Friday, December 14, 2012

Relearning how to smile in an Arizona Indian Reservation

The day after Thanksgiving break, I found myself on an Indian Reservation about 45 miles outside of Phoenix, heading down an empty road lined with cactus, giant tumble weeds, and San Tan mountain tops, all of which were leading us towards a pasty blue school known as Blackwater Community.

From the outside, this school didn’t seem much different than the schools around my neighborhood in Palo Alto; after looking deeper, however, it sadly began to resemble the schools I taught at this summer in Nairobi. For example, according to the Blackwater principle, only 50% of her elementary students go on to graduate from high school. And sadly, Blackwater is one of the best schools in the area: the graduation rate only gets worse amongst other Indian Reservation schools.

The goal of our trip, therefore, was to play a role in addressing these inequalities, specifically through the power of mobile technology. I was traveling with a professor from the Stanford School of Education, Dr. Paul Kim, who has developed a tool called the Stanford Mobile Inquiry-based Learning Environment (SMILE). Put simply, the idea is that students use their mobile phone to engage with their curriculum (and each other!) in new and exciting ways.

While the tool has enormous potential (and Dr. Kim has run dozens of successful pilots), we unfortunately faced a number of technical challenges during our three day pilot test, and I began to question if we were really making a big difference.

On the flight back to SFO that night, I asked Neha Taleja, the Executive Director for the nonprofit that houses SMILE, if she shared these concerns. She agreed that the technical challenges were extremely problematic, but that we would work through them. More importantly, she reminded me of a little 5th grade boy we had worked with that day, who decided to stay in during his lunch break to use the phone to create a quiz for his classmates.  According to his teacher, this was something he’s never done before. And that, to Neha, was what SMILE was all about: Generating excitement and engagement that has somehow been misplaced along the way.
Although it’s a simple anecdote, I’m realizing that there are profound insights and reminders to appreciate, particularly as I spend the next 3 weeks in India and Pakistan exploring entrepreneurial opportunities in mobile learning.

Reminders such as the gratitude found through appreciating these “small victories.” The hope discovered while focusing on why something could (and should) work, and not on why it won’t work. The liberation of not allowing perfect be the enemy of progress: of not trying to develop a flawless solution that addresses all the problems at once, but rather starting somewhere (even if it’s a simple start that has complications) and allowing the work to teach you.

And lastly, the importance of being able to smile along the way. 

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