Highlights from the 2016 Changemaker Education Summit in Killarney, Co. Kerry

What is our definition of changemaker education? 

"Every young person becoming empowered in a learning ecosystem that is explicitly focused on providing experiences that equip and incline them to make a better world."

From 19th to 22nd of October, we welcomed over 150 changemakers and leaders in education to Killarney, Co. Kerry, for the 2016 Changemaker Education Summit. It was a unique opportunity for European members of the Ashoka Changemaker Schools network to come together with innovators from all over the world, to share ideas for the co-creation and reinvention of education in today's world.

The summit programme included keynote speeches by Dr. Daire Keogh (Deputy President of DCU), Miho Taguma (Senior Policy Analyst OECD), Prof. Tom Collins (Chair of the Governing Bodies of DIT and IT Blanchardstown) and Margret Rasfeld (Ashoka Fellow and founder of School on the Move).

Attendees toured St. Oliver's National School (a member of the Irish Changemaker Schools network) and observed a Roots of Empathy class, based on the ground-breaking method for empathy education developed by Ashoka Fellow Mary Gordon.

We would like to extend a warm thank you to all who attended, and a big thank you to Rory D'Arcy and the school community of St. Oliver's N.S. in Killarney for making everyone feel welcome.

See more photos from the summit on our Facebook Page.

Search the #ChangemakerED Hashtag on TwitTER to see live updates from the Summit.

'Meet the Changemaker Schools' - read Carl O'Brien's article about the Changemaker Schools network in The Irish Times.

Meditation practice brings tranquility and confidence to the school day

By Breda Murray, Principal of Our Lady Immaculate J.N.S.

As educators, it is part of our job to be sensitive and responsive to the needs of children who exhibit signs of stress or disruption. In 2010 we introduced a Meditation Project for the students of Our Lady Immaculate, aged between 4-8. We did this for a few reasons. There was a marked absence of any form of ritual or time where the children were offered an opportunity to sit in silence and contact something beyond the business and challenges of their daily lives. Our children were under a complete barrage of noise and activity with few opportunities to go inside and build the inner resources they so desperately needed. The impact of this was evident in their behaviour, concentration, levels of attention and focus, behavioural disturbances, depression, apathy and general wellbeing. Their emotional and mental resilience was not as robust as it could be as they had many obstacles to overcome and often very little support at home. 

Our school is situated in what is termed a 'DEIS band 1' area, which is a category devised by the Department of Education and Skills in 2005 that refers to areas of significant economic, social and educational disadvantage. Although proud of our community, we recognise that growing up in a challenging and sometimes unstable environment can be taxing for young children.

A drawing by a student of Our Lady Immaculate JNS, submitted as part of their meditation practice feedback

A drawing by a student of Our Lady Immaculate JNS, submitted as part of their meditation practice feedback

After researching different types of meditation, we obtained some practical guidelines and resources for both staff and students, and in time established a meditation room that we decorated with a beautiful mural and simple relaxing furniture. We began slowly with about 7 classes, but within 2 years the whole school was meditating on a regular basis. Classes were facilitated by Steve Gregory, who has been working in this area for over 30 years. He brought a sense of deep calm and focus to the children and school environment as he began to work with parents and children on a weekly basis. Steve would work each week with all class groups modelling the meditation practices that the teachers could then with their own class group as they wanted to.

Parents, care givers, and the wider school community were also offered a weekly class, and soon a variety of people regularly gathered in our parents’ room for meditation. There was also a class for the teachers after school, which we have now extended to teaching staff in all the neighbouring schools.

At the end of the first year, I collected feedback from our students in written, verbal and artistic expression. I wasn't prepared for the depth of response and understanding of meditation the children displayed. They had absorbed and understood the various practices, and were using them throughout their daily lives, not just at school. They used the practices to help them sleep or energise, to release negative feelings, or draw in positive ones. Some children spoke of how the meditation helped them to soothe and reassure their anxieties and stress. Some even referred to feeling the presence of deceased family members while meditating, or seeing colours and images.

Reflections on meditation practice

Reflections on meditation practice

It was a revelation to me and Steve to see how deeply they had related to the whole experience. The children's knowledge and understanding were evidence of their immense capacity to go within themselves and find a deeper sense of being. There were many amazing moments that I heard, read or saw in the feedback as well as during meditation classes I observed, but perhaps the most satisfying thing was the realisation that for these young people meditation was as much a part of their lives as P.E., Music or Reading classes. Meditation had become a practice they drew on when they needed it.

