PopTech Blog

Margrét Pála on teaching kids to be resilient

Icelanders are a famously hearty lot. Norwegian Vikings trying to escape the rule and taxation of Norway’s king first inhabited the land that is now Iceland in the 9th century. So they had pluck from the start. But you simply have to be resilient to survive in such frozen, forbidding territory. 

Margrét Pála (PopTech 2012) is a groundbreaking educator from that rugged country. Starting back in 1989 she was first somewhat infamous, and later more famous, for developing her own rigorous pedagogical model for educating young Icelandic kids. Pála emphasizes resilience, in part, because it is a key component to surviving and thriving in a challenging world. 

It's all very Icelandic, and her ideas can seem a bit rugged to the uninitiated. But that makes sense, given that since the Vikings arrived on that isolated island in the North Atlantic, Iceland's history has been marked by wrenching poverty, volcanic eruptions, poor farming conditions, avalanches that wiped out entire villages, and repeated economic collapses.

"We are hard-wired in our resilience," Pála said in her 2012 PopTech talk, which is now available online. "'We have seen it worse,' we always say."

In practice, this means emphasizing decision-making and creativity. Rather than traditional toys, classrooms are populated with open-ended, natural materials that require children to improvise. Exercises include instructions about breaking norms and rules: "Go through the window," Pála exclaims. "Why are you always using the door?" And her kids get a bit of tough love. "Go out with your bare feet," she says to them. "Maybe it hurts a little bit. That's great."

Classrooms are also segregated by sex, children are required to wear uniforms to encourage discipline, and the curriculum includes exercises in jumping off cushions to help very young children learn the value of a little courage in life. That's something every Icelander has needed since at least the 9th century.  

Asenath Andrews' exemplary education of young mothers

Statistics prove that when it comes to positive education outcomes, teen pregnancy is something akin to a death knell. The data show that whatever chance a girl had to graduate high school and go on to higher education evaporates significantly when she gets pregnant. 

But it's instructive to look at people and institutions that turn those numbers on their head. Consider the Catherine Ferguson Academy in Detroit, founded and run by Asenath Andrews (PopTech 2012). It is an alternative high school for teen mothers that also provides early education services for their children.

"Our job is to make sure that our girls graduate from high school and are accepted to a 2 or 4 year college before they leave," Andrews said in her 2012 PopTech talk that is now available online. Here is the thing: Andrews' school typically reaches that goal 100 percent of the time.

How impressive is that? Consider the math. Studies show that out of 14,000 American school districts, 25 of the lowest-achieving districts account for 20 percent of high school dropouts and 16 percent of teen births. Problems also get handed down from generation to generation. Only about two-thirds of those girls' children will graduate from high school. 

An innovative curriculum explains some of Andrews' success. Students are heavily involved in urban farming and raising livestock. One graduation requirement, for example, is that each student must plant, pick, cook and eat a meal from her own garden. Students are in the midst of planning, designing and building a real sustainable community near the school. They have also travelled to South Africa to teach urban farming.

Another reason Andrews' school performs so well is due to the professionalism of the staff and their high expectations for each student. "If I expect that you are going to have a future, then you expect it," Andrews said. "Smart is what you get, not what you are."

Want to improve education? Ask the kids

As a groundbreaking education journalist, Amanda Ripley (PopTech 2012) became obsessed with one of the central mysteries about American education. The United States spends more money on education per student than any other country in the world. American students enjoy some of the smallest class sizes on the globe. And yet in comparison to huge swaths of the industrialized world from Japan to Latvia, American kids consistently perform poorly on standardized tests that measure critical thinking. This is true for rich American kids and poor kids, in racially diverse cities and homogenous U.S. towns. Why?

To get to the bottom of that conundrum, Ripley, who is the author of the forthcoming book "The Smartest Kids in the World," developed a unique stable of sources. Rather than relying solely on administrators, academics and educators, Ripley tapped into a network of students. "Kids have strong opinions about school," she said in her PopTech 2012 talk. "We forget as adults how much time they sit there contemplating their situation."

