George Bernard Shaw had claimed with characteristic immodesty that “when I want to read a good book, I write one.” Fulfilling a perceived need is a defining characteristic of entrepreneurs. Like great artists and poets, entrepreneurs see the world not as it is but rather how it ought to be. And they follow that creative vision to create something of value. Ricardo Carvajal is a visionary and an entrepreneur in that sense. I had the pleasure of meeting him and his wife Jeanene Bluhm Carvajal, the creators of the Instituto Thomas Jefferson (ITJ), during my brief visit to Mexico City exactly two months ago as their guest.
Ricardo and Jeanene wanted their children to go to a good school. Since the nearest good schools were quite a distance away, they figured that they will build a school closer to their home for their children to attend. Building a school is hard enough but what they set their sights upon was to build one which would be no ordinary school: it would embody their values. So it was that nearly thirty years ago, they started ITJ in Mexico, which has now grown to three campuses with an enrollment of over 3,000 students.
What sets ITJ apart is not the fine 18th century hacienda in which the Mexico City campus is housed. What distinguishes ITJ is one word: values. The values of the founders form the foundation upon which the school is built and it is no surprise to learn that the school has been recently judged to be the best school in Latin America.
I visited the Mexico City campus for two days and got the opportunity to talk to students, faculty, staff, and of course got a lot of time to talk with Ricardo. I know that Mexicans are warm and hospitable people. But Jeanene and Ricardo were exceptionally generous and welcoming. I was their house guest. It is possible that my opinion of ITJ is colored by my genuine regard for them, but I think I am sufficiently objective to recognize excellence when it comes to matters of education.
It has been two months since my visit to ITJ. From time to time, I have pondered how to best describe the school. I think I have it: dynamic. The school’s attitude of dynamism reflects the essential aspect of the world we live in, a world of growth, of advancement, of constant striving towards goals and ideals.
Here is just an aspect of that attitude. There is a department in the school which focuses on attempting to predict what the world is going to be like 15 years hence. It is what I call a “look ahead” – try to discern what is the world going to be like by the time the kids entering the school today graduate. By doing so, you can better prepare the students to meet the challenges of the world to be.
The “look ahead” program is called “Vision 2020”. ITJ uses in-house staff as well as experts around the world to make educated guesses about the skills that will be valuable in the future. Thus, for instance, the kids learn how to effectively use video conferencing; or the use of the best technology tools. They learn not just the subject matter but also the use of the most effective tools. Heard of “mental maps”? They use it at ITJ at the elementary level.
Talking of experts from around the world, I must mention that I was introduced to Ricardo and Jeanene by Dr Gordon Dryden. Gordon is a dear friend who is the best-selling author of the book “The New Learning Revolution” (which made publishing history by selling over 10 million copies in less than a year when it was released in China.) Gordon lives in Auckland, New Zealand. Gordon visited ITJ as an expert.
What Ricardo stressed to me is that more than anything specific, they teach values. And how to be a good, effective, thinking person. They have a program which teaches how to effectively express your emotions. Subject matter is well and good but you need to teach kids interpersonal skills. They teach the kids to “STOP, THINK, and DO.”
The atmosphere in the school was one of happiness. Whenever I entered a classroom, I was greeted by eager faces. They were confident and did not shrink from expressing themselves. They posed for the pictures and told me excitedly about what they were doing in class. And they greeted Ricardo with affectionate hugs.
I asked Ricardo about discipline issues. They don’t have much of an issue. Why? Because the kids are given a very large space to explore but—and here is the important bit—the boundaries are extremely well defined and everyone knows what the boundaries are. There are no surprises and there is no arbitrariness in what is allowed and what is not. This makes immense sense. You must have freedom to be before you can learn. But that freedom has to be within the confines of well-understood mutually agreed upon rules. Transgressions mean immediate dismissal from the school.
Are there specific focus areas for various age groups, I asked. Yes. In the Kindergarten years, the focus is on love and affection. In the primary school, they stress basic knowledge. In the junior high years, it is values and interpersonal relationship skills; in senior high, it is leadership. Thus they have a model UN at school. Teaching teamwork is a core goal. So is high critical thinking skills.
Creativity matters to ITJ. They have a strong theatre program and every year they stage a Broadway play. I saw some pictures of the plays they have staged. Professional quality.
They do things in style. For example, in KG, while learning about, say, marsupials, the kids will then take a virtual tour of a zoo in NY or in Australia through video conferencing and interact with people in remote locations.
Ricardo was especially proud of their science curriculum. The school has taken the top three places in the National Contest for Chemistry. It has featured in the top 10 in the last nine years. They have video conferencing with NASA astronauts. ITJ is definitely the sort of place (unlike some school districts in the US) where evolution is taught. ITJ seeks out the best. It has relationships with Harvard University, and joint ventures with universities in Florida and California.
Though my visit was brief, it was as enjoyable as it was instructive. I got to meet wonderful people. Mariana and Ivana (whom I have mentioned before here) were great. So was Carlos who drove me around in the notorious Mexico City traffic. I had a short visit to the famous Museum of Anthropology. During that visit I saw the biggest flag I have ever seen in my life. Mexicans obviously love their flag but this one at the military academy was the mother of all flags: it must have been a 40 feet tall and 100 feet across.
I close this one with gratitude to all who gave so generously of their time during my visit to ITJ. Thank you.
(Pictures of my visit to follow shortly.)