It can be challenging in life to develop a sense of connection or meaning to something other than the present situation - a journey inwards that satisfies and nurtures and is not dependent on anything other for a sense of completeness or joy. If our children contact that even once through this meditation project, it will all have been worth it, as that experiencecan make all the difference.

This blogpost was written by Breda Murray, Principal of Changemaker School Our Lady Immaculate J.N.S. in Darndale, Dublin 17. Visit their website to find out more:


Helping students find their voice

By Siobhán Fitzgerald, Principal of Eglish National School

Students take part in the 'LET's Stand' programme at Eglish NS

Students take part in the 'LET's Stand' programme at Eglish NS

Approximately 70% of our students come from the Travelling community and 30% of our students have been assessed as having a special education need. Very proud of the demographic make-up of our school, we actively foster and create a safe, supportive environment in which all of our students feel cherished, stimulated and proud to be the best version of themselves. For us, it's about mutual respect.

We see a huge opportunity, through nurturing all our students’ self-worth and self-confidence, to challenge any existing prejudices in society and move beyond them. We aim to empower our students to be ‘Changemakers’, role models for their brothers, sisters, cousins and neighbours. Through encouraging creativity, we help every child find their passion and interest and develop it. This year our students wrote, produced and acted in their own Irish play. By making and selling their own crafts at our annual ‘Bring and Buy’ Sale, entrepreneurial skills are developed.
We celebrate diversity in all its forms, always reinforcing that ‘We are all more alike than different.’ 

Through self-evaluation, oral language was identified as most in need of attention. With one third of students assessed as having a speech and language difficulty, another big dilemma was the apparent reticence of students from the Travelling community to share information about their backgrounds. We were concerned also about how much time many students seemed to spend passively on technology in their free time, to the apparent detriment of their communication skills. Here lay the challenge and here lay the opportunity.  

Students practice public speaking in the yard at Eglish NS

Students practice public speaking in the yard at Eglish NS

We are a small school with a big vision, a vision of all our children communicating clearly and confidently, expressing coherently their thoughts, feelings, hopes and dreams, listening empathically to one another, developing keen skills of evaluation. We believe in using technology as the tremendous tool that it is to enhance presentations but at the same time, not being mastered by technology. 
Using the ‘LET’s Stand’ (Listen, Evaluate, Talk, Stand) programme we encourage, enable and empower students to stand and present in front of an audience a minimum of 10 times a year, every year of their primary school education. Each child speaks on topics relevant to their lives, all the while developing, step-by-step specific public speaking skills. Peer and teacher feedback and evaluation is positive and specific. We get excited about topics that excite our students. 

‘LET’s Stand’ targets the development of children’s oral language, confidence and public speaking skills at a time when they themselves most want to talk. This also feeds into the development of positive mental health practices. History boasts plenty of examples of great orators who have changed the world by standing up and speaking out. We are creating confident, communicatively competent orators for the future. Positive, powerful and passionate advocates for themselves and their communities.

Students at Eglish NS

Students at Eglish NS

Encouraging our students to talk has been easy because they want to be heard. Creating the safe, supportive environment in which this can happen is slightly more difficult. By spending time initially on clearly outlining and explaining the simple, respectful rules for ‘Listening’, ‘Evaluating’ and ‘Speaking’, the rest more easily falls into place. Discrete oral language time can be used for student presentations while many projects are easily linked to other curriculum subjects. Assigning preparation of oral projects for homework is a great way of getting the parents and extended family involved, promoting further increased communication and sharing of stories and culture at home. It’s homework that is not confined to being completed around the table.

Our staff conscientiously model the skills we aim to develop in our students. We actively listen to them. Working as a team, individual members of staff take the lead in their preferred areas of interest and create real opportunities for students to do the same. We realise that not simply teaching, we are moulding the young minds of rural Ireland, cultivating confident, clearly communicating leaders who can and will change the world for the good of us all. 

Yardtime at GETNS: A change for the better

By John Farrell, Principal at Galway Educate Together National School, a Changemaker School

It niggled at me for over twenty years of teaching. The little voice whispering in the back of my mind, “The yard….the yard…what about the yard?” The voice would say, “Why do we work so hard every day to have happy, positive, supportive classrooms but when the bell rings it’s ‘Off you go now kids, and remember, play nicely!’?” 

Maybe it’s because most children play nicely most of the time that adults think the yard is just another one of life’s classrooms. “It toughened us up. It didn’t do us any harm. We can’t wrap them in cotton wool. Sure they’ll get over it, eventually.”

But will they?

What about that boy walking the kerb alone, looking at his feet? Or the girl on the bench glancing wishfully at the others skipping and chanting and laughing? Or the goalie in the soccer game – his team are winning – why does he look so sad? See the girl that’s “it” in the tag game? She’s so red in the face. She hasn’t caught anyone and everyone knows she won’t, including her. There’s ages left before the bell rings and her ordeal finishes, for today.

Ask any teacher and they’ll tell you the yard is where the big behaviour problems are. It’s the part of the school day when children get into trouble for doing things they would never dream of doing in class. Teachers will tell you the huge amount of time they spend sorting out the problems after yard. We had a name for it in our school – “Post Yard Trauma.” Children were upset for getting in trouble, being excluded, fighting with their friends and so on. What was meant to be a fun time for all was, for a significant number of children, anything but.

It was a troubling constant of school life and despite periodic attempts to change we were becoming resigned to living with it. Yard is yard we thought, we can only do our best.

Then the flyer came in the post!

In October 2013, Galway Education Centre offered training in something called Playworks. Playworks was founded in 1996 in the U.S.A. by Jill Vialet and now runs programmes in over 20 US states. Their aim is to create a place for every kid on the playground to feel included, be active, and build valuable social and emotional skills. 

The blurb described many of the yard issues and then four words leapt out at me “We can change this.” I immediately applied and thankfully our school was selected to have two Playworks trainers spend a week in the school introducing the programme to the staff and pupils. 

What a week that was! 

The trainers, David and Tara, arrived with not much more than some chalk, a stack of cones, a few balls and a seemingly endless store of fun, active, inclusive games. They had some nifty strategies for keeping children involved as well as bundles of the wonderful warm enthusiasm that Americans are so well known for. Within a couple of days you could see the difference. Teachers were reporting that Post Yard Trauma had practically disappeared. Children were coming back into class more ready to learn. Those children normally on the fringes were playing and laughing with their classmates. The atmosphere was changing before our eyes and not just in the yard but in the classrooms and throughout the school community.

The underlying principles of fun, positivity and inclusion create the atmosphere. With Playworks the yard goes from a chaotic free-for-all environment to one that is semi-structured. Simple “core games” run in the same place in the same way every day. The games are quick so there’s no hanging around waiting. Rules are basic and infringements are met with redirection rather than punishment and exclusion. Conflict is sorted by the simple game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. “Put-downs” or negative interactions are replaced with “High Fives” and positive ones. Junior Coaches (student volunteers) run the games, not as referees but rather as facilitators that keep the games focussed on the underlying principles. Adults in the yard go from passive supervisors to active role models, joining in the games, building rapport with the children and supporting the Junior Coaches. Many of the strategies can be used in classrooms throughout the school day, thereby supporting and growing the culture.

There were plenty of tough days, however. When David and Tara left we struggled to keep the momentum going. They had shown us the promised land but it was only a glimpse. Implementing the structure and organisation, the planning and development, the training and support required for Playworks to last was a big challenge for us. With the immense effort of a member of staff (Thank you Michelle!) and the goodwill of all the rest of the team we kept it going through that school year. In the summer of 2014 another Playworks trainer came from the US to give a summer in-service course for teachers and several of our staff attended. During the 2014/15 school year we dedicated a number of our staff meetings to figuring how to make it work for us. We defined roles, made staff teams and played the games together. Day by day the aspiration was becoming the reality.

By June 2015 we were confident enough to invite over 30 principals and teachers from all over Ireland to come and have a look at our yard. The feedback from those attending was incredible and several went away fired up to begin changing their own school yards. In November 2015 we ran an introduction course over three nights called “Yardtime @ GETNS” and 25 teachers attended. As most of these schools are in the Galway area we are now building a local network to give support to each other. In February 2016 we were invited to give an introduction to schools in Carlow and were amazed to see another 30 teachers from all over the Southeast out on a Saturday, geared up and enthused about transforming their yards. This term we plan to run a “Thank You Junior Coaches!” day where we invite all the schools who’ve made a start to bring the Junior Coaches together for a day of fun, friendship and figuring out how to make our yards even better. Our plan is to continue developing our own school programme while sharing our experience and offering our support to other interested schools. 

The possibilities for a Playworks yard are endless. More than anything it is a journey towards developing better human relationships through fun and play. To begin the only requirement is a willingness to look at your school and ask “What about the yard?”

Go to to see a short video on some of the elements of Yardtime @GETNS. 


Change Leader Interview: Mairead Healy

For young people in Ireland, obtaining a third-level degree has arguably never been more important. According to the National Youth Council of Ireland, during the recession Ireland had one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the EU. Even as the economy improves, shrunken retail and construction sectors mean that non-degree holders are the first to be left behind in a competitive job market.

Recent statistics from the Department of Education are hopeful, with over 90% of students sitting their Leaving Cert in 2013 and 2014. However, students from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds still lag behind their peers in this measure: In Ireland’s DEIS schools, 2 out of 10 students still fail to complete their final year.

Future Voices is an award-winning youth empowerment programme working with young people from disadvantaged schools, in the years leading up to their Leaving Cert. Students attend workshops to build their skills and confidence, and are paired with mentors working in areas of law, policy and business, to help them build a network of support.

Social entrepreneur Mairead Healy founded Future Voices in 2012. As her team gets ready to launch a new programme, Youth:Elect, this March, Mairead explains what motivates her to advocate on behalf of young people.


What is the problem that Future Voices is seeking to solve?

The problem we are trying to solve is that young people growing up in some of the most deprived and marginalized communities in Ireland often struggle to reach their potential. At Future Voices, we want to give them a voice and an opportunity to build up their self-esteem.


How do you address this problem? What is the Future Voices model?

We hand-select the DEIS schools with the lowest test scores and percentages going on to college, and we work with these students to give them a new sense of confidence, so that they might become leaders in their communities.

The programme is currently built around a 3-year model, so the 3 years of secondary school leading up to the Leaving Cert. The ‘Flagship’ project is about building up the students’ confidence through workshops and coaching sessions to build their skills – we cover everything from research, public speaking and presentations.

Following this, the ‘Step Up to the Mark’ programme is really about them taking charge, becoming advocates for their communities by learning about the legislation that affects them. Step Up includes a Central Project piece – for example, this year our students are organizing a TEDx conference.

Throughout the 3-year programme, students are paired with mentors who are working in the fields of law, policy or the government.They also have interactions with high level influencers in Ireland through our workshops and events, such as Chief Commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Emily Logan and Supreme Court Justice Frank Clarke.

The reason for this is twofold: we engage the high level mentors in order to give the students a realistic shot at actually achieving their goals and being able to flourish – because the reality is that students have better chances in the job market if they have access to the right networks.

But it’s not just about changing the mindsets of our students – it’s about inspiring the leaders and mentors as well. It’s about them thinking twice next time they’re going to hire someone or help someone on their way. We can’t break down old, elite and exclusive networks, but what we can do is create new ones that will be more accessible and inclusive.


FV is very young – you founded it in July 2012 and launched in 2013. What were some of the biggest challenges to you in the first two years?

Interestingly enough, the hardest step in setting up Future Voices was reaching the young people themselves. We were targeting only the most troubled schools with the lowest scores, but the teachers and administrators were often acting as gatekeepers, not returning my calls or agreeing to speak to me.

I think that perhaps the teachers were skeptical – very few people go on to college in these schools and I think maybe they didn’t want me giving the kids false hope.  I remember that a month before we were due to launch, we had hardly any kids signed up at all! Somehow it all came together in the end, once schools started letting me speak to kids in person, and they signed up in droves.

After the first year it was easier, because we had received some positive media attention and the word had spread among schools.


Have you made any major changes to the FV model? Have you had to change any part of that, either from feedback from students or others?

At first we were intending just to do the one-year programme. But by the end of that first year, everyone – I had teachers, pupils, parents – everyone was reaching out saying “Mairead, you have to bring these kids back.” So we expanded into a 3-year programme. Now we still have the Flagship programme, with new intake every year, followed by two years of ‘Step Up to the Mark.’


At the moment, FV is concentrated in Dublin and you haven’t expanded beyond that. Do you have any plans to and scale up?

I definitely want us to expand. I’d really like to make it all-Ireland. Because I’m from the North, I know how deprived it is in terms of unemployment, and opportunities, so setting up in Belfast would be a dream.

We also want to expand the programme offerings. The first cohort of Future Voices are now in their Leaving Cert year at school, so we are designing a follow-on programme for when they go on to third level education. One of the challenges about working with students from this background is that the dropout rate is very high when they go on university. The new programme will pair up senior partners from law firms to be there for our students throughout university, to meet with them every term, to be on the end of a call or an email.

It’s very important that we don’t leave them now. We have brought them this far and now we want to follow through.


Find out more on the Future Voices website and Twitter page.

This article first appeared in the online edition of Business & Leadership in February 2015.