CALL it courageous or crazy, but in the midst of a global pandemic, Cork-born teacher Emma Gleeson decided to move to Kenya to start her own innovative education project.
It was “crazy timing” she agrees, adding: “I’ve always been a big risk- taker and I believed passionately in the journey I have now embarked on, even though it has been a tricky one.”
As her ex-colleagues in education at Ballincollig Community School, where Emma taught for six years, grappled with the difficulties of virtually educating pupils, Emma changed direction.
Her home since last summer has been a green suburb of Nairobi, capital of Kenya, where she is establishing an ambitious non-profit business she believes can change the face of education in sub-Saharan Africa.
Emma, from Bishopstown, was a graduate in process engineering from UCC and a mathematics, general science and physics teacher.
She is talking to me from her apartment filled with vibrant African textiles, and preparing to go out to meet friends for sundowner cocktails on a balmy evening.
Kenya recently eased pandemic restrictions and has a 10pm nightly curfew. Restaurants and bars are open and Emma is free to meet friends for socialising in town, take hikes in wildlife-rich countryside, spend weekends on the coast, and go kite surfing and swimming with her Kenyan-born boyfriend Alex, who works in marketing and sales.
“We are in the middle of the registration stage for FEI (Foundation of Education Innovation) Africa so it’s a bit of a waiting game,” Emma says of her ambitious new project.
“The stakes are also high regarding personal input. I haven’t been employed in almost nine months but we hope to create huge impact in communities across Kenya and the rest of the continent by equipping the youth of Africa with the skills and knowledge for ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’.”
To help stay afloat financially, Emma has been giving online grinds to exam students back in Cork.
Finding a suitable local business partner to team with has been the trickiest part of her mission.
Setting up as an NGO was one option Emma considered but she decided there would be too many obstacles in her way.
The goal she has set out to achieve is to prepare learners in communities across Africa by facilitating and supporting the development of 21st century skills, introducing innovative educational practices, based on creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, leadership and media literacy.
“Africa’s education system traditionally beats kids into submission, training pupils not to ask questions but remain passive, now we need to equip youth with the necessary tools and mind set for better employment opportunities” Emma emphasises.
“Over the next 20 years or so, Africa has the potential to become the global centre of innovation, tech and opportunity, and the rapid advancement of technology, coupled with rapid population growth, suggests it has the potential to become the frontrunner for many breakthroughs in areas such as agri-tech, healthcare, also AI (artificial intelligence) through data science.
“There’s a big gap between the skills and knowledge students have finishing high school and the skills and knowledge they need to successfully enter the workforce or university.”
With her experience as a curriculum designer and educator, Emma cut her teeth in the area of project based learning (BPL). After stints working in international education in Colombia and Portugal in 2017, she joined Think Global School (TGS), a travelling international boarding school, supported by global philanthropy and higher education institutions, that spends every calendar year between four pre-selected countries delivering an innovative and practical project-based learning self-designed curriculum.
Staff create highly engaging and innovative eight-week modules and these interdisciplinary learning experiences are designed to help students refine their 21st century skills, as well as many other skills they do not cover in regular school curricula.
She explains: “These modules can cover so many different domains from data science to AI or biomimicry to fashion and art.
“I stayed with TGS for three years and found myself hopping around the globe annually, from Botswana to India and Japan to Panama. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done. We had some incredible adventures travelling around with our students.
“I had always wanted to live and work somewhere in sub Saharan Africa and in my third year with the international travelling school, I decided to combine the experience and knowledge I had learnt in the area of innovative education to start my own educational project in Kenya.”
Emma has always questioned “what we were doing as teachers through a traditional curricula and whether it was genuinely effective”.
In her view, “a lot of resources are dedicated to the design of creative content in education at the primary and tertiary levels whilst secondary level education misses out, as systems are too exam-focused”.
She adds: “That happens globally and certainly not just in Africa. I think that this glaring flaw has been exposed in recent months due to the pandemic. Surely, in modern education, students at any level should be building portfolios to showcase their work, rather than be solely exam focused.”
A hockey coach during her years at Ballincollig Community school, and a past pupil of Mount Mercy College, Emma says the move to Nairobi was strategic and not influenced by having a Kenyan boyfriend, though it has been a big advantage towards immersing herself in local life.
“Though it does help, it’s all about establishing good contacts and understanding how things work. Kenya is a very complex country, educated but also with a lot of corruption; importantly, Nairobi is also cosmopolitan, the city is the perfect location to launch an initiative like mine. being the heartbeat of East Africa with a vibrant start-up environment.
“People are always seeking opportunity and willing to try new things so I am convinced that I have come to the right place”.
To know more about Emma Gleeson’s African education project, see www.feiafrica.org