How a Few Educators Made a Big Difference: The Miracle of Misiones

Cover Story August / Lead Features August / Top Feature August / August 17, 2018

-by Errol St.Clair Smith-

I’ll bet you’ve never read, seen, or heard a story of education transformation like the one I’m about to share with you. The smartest minds among us say there’s no such thing as a magic bullet in education. But what if the gurus, policymakers, administrators, pundits, and thought leaders are wrong? What if they simply didn’t know where to look to find it? What if the heart of the 21st-century education revolution is not in Singapore, Helsinki, Hong Kong, Ontario, Sejong City, London, Tokyo, Tallinn or Washington D.C.?

What if the place we need to go to see a masterful pivot toward 21st-century learning, to understand it, and learn how to scale it is not ISTE, Bett, or TED?

What if that magic bullet is hiding in plain sight as we continue to chase the next shiny innovation?

Are you open-minded enough to risk looking like a naïve educator who still believes in Santa Claus? If so, let’s take a trip to a school system that is not supposed to exist…. But it does.

The world was flat… until it wasn’t

If history has proven anything, it’s that today’s rock-solid belief can become tomorrow’s,

“What the heck were we thinking?”

“How did we not see this? “ Or

“We used to believe…, but now we know…”

Yes, I’m offering justification for you to consider an implausible claim. Namely, that a magic bullet in education is not only possible, but you can see how it’s manufactured 1,771 miles south of the equator in Argentina.

Who’da thunk it?

The province of Misiones in Argentina is an unlikely candidate to be a sizzling center of innovative teaching. As the second smallest of 23 provinces, Misiones is the USA’s Delaware. But where the state of Delaware has 961,939 residents and is one of the top 10 richest states in the US, Misiones is the flipped side. The province has 1.2 million residents and is one of the most economically challenged states in Argentina.

Wait! There’s more. In the US, there are several states with exceptional rates of school-aged children. In California, 23% of residents are under 18 years old. In Texas, that number is 26.2%, and the state with the most residents under age 18 is Utah, with 30%. But the province of Misiones tops them all. “Forty percent of the population is under 18 years old, and one of every three is in the educational system. This reality poses great challenges,” says Misiones Minister of Education Mg. Ivonne Aquino.

Yet, we’ve only scratched the surface of the challenges Misiones faces. Like other school systems, educators in Misiones have seen their fair share of political turmoil, economic shocks, and struggles to meet global education performance standards. But among  the biggest barriers to teachers and students in Misiones is the lack of “technological innovation” and an “inefficient education system.” In short, the school system in Misiones is trying to overcome an outdated 20th-century school model.

Which raises a series of epic, head-scratching questions:

– How did this tiny province of Misiones host the largest Flipped Learning conference in the history of Flipped Learning?

– How did Misiones entice 1,500 educators from a half dozen countries across South America, the Caribbean, the United States, and Spain to come to a remote town on the edge of a jungle to learn how to flip their classrooms?

– Most importantly, why did so many attendees float out of the event delighted, inspired, and eager to transform the most fundamental element of how they teach?

The Miracle of Misiones

On August 8th, we were airlifted into Misiones and spent three days learning with, from, and about the attendees.

What we most wanted to understand were their insights on:

— creating the motivation to change, and

— scaling transformation rapidly against enormous headwinds.

What we discovered surprised us in multiple ways and was soon labeled, El Milagro de Las Misiones, (The Miracle of Misiones).

Below are some of the key factors we found behind the enthusiasm and accelerated adoption of Flipped Learning in this slice of the education universe.

1. The need for change was clear

The Minister of Education Mg. Ivonne Aquino explained that with one-third of the population under 18, roughly 420,000 students in the school system, and a dropout rate of 50% (now down to 40%), there is widespread agreement that education has to be a priority. From their view, the challenge is to bring the school system into the 21st-century with a local “Misionerista” flavor. To Aquino and her colleagues, this means balancing the ancestral legacy of the region’s past with the global educational needs of the future. Their commitment to update the school system while maintaining the character of the community was present at every turn. From the graphics on the website to the informality of the interactions between the “dignitaries” and attendees, this was a uniquely Misiones experience.

