Smart School Curriculum


Colin Yoon


Unscramble for Africa


Throughout my time at PFA, Mr. Ajania has always been willing to listen to our stories, ideas, and problems. However, while reading his article, I realized that I never asked about his educational background. Although we often heard anecdotes about his past, I never really knew the specific elements that impacted his narrative.

Looking through his article, it is clear that Mr. Ajania deeply values education. While a one-dimensional education allows children to score well on standardized testing and creates an illusion of learning, it shelters students from critical thinking or debate.

Students that only receive training in memorization cannot actively participate in leadership, innovation, or true creative problem solving.

Mr. Ajania has generously given his time and focus to our PFA Team.

He provided us with a multi-dimensional look at education and the African continent – the many viewpoints needed for an informed analysis. He also encouraged debate and discussion in order to help us understand complicated issues. Without Mr. Ajania, I would not be able to see myself as capable of engaging in this global conversation.

As well as fostering our learning, Mr. Ajania encouraged us to look outside our community and to give developing communities a hand up, not a hand out. The ten PFA social enterprises are great examples of PFA working to build awareness for important issues. Mr. Ajania encouraged us to not only research our ideas, but also to address any injustices we found.

He cultivated a sense of duty and respect within all of the PFA members.

Just as Mr. Ajania’s teachers formed him into the man he is today, he formed the PFA students into global citizens ready to tackle today’s challenging problems. His anecdotes, constant optimism, and hard work allowed us to pursue our dreams. Thank you Mr. Ajania!

Smart School Curriculum



Karim Ajania

I wrote my doctoral thesis at the Harvard Graduate School of Education on School Curriculum.

Here is the opening sentence of my doctoral thesis:

“Curriculum remains abstract, academic, aloof and one-dimensional, unless it allows for the critical thinking that consciously cultivates the humanistic dimensions of Character and of Conviction.”

The kind of holistic three-dimensional school curriculum that I advocated for in my doctoral thesis cultivates independent and innovative thinkers and thought leaders, rather than bland, passive and regurgitating followers, that lack character or conviction. This three-dimensional curriculum approach of Pencils for Africa (PFA), has cultivated students that apply their critical thinking toward the subjects presented to them on the Culture, History, Economics and Environment of Africa.

This independent critical thinking by the PFA students, helps to hone and define their own emerging character and convictions, which in turn refines their sense of duty and purpose.

That sense of duty and purpose in the context of our global community, then leads to a clearer definition of the precise role and function these students might play within our global community.

This in turn leads to the creation of innovative initiatives by the PFA students, which have thus far culminated in the creation of six PFA social enterprise CEO’s and as many PFA Editors-in-Chief.

As they say in England, ‘the proof is in the pudding’:

Colin, CEO of Unscramble for Africa

Just ask Colin, CEO of Unscramble for Africa, about African history and economics, and you will see his abundant knowledge of the subject matter, the school curriculum dimension. However, what will also become immediately evident is Colin’s sense of duty and purpose (his character and his conviction) in addressing these subjects that he has learned about, and becoming a pioneering young thought-leader in making a difference in the history and economics of Africa.

Shannon, CEO of Girl Smart Africa and Purity

This is equally true of all the PFA CEO’s and Editors-in-Chief. Ask Shannon about her role as the CEO of Girl Smart Africa and she will present to you the abundant research that she has done on the plight of girls in Africa, and the positive results that emerge when girls in Africa are provided with educational opportunities. This week, Shannon is meeting with the Executive Director of Akili Dada, a girls’ scholarship program in Kenya, and Paola Gianturco, author of Grandmother Power, to better understand the life stages of the female gender in Africa from girls to grandmothers.

Nicolas, CEO of One Pencil Per Child with mentor and CNN Hero, Jackson Kaguri

Nicolas, CEO, One Pencil Per Child, with mentor Jackson Kaguri

Watch the 15 minute video of the conversation between former PFA Editor-in-Chief and current CEO of One Pencil Per Child, Nicolas; and CNN Hero and PFA Global Ambassador Jackson Kaguri, and you will witness the emergence of a strength of character and conviction in a young high school freshman, Nicolas, built upon a strong foundation of the curriculum knowledge he has gained within the PFA program in middle school. This is a young boy coming into his own character and conviction and gaining the respect of a global thought-leader like Jackson Kaguri.


If education manufactures one-dimensional curriculum, without the humanistic dimensions of cultivating character and conviction, then we cannot nurture young leaders like Nicolas, Shannon and Colin. Instead, what occurs with non-imaginative and robotic one-dimensional curriculum, no matter how excellent, is the creation of what William Deresiewicz describes as “excellent sheep”.

The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction; great at what they are doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.

— William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep

I was fortunate, in my own middle school years, to have spent half of those middle school years at a school in Nairobi, Kenya, and the other half at a school in London, England.

The PFA students have Skyped with two of my school teachers in Kenya (click here to read the reflections of PFA students’ conversation with my teachers in Kenya). I would like to tell you, as a form of tribute, about one of my middle school teachers in London, my Poetry teacher, Mr. Baird:

The context in which Mr. Baird and his fellow teachers taught at my school in London is well worth examining. This was a generation of teachers who had, without exception, served in World War II.

Most of the male school teachers had served in the army or navy, or in the air force. Most of the female teachers had served in munitions factories, or as nurses, or in the ambulance corps as mechanics and drivers. This was a generation of school teachers that embodied what we called The Blitz Spirit. In the US, they were what Tom Brokaw refers to as The Greatest Generation.

These school teachers were unitedly unassuming and uncomplaining. They just got on with things.


If you dug deeper, you would often discover that some of the older teachers had lost sons in the war and some of the younger teachers had lost brothers. Yet, you would never know it from their sunny disposition and can-do attitudes. It was their job and task as school teachers to teach and to assign Curriculum. However, these school teachers were all Character and all Conviction.

Mr. Baird himself had served in the air force during the war, and the poetry he assigned us as part of the curriculum had much to do with strength of character and the virtue of sacrifice and service.


If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools

If, a poem by Rudyard Kipling

I kept in touch with Mr. Baird for many years well after I graduated from school and we would correspond regularly and discuss poetry. I once asked Mr. Baird who he considered to be the greatest poet and he said, surprisingly, that for him it had to be Winston Churchill. He explained:

“When I was in the raf (the Royal Air Force) I had to fly sorties against the enemy, the Luftwaffe.

I knew that this was a just and righteous war and one that had to be fought, despite struggling with the misgivings of Owen’s heartfelt and heartbreaking verses in ‘Dulce et decorum est‘…”.

Mr. Baird was referring to World War One poet Wilfred Owen, who he discussed with us in class:


Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

…If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace…

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

— Wilfred Owen, Dulce Et Decorum Est

“I knew,” explained Mr. Baird, “That this was a just war, and yet, I was very scared. Thoroughly frightened. People often think that to be courageous means that you are devoid of any fear. Yet true courage, is striving to overcome one’s fears. To be courageous despite being afraid. And to summon that fearlessness, I turned to the rallying poetry of our commander, Winston Churchill.”

Mr. Baird described how, as a fighter-pilot, he came head-on, face-to-face, in mid-air, with a Luftwaffe pilot, both ready to fire at each other, both knowing one of them would not survive.

“At that point,” said Mr. Baird, “It was either me or him and I daresay he was thinking the same thing. And I have no doubt he was just as fearful as I was, because we were both human beings after all, caught up in a monstrous situation in which we both had to play our part based upon our own conviction of duty and honor. I knew all this but I was trembling. Then, in a split of a second, I recalled the poetic verse of the ‘sunlit uplands’ and my fear dissipated. For I knew, that I may well lose this battle, but my country shall still go on to win the war. And so I fought like a true soldier.”

The whole fury and might of the enemy

Must very soon be turned upon us.

Hitler knows that he will have to

Break us in this Island or lose the war.

If we can stand up to him,

All Europe may be free and

The life of the world may move forward

Into broad, sunlit uplands.

— Prime Minister Winston Churchill, June, 1940

Mr. Baird and I corresponded for many years until he passed on from old age some years ago.

In his final correspondence to me, he sent me a perspective of Churchill from the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, as quoted in the biography of