Brain-Based Holistic Education and the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals


In 1995, I was a young, dissatisfied corporate lawyer. I wanted to make a contribution to the world. I wanted to improve the lives of others. I wasn’t quite sure how to achieve that, but I knew it wasn’t going to be corporate law. So I quit. My career as a lawyer was a short one. Instead, I went to Thailand to work as an English teacher. If you had asked me my plans at the time, I would have told you I was going to teach English for a year in some rural school, travel, and then return to the United States to find a new career. Life is not usually that simple.

Instead of working at a rural school, I was assigned to work in the big city headquarters of the largest non-governmental organization (NGO) in Thailand. At that time, I did not even know what an NGO was. I just knew that this organization had staff members who needed to improve their English. Later, I realized how crucial English was to the operation of such an organization. After working with the staff, I was asked to help with some of the educational projects, especially those where teaching English was a focus. Soon I had left the classroom behind and become a coordinator and grant-writer for various projects. As I became fluent in the local language, I also became a guide for visitors to rural project sites, and a translator.

Many projects and grants originate in the United Nations, various embassies and foreign aid organizations. One project sponsored by the United Nations Development Program was a perfect fit for me. I was finally able to put my experience in the business world to good use. This project linked rural village groups with international businesses, not just as donors of funds, but also as teachers of valuable life skills. With the help of companies like American Express, IKEA, Reebok, and Volvo, rural groups were able to find various ways out of the cycle of poverty. Some people gained completely new skills and others found ways to successfully adapt existing skills or talents.

Through working with these economically disadvantaged people, I learned a valuable lesson about education, and how powerful and empowering it could be. Whether it was children in a school, or a rural village center with adults, exposure to valuable information and its application could make a huge difference in peoples’ lives. Though we did not make drastic changes in their circumstances, time and time again I saw people shift away from victim consciousness.

To improve the lives of the citizens of Thailand, the organization I worked for created many projects and programs, affecting all aspects of life. It has worked on family planning and health, sanitation, empowerment of women, improving primary education, combating HIV/AIDS, and environmental sustainability. I have seen the thread of education weaving through all of these programs. At the heart, each of these programs educated people to make better choices and provided some means or system to support those choices. The most successful programs featured the highest amount of individual participation.

When I started working in international development, the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (now the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals) had not yet been created. Such a comprehensive global framework was not a part of the development paradigm at the time and could not be a part of my worldview.

My experience working with NGOs has influenced my vision of the achievability of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Some form of empowering education will make a difference. The problems highlighted by the eight goals are interconnected; work toward the achievement of one goal will support the achievement of others.

This is why I believe brain-based holistic education, or “brain education” for short, can play a valuable role in the achievement of the SDGs. Brain education, as championed by organizations like the IBREA Foundation, is a tool of empowerment that can make any educational activity more effective; not only for the learners, but also for the trainers. Someday brain education may become a key to unlocking the rewards of education for students in developing countries, and can become an integral part of various development programs. I believe that it can be a force that transforms people from objects of aid into partners in development.

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