Building empathy for oneself, society, and the planet
Simran Mulchandani talks with Annie Brookman-Byrne about his vision for education, which focuses on social and emotional learning and developing ecological knowledge.
Annie Brookman-Byrne: What needs to change in mainstream education systems around the world, in your view?
Simran Mulchandani: I don’t believe we have a clear understanding of what jobs are going to exist in 2050. Most parts of the world are still using a factory model, emphasising rote learning. Vast swathes of children all over the world have just been locked up at home, witness to all kinds of trauma. What are we going to do with these children when they come back to school – give them more of the same? Or are we going to equip them for the future?
“The nature of work and the nature of the planet are changing drastically.”
According to the World Economic Forum, executives are looking for communication, collaboration, team building, team playing, and critical thinking skills. We need to complement what we are doing today with those skills in mind. It’s clear that social and emotional learning are now essential. We need to round off education with those skills.
ABB: Alongside social and emotional skills, are there other skills that education systems are neglecting to develop, and that need to be prioritised?
SM: The nature of work and the nature of the planet are changing drastically. As my collaborator, the education reformist Sean Bellamy, says, what good is all this amazing math that we’re teaching, if there are no elephants left to count? What good is having a fantastic command of the English language if there are no forests left to describe?
We need to equip our children with an understanding of the importance of biodiversity and the value of the ecosystem. Children need to understand that if you don’t have bees, you won’t have fruits and flowers. If you don’t have mangroves, you will have flooding in coastal areas. They need to know that you can’t avoid a carbon footprint, but there’s still so much good you can do, and that’s what has been dubbed your “carbon handprint”. If we introduce children to that concept, they will start thinking about how to be Earth-positive – having a carbon handprint greater than their carbon footprint.
“The common thread that runs through socio-emotional and ecological knowledge is empathy.”
The inclusion of ecology is non-negotiable. The common thread that runs through socio-emotional and ecological knowledge is empathy. We need to learn first how to be empathetic towards ourselves, then towards others, and then to all life on Earth.
ABB: Can you tell me about Project Rangeet and your SEEK – Social Emotional and Ecological Knowledge – platform, which tries to address these challenges?
SM: We’re trying to equip children for the future by providing a platform of teaching tools and lesson plans. That platform is intended for facilitators, who could be teachers, parents, high school students satisfying a social service requirement, or a community elder who wants to do something meaningful in retirement.
SEEK draws on the science of learning, and addresses the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. We use an understanding of how children learn and what we believe they need to know in the 21st century to work towards our aim of helping learning communities around the world navigate the “new normal”.
The content is all play-based. We use music, art, storytelling, and games. For example, we teach about diversity through an activity called “We’re all made of the same stuff”, using paints and playdough. In a game called “The hidden culprits”, children try to find 14 polluting culprits hidden in a beautiful village scene, then attach solutions when they find them.
“We are aiming for true learning equity.”
The platform is based on the understanding that children think and learn differently to one another. Each child has unique strengths. Every lesson has something in it for different learners. One of our facilitators, a teacher in India, was teaching the Golden Rule – treat others as you’d like to be treated – through roleplay, using a lesson on the app. The kids wrote a script, then acted it out. Afterwards their teacher commented, “I can’t believe the talents that I’m discovering in my children today.” Discovering latent talent, teachers build confidence in those kids.
The content is on a mobile phone app, which allows the facilitator to prepare these lessons for 7- to 16-year-olds quickly. It’s built with a very international flavour. Our activities are about being completely inclusive, and children are introduced to different cultures. It’s currently available in English, Hindi, Bengali, and Spanish. SEEK can be taught anytime, by anyone in any socioeconomic, geographic or cultural context, in-person or remotely, at home, in schools and/or in communities. We are aiming for true learning equity.
ABB: How will you measure the impact of your platform?
SM: Measurement and monitoring are crucial. We gather real-time data from the mobile app on how many kids are learning, whether they are having fun, and so on.
It’s an evolving process. We’ve recently introduced observations and analysis by teachers, asking questions such as how they feel about the resources and whether they’re able to reach different kinds of learners. Some teachers have come to realise that they themselves were inadvertently discriminating, so they have been teaching themselves as well.
“My hope for the planet, my hope for humanity, is that we will bridge those divides.”
We are very lucky to be working with Nora Raschle, a professor and researcher at the University of Zurich. Raschle and her team are evaluating the efficacy of Project Rangeet, looking at its impact on the neurobiology of children. We want to find concrete scientific evidence of that impact, which would have immense value and help us scale up the platform.
ABB: What is your hope for the future of education?
SM: The digital divides in the world today are escalating dramatically. My hope for the planet, my hope for humanity, is that we will bridge those divides. We have the tools and the ability to do that today; I just hope that we also have the necessary will and wisdom. Building empathy – for oneself, for society, for the planet – is not just fluffy, it’s really important. We have a chance to bring the planet back into balance. We have a chance to create a kinder society. And I am hoping for a world in which nature and society are at peace.
Simran Mulchandani is a founder at Project Rangeet, a mobile app featuring a Social Emotional and Ecological Knowledge or “SEEK” curriculum, developed around the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Rangeet uses playful learning methods to teach in the way different brains think and learn. It can be taught anywhere anytime by anyone. Rangeet’s app measures impact on children and teachers.
Mulchandani is an entrepreneur and ex-investment banker. His focus is developing children to meet the challenges of the future.
Rangeet currently operates in 1,000 schools with 20,000 children in Bangladesh and India. Working with state governments and NGOs, Rangeet hopes to promote a world in which nature and society are at peace.