Human tower : innovation in education at its best


A castell is a human tower built traditionally during city festivals in Catalonia.

A casteller is a member of this human tower. Being a casteller is not only being part of one of the “masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of community” recognized by UNESCO. It is also being part of one of the most ambitious and innovative educational projects of all times.
Human Tower in Barcelona (Sants) - video

Human Tower : Castellers in Barcelona (Sants) – see the video below

Human Tower in Barcelona


- a community based project involving people of the same district and creating new links between people
- a participatory project where each member of the human tower has an essential role that doesn’t depend on social status or economic power
- an intergenerational project involving three generations from 6 years old to 65 years old
- an interdisciplinary project involving expertise from different fields : physics, architecture to build the most solid and daring tower
- a project based on mutual trust: if one fails, everyone fails and my fate depends on others’ shoulders
- a team building project based on the cohesion of a “pack” of one hundred persons
- a project that fosters children’s autonomy and sense of entrepreneurship letting them taking risks with the consent and support of committed adults
- a project that contributes to the preservation of cultural heritage based on oral transmission
- a project that transforms a public place in an innovative learning space
In summary, a “castell” is an educational project where human spirit is in fact the most advanced technology!


“God bless your pencil and give you success in life”

Samuel’s father – a young Kenyan portrayed in Pascal Plisson documentary “On the Way to School” (see my blog) – says it all: do we need technology in the classroom or a pencil is enough?

A group of french teachers launched a movement against digital devices in schools: “appel de Beauchastel contre l’école numérique” available in a digital format (!) here

appel de Beauchastel

Beyond the usual rethoric against commodification of education and the Silicon Valley duplicity promoting technology in the classroom while sending their kids to non digital schools (see my blog), these teachers refuse to be simple intermediaries between students and their devices.

similar movement started in the UK a couple of years ago. In a letter (paywall) to The Times, 198 academics and children’s authors accused the new national education policies “of taking enormous risk with the quality of children’s lives and learning”.

What these teachers don’t say is that technology will never be the solution if it is not accompanied by a change in pedagogy.

In 2015, an OECD report concluded that “school systems need to find more effective ways to integrate | technology into teaching and learning  to provide educators with learning environments that support 21st century pedagogies and provide children with the 21st century skills they need to succeed in tomorrow’s world”. In other words, a tablet won’t solve it all (but a tablet is not useless). Another OECD report takes the debate a step further introducing the need for students to work independently, co-operatively and in projects with little teacher intervention. Would our French teachers accept to let students lead the learning process?

It is one thing to believe that technology can make learning more effective in certain conditions but it is another to believe that putting computers in the hands of all students can make all schools more effective. Examples abound in favour or against the role of digital.

The Bolton school – Essa Academy – became the first in Britain to buy touchscreen devices for all its students and went from being a failing school to be judged ‘good’ by Ofsted and a reference on how to teach with technology. On the contrary a report, based on research in 17 US states with online charter schools, has found “significantly weaker academic performance” in maths and reading in these virtual schools compared with the conventional school system.

Teachers are the cornerstone of change in education. We need more innovative teachers (let’s have a look again at an inspiring portrait of a young teacher who wants to change his class… and the world. Let’s go back to Frank Damour’s article entitled “Comment Internet m’a ré-appris pourquoi j’enseigne”.

Education will be better off with the committed children in the center and the committed teachers not left aside (especially on their own initiative!).

At the end of the day, one must decide whether education needs more plaintive letters or more innovative practices?

Anywhere, everywhere

The famous tryptic: “anyone, anywhere, anytime” is often used to characterize the changes in the learning process. Innovative learning experiences will get rid of the constraints of space and time and be much more inclusive and personalized.

The education systems are mostly defined by their learning spaces. Schools all over the world still reproduce the teacher-students top down relationship and are directly produced by an industrial approach to education. Ken Robinson gives three of these industrial principles— conformity, compliance and linearity – that still define our learning spaces. Our universities’ amphitheaters tell the same story of unilateral and linear relationship under which a teacher tells the truth to a large group of often passive students.

A literature review on classrooms’ design made at Princeton University concluded that “the traditional transference model of education, in which a professor delivers information to students, is no longer effective at preparing engaged 21st-century citizens. This model is being replaced by constructivist educational pedagogy that emphasizes the role students play in making connections and developing ideas, solutions, and questions”.

