Inspiring Learning: Two Minutes with Global Educator Kerrin Barrett

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The most recent estimates by the United Nations show that 58 million primary school-aged children worldwide are out of school. In addition, approximately 250 million children are unable to read and write. These numbers are hard to comprehend; however, they are slowly decreasing, thanks to organizations and people dedicated to giving all children equal educational opportunities. One initiative, UNICEF’s Let Us Learn, has seen incredible success recently in Afghanistan. In this 2-minute interview, Kerrin Barrett, the national evaluator for the Afghanistan program, shares the preliminary results from the recent evaluation, as well as lessons learned from her experiences in the field of education around the world.

Can you please explain your path to your current role in education?

When I was little, I really liked to teach my brother and sister to read. But it was when I went into the Peace Corps that I found my calling. I was a maths teacher in Swaziland, and I found that I loved teaching the kids. I realized that this is my destiny in life. Then I moved to Austria and was a maths teacher before beginning my coursework for a Masters degree in International Development at American University. My first job after that was with USAID.

I enjoy working with adults and adult learners and began training people to use technology (specifically word processing and spreadsheets). This led me to get my Masters in Technology in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Then, in 2003, I went to the University of New Mexico for my PhD. Since then, I’ve been lead content developer for a game-based online product that taught U.S. soldiers how to speak Dari and Iraqi Arabic and helped them learn about the culture in Afghanistan and Iraq. I also designed an online game-based product, GoEnglish.me, that helped teach American culture to tens of thousands of English language learners around the world. (Note: GoEnglish.me can now be found in the Google Play store for Farsi and Chinese for free.)

In early 2010, I went to Afghanistan to build libraries so that locals would have safe spaces to learn. With the Afghanistan Ministry of Education, I helped train 100,000 teachers and ran a center for unemployed youth to teach them basic technical skills, like plumbing and electrical.

Eventually, I decided to move from Afghanistan to Dubai to see what I could do to make a difference in the UAE and the surrounding region.

Where has your work taken you around the world?

I’ve worked in Swaziland, Austria, Afghanistan, French Polynesia, Taiwan, China, Sri Lanka, Ghana, Jamaica, UAE, UK and USA.

Can you please explain your most recent project in Afghanistan and some of your findings?

Most recently, I’ve been working with UNICEF as the National Evaluator for Let Us Learn Afghanistan. Let Us Learn is in five countries, and it’s one of UNICEF’s initiatives to reach marginalized populations, in particular girls. In Afghanistan, the program has been running for three years, and I went there to do the summative evaluation. We wanted to determine what worked and the lessons learned.

The preliminary results from my three-week visit show that the program has been a huge success in all locations. Villages that never had education before now have primary education. The learning centers provide accelerated education, covering two grades per year. School runs all year long, and UNICEF pays for the firewood and carpets for the one-room learning centers. A key reason that the program is so successful is because the community allows the girls to attend school since they don’t have to leave their villages to learn – they are in either the teacher’s home or a mosque.

The evaluation showed that young boys who were previously fighting and causing disturbances in their communities are now focused on school, and the rate of nonviolent crime has dropped to almost nothing. Girls who could not read before are being encouraged by families to continue their education after grade six because when you educate one girl, you can educate a whole family. These girls can read prescription bottles and wedding invitations (an important part of the community and culture) for their families. Students are learning civics, a foundation of the Quran, and respect for parents and elders has increased in communities where there is a learning center. Children report that they will now cross the street to help an elder carrying a heavy load, and they didn’t previously. They’re learning to be better citizens. In one village, a community member who was responsible for burning down schools as a Mujahadeen during the recent conflict said that he now appreciates education and what it can do for the community.

It took about two years for the communities to become aware of the importance of education. UNICEF’s ALCs (Accelerated Learning Centers) are currently serving about 10,000 students, and the organization is hoping to expand the program.

What has been one of the most memorable experiences for you while working in the education field?

I was inspired in Swaziland. I saw the power of believing in young people, especially girls. Believing in them and allowing them to go to the blackboard – I saw their confidence and test scores increase, and they felt more empowered. I realized if I believed in these women, if I could give them a skill that they could feel confident about, then they could feel more fulfilled and be more productive human beings. This has been the thread through my entire career – to inspire and empower others.

What has been the greatest challenge for you in this line of work?

The greatest challenge, especially in Afghanistan, has been to make sure that the donors and those in charge of making resource decisions make the right decisions in terms of funding for education.

What are you most proud of or what is your greatest accomplishment?

I’m so blessed with so many things in life – the ability to complete my education at a later stage of life and to be able to go out into the field and apply those skills. I’m proud that I’ve been able to solve real-world problems for people around the globe in search of a better life.

What are you most excited about in your field? In other words, what have you read or seen recently that gives you hope?

My field is distance education and technology. I’m excited to see that distance education (i.e., mobile, MOOCs, Skype) has made its way into just about every country. More and more people are having access to education, and that continues to motivate me. It’s as though, through technology, a light is being shown through cultures that have never had education before. That’s a real promise for education globally.

What have you personally learned from doing the work you do?

I’ve learned that no matter what obstacle is placed in my way, where there’s a will, there’s a way to overcome it. No matter how difficult it seems to implement a training or initiative, people will find a way to improve their lives through education. I’ve also learned about the power of perseverance. No matter how tough it gets, surround yourself with positive people.

With all of your experience, what advice do you have for other educators who are trying to make a difference?

First, don’t give up. Second, know that you may not see the results of your efforts for many years, sometimes even a generation or two. However, every single child and adult is educating more than you can imagine through their families and communities. So stay the course, and know that you’re making a difference in the world.

For more information on the Let Us Learn initiative, visit UNICEF’s website, watch the “Let Us Learn – Educating the Hardest to Reach” video or listen to the “Let Us Learn, Everywhere – Towards Equality in Education” podcast (part of the Beyond School Books series).

Dr. Kerrin Barrett is the Managing Director of Nadya Mundo LTD, based in Dubai, with more than 20 years experience and leadership in education and training. Her current projects include evaluating UNICEF’s Let Us Learn program and conducting an assessment of BRAC’s Girls Education Challenge program, both of which aim to educate girls in Afghanistan. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico in Organizational Learning and Instructional Technology with a specialization in Distance Education, and an Ed.M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education with a focus in Technology in Education. She earned her B.A. in Economics from the University of California, San Diego. She has authored numerous publications in the area of distance education, teacher training and educational technology integration in the classroom.

NOTE: The content of this blog post is an interview and does not necessarily represent the views of Bon Education.

Sincerely,

Michelle
Education Research and Journalism Fellow, Bon Education

Image available under CC License by Afghanistan Matters, Vinko Pernek

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2 Responses to “Inspiring Learning: Two Minutes with Global Educator Kerrin Barrett”

  1. Mohamad Shibli February 10, 2015 at 9:17 pm #

    You are a very hard-working, open-minded, and creative teacher

  2. Patricia Mezu February 11, 2015 at 7:26 am #

    This is incredibly inspiring! Kerrin’s journey speaks about the power of following a distinct vision, as well as the power that education has, to make a change for good..

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