2. The ideal path was clear

In the middle of the decade, Misiones school leaders set out to find a 21st-century educational model that could achieve two things:

· Consolidate their fragmented public school system.
· Move students toward more “real and active participation in learning.”

In 2016, the province chose the Flipped Learning model after introducing flipped instruction to managers, teachers, and students during a road trip with Misiones school reformers. Miguel Sedoff, Juan Alberto Galarza, Sandra Bonetti and Jon Bergmann traveled the highways and back roads visiting schools across the province. Minister Aquino told FLR that Flipped Learning was so warmly received, they were immediately convinced it was the right choice for their objectives.

From the very beginning, the program to transform schooling in Misiones through Flipped Learning enjoyed the support of Governor Hugo Passalacqua, the president of the legislature Ing. Carlos Eduardo Rovira, the heads of other related Ministries, the teachers union, and the business community. Everyone we spoke with echoed the message that early support from community leaders was essential to what we saw in Misiones.

Close to the end of our visit, we asked Aquino about the future of Flipped Learning in Misiones. The minister replied, “In flipped instruction, I see an open model that allows us to respect the idiosyncrasies of each school, each community, and each region. And that opening is what will allow consolidating a powerful network of educational projects that will be enriched in the active exchange.”

Her comments revealed a unique example of Flipped Learning as a foundational framework that supports diverse teaching needs, teaching models, and teaching strategies. Her sentiment was broadly shared and visible at the conference.

3. Overcoming the obstacles

Miguel Sedoff is now the director of Misiones’ Educational Innovation Program “Plataforma Guacurarí.” He led the launch of the conference along with Sandra Bonetti, the director of training. Sedoff is also a member of the FLGI International Faculty and remotely kept us updated on the obstacles the organizers encountered along the way. But speaking face-to-face in Misiones brought us closer to the drama and the difficult problems they had resolved to get to this point. Problems that could easily have produced a very different story.

One example involved the devaluation of the Argentine dollar (the peso). Mid-project, an unfortunate shift of the financial landscape drove the cost of the program up by 30-35%. Suddenly, the conference was way beyond their available budget. Now what?

Even good surprises became threatening new obstacles. The organizers initially planned to have 500 attendees. But soon registrations exceeded 750, then 1,000. Finally, they closed registration as the number approached 1,500. How could they possibly fund an expanding event with costs skyrocketing weekly? When we asked how they solved this problem, Sedoff said they simply decided not to be stopped by any obstacles. “Right, but how did you actually overcome this obstacle,” we asked. Sedoff explained how they closed the budget gap by requesting an extension of the original budget and requesting financial support from other state agencies that did not initially sign on as participants. Sedoff says that a solution was only possible because they established excellent internal relationships at the start of the project.

4. Getting the right people on the bus

It’s always amazing to see what can be accomplished with the right people. The Educational Innovation Project team started with three people and eventually expanded to 12. Sedoff notes that the initial project members believed there was a lot of untapped talent in the province that was “sleeping.” They aimed to expand their team by looking for people who “liked the challenge of doing something innovative in education in one of the smallest provinces in the country.”

The same thinking carried over to finding the first teachers to launch the Flipped Learning pilot. Changes to teaching and learning that start at the top are commonplace here in the United States. But what we saw in Misiones was a very uncommon level of enthusiasm to embrace top-down change. Of all the wizardry we witnessed in Misiones, this was the most perplexing. So we probed for answers during the sessions. We dug for clues during dinner. We examined and cross-examined everyone close to the operation to uncover the secret design for manufacturing the magic bullet. We asked, and asked again, “Why are so many people here eager to learn about Flipped Learning?”

There’s a humble quality about the people we met in Misiones. No one was eagerly stepping forward and saying what you see here is because of “me.” Indeed, the answer we persistently received was “we” have an incredible team. Yes, of course, we hear that all that time, everywhere we go, but what did this “we” do that other “we’s“ aren’t doing?

