much lower than would be expected.
  • Girls perform significantly better than boys in collaborative problem solving in every country and economy that participated in the assessment. On average across OECD countries, girls score 29 points higher than boys.




The release of the results garnered considerable attention from a wide range of countries, and, in a departure from the usual gloomy portrayals, many (though not all) headlines were either neutral or put a positive spin on the results.

Alberta students great collaborative problem solvers, international test finds

Edmonton Journal – Nov 28, 2017

Australian students among world’s top performers with this surprising skill

The Sydney Morning Herald – Nov 21, 2017

Brazil among the worst in new OECD study – Nov 23, 2017

PISA 2015 latest report: Young people playing video games are worse off problem solving in the team

(Estonia) Delfi – Nov 22, 2017

Finnish 15-year-olds among best performers in new PISA tests

Helsinki Times, Nov 28, 2017

Pisa test: how well students solve problems together

(Germany) – Nov 20, 2017

Hong Kong pupils among world’s best group problem-solvers (but Singapore tops the chart)
South China Morning Post – Nov 20, 2017

Korea tops PISA scale in collaborative problem-solving

The Korea Herald – Nov 23, 2017

Survey ranks Japanese children’s problem-solving skills near world’s best

The Mainichi – Nov 21, 2017

According to the latest PISA study, Spanish students do not know how to work correctly as a team, and it is worrisome

Bebés y más – Nov 27, 2017

Scottish school children lag behind English at problem solving 21, 2017

Singapore students top OECD global survey in problem solving through teamwork
The Straits Times – Nov 20, 2017

Pisa: UK does better than expected in collaborative problem-solving
TES News – Nov 20, 2017

US ranks No. 13 in new collaborative problem-solving test

The Hechinger Report – Nov 27, 2017


–Thomas Hatch





Building Hope In South African Education

For the Thanksgiving holiday here in the US, we are reposting one of our pieces from South Africa about the possibilities and challenges of building an infrastructure for hope.  We encourage you to get to know any of the organizations mentioned here or in any of our other posts and consider supporting their important work.  
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 CitySingapore 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

Connecting Youth Voices for New Ways to Approach Drugs and Education

What does it mean to educate young people about drugs and the War on Drugs? For anyone growing up in the 1980s or 1990s in the U.S., it likely meant programs like D.A.R.E. This educational approach to drugs and the impact they have on societies has often involved vilifying those struggling with addiction and offering a simplistic solution of “just say no.” In many countries in Latin America, education about the role of drugs in society follows a similar narrative. The outcomes of these kinds of educational programs are both controversial and heavily criticized. Offering a productive alternative, a group of educators and activists from across the Americas has developed a complex and innovative educational organization, Catalyst, to examine the War on Drugs and the role drugs play in our societies. For this interview, we spoke with Atenea Rosado-Viurques, a cofounder of Catalyst, and Diana Rodríguez-Gómez, the lead curriculum developer and head facilitator of Catalyst’s summer program.

The idea for Catalyst emerged from conversations between a group of four friends from across the Americas. Mexican-born Rosado-Viurques and her Canadian friend and colleague, Theo Di Castri, met in high school at a United World Colleges (UWC) program in India a decade ago. The original team also included Benjamin Fogarty-Valenzuela (Guatemala) and Nataya Friedan (US) who met Di Castri while studying at Columbia. All four shared frustrating experiences as youth encountering education about drugs and came to study different aspects of the War on Drugs during university to gain a better understanding of the conflict.  The four began discussing a project that would bring together drug education, the War on Drugs, and a complex response to more “traditional” educational programs about these issues. They knew that they wanted to create an educational program for youth that involved storytelling and explored personal relationships in light of structural issues. Though they had established these pillars, they did not know what specific shape such a program might take. They only knew that while many people in health and legal fields have begun addressing these issues, there are not yet enough people explicitly working on education or with youth.

Catalyst Team.png

The Catalyst team. From left to right: Theo Di Castri; Atenea Rosado Viurques; Nataya Friedan; Diana Rodriguéz Gómez; Benji Fogarty Valenzuela; Camila Ruiz Segovia. Photo Credit: Benjamin Fogarty Valenzuela.