Our new schools, our new universities will be characterized by the design of new learning spaces. Part of the problem we are facing with this new situation is that new spaces are not always made by those with recent experience of teaching or studying in classrooms. Architects and promotors have not fully realized that learning ultimately belongs to learners (and teachers). In a recent work done for one of the leading French universities, I addressed the need for new learning spaces as part of a global reflection on the future of learning and teaching. It takes a lot of effort and imagination to go beyond the clichés that characterize the “digital era”. Which are the genuine expectations of both learners and teachers? How can they overcome the dictatorship of spaces? Even though we are clear about the need to change our learning and teaching practices, we are still thinking in terms of traditional spaces. Even though our classrooms or amphitheaters will be smaller or more flexible, they will still be there.

Can’t we think learning and teaching without thinking of classrooms (large or small)? If a learning experience can take place anywhere, why should we bother about the space? Shouldn’t we insist more on the capacities and skills required by our students – and teachers – to recognize any space as a potential learning space?

In her book on learning spaces, Diana G. Oblinger reminds us thatthere is value from bumping into someone and having a casual conversation, there is value from hands-on, active learning as well as from discussion and reflection, there is value in being able to receive immediate support when needed…”

Conversation in a park (probably Gainsborough and his wife), Gainsborough Thomas (1727-1788) Location : Paris, Louvre museum © RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre museum) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi

Conversation in a park (probably Gainsborough and his wife), Gainsborough Thomas (1727-1788)
Location : Paris, Louvre museum
© RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre museum) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi

Bumping into someone can take place anywhere. Learning is no longer or not only about technology. Learning has to do with the way we occupy the space, with the way we live together, we engage into conversation together.

Innovative learning has something to do with casual learning, transforming any space in a learning space: a waiting room at a doctor’s practice that creates new opportunities for patients to exchange and learn from peers, a fast food restaurant where wifi connection enables customers to take an online course, a park…

In a park or in a fast food… Anywehere. Everywhere…

“Why is changing health-related behaviour so difficult?”

Michael Kelly and Mary Barker from the University of Cambridge and the University of Southampton have just published a fantastic article in the Journal of Public Health – “Why is changing health-related behaviour so difficult?” – that conceptualizes in a very accessible way why changing health-related behaviour is so difficult and what we do wrong in no acknowledging it.

This article – is compulsory reading for all those who for years have been researching effective health strategies to prevent the rise in obesity, tobacco o alcohol consumption or promote physical exercise. It is worth reading for all those outside the public health field who are trying to design new change strategies for instance against climate change or for the introduction of new technologies in the classroom.

We are all convinced that changing behaviours is essential to respond to the health epidemics (type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease…) affecting hundreds of millions and also puzzled by the fact that we are having a hard way achieving it (and bringing evidence)

The authors draw attention to six errors policy makers (and often we as education specialists) apply to health-related behaviour change in non-communicable disease prevention;

error 1. It is just common sense

“It is obvious what needs to be done, so let us just get on and do it”.

If changing behaviour was simply about making common sense simple changes and good choices then we would all be able to make whatever changes we wanted to whenever we wanted, but we do not.

Just because something appears to be obvious and simple does not mean that we should not bother to study it

error 2. It is about getting the message across

“If we could only get the message out there in some form which people could understand and identify with, then they would change in response”.

The investment in social marketing campaigns which borrow heavily from the commercial analogy and their lack of tangible success suggests that the commercial analogy is flawed if applied simplistically to public health matters. Campaigns can have an important role and can be effective, but they are but one part of a total strategy and behaviour change is not just about simple messaging.

error 3. Knowledge and information drive behaviour

“If we tell people the negative consequences of eating too much or exercising too little, they will change their behaviour accordingly.”

This is clearly not true and every front-line clinician and practitioner knows it is not true.

error 4. People act rationally

“If you tell people what is good for them and what they need to do to protect their health, they will do it”.

Most diets fail, not because people do not know what is supposedly good for them, but because knowledge and its rational assessment alone do not drive behaviour.

error 5. People act irrationally

“People have their own reasons for doing things”.

When someone with asthma refuses to stop smoking, we might regard them as very foolish or addicted or both. But what we tend not to see is that this may not be so irrational a decision after all given their lives and experiences.

error 6. It is possible to predict accurately

“We can say with certainty how individual people will behave in any given situation”.

While we can patterns of health inequalities, tobacco and alcohol consumption and trends in these over time and place in great detail, however, none of this has provided sharp-edged tools with which to tackle health inequalities, the obesity epidemic or the rising tide of alcohol consumption.

blog health

As a conclusion, the authors advocate to rethink the way health professionals work with the public. They insist on the need to steer away from information giving and towards empowering and motivating individuals to generate their own solutions to their problems.

