Follow the Kids…

I visited Lamu after a fun week of Nairobi Play PD in Kakuma, and while taking a walk on the beach I stumbled upon two children with a bicycle. One of them was half-seated on it, and the other one was demonstrating or modeling how to ride it. It wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen or experienced before, but it reminded me of our innate sense of learning by doing and gaining new skills. It’s strange that we often fail to incorporate this approach in our capacity-building of others (I’m specifically referring to guiding educators on how to adopt learning technologies in the classroom).

Two children in Lamu (Kenyan Coast).

As the boy on the bicycle flailed off the path due to his lack of balance (panicking with his hands off the steering wheel), his friend immediately came to his side to set him straight, give him feedback and reinforce what he had demonstrated at the beginning of their journey. With every trial, the new cyclist gained more confidence, momentum and skill, and his friend gradually inched back. Eventually he took off on his own down the path, with his friend jumping and cheering in the background. After a few minutes of successful cycling he fell over, but it didn’t matter, he was all smiles. It was clear he felt a sense of pride and accomplishment, and this experience was only the first of many adventures.

This iterative process of building the capacity of others is natural, whether it’s teaching a toddler how to walk, a child how to read, or an adult how to drive, but when we build the capacity of educators to learn how to use technology in the classroom, this iterative process seems to be non-existent, and I’m not sure why. What I’ve seen in the development field has often been no professional development or an initial training (poorly designed lecture) with no follow-up. More to come on this in a follow-up post.

This doesn’t mean that better learning doesn’t involve strategies and processes. This article from the Harvard Business Review, “Learning is a Learned Behavior”, provides a nice overview of the importance of organizing goals, metacognition and reflecting on learning to strengthen mastery of a skill, all which should be embedded in good professional development.

Looking back at the last few weeks, this is one issue I hope the Nairobi Play Project can generate best practices around and contribute to the field. What can a successful model for iterative educator professional development look like, and specifically for educators in low-resource contexts with little to no experience with project-based learning or using technology in the classroom? And the research begins…

Amplifying quality learning

A few weeks ago I attended the Scratch Benefit and it was wonderful to see the genuine love and support for the Scratch community. Mitch’s opening presentation powerfully illustrated it’s reach. With 200 million Scratchers globally it has the user base of the 6th biggest country in the world.

Scratch has 200 million users.

For a learning technology that’s pretty remarkable but not surprising…for Scratch that is.

Many of the solutions I’ve tested and evaluated designed for low resource settings are disappointing replicas of rote learning models, only amplifying bad practice. They rarely (if ever) provide children and adolescents with opportunities to harness their own creative potential. They don’t demonstrate evidence of impact, they’re not engaging or fun, and they’re not grounded in learning science and design, which is why they have low rates of adoption and ultimately fail.

There’s a movement in the United States (with some level of institutional buy-in) to employ technologies like Scratch to support children develop 21st century and STEAM skills through project-based learning and similar pedagogies, but this hasn’t been as prevalent in other parts of the world. There are a number of makerspaces on the African continent, but so far these are emerging to meet demands in the technology and manufacturing industries.

It’s understandable why in “developing” regions of the world there’s considerable focus on closing gaps around traditional literacies like reading, writing and math, but platforms designed and deployed in these contexts can still support meaningful learning versus rote learning. It’s paradoxical when there’s evidence that shows that technologies which support and align with progressive education can help children develop these basic foundational literacies.

When I reflect on the failures around many of these technologies and the success of Scratch, I think the key differentiator is that Scratch is a community which supports learners, families and educators. Scratch is not a technology, but a movement around how to participate in quality and joyful learning, which all children deserve.

I hope we can start designing more leaning technologies which challenge colonial and top down models of education, rather than amplify them.

Empathy and the Future of Work

In the fall of 2016, I had a chance to speak with 21Toys about the critical intersection of STEM/STEAM and real-world problem-solving. So glad this conversation is up on their community page!

It’s encouraging to see how this recent article in The Atlantic further supports this discussion by highlighting interdisciplinary programs which are a “hybrid of liberal-arts and technical education” and is “what is most needed in training programs to allow workers to better navigate the ambiguity of the future job market.”

In education we generally teach STEM/STEAM to build things, but sometimes we fail to take an interdisciplinary approach. Young people need to be encouraged to leverage STEM/STEAM and making to solve real-world problems, and those problems don’t have to be science or tech-related. In the case of Nairobi Play, youth are applying STEAM and computational thinking to solve issues related to conflict, culture and broader societal issues, in tandem with empathy and other 21st century skills. I don’t think we see this enough because creating programs to teach tech skills is easy, it’s the other stuff that’s more challenging to design for and assess. The “jobs of the future” rhetoric is also hyper-focused on technology and computer programming, which unfortunately ends up devaluing these other skills.

It will be interesting to see how these types of programmatic models continue to evolve and if they really do equip youth with the skills for the future job market. In the meantime, I can settle for motivated and inspired youth who have new learning pathways to discover their voice and tell their stories : )


The Power of Making: A Model for Intercultural Competence and Play

Reposted from a guest blog post for Makey Makey.

In 2015, images of three year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, washed up on the beaches of Bodrum, Turkey stirred an international outcry and galvanized communities across the world to advocate for the rights of refugees and migrants. Only a year later, protests have been held in France, Greece, Bulgaria, Italy and other European countries by citizens draped in their national flags, to prevent their reception. Regardless of the countless tragedies covered by the media, there is a serious empathy deficit and disconnect between refugee and host communities. International organizations have agreed that this a critical time to ensure that refugees and migrants are able to rebuild their lives and successfully integrate into their countries of final destination. However, this requires an integration process which values the cultures and rights of refugees and migrants, rather than champion’s assimilation. Part of what’s contributing to this struggle is the lack of quality education initiatives which support intercultural dialogue and competence. There are few actors in the humanitarian aid space who are facilitating this dialogue between refugee and host communities in playful, productive and meaningful ways. The Nairobi Play Project attempts to address this issue through the art of making, and specifically making games. “Making” is a powerful process which not only gives youth agency to express themselves and solve problems, but build unlikely bridges between themselves and others.


I’m passionate about this model because I believe it has the power to transform and diversify the way practitioners in the humanitarian aid and global development fields build bridges between communities in conflict. “Making” is a strong foundation for creating community, and it’s the foundation of the Nairobi Play Project. So how does this model facilitate intercultural dialogue? Through a scaffolded process which touches on four different areas: 21st century skill development, design-based learning, computational thinking and social activism.

21st Century Skill development is critical to this model and a core focus. If our youth aren’t building skills around communication, collaboration and empathy, then we’re not preparing them for the complex and diverse environments we’re advocating for them to work, live and participate in. Moreover, to successfully develop intercultural competence, youth must be provided with opportunities to engage in constructive dialogue with individuals from other cultures. The Nairobi Play Project is built upon intercultural settings which support knowledge exchange, foster empathy and break down assumptions and barriers to developing relationships. Makey Makey and 21 Toys have been fantastic tools for designing hands-on and interactive experiences for these environments.


Within the framework of design-based learning, games-based learning is ideal because of how critical narrative is to games and to intercultural dialogue. To jump start the process, the Nairobi Play Project provides youth with challenges like remixing Mancala, an ancient East African game. When remixing Mancala, youth are guided through an iterative design process which helps them learn the value of brainstorming, creating, testing and changing a game. They apply this same process to the final collaborative games they create addressing issues in Kenya which have a great impact on their lives, such as gender equality, health, quality education, corruption and youth unemployment. Similar to sports, the game design process incorporates values such as teamwork and individual and collective responsibilities, which can help youth to develop the values and skills necessary to prevent and resolve conflict in their lives. What’s unique about the game design process to the Nairobi Play Project is that it’s not just a shared experience like a sports game, but it results in an artifact which young people create together, an artifact that communicates a narrative, which everyone contributes to through dialogue and debate. In the first iteration of the program, participants who were hesitant or even skeptical on day one, were empowered by the diversity in the room by day five.

To make their games, youth are engaged in a number of computational thinking concepts, practices and perspectives, which are also significant in strengthening their intercultural competence. While working with Scratch and Makey Makey, they practice experimenting and iterating, testing and debugging, reusing and remixing throughout the program. These are valuable practices than can be applied to a number of fields like architecture, interior design, teaching and engineering. Coding is only one expression of computational thinking and practice.


Most important to the Nairobi Play Project is the computational perspective of connecting: recognizing the power of creating with others and valuing them. Youth who participate in the program are not only proud of the games they make, but the relationships they develop throughout the process. Their gratitude, appreciation and respect for each other are the building blocks of a world which can truly represent and serve everyone.

Nairobi PLAY!

In a few weeks I’ll be launching the Nairobi Play Project, a creative computing program implemented in partnership with the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, which equips urban refugee youth and Kenyan youth in Nairobi with technical skills (STEAM), 21st century skills and a peace-building model to support the local integration of urban refugee youth into Kenyan society. More to come!

This project has given me an opportunity to reminisce about the first GMin Innovation Lab launched by my colleagues Janice Williams, Mamhmoud Javombo and myself in 2014 at the Prince of Wales School in Freetown, Sierra Leone. We were lucky to have VICE UK there to document our progress and the incredible work of our youth. What a throwback!