Nicholas is an impact-driven educational consultant and curriculum architect. After teaching anthropology and leading global learning expeditions for a decade, Nick now works to implement higher-level educational change as founder of the Authentic Learning Lab and NJM Global Consulting. Nick has worked to design the Changemaker Curriculum at THINK Global School & BIT School (Mexico City) while consulting with various global schools and nonprofit organizations. In 2009, he was awarded the title of Claes Nobel Educator of Distinction and in 2011, he was recognized as Washington Post Teacher of the Year and Virginia’s Stafford County Teacher of the Year
More than a decade ago, I began exploring the Latin American landscape as a young, idealist Anthropology teacher with the wild notion that education can change the world (I still hold this belief and will let you decide if I’m still an idealist). My experiences across Latin America spanned from the gastronomic to the extreme, and all shared the common characteristics of Interdisciplinary and Authentic Learning. The majority of schools today focus on traditionally defined subject silos measured by standardized tests, which only access the basic levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy and, in some cases, downright ignore Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This is exacerbated by the current global pandemic, with untrained teachers (who are courageously making the leap to digital learning) trying to remake the physical learning in virtual classrooms.
These expectations accumulate under time constraints and with large-scale equity issues. A massive gap in the current Industrial model of schooling is the development and the authentic application of skills in the real-world, which almost always require a range of interdisciplinary skills.
At our digital school, Authentic Learning Lab, we utilize blended learning (digital and face-to face) to enhance 21st-century skills, the lives, and holistic development of our learners. Our programs focus on personal wellbeing, digital skills, and new-age methodologies for career and life development, along with providing an Authentic Educator Certification for teachers committed to utilizing a more impactful and personalized approach to learning. I began teaching marginalized populations and collaborated with Americorps programs to link academics with service-learning. Since leaving the US, I have traveled the world leading place and project-based global lessons to dynamic global students. While on the road, I finished my M. Ed degree in Curriculum Design in Digital Teaching and Learning and have since applied my range of educational experiences by improving and innovating education globally. Designing and delivering authentic learning projects across Latin America range from biology studies in the lush jungles of Costa Rica to the tango-filled milongas of Buenos Aires and spans the last decade of my life. Here is a peak into a few of these incredible experiences. My hope is that my work can pay homage to the rich cultural, geographic, and spiritual mosaic of Latin America. As you read through the following, consider the skills being developed and the real-world accomplishments of our learners.
Ciudad de México, México
Earlier last year we were writing the curriculum for a place-based learning school in the heart of México City. Focused on business, intelligence, and technology, BIT School, will be launching in 2021. I have had the honor of participating in a workshop at the Universidad del Medioambiente (UMA), an incredible 100% eco-campus and university in the heart of Valle de Bravo, Mexico. Currently, Authentic Learning Lab has two fellows from México, one of which is designing a post-pandemic Amazing Race through México City’s cultural sights and museums, and another deep diving into understanding Asperger’s syndrome to best assist a neighbor in need.
My earliest adventures in Latin America were with my lifelong friend and now CNN Hero, Shin Fujiyama, who has been working to shift the education landscape across El Progreso, Honduras, and in turn the world. The work of Students Helping Honduras has literally changed generations of my students, with our annual service trips serving from everything learning construction by building schools hand in hand with local masons, to life lessons in perspective-taking or as one student put “a needed respite from the digital, material, capitalist world we inhabit.” Students identified and designed a range of fundraisers to pay for the project supplies including their meal and hostel overhead. These turned out to be life changing and longterm connections for many students who went on to start their own chapters in a range of American universities which now, in turn, make their own annual service trips to El Progreso.
It was in Honduras I watched a jungle evolve into a community, and a single school expand to become a network of 50+ schools. Change can happen at an evolutionary or revolutionary pace, at THINK Global School we certainly were operating at the ‘revolutionaries’ pace. We were trying to create something new and dynamic. As educators we were given the freedom to network, develop contacts, and design collaborative projects. Traveling the world with global inquisitive teenagers as a global study and anthropology teacher was incredible, but I truly earned my 10,000 hours circumnavigating the world three times in a single year as a curriculum designer for the place & project-based learning Changemaker curriculum.