Gradually, the idea for “a program to bring together youth from across the Americas to discuss the War on Drugs” took shape.  Catalyst received organizational support from UWC to develop a program to help extend UWC’s “values and mission to a wider audience.” By including Catalyst as one of its programs, UWC aimed to “bring its unique approach towards international education to confront one of the most pressing conflicts facing the Americas at present.” Adding to this support, Rodríguez-Gómez’s curricular vision helped shape what the program would look like on an everyday basis. Finally, after months of courting the Open Society Foundations, Catalyst secured a generous grant that allowed the program to launch.

With financial and organizational support in place, the team began recruiting youth participants to attend a summer institute in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Using local networks, word of mouth, and NGOs, the team received 160 applications, though they only had the funding to offer scholarships for 20 people. In order to identify these 20 participants, the Catalyst team ran through a selection process that included essay writing about drugs and community organizing. They then conducted interviews with 30 finalists before selecting 20 participants. They also had to create a preparatory curriculum to help the kids, the vast majority of whom had never traveled outside of their home country, navigate boundaries like passport applications, financial issues, and customs.

Having assembled a team, recruited participants, and mapped out a curriculum, Catalyst launched as an 18-day summer program in July of 2017. The inaugural session involved 17 adolescents from 6 countries across the Americas and took place in  Cuernavaca, Mexico. The program was fully bilingual and made use of simultaneous translation to facilitate communication between exclusively Spanish speaking and exclusively English speaking participants. Catalyst maintains an overall purpose of gathering youth voices whose lives have been impacted by drugs and the War on Drugs and providing them with a foundation to conduct a  critical analysis of the conflict. In accordance with this overall aim, the curriculum is structured around 5 specific principles: identity, diversity, critical consciousness of history, justice, and social change.

Catalyst Classroom.png

In the Catalyst classroom. Photo Credit: Benjamin Fogarty Valenzuela

Premised on the notion that “the personal is political” the Catalyst curriculum guides students through an exploration of their own identities and the ways in which the War on Drugs has shaped them. From there, students begin exploring the ways in which their personal narratives fit into the wider historical narratives that underpin the conflict. Throughout the program, the students are encouraged to link their personal perspectives and experiences to the social, economic, and political dimensions of the War on Drugs. Youth-led, interactive activities form the bulk of the daily work at Catalyst. Rosado-Viurques described one such activity, in which youth “placed themselves on a map of the Americas” as a way to start telling their stories about the ways in which the War on Drugs  drugs had impacted their lives. As they conversed with each other, it became clear the ways in which the violences of the War on Drugs are distributed differently and asymmetrically across the hemisphere. Through such conversations, participants developed a transnational perspective on the War on Drugs and learned important lessons about the complexities of drugs and drug policies.

Catalyst Bilingual Curriculum.png

A bilingual curriculum: live translation at Catalyst 2017. Photo Credit: Benjamin Fogarty Valenzuela.

Each day, students also heard from a different guest speaker. Guest speakers included journalists, activists, academics and artists from Mexico, the US and Colombia. The goal of these talks was to expose students to a broad panorama of different perspectives and to show students how theory can be translated into practice. Over the course of the program, the students were tasked with creating artistic projects that conveyed what they had learned at Catalyst, and on the final weekend, students exhibited their projects at a public exhibition in Mexico City.

Catalyst Guest Speaker

Guest speaker, local activist Pietro Ameglio, speaking to the students of Catalys. Photo Credit: Benjamin Fogarty ValenzuelaA Catalyst student presents her final project at the exhibition in Mexico City. Photo Credit: Benjamin Fogarty Valenzuela.

In contrast to traditional drug education programs, Catalyst moves beyond the dogmatic repetition of the “just say no” mantra. Instead, it opens a space of curiosity and nonconformity in which students can formulate difficult questions and connect apparently distant phenomena through an examination of the structural conditions that undergird the War on Drugs. The program equips students to think critically and transnationally about drugs and the strategies that have been employed to eliminate them and their users from society. Both Rosado-Viurques and Rodriguez-Gomez expressed the importance of fostering a new transnational network of young people who are committed to ending what is ultimately a transnational conflict.

Catalyst Cohort

The inaugural Catalyst cohort. Students came from the US, Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru & Ecuador. Photo Credit: Benjamin Fogarty.

From the inaugural summer program, Catalyst has begun expanding its work. The youth participants have taken the lessons of Catalyst 2017 back to their home countries where they have each been assigned a local mentor to assist them in getting involved in drug policy reform activism their communities. Some members of the Catalyst team recently spoke at the Institute for Latin American Studies at Columbia University as a way to “continue to generate an open and evolving curriculum” . Similarly, team members have spoken at various forums in New York City, Mexico City, and Florence as a way to spread the word and open space to expand the program and curriculum. Catalyst 2018, another iteration of the same program, will also begin accepting applications early next year. As Rodriguez-Gomez puts it, the 2017 summer program was “a seed for continuing work.”

Catalyst’s spirit comes from a desire for a more robust education about drugs and the ways in which the War on Drugs impacts peoples’ lives. It’s founders believe that all young people have a right to a comprehensive drug education so that they may join the conversation about drug policy reform drug as well informed, critically thinking stakeholders. As the Catalyst website reminds, the program specifically opens up a space for youth voices who have so often been the target of drug education without “granting them space to speak for themselves.”

Catalyst Hands

Flavio (Peru), Isaiah (US), Ricardo (Ecuador) sport temporary Catalyst tattoos hand-drawn by Ricardo. Photo Credit: Benjamin-Fogarty Valenzuela.


OPINION: Known for its intense testing pressure, top-performing South Korea dials it back

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter
Seoul – Retired British football star David Beckham teaches South Korean children some soccer skills during a publicity tour for insurance group AIA.
Seoul – Retired English soccer star David Beckham teaches South Korean children some soccer skills during a publicity tour for insurance group AIA. 


In a world where education is supposed to drive the economy, is it possible to be overeducated? Some think that’s the case in South Korea.

The unemployment rate is comparatively low, at just over 3.5 percent at the end of 2016. But the unemployment rate for those age 15 to 29 was more than double the national averageand one out of three unemployed people were college graduates.

In addition to the economic consequences of a glut of college graduates, many also decry the personal, social and financial costs created by a system that creates intense pressure for students to get into a top college. The high performance of South Korea’s 15 year-olds on international tests like PISA goes hand in hand with a last-place ranking on the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Better Life Index of adolescents’ self-reported measures of happiness.

Parents also pay a high price for top test rankings. South Korean families spend three times more on education before college than families in the U.S. Much of that spending supports private tutoring. The average South Korean family spends 20 percent of its income on after-hours “cram schools,” or hagwons, with spending starting early. More than 35 percent of 2-year-olds, 80 percent of 5-year-olds and 95 percent of middle schoolers attend hagwons. Accounts of high school students working at hagwons long into the night once prompted the government in Seoul to impose a 10 PM hagwon curfew.

As I learned on a recent visit to South Korea, these problems lead to widespread dissatisfaction with the education system, despite its consistent high performance on the international tests. Politicians and policymakers in South Korea have taken notice of the concerns. But they face the difficult task of trying to reduce the pressure on high academic achievement when performing well on tests and getting into a select college remain deeply engrained goals in the society.

Over the past few years, the Ministry of Education has launched a number of initiatives to try to address these issues. And what began as a pilot effort to create an “exam-free semester” in middle school seems to be taking off. The initiative allows principals to eliminate midterms and finals during one semester of middle school (usually the first semester of 7th grade). According to the Ministry of Education, the exam-free semester aims to enhance the happiness and well-being of students by giving them opportunities to explore their passions and career interests. Starting in 42 schools in 2013, the initiative has been gradually expanded each year, reaching all 3,024 middle schools in 2016.

Related: How does South Korea outpace the U.S. in engineering degrees?

Along with the ban on testing, those I talked to emphasized another central component of the policy: a reduction in the number of hours focused on academic instruction each week. That means that 7thgraders only spend 21 hours a week following the national curriculum (instead of the usual 33), with 12 hours a week devoted to activities that expose students to different careers and to skills like playing the guitar not normally addressed in schools.