At P.A.U. Education with the Avall project, jointly with Bjarne Bruun Jensen from the Steno Health Promotion Research (Denmark) and Esteve Llargues – the project’s designer and coordinator – from the Granollers General Hospital (Spain), we designed an educational intervention during childhood viewing children and schools as catalysts for health-promotion actions at community level and that could provide a key prevention strategy, with education on dietary habits and physical activity for children and their families being considered the foundation for healthy lifestyles in adulthood. Two years after the study completed, the intervention group showed a lower increase in BMI and the trend consolidated after 6 years.

Mark Hanson’s recent research from the University of Southampton has revealed the importance of healthy lifestyle in parents in the period before they conceive a child. This time in the life course offers a window of opportunity to reduce the risk of later NCDs as well as childhood obesity in two or more generations simultaneously – in parents and in their future children and possibly their grandchildren.

These examples help envision new effective intervention strategies that can only work with the active support and conviction of policymakers…


Schools: they are a changin’


Back to school! A full school year is ahead of us and many countries experienced “innovative” school reforms. Does it make sense to change again and again our school programs, school standards…?

Educative systems are accustomed to change. Some would say that they are in a state of constant change. Over the past 30 years, all European countries for instance have been continuously engaged in a deep reflection regarding the future of their educative systems. The rhythm of these organizational and curricular reforms during this period more than doubles that experienced since the turn of the 20th century. Are we simply facing yet another cycle of change that will yield to a set of new reforms? Will it constitute a “controlled” change to adapt schools to new technological, social and economic conditions? Or are we on the edge of a true revolution?

Over 20 years ago, Seymour Papert argued that: “children will (no longer) sit quietly in school and listen to a teacher give them predigested knowledge. They will revolt.” The revolt didn’t take place at the time and our schools didn’t change (much).


times changin

There are several good reasons to think that times are now riper for a “revolt” of great magnitude. In countries like Spain or Portugal, more than 30% of early school leavers and more than 40% of unemployed youth aged over 18 throw the very meaning of school education into question. In the USA, we have just witnessed the first cases of higher education students filing a lawsuit against their law school for creating false expectations with regards to their future employability.

In this context, does it make sense to make school reforms as if we were trying to make up for some problems without changing the whole picture? Have we still time to adapt our school education systems in order to prevent resounding failure? Or should we totally rethink school education in a much deeper way?

The failure of our societies to provide work to youth and to fully integrate them into society may mark the end of school education as we know it until now: a continued process that should lead children and youth to progressively gear up for their futures as successful professionals and responsible citizens.

Policymakers that keep changing the schools without changing the life perspectives for young people may listen again to Bob Dylan:

“There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows”



How can we reinvent education? Better said, how could we reinvent the world with education? A tremendous question raised by the best selling documentary “Demain” and a disappointing solution: Finland. Not that Finland is disappointing (see one of my past blog entry) but after nearly two hours of film talking about innovative solutions for the energy, the economy, the agriculture, the democracy, you could have expected something more than the so famous Finnish case. Being a reference for the OECD is not necessarily a guarantee of deep transformation. Democratic schools, escuelas nuevas, green schools… and hundreds of teachers that reinvent education every day out of passion and commitment could have been featured in the documentary. Tomorrow’s education is much more than giving more autonomy to principals and teachers. Education is a promise for tomorrow.


a documentary by Cyrille Dion and Mélanie Laurent

a documentary by Cyrille Dion and Mélanie Laurent

Years ago, I was asked by UNESCO to prepare a street chidren educator’s handbook. I asked whether UNESCO and the educators really needed one more manual that was likely to end up unused in the basement of ministries. What could it mean to educate street children? How come could street children engage into education when their lives were about daily survival.? If your main concern is what you will eat and where you will sleep the same evening, how can you prioritize education?

Learners require a vision of the future, not the immediate future but a long term perspective. The objective was then changed. We launched a project to give street children an understanding of the future so that they could understand what education could do for them and their future.

P.A.U. Education started working with street children educators designing a project entitled: the white book of our future. The idea was simple: enable street children to write and publish a book about their future. After 9 months of participatory work with street children in Mali, Honduras or Egypt, books were published. Children “with no name” were credited as “authors”. Invisible children gained recognition and a presence they never had until then. In Mali a law acknowledging their rights was passed.

Education is a promise of a better tomorrow but children needs to be guided to understand what tomorrow could mean for them. This is what innovation in education is about.

Tomorrow… Demain… Now!

« Previous Entries

Subscribe now

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers