Introduction: Raya Bidshahri is the Founder and CEO of the School of Humanity, a revolutionary online school with a progressive model and skill-based curriculum and a mission to reinvent education to better serve our species. In addition to founding School of Humanity, Raya also founded Awecademy and co-founded various national and international initiatives including The Dubai Science Festival, Intelligent Optimism, and Cafe Scientifique Dubai, all organizations that serve to increase scientific literacy among the general public. Raya has spoken at numerous conferences including G20/Y20 Summit, Global Education Forum, UNESCO Expo-Sciences, and GESS Leaders. A visionary in educational transformation, and listed by the BBC as one of the top 100 most influential and inspiring women, I was excited to speak to her about her new online high school and her vision for education.
Zoe Weil: You’ve created many revolutionary educational initiatives and programs. What compelled you to launch the School of Humanity, and why now?
Raya: As impactful as my previous initiatives had been, I always felt like there were limitations with extracurricular solutions that depend on traditional schools. There are many constraints when it comes to changing our education system from “within” the system.
One of my favorite quotes that captures this is from Buckminister Fuller, where he says, “You never change things by fighting against the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.”
For me, the exciting innovations in the education space are happening at the “edges” of our education system – with the rise of new alternative school models. These are schools like Nuvu or Agora that have ditched exams and designed a pedagogy that doesn’t revolve around subjects, lessons, or grades.
COVID-19 has simply accelerated this trend of new education models. Research from EdSurge shows more favorability towards home-schooling, online-schooling, and even unschooling. Universities are already being disrupted. The timing couldn’t be better for novel teaching and learning models.
Zoe: Tell us about the school’s curriculum & model. How is it different from a typical high school curriculum?
Raya: Unlike traditional online schools that simply digitize the same out-dated models, we’ve reinvented what, how, why, and where learning happens.
At the School of Humanity, instead of learning being incentivized by exams, it is incentivized by curiosity and a desire to better the world. Learners develop future fluencies by solving global challenges. We offer a fully interdisciplinary curriculum, with emphasis on the transferable skills that matter most in today’s world.
We’ve also adopted the competency-based model which means that learners progress through the curriculum based on mastery rather than age. We also offer learners flexible schedules, with time for focus and creative flow. Instead of a traditional report, we are adopting the Mastery Transcript which demonstrates the skills a learner has gained, tagged to a portfolio of projects. Learners also receive mentorship from industry experts and global leaders.
Zoe: Can you share more about the impact of your educational ideas on young people, and through those young people their communities, nation, and/or world?
Raya: There are so many! One of my favorite occurrences (and this has happened a bunch of times) is when learners refuse to go on vacation because they don’t want to miss any sessions or workshops. With challenge-based learning or solutionary models, many parents also tell us that their kids are much more engaged as learners. It really goes to show that learning is a much more meaningful and inspiring process when it is guided by human progress.
I do believe that one of the best ways for us to measure our impact is to look at the impact that our young minds have on their own communities. When we designed our curriculum, we asked ourselves: What skills, mindsets, and dispositions contribute to human progress? How can we embed these into our curriculum? How can we measure them? Our curriculum includes over 600 different skills, values, and mindsets that we want to cultivate in our learners.
Zoe: If you had the power to snap your fingers and transform traditional schools and schooling, what would be the things you’d change immediately?
Raya: If there is one thing that I could change immediately, it’s to completely obliterate standardized tests and exams. This includes college-admission tests like the SATs and international board exams.
Such tests are not a fair or accurate measurement of intelligence or human potential. So much of “teaching” that happens in schools today is dictated by these tests, and so much of what learners choose to focus on is dictated by these tests. It makes it extremely difficult to innovate. I really believe that so much progress in our education system is hindered as a result.
Zoe: Given the grave challenges we face in the world and the slow rate of change within educational systems, what about the educational prospect most convinces you that we will be able to propel human progress and build a sustainable, humane, just future?
Raya: Many of the aspects of our education that we’ve been advocating for are not really that ground-breaking. People have been advocating for solutionary, interdisciplinary, personalized, and competency-based education for years. What gives me a lot of hope and optimism is the real case studies that are emerging that are effectively implementing these educational philosophies. We’re seeing the rise of “challenger” or “alternative” universities and high schools that have completely reinvented education and proven the impact of such pedagogies.
Ultimately, what I hope we will all be able to do is rethink the purpose of education away from career readiness and college-prep and towards enabling human flourishing and contributing to human progress. The future of our species depends on us being able to do just that.