Last week, the people of Argentina elected a new president.
Mauricio Macri, the mayor of Buenos Aires, billed himself as the candidate of change during his presidential run, even naming the alliance of parties supporting him, “Let’s Change.”
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with a member of Macri’s new cabinet, the Minister of Education, Esteban Bullrich, to discuss the future of learning.
Bullrich’s administration spent the past five years overhauling the educational system in Buenos Aires, working closely with Macri to implement widespread change to schools and open a direct, constructive dialogue between teachers and government officials.
Now, with Macri as president-elect, these educational reforms may be implemented nationally throughout Argentina.
The State of Education in Argentina
With a stagnant economy, slow job creation, and high inflation, Argentina is currently facing some big challenges. But Minister Bullrich, looking to the future, believes innovation can be an engine of positive economic change—and that change begins in the classroom.
Today, Argentina’s educational system (like many, including the US) is largely built on subjects deemed important decades ago— and Argentine students are finding their education so irrelevant they are dropping out of school in droves.
In 2013, the dropout rate for both private and public universities in Argentina was a staggering 73%. One of the biggest reasons students drop out of secondary school, according to a recent survey, is “lack of interest.”
When Minister Bullrich and his team began implementing changes five years ago, he admits it was a bumpy ride. During his first two years in office, Bullrich experienced twenty teacher strikes.
The strikes stopped when he began handing out his personal cell phone number to parents and teachers instead of communicating through the unions. Since then, his administration has completely reworked the required curriculum for high schools and enrolled 90% of kids between the ages of three and five in the city in early education programs.
(Watch Esteban Bullrich (and others) discuss the Future of Learning below.)
I asked Minister Bullrich to tell me about the biggest challenges he was facing in reforming the city’s educational system.
Fear, he said. Fear of change, in particular, has caused Argentina to fall behind in terms of innovation. He used a playful example to illustrate his point:
“We are discussing upgrades and updates to our car instead of building a spaceship. We need to build a spaceship, but we don’t want to leave the car behind…We might take out this old cassette deck from the car and put in our MP3, and it looks like a big change. But the truth is, it’s still a car with four wheels, and it goes on the road. It doesn’t fly. That’s why education policy is not flying.”
Today, change seems to be the only constant. Fearing change is like being strapped to a speeding train and digging your heels into the ground to try to stop it. The pace of technology isn’t slowing down, and those who refuse to keep up will, unfortunately, be left behind.
And that is precisely what Minister Bullrich wants to avoid.
Instead, he plans to help ease people’s fear by showing them what they can do by harnessing change. He says, “We need to use the strength of innovation within the classroom, within the school, to make kids—especially kids—lose that fear of change—because when they own the change, they’re part of the change.”
This fear isn’t unique to Argentina. Many all around the world are wondering how to stay relevant and stay ahead of the curve. So, how is Buenos Aires building an educational system for the future?
Schools That Foster Innovation and Generate Creators
One of the major reforms enacted by Mayor Macri and Minister Bullrich is allowing secondary schools to define their own curriculum. While schools are still held to federal curriculum guidelines, they are not restricted by a city-wide curriculum and free to shape classes to the current needs of students, rather than teaching an archaic curriculum.
Further, as part of the reforms, every student in primary school is given access to an internet-connected computer, and a new free city-wide network allows students to access the internet from their homes as well.
Students are now being taught how to code in primary school, and once they reach secondary school they are required to study coding and entrepreneurship. Why entrepreneurship? So students lose their fear of uncertainty and of innovation, says Bullrich.
“We [must] build a system where there is no fear of change because there’s no fear of failure, because failure is not condemned. Failure is part of [the] innovation process and is incentivized. Failing is okay as long as you keep on trying.”
Bullrich sees a problem in how children are raised to fear failure because they equate failure with punishment. Even as a parent, he has to remind himself to practice what he preaches — teaching his own children that failing and trying again is part of everyday life.
Incentivizing Teachers to Be the Innovation Engine of Society
“If we want education to become the innovation engine of our society, we need teachers…to be the most innovative people [of all]—because they need to train innovators.”
Unfortunately, many teachers are scared of the changing landscape and resistant to change in their classrooms. Bullrich argues that the way to incentivize teachers to try new things is to reduce the cost of failure. He says they are flying Argentine teachers to Finland and Sweden to visit innovative schools and learn from them, and they come back with their minds blown.
Behind all of these reforms is a core mentality Bullrich believes is crucial for future Argentine leaders to grasp: “Nothing has to be accepted as given.”
Bullrich wants students and teachers to develop the courage to change things that aren’t working, to continue trying until they succeed, and to build the future they envision.
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