Ripley needed student-sources in some of these other countries where education was obviously better than in the United States. But she also needed students who could compare and contrast school in, say, South Korea to school in Minnesota.

So Ripley established a network of exchange students. Her students included a Minnesota boy who went to South Korea for a year, another who went from Pennsylvania to Poland, and an adventurous 15-year-old girl who left Oklahoma to go to school in Finland. Ripley also polled hundreds of other exchange students. 

What she got was unvarnished feedback. "They are happy to tell you what they don't like; what they wish was different," Ripley said. And there was remarkable consensus among those exchange students about what is different overseas.

  • School is harder. "It is about the rigor through and through," Ripley said. "School is serious business in these places." That goes for the curriculum, the training and selection of the teachers, everything. This doesn't mean more hours or more homework, just more challenges. 
  • Sports is just a hobby. "We are training these children to revere and become professional athletes," Ripley says about the American obsession with childrens' sports. "It is a huge distraction from the business of schools."
  • Kids believe there is something in it for them. "Kids believe that what they are doing in school affects what kind of car they are going to drive in the future and how interesting their lives are going to be," she said. 

It's ironic that policy makers and even journalists rarely question students, because as Ripley put it, "Kids can tell you things that no one else can." 

Bill Shore's four unconventional lessons for making real impact

Bill Shore (PopTech 2012) is a legend among professionals striving to make positive social change. In 1984, Shore was shocked by the famine in Ethiopia and used a $2,000 credit card advance to help found the anti-hunger organization, Share Our Strength. Since then, Share Our Strength has raised and spent $360 million to help end childhood hunger.

At PopTech 2012, Shore discussed the "strategic necessity and the moral imperative of breaking the rules." Success in social innovation can save lives, Shore says, and organizations involved in these kinds of efforts can and should employ unconventional strategies to maximize their impact.

Shore's talk is now available online:

Shore shared four tenets of this approach:

Lesson #1: Earn money. Rather than rely only on traditional non-profit fund-raising methods, Share Our Strength puts much of its focus on building multi-faceted partnerships with corporations and corporate foundations, while also offering innovative ways of engagement through well-known culinary events and grassroots platforms. Shore says that the term nonprofit should be "a tax status and not a management philosophy."

Lesson #2: Measure impact. Set specific, measurable goals. Work toward ending childhood hunger, for example, rather than just feeding the hungry.

Lesson #3: Engage on public policy. Working effectively in this space means not just serving those in need, but also actively working to change and improve public policies in pursuit of that goal. "Public policy is a critical component," Shore says. What policies might help end childhood hunger?

Lesson #4: Be competitive. Shore advocates a philosophy of improving performance on all fronts, like hiring and retaining the very best personnel.

Shore is passionate about these ideas for good reason. Poverty is at record levels. There are 46 million Americans on food stamps and half are children. More than 22 percent of U.S. children live below the poverty line. For Shore, it is easy to understand why maximizing impact is a moral necessity. 

PopTech's 2013 Social Innovation Fellows nominations open

Nominations are now open for the 2013 PopTech Social Innovation Fellows program, so it's time to put on your thinking caps.

Do you know somebody who has a big idea, has started to demonstrate significant positive impact and has a smart strategy for reaching scale? That's who we're looking for, and we need you to help us find them.

Fellows

The strongest candidates are great leaders and collaborators working in critical fields such as energy, green technology, climate change resilience, healthcare, the environment, performing arts, water, education and other areas with significant beneficial impacts. Those chosen as Fellows will participate in a five-day training and the PopTech conference this October, and will gain new skills, visibility and connections to help accelerate their path to greater impact. 

Check out the call for nominations for more details, and have a look at our past Fellows — such as the class of 2012 —for some inspiring examples. Then head on over to the nomination form where you can nominate someone else, or (be bold!) yourself.

We're grateful to the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, National Geographic, Omidyar Network, the Rita Allen Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for their generous support of the Social Innovation Fellows program.

Nominations will be open through April 2, and you can email fellows [at] poptech [dot] org with any questions about the program or the nomination process.

