A Promising Future

January 25, 2010

What does our future hold? What will education look like 20 years from now? Perhaps our future already exists, in the most unlikely place.

A Glimpse into What our Future…Present Holds

Recently, a friend of mine, Mel, traveled to Kigali, Rwanda, a city still suffering the devastating effects of the 1994 genocide. Before embarking on her trip to Africa, she and her students organized a bake sale in order to raise money that Mel could ensure ended up in the hands of children most in need.

Mel’s brother worked for one year at a self-sustaining street boys center named Enfants de Dieu  (EDD) in Kigali, Rwanda. Interestingly, this “Children of God,” as it is translated to in English, is a secular organization that supports 200 boys who are either orphaned or living on the streets. Its name symbolizes the rule that this boy’s center protects all religions and beliefs. This center teaches the boys to be accepting and open.

The impact this center had on Mel’s brother’s life, inspired Mel to see, first hand, what it was all about. When Mel, her husband, and their two friends arrived at the center, she told the director, Rafiki Callixte, that she had a sum of money to be donated to their organization. With his mission being to rehabilitate, educate, and reintegrate the boys, the director responded that he would ask the boys to decide how their money would be spent. Mel’s perspective on education and hope for the children of Rwanda was completely restored in the moments that followed.

Like the treasure chest at the end of a treasure hunt, she walked into a world where the children, despite loss, suffering, poverty, and fear, had been empowered by one man to develop the skills I believe are necessary for a 21st century learner: Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Communication skills, and above all, the ability to show compassion for others.  At EDD, the boys have an organized government system, consisting of 7 “ministries”: administration, education, health, sports and recreation, social affairs, agriculture, and housing.  Each ministry, with its elected representative, is responsible for the decision making relevant to their ministry. However, ALL of the boys are responsible for contributing to the achievement of each ministry’s goals.

When they heard about this donation, the boys were asked to write a proposal for how the money should be spent. Administration asked for a vehicle to conduct business in the city, as the walk to the city took several hours both ways. Education asked for shoes for the boys to be able to walk to school. Health asked for a microscope and slides so that the resident nurse could do lab tests and find out results without the boys having to make the long journey into the city when they got sick. Sports asked to rent machines to level the soccer field which was in poor shape. Social affairs asked to have the dorms expanded and made larger. Agriculture asked for a cow and for shoes for those having to walk into the cityto buy supplies. Housing asked for a lawnmower to replace the machete they use to cut grass on their 4 acres of land. Once neither Mel nor the director could decide who the money should be granted to, the boys agreed that the fairest thing to do would be to meet together in order to come up with an agreement that would appease all the boys. After many hours of debate, they emerged and decided to purchase shoes, which were sorely needed for the kids who had to walk to the market or walk to school.

Rafiki_Callixte_-_Street_Youth_Work_by_Les_Enfants_de_Dieu_[Compatibility_Mode]     This link provides more information on how Enfants de Dieu makes a difference for the people of Kigali.

Who Cares?

This center is living proof that that the focus on teaching the skills advocated by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills  is a powerful and effective way of preparing our children for the real world. The EDD boys, who receive free education until Grade 8, but must pay $300USD to attend High School for 4 years, used their knowledge of core subjects to write their proposals, to discuss the pros and cons of each proposal, and to persuade their peers. They addressed the 21st century themes by being creative and innovative in designing a procedure by which they would make decisions. They identified their needs and proposed economical and environmentally friendly solutions that would help sustain their organization. They collaborated within their branches, effectively communicated their ideas, and eventually problem solved to come up with a mutually agreeable solution. The students accessed information by going directly to the people who had the answers – real people, and used the information they received from different sources to come up with a creative solution. They learned/lived core science concepts through their health and agriculture ministries. They learned/lived history and math through their administration and social affairs ministries.  And all of this happened with minimal use of technology. Imagine how they could have impacted our world, if the world was able to see real 21st century learning in action. When Alemu (2010) states, “School leaders must give due emphasis to informal observation and critically analyze and respond fittingly to signals that impact students’ preparedness, their global perspectives, and the school’s overall environment,” I think that he would give props to Raffiki (the center’s director), as he has done just that. Learning in the 21st century means it’s no longer enough to read about content, you must also experience  it.

Another Education Fad?

The EDD boys have the skills to become effective world leaders. And many of them aspire to do just that. So the question becomes, how does this style of learning happen so naturally in a place that is considered to be “developing,” yet it meets so much resistance in North America? George Manthey (2009) describes the backlash against the focus on teaching 21st century skills due to a fear that content learning will be lost. Manthey (2009) reassures the reader that content and skills are equally important to the Partnership for 21st century skills movement. Steven Sawchuk (2009) wrote about a school, currently a living example of 21st century learning, as students engage in authentic learning opportunities while learning relevant content. You can rest assured that the boys in Enfants de Dieu learn both content and skills at the their center. So the question remains, why IS there resistance to this movement? I hear the concerns of many, who argue that this might be yet another education fad, creating greater workload for teachers, without the appropriate financial, leadership, and time support. According to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills  , professional development, guidance, and support are being offered and have been adopted in 14 states.

What Does Our Future Hold for Teachers, for Students, and for Community?

Though the affirmation for the Partnership for 21st Century Skills movement seems obvious, let’s imagine what education might be like in 10 years, if the mission of education is, in fact, to prepare students with the skills necessary to be successful members of society. I envision all learning as holistic and focused on problems relevant to one’s community. Classrooms will function like a micro-society, where students determine their job/role  and their lines of inquiry. These roles will be flexible and students will be adaptable. The desired outcome of every “unit” of study will be to collaboratively come up with a reasonable solution upon which all parties agree. Learning will extend beyond the classroom and society will value and support the contributions made by our children. Reflection will be integral to learning the next step. And all of this will be made possible with web2.0, soon to be 3.0. The role of the educators will be to facilitate, guide, and integrate the learning of 21st century skills and relevant content into whatever lines of inquiry the students pursue. The responsibility of all educators, teachers and librarians alike, will be to use whatever technological means possible to ensure that our children learn and live the world around them. This will most definitely require a shift in mindset about what is important in education.


Alemu, Daniel. “Missing: Students’ Global Outlook.” (Winter 2010). Kappa Delta Pi Record. 46;2. Proquest Education Journals. Pg.54.

Hay, Lyn and Foley, Colleen. (May 2009). “School libraries building capacity for student learning in 21C.” School Libraries. 28;2. http://www.curriculumsupport.education.nsw.gov.au/schoollibraries/assets/pdf/Schoollibraries21C.pdf

Manthey, George. (November/December 2009). “The Knowledge vs. Skills Debate: A False Dichotomy?” Leadership. 39;2. Proquest Education Journals. Pg.11.

Sawchuk, Steven. (January 2009). “’21st-Century Skills’ Focus Shifts W.Va. Teachers’ Role.” Edweek.org. http://www.edweek.org/login.html?source=http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2009/01/07/16skills_ep.h28.html&destination=http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2009/01/07/16skills_ep.h28.html&levelId=2100



  1. Thanks, Natasha. What a powerful story. I can only hope that my own children’s schooling prepares them that well for life in the 21st century! I’m not sure that it will, which (as you point out) is hard to believe. It sounds like the boys you describe in your post have a much more positive future ahead of them because of their involvement in this group–and hopefully that means positive things for the country of Rwanda.

  2. Joanne, hearing my friend talk about her experience in Rwanda was very moving. I hope to one day bring my children to “Les Enfants de Dieu,” perhaps when they are young adults. I recently finished reading Greg Mortenson’s 3 Cups of Tea, about how he fights terrorism by setting up schools and educating girls. The “Les Enfants de Dieu” boys center is much the same in that Raffiki Callixte is striving to make Rwanda a safer place by educating the children and instilling values.This makes me wonder: How many other unsung heroes are out there, silently making a huge impact in our world by bring 21st century learning to those considered less fortunate and to those deemed hopeless?

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