Preparing for a Panel in Qatar Turns Into an Intellectual Adventure

Vasiliy Bogin

Doha, Qatar—At about 11 p.m. in a hotel lobby here on Monday, not too long after I had gotten off the 12-hour flight from Washington, a slender, intense, gray-haired man with a Russian accent approached me. He had my room number written on a scrap of paper in his hand. His name was Vasiliy Bogin, and he is the founder of the New Humanitarian School, in Moscow.

Mr. Bogin was one of three panelists scheduled to be in a session titled “Simple Ideas, Big Results” that I moderated Wednesday at the third annual World Innovation Summit for Education, which seeks to be a Davos for the education world. The conference takes the unusual approach of mixing those interested in primary and secondary schools with those interested in higher education. Due to the financial clout of its backer, the Qatar Foundation, WISE is able to fly participants in from all points on the globe. In the conference crowds, sari silk and kente cloth brush against British wool.

Allan E. Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, the U.S.-based nonprofit organization that is one of the WISE partners, said the conference serves a real need. “The higher-education sectors in a lot of countries can be very isolated,” he said. Conference participants discover that “something that can be done in Colombia can also be done in Cambodia.”

The session that Mr. Bogin and I were to participate in was a conference version of the case-study method, showcasing three people’s efforts.

When I met Mr. Bogin in the hotel lobby, he and I sat down for a few minutes to discuss the session. I asked him to cut his introduction to two minutes. At his school, he told me, he has students use audio and video recordings to help them learn to express themselves clearly in different modes. Not revolutionary, perhaps, but interesting. Mr. Bogin also mentioned the name of a Russian philosopher, Georgy Petrovich Shchedrovitsky, and started drawing diagrams on a hotel napkin to explain different styles of thinking. My jet lag got the best of me, and I excused myself. (His school had its 15 minutes of fame following a New York Times article about it with the headline “My Family’s Experiment in Extreme Schooling.”)

The next day I met another one of my panelists, Rana Dajani, a biology professor at Hashemite University, in Jordan, over a conference lunch. Ms. Dajani is best known for a literacy program called “We Love Reading,” which she began in Jordan after seeing the powerful effect public libraries had on her four children when she was studying for her doctorate at the University of Iowa.

But what was most interesting to me about Ms. Dajani’s work was her introduction of service learning at her university. When she first tried to introduce the concept, she said, others opposed it and confused it with community service, instead of seeing it as a way to tie the practice of a concept with its study in the classroom. Ms. Dajani, clearly a very persistent person, thought she could start the program without any money, but realized money would make the program more attractive to her university. She sent e-mail messages out to about a hundred people, before getting a response from someone at the University of Roehampton, in London. She and a counterpart there began to prepare grant proposals.

Now Hashemite and eight other universities in Europe and Lebanon are sharing a grant of a million euros (about $1,376,000) over three years for a program in service learning.

One of the messages she hopes that the project will get across to Arab youth is that they don’t have to be idle, even if they are unemployed. “They can use their knowledge in a productive way for the service of their country,” says Ms. Dajani. In short, she is crafting solutions instead of describing the problems.

I met the third participant, Brij Kothari, at an afternoon rehearsal for the session, where the panelists and I practiced such details as cuing up videos. Mr. Kothari’s program grew out of his concern for the more than 700 million people, many of them in India, who cannot read or write. He was one of the founders of PlanetRead, which puts subtitles on popular videos, such as Bollywood songs. Using this “karaoke approach” to teaching reading, he estimates that for a dollar he can give 5,000 people a 30-minute reading lesson each week for year. He shuttles back and forth between the United States and India, where he is an adjunct professor at the Indian Institute of Management, in Ahmedabad. He is designing a university-level course on social entrepreneurship. In WISE-style lingo, his innovation is scaling up.

At noon on Wednesday, our session started. Some in the audience drifted away; others stayed with questions. Everyone on the panel made a strong effort. Mr. Bogin’s topic—his school and its teaching methods—was a bit of a mismatch for the other two speakers, who were focusing on basic literacy projects. He had trouble condensing his complex ideas into the time he had.

A few hours after the session was over, I came upon him sitting on a couch at the end of a hall, tapping on his laptop keyboard. In an odd way, my encounters with him and the other panelists reminded me that learning often takes place at the edge of what we are trying to focus on. I came for the conference and the “networking on steroids,” thinking of the panel as side gig.

But preparing for the session gave me the pleasure of getting to know three smart, passionate people.

When Mr. Bogin and I met again, he helped me to understand one of his main points. He has a problem that he uses to test would-be math teachers: If three cats can eat three sausages in three minutes, how much time will it take five cats to eat five sausages? Answer that question quickly, and right, and Mr. Bogin will believe you can use more than one style of thinking.

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