In my first posting with THINK Global School, I lived in the posh Recoleta district of Buenos Aires, Argentina where my students and I learned in the cafe which once graced the likes of Jorge Luis Borges, while devouring his magical realism. We sat in parks on the weekends drinking the ever-present matecito, and on weekdays investigated the dark history of the Military juntas and learned from the despair of Los Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. Our students were part of arranging a rare and emotionally difficult meeting between former military officers and the families of los desaparecidos. Pura Vida Mae, as a waterman, I have often been drawn back to the paradise of pura vida, Costa Rica.
On one trip, we utilized a learning-by-doing approach to living sustainably at Punta Mona, an off-the-grid, permaculture farm, eco-lodge, and environmental education centre run by the incredible Stephen Brooks & his team. Stephen and Punta Mona were recently highlighted by Zac Efron in his Netflix special Down to Earth. On another adventure this time on the Pacific Coast of Nosara, learners participated in an 8-week module to learn the science of surfing, while also undertaking the physical training to become professional surfers. In Monteverde, our teams spent months on the University of Georgia campus directly assisting local Ticos with University biodiversity investigations as part of developing our understanding of human wildlife conflict and globalization.
Landing in Quito, Ecuador on March 7, 2020 and being greeted by doctors in hazmat suits checking temperatures and distributing hand sanitizers was quite a shock arrival to the Andes. These were the earliest days of our global pandemic. In the week before COVID-19, cubrebocas (facemasks), and living in a pandemic became normal, my team and I were hard at work with the inspiring professors from the University of the Americas, both inaugurating their Center for Teaching and Learning and delivering a 21st century pedagogy workshop. With the assistance of the power duo of Francisco Morejón & Jose Martinod, we were able to re-expose UDLA professors to Quito’s cultural & colonial sites, such as the Compañia de Jesús Jesuit church, this time using a city/campus-as-lab model to inspire the design of interdisciplinary and place-based projects. Since our timely departure out of Quito, Ecuador, literally, the day before airports globally began suspending flights, the professors have been adapting their new project-based pedagogy to work in the digital space. The pandemic has brought about enormous changes for education, and we are witnessing an unseen opportunity to adapt the future education landscape for a more just and sustainable future. Currently back in México, we have approximately 30 million students undertaking remote learning, orale!
As a means to overcoming a lack of internet access (56%) and a general lack of technology, the Mexican government has made deals with television providers to record and reach all grade levels of Mexicans, where 93% of the population will have access. Educators and students across México are painstakingly adjusting the remote learning process and protocols. One opportunity that is presenting itself here (and elsewhere) is that the Ministry of Education has devalued exams, which opens the door for agile educators to pivot from ‘educating’ their students towards providing opportunities for ‘meaningful learning.’ Across the world, we have evidence of students, parents, and teachers all finding ways to make learning happen in a variety of environments. My hope is that here in México, and abroad, as we reevaluate our priorities and values as school leaders, we will add more weight to developing the whole-child and link their learning to authentic real-world tasks. Ideally, this new approach using authentic learning will inspire intrinsic motivation in learners and take aim at fixing local and global problems with innovative solutions. This, in the end, is how we continue to use education to change the world.
Currently, I live in Puerto Vallarta and am honored to be promoting education as a National Geographic Certified Educator and serve as the Country Lead of the Finnish Education non-profit HundrED, that aims to identify and promote innovations in education. I work daily with innovative education projects across Mexico. This September, educators across Mexico began having monthly meetings, as ambassadors of HundrED, aiming to highlight innovation, create deep networks, and share best practices. I have had the pleasure of living and teaching the culture and geographic mosaic that is Latin America over the past decade. I have devoured the words of Borges, Paz, and Marquez. I set into Latin America as a cultural traveler, and now a decade later with a wife and life in México, I am moved to reflect on my experiences through the lens of authentic learning. Maybe there is something deeper between my passion for authentic learning and my passion for living in Latin America, perhaps it is that they both, in essence, thrive with passion, deep connection, and grit.