At the Keisung Middle School in Daegu, for example, they have replaced the main academic subjects with career-related activities on Tuesdays and Fridays. The teachers of the conventional subjects come up with activities, and, in some cases, they turn to parents and members of local businesses to lead classes and talk about their professions and avocations. The teachers also organize field trips and visits to work sites, and the school plans a “career day” in a few weeks, when all 7th graders will spend a full day in one of 35 different job placements.

Despite initial skepticism on the part of many parents, students at the school I visited and nationally have responded enthusiastically. In a 2015 survey of participating students, the Korean Educational Development Institute found that almost 75 percent of students said their relationship with teachers had improved, over 60 percent said their enjoyment of learning had improved, and 50 percent said their stress related to studying had decreased.

Responding to the growing popularity, policymakers decided to expand the initiative into an “exam-free year” for 7th grade in 2017, with pilot programs starting in some schools in 8th and 9th grade as well.

Even with the growing popularity, some South Koreans parents continue to complain that students are losing valuable instructional time that could affect their academic development and their ability to get into a selective high school. Correspondingly, some parents, particularly those in wealthier, higher-performing schools, have responded by increasing the amount of time their middle schoolers spend in hagwons preparing for high school entry tests.

Related: Lessons from Abroad: Singapore’s secrets to training world-class teachers

Pointing to these developments, other critics argue that one initiative in one year of middle school can do little to change a system where testing, ranking and academic performance are paramount at every level.

Nonetheless, the U.S. can take three key lessons from the South Korean experiment.

First, don’t expect to improve education, the economy or students’ life chances by blindly chasing high test performance.

Second, don’t try to do everything at once. Although the initiative can be considered “small” in the sense that it focuses primarily on one grade level, in only a few years it has grown to reach all 450,000 seventh graders in South Korea.

Third, don’t just hope for the best; put in place a series of interrelated supports that can help “small,” focused initiatives take hold and spread. While there is no doubt that any success of the exam-free semester depends on the work of an already overburdened teaching force, the government provides a small subsidy of about $17,000 for every school; professional development providers and teacher education institutions are focusing on helping teachers develop new instructional methods and career-related activities; and a national website has also been created – the “Dream Pathway” – where businesses and community organizations can register to offer activities and field trips for nearby schools.

Another set of interrelated initiatives seeks to address the test pressure and narrow focus on attending selective colleges. Among these initiatives, the South Korean government is implementing a policy forbidding the use of marks received during the exam-free semes­ter to calculate the grade-point averages reported for high school admissions.

The Public Education Normalization Promotion Act prohibits teaching to the test and bans education test items that require learning “beyond regular school teaching.”

Efforts are also being made to reform the admissions process in higher education, including the implementation of a rolling admissions policy in a growing number of colleges.  In 2016, over 65 percent of students were admitted through this process, meaning they do not have to take South Korea’s College Scholastic Aptitude Test (similar to the SAT or ACT in the U.S.) and are instead evaluated on their high school grades, participation in student clubs, volunteering and school awards.

Although it seems odd to those in the U.S. who are focused on getting more students into college, South Korea has also developed an “Employment First, Advancement to University Later” system to encourage more students to switch from a college track to a vocational track.

The free semester program is both small and ambitious, targeting all students and teachers but only at one level of education. No one I talked to was convinced that the program could achieve its most ambitious aspirations any time soon. At the same time, there is now at least a hope that support for a more humanistic education might find a foothold, and, eventually, begin to spread. South Korean schools are creating a break and an opportunity where everyone can – at least for a year – opt in to a system attempting to reduce the pressures and problems with excessive testing.

Thomas Hatch is a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching and the founder of

Educational Change Through Shared Commitments to Student Learning: Lead the Change Interview With Keith Gurley

Dr. Keith Gurley is an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Dr. Gurley has served public schools across several states and has nearly 30 years experience as a classroom teacher, building- and district-level administrator, and now as a professor of educational leadership. His teaching and research interests include equipping aspiring school leaders with an understanding of the power of developing and maintaining strategic focus in schools to effect high levels of learning for all.

In this interview, part of the Lead the Change Series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest Group, Gurley shares his perspective on the role of educators and leaders in instituting educational change. He advocates for approaches such as professional learning communities as a way to promote and provoke change. Gurley also suggests educational leaders recognize the “importance of shared mission, vision, values, and goals (MVVG), fully adopted and passionately owned by all school stakeholders, coalescing exclusively around high levels
of student learning.” These suggestions aim to build a stronger system of public education in the United States rooted in shared goals for :

Public education in the United States is a radical proposition: the explicit goal is that every
child has equal access to high levels of instruction, learning, and achievement. This radical
proposition was established relatively recently in the history of American schooling through the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation (2002). Though rife with faults and
unrealistic expectations, NCLB has had a profound impact on public schooling in America,
and continues to affect the daily educational experiences of school leaders, teachers, and
students across our nation….Public schooling in the United States is a radical proposition, indeed, but only if educators can agree that the focus of their efforts is student learning.

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 interviewed Kenneth Russell about the role of public education in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Is Finland’s education system changing?

This post is a part of a series of reflections by Thomas Hatch, of Teachers College, Columbia University, on efforts to improve education around the world, originally posted on You can trace these emerging themes on the global landscape for education innovation by visiting posts on Estonia, Singapore, Malaysia, and South Africa.

Finland has been hailed for having one of the best education systems in the world; criticized as scores on international assessments have slipped; and, most recently, flooded with questions about whether it is dramatically changing its education system by making conventional subjects “a thing of the past.” Whether you believe Finland’s education system is moving up or down on some set of rankings, it’s clear that there are some teachers, school leaders, and other educators who are trying to do some things differently.  The challenge as Saku Tuominen describes it, is “not pushing new ideas into schools, but trying to identify innovative ideas that are already out there” and helping them spread. As he joked, the problem is that “whatever happens in the classroom, stays in the classroom.”

To address this problem, Tuominen founded HundrED to find promising educational innovations around the world.  HundrED just released its list of 100 global innovations from Afghanistan to Venezuela and many places in between.  Last year, in a kind of test-run for their global work, Tuominen and his colleagues identified 100 Finnish educational innovations that they have documented and shared online.  During my most recent visit to Helsinki last summer, I had the chance to meet with a few of the education innovators on the Finnish list as well as with policymakers and colleagues from a variety of other Finnish educational institutions.  All those with whom I talked not only emphasized that their work begins with a recognition of and respect for the autonomy of teachers and a commitment to basic principles of equity, but also expressed some frustration with the difficulties and slow-pace of improving and changing the Finnish education system. At the same time, those conversations pointed to key avenues for supporting the development of new and more effective educational practices at both the policy and the school level.


Policies for change

At the policy level, as Anneli Rautiainen, Head of the newly formed Innovation Center at the Finnish National Agency for Education, explains, Finland has two primary means of influencing education: the curriculum renewal process and the launch of specific policy initiatives. The curriculum renewal process takes place roughly every 10 years and includes an extensive period for public discussion and feedback on potential changes in the national curriculum framework. As a result, Rautiainen explained, “almost everyone can have a say in what children should learn.”  As part of that process, municipalities and local schools also have considerable autonomy in deciding how to implement any changes. The previous curriculum renewal process in 2004 concentrated on the development of the school as a holistic learning environment for students, but the most recent curriculum renewal process emphasizes “phenomenon-based” learning and “transversal” competences that cut across traditional school subjects. Although the new framework does not eradicate subject-based teaching, it stipulates that all students should participate each year in a multi-disciplinary learning module.  Those modules are to be designed locally by teachers, with the expectation that students will be involved in the planning.

As with all policy initiatives, some teachers and schools are already off and running.  In fact, as part of the earlier emphasis on developing a holistic learning environment some have already pioneered approaches that include multi-disciplinary projects. For example, in Fiskars, a community in Finland well-known for its artisans and craft-workers, the local school has expanded the learning environment to include the whole village.  As a result, students regularly participate in workshops that focus on topics like glass blowing and historically based theatre productions.  As a consequence, the school is already well positioned to respond to the expectations for carrying out interdisciplinary projects in the new curriculum framework.

In addition to trying to move the system forward through the curriculum renewal process, the Finnish National Agency for Education also carries out what have been translated as “spear” projects – targeted efforts to support the implementation of other policy priorities.  Most recently, those projects have included an initiative in which municipalities have been invited to apply for funding to enable a teacher in a school to support the professional learning of colleagues by co-teaching, modeling or coaching. “One of our biggest aims,” Rautiainen pointed out “is to have schools become professional learning communities, and to support learning at work, rather than taking a course somewhere else,” and this project is one way of putting that aim into practice. Another project encourages experimentation among municipalities that want to provide instruction in foreign language in earlier grades (before 3rd grade where it begins in most schools now).  An ongoing project designed to get schools “on the move” was launched in 2010 to increase students’ physical activity during the school day and included the expectation that all students in Basic Education should have at least one hour of exercise every day.

Courses for change

Mehackit and Startup High School, two of the Finnish educational innovations highlighted by HundrED, have found a different place within the conventional education system where new approaches may take root. Both organizations take advantage of the fact that at the upper secondary level (roughly ages 16-18) students have to take roughly 50 compulsory courses, but students can choose the topics for about 25 other courses.  In Mehackit’s case, they began about 2013 by offering workshops and “clubs” to engage young children in programming and coding – making things with technology, not just using technology.  But, as current CEO, Heini Karppinen, explained, Mehackit’s founders are part of a new generation of social entrepreneurs trying to respond to a context where “there are a lot of services that people would like to have, but that they don’t get anymore from the government.” In this case, the founders discovered that those children who attended Mehackit’s clubs and maker-fairs often had parents who were already tech-savvy and working in technology related jobs.  They worried that children who didn’t have parents in tech-related fields would ultimately graduate high school without having experienced the “maker-side” of technology.  To reach all children, the founders felt they needed a way to work within the formal education system.  As the new curriculum framework in 2016 also included computer programming for the first time, they saw a “niche” in working with older students, where teaching programming required sophisticated technical knowledge and skills that relatively few Finnish teachers possess.


In response to this opportunity, Mehackit created 2 courses for 16-18 year old students that teach programming through projects focused on robotics and electronic music projects and creating multimedia art and graphics.  The courses are designed so that they can be offered by schools around Finland (and Mehackit has already exported them to Sweden and the UK as well) as easily and efficiently as possible. Mehackit not only provides teaching materials, they also hire and train instructors, many of whom are university students working on technology related degrees.  While Mehackit is a for-profit company and schools and municipalities purchase the courses, Mehackit also has a shorter workshop course for 12 to 16-year-old students; provides freely available open source materials; offers a new materials kit at cost; and has created teacher training workshops so that teacher can develop their own, comparable, courses.


Startup High School has taken a similar approach to Mehackit.  Although Startup High School may eventually create a high school for entrepreneurial studies (along the lines of subject specific schools in Finland that focus on music, the arts, and sports), they are set to begin with an offering of three courses in the fall of 2017.  (Pekka Peura, a teacher whose work I highlighted in “Brand-name” teachers in Finland, is one of the founders of Startup High School.) Those courses are designed to enable students from a number of different upper secondary schools to learn “how to think critically, how to solve problems, and how to be a change maker.” In developing the courses, the founders seek to create the kinds of student-centered, active, and multidisciplinary learning opportunities emphasized in the new curriculum that they described as rarely emphasized in Finland’s typically highly-academically oriented high schools.  Courses will include original video interviews with a variety of Finnish entrepreneurs and artists, including CEO’s, rappers, actors, and dj’s that students will access as they develop their own Linked-in profiles and plans and portfolios illustrating their own design ideas.  Perhaps most importantly, the founders emphasize, students should leave the course as part of a network of peers with common entrepreneurial interests, connected via social media.  While Startup High School could charge for the courses, their plan is to make the courses widely available for free or perhaps with a nominal registration fee that, along with contributions from sponsors, would help to cover their costs.

Although Mehackit essentially delivers the instructors and materials to each school with whom they partner (and they map and track exactly where they are in reaching out to all schools across Finland), Startup High School offers virtual courses that they lead and administer themselves and that students in a number of different high schools can take as one of their 25 elective courses. In both cases, Mehackit and Startup High School are offering new topics and approaches as part of modules or “plug-ins” that not only fit within current course demands and expectations in Finland, but can also be offered as a conventional course in many other education systems.

Opportunities and challenges

            The new ideas and approaches endorsed by policymakers and highlighted by HundrED demonstrate how Finland’s national curriculum framework can support and encourage those who want to change their approach to teaching and learning. But the autonomy that teachers and schools in Finland enjoy also means that many can choose not to change their practice quickly or deeply.  As Rautiainen puts it, the framework and policy initiatives can “nudge” the system, but by no means guarantees that changes will be made.  For example, while some reports indicate that over 90% of Finnish municipalities are participating in the “on the move” initiatives, concerns remain about exactly how it has been implemented and how it is playing out for all students.

Those I talked to acknowledged that there are number of factors that might encourage and reinforce those who choose to use their autonomy to maintain more conventional classroom and school practices.  For one thing, while the new curriculum framework adds expectations for students to engage in interdisciplinary projects, little, if anything, has been left out of the “old” curriculum.  Like Singapore’s effort to create ‘white space” in the curriculum, the changes in the national curriculum framework in Finland try to squeeze more into the conventional curriculum and school day.

But at the same time that some elements of the framework change, many elements of the system remain the same and reinforce conventional practice.  Even without high-stakes annual testing like that in the US, the high-stakes exit exams at the end of high school help to align the whole system, but they also serve as constraints reinforcing the traditional divisions between subjects. Conventional textbooks provide similar constraints. As Antti Rajala, a former teacher and currently a researcher at the University of Helsinki noted, even as they benefit from high-quality textbooks, teachers who are trying to innovate sometimes see “the textbook as an enemy.” As a consequence, as Peura explained, one of the first steps he and others make to change their teaching is to go beyond the textbook.

Along with the autonomy of teachers comes a highly independent teaching force.  Teachers can choose their own professional development plans, and, in many cases, can choose to pursue their work on their own, rather than in collaboration with their colleagues. Peura reported that on one small survey he asked teachers why they don’t share their work more often, and their overwhelming response was that “colleagues” were the biggest obstacle. Peura sees the concerns that Finnish teachers have about changing as understandable, but notes that it means that when one or two teachers do try to make their work public or share it more widely, peers often object.

Perhaps most problematic, this commitment to autonomy runs smack up against Finland’s deep commitment to equity: if early adopters take off with the interdisciplinary projects but others do not, learning experiences across Finland are likely to become less and less comparable. In fact, those I spoke to were less concerned about overall decreases in average test schools and much more concerned that the PISA results and the results of the national monitoring tests are showing that student outcomes are more differentiated and less equitable than they have been in the past.  Illustrating the inherent tension between the autonomy of teachers and the rights of students, Rajala told me that in one of the schools where he is working the principal had to deal with the fact that several of the teachers did not want to incorporate an emphasis on digital skills into their teaching.  In order to respect their autonomy while still ensuring that all the students got the same digital learning experiences as their peers, the principal had to figure out a way to schedule students so that they all got a chance to work with those teachers who were actively working to incorporate digital skills into their classrooms.

Given all of these factors, in a system largely considered to be “working,” with few incentives to change, it should be no surprise that many both inside and outside the education system see maintaining the status quo as a sensible way to operate. That’s why from Tuominen’s perspective, the key issue is to find those innovations that are working – where there is both a clear and widespread need and where the knowledge, skills, and resources to make the necessary changes are also already available.  He cites as examples “the gaming room”, which, essentially provides the plans and materials so that schools can quickly and easily create a place where students can access the most effective educational games and use them during recess and other points during the school day. Similarly, the “house of learning” provides a set of stand-alone tools that help students to plan, track and assess their own learning, without requiring extensive training.  Tuominen does not expect all the “innovations” that HundrED identifies in Finland or globally to take off, but he believes that initiatives like HundrED can help to highlight and spread those that are gaining traction.  In the meantime, however, since the Finnish system is designed to “steer” not to penalize, there will be no grading, sanctions, or public humiliation. But changing the education system will continue to be a subject of public discussion in Finland, particularly when the next curriculum renewal takes place.

Thomas Hatch, Teachers College, Columbia University