Eventually, we uncovered two points that hinted at what may be the magic behind the mystery – Road trips and no pressure. Instead of mandating change and airdropping policies into school buildings, Sedoff, Bonetti, and Galarza continued to go school-to-school asking teachers about the challenges they faced. At each stop, they invited a discussion on whether Flipped Learning might be the solution. As Sedoff told the story, he repeatedly emphasized, that the program was optional.

“What? No mandate?!”

That’s right. There was no pressure to change. They just pointed to the benefits of Flipped Learning and offered support to those who were interested in a solution. In short, they went looking for the people who were looking for them.

That’s the closest we came to getting an answer to the Miracle of Misiones. But there was one last thing we noticed on our own.

5. Joy

Just take a close look at the August cover of FLR, and you’ll see it. In Misiones, we saw a level of joy that was striking. A level of joy that was shared, contagious, and inescapable. Why joy has disappeared from teaching and learning in many other places requires a case by case autopsy. All we know is that in Argentina, in at least one province, at this one conference, the joy around teaching and learning was alive and well!

During the conference, the Academy of Active Learning Arts and Sciences presented the International Flipped Learning Award to Minister Aquino and the project team for their trailblazing work. Aquino responded by saying, “It is a great joy to know that the work we do is visible and has this international recognition. It fills us with pride and commits us to redouble efforts to continue innovating from the classroom.”

Indeed, the joy was perhaps the most distinctive element of the Miracle of Misiones. All of the attendees seemed absolutely delighted to be in this place, with these peers, at this particular moment in time. Hugs and kisses on both cheeks flowed like water over the mighty Iguazú Falls just minutes downriver from the conference. And just like standing at the edge of falls, the energy at the conference was awe inspiring.

The people of Misiones reminded us that joy is an essential part of the magic among groups who produce massive impact in education and beyond.

Miracles and Magic Bullets

Perhaps you have heard of other remarkable transformations in teaching and learning more arresting than this one. But most start very slowly, face massive resistance, and take years to get traction, if at all.

Those who have effectively embraced Flipped Learning routinely say the same thing. The transformation was significant and immediate. “I could never go back.”

To most Flipped Learning practitioners, flipped instruction is the magic bullet. Most flippers generally agree that the alchemy of Flipped Learning is that it creates the class time to support all other innovative instructional strategies. Gamification, Makerspaces, personalized learning, peer instruction, Project Based learning are all more viable in a flipped classroom.

But there is an elusive question that Flipped Learning practitioners have struggled to answer for over a decade. “If Flipped Learning is so magical, why isn’t every educator, school, and school system flipping instruction?”

This is why the Miracle of Misiones is less about the magic of Flipped Learning, and more about finding the magic bullet to rapidly scale Flipped Learning in any country, with any population, under any conditions. Bravo! Yes, bravo to the educators in Misiones for showing us the way forward.


Congress Misiones, Argentina, 2018


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Errol St.Clair Smith
I am the Director of Global Development at the Flipped Learning Global Initiative. I joined the education community in 2005, working closely with national education organizations on community outreach and professional development. Over the last decade, I’ve led the development of community platforms for The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE); the Association of Curriculum Developers (ASCD); the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), the International Reading Association (IRA), the National Associations for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the National Association of School Nurses (NASN), the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), the National Parent Teachers Association (NPTA), and the Association of School Business Officials (ASBO). I'm honored to have received four Emmy nominations and an Emmy Award for public affairs programming. In 2017 I co-authored Flipped Learning 3.0 with Jon Bergmann. The book was updated based on the AALAS Global Elements of Effective Flipped Learning in 2019.

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1 Comment

on August 29, 2018

Errol, that is an amazing story on how Miguel and his team led the transformation to flipped learning despite tremendous obstacles faced in his Province of Argentina. His passion for flipped learning is apparent in his welcome and support to teachers elsewhere who attended the conference. He has paved a roadmap to help other flippers transform their departments, colleges, or universities.

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