Photo by Agaton Strom for PopTech

In PopTech's Edition III, measuring real impact

Edition III

PopTech's Edition III is now available online. This Edition explores the latest techniques to accurately measure the real impact of innovations designed to do social good.

Scarce resources and increasingly daunting challenges ranging from poor education to poverty mean that innovators and their funders are increasingly scrutinizing efforts for real, measurable impact. In this Edition, some of the leading experts in this new frontier explain facets of human-centered design, monitoring work over the long term and conducting field trials to gauge results. The days of assuming a good-looking program must be doing some good are coming to an end. 

Thought leaders in this Edition include: 

  • Ned Breslin (PopTech 2010):  CEO of Water For People.
  • Dean Karlan (PopTech 2012): economics professor at Yale and President of Innovations for Poverty Action.
  • Jenny Stefanotti: a fellow at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. 
  • Jaspal S. Sandhu: co-founder of the Gobee Group.
  • Aishwarya Lakshmi Ratan (PopTech 2012): Director of the Global Financial Inclusion Initiative at Yale University and Innovations for Poverty Action.
  • Andrew Zolli: PopTech Executive Director.

Young Guru on the business of piracy

This past fall PopTech had an opportunity to ask hip-hop legend Young Guru (PopTech 2012) about surviving and even prospering in a music business in which the traditional money-for-music distribution model has been completely upended over the past 15 years. "I tell all the artists now, ‘You know, charity is the fastest way to get rich,'" Guru responded. "You are going to have to give away something to bring attention to yourself. And then you can sell whatever it is you are trying to sell."

Over most of those 15 years, the music industry has mostly behaved like a sclerotic, litigious bureaucracy, fighting tooth and nail against the ascendancy of easily transmittable digital music. But fighting piracy is a losing game, Guru says. 

"Once the consumer buys into something, it is there," he explained. "You shouldn’t fight it and you should try to figure out a way to deal with it."

Hip-hop artists know a thing or two about piracy, since the music is largely based on samples from another artist. Guru also shows how it is surprisingly difficult to define piracy in the first place. On stage at PopTech 2012 Guru breaks down a beat by Al Green. Is he stealing? Or is he making art?

If music piracy is hard to define and even harder to stop, how do artists make money? In his interview, Guru suggests embracing the free online buzz that comes with widespread piracy of music to help sell the perception of cool. That doesn't necessarily mean selling CD's, records, or even songs. It might mean building a brand through incessant touring and a vigorous online presence, and then selling music to advertisers or as part of a movie soundtrack, or selling something else entirely.

"Branding is the most important thing at this point," Guru says. "There are plenty of things that artists are doing now outside of just making music that brings them revenue streams." he adds. "I can sell whatever item or piece of clothing I want to sell because the person themselves are cool, versus just having a cool album that I am selling."

In his 2012 PopTech talk onstage, Guru further elucidated his prescription for nimble resiliency during monumental business shifts like the kind the music industry faces. Resiliency in his industry means embracing the exponential marketing power and exposure that piracy offers artists. "Piracy pushes culture and makes us adapt and change," he said. 

Glowing umbrellas and art without authorship

There is a certain bubbly energy and excitement to improvisational art as opposed to a rehearsed performance. It's why some people might find an untamable solo by John Coltrane more intoxicating than the most flawlessly executed Mozart concerto.

That is the kind of energy that Pilobolus' Itamar Kubovy and the MIT robotics lab's Kyle Gilpin set out to capture with their stunningly beautiful Umbrella Project, conducted at PopTech 2012 in Camden. In addition to the spark of spontaneity, Kubovy and Gilpin wanted to add in group collaboration as an elixir. So the plan included 300 untrained volunteers. Plus a crane. Plus 300 glowing, LED-lit umbrellas. 

A video short exploring the UP project appears below: 

Pilobolus, the venerable performance art company, has been experimenting with unusual collaborations for years. But the UP project, as it is called, brought improvisation, cooperation and technology to a grand scale, and it resulted in a spectacular display. 

Kubovy said the idea was to practice art ownership without authorship. He described the project as functioning with "absolutely no sense of hierarchy other than the one that gets expressed through the well-lubricated functioning of a good group."

PopTech hosted the collaboration, in which Gilpin's robotics lab festooned 300 opaque umbrellas with manually controlled LED lights that could switch to glow with different colors. Around 300 volunteers gathered one evening in Camden's outdoor amphitheater. A crane hovered high above with a live camera that fed to a giant movie-size screen. The screen allowed the participants to see their movements from above and navigate around relative to everybody else: In a crowd of 300 umbrellas, all you can see are the people and umbrellas directly around you. 

Kubovy's colleague, Matt Kent, made suggestions over a loudspeaker, like, "Form into a star." But the directions were always vague, leaving the participants to figure out — collectively — how to navigate into shapes and designs, even spelling the word PopTech in colored umbrellas by looking up at the screen and cooperating. 

The whole experiment was performed at night and set to music, creating a psychedelic feeling. And the excitement of the group grew so much that they burst out into spontaneous cheers and applause when the volunteers succeeded in creating a cohesive shape. If it had been rehearsed, the UP project never would have bubbled with that kind of magic. 

Kubovy, Kent and Gilpin's PopTech 2012 explanation of the project appears below: 

In the 'Maker Movement,' art is all around us

There is a consumer warning label written in bold letters on the package of Makey Makey, one of Jay Silver's (PopTech 2012) inventions. This is what it says: "WARNING: User may start to believe they can change the way the world works. Extended usage may result in creative confidence."

Makey Makey reflects the way Silver sees art everywhere in the world, and the warning label shows how we are all invited to join him.  

Makey Makey allows users to turn everyday objects into touchpads and manipulate programs or web pages. Simply attach Makey Makey's alligator clips to everyday objects and dial up a program on your computer. If you attach Makey Makey’s alligator clips to a bunch of bananas, and you dial up a piano program, all of a sudden you are playing a banana-piano.

A girl using Makey Makey

In his 2012 PopTech talk in Camden, Silver showed video that he had received through the Internet of people using Makey Makey to turn their dogs into musical instruments, play the "Star Spangled Banner" by biting fruit, and turn their house plants into drums. "I don't know these people," Silver says with a mix of bemusement and pride. 

Those people have embraced Silver's fascination with how we arbitrarily assign meaning to objects. Once we disregard these assigned meanings and follow our creativity, the world is suddenly full of art and possibility.

"What is the purpose of things? And who said that that was the purpose of it?" he asked the Camden audience. "And how do we decide what purpose means or who we should listen to when we designate purpose and meaning in life. Where does it come from? And who said so?"

To capture the spirit of what he called the "Maker Movement," Silver showed video of his own infant son's obvious joy and excitement when he first saw and touched snow. "The world that I would like to live in is a world where everybody helps to make it in their own way, so that it is a hodge-podge of different collections of contributions reflecting everyone’s own internal inspirations," Silver said. "Kind of the way nature is, but for humans."

Jay Silver's PopTech talk appears below:

Bellagio/PopTech Fellows nominations open!

PopTech and the Rockefeller Foundation are proud to announce the call for nominations for a unique joint Fellows program focused on unconventional collaboration.

The Bellagio/PopTech Fellows program will bring together four to six individuals from diverse backgrounds for a two-week immersion residency at the Rockefeller Foundation’s renowned Bellagio Center on the shores of Lake Como, Italy.Bellagio campus

This year’s program will focus on building community resilience through the use of data science, visualization, and distributed information technologies. Fellows will explore the extent to which big data and related technology can be used to enhance psychological, social and systemic resilience worldwide. This effort will be creative, interdisciplinary and collaborative – providing an environment where emerging tools, approaches and solutions are viewed as an art as much as a science.

The program is seeking candidates from the fields of data and data visualization, technology, design, art, social and natural sciences, resilience research, and other social domains. A diverse cohort of Fellows will be chosen for their technical and creative excellence and their demonstrated ability to work and think across disciplines.

Candidates may self-nominate or be nominated by someone else. Eligibility details are available on the call for nominations web page.

Know someone who might be a good fit? Nominations will be accepted through March 1, 2013, and can be submitted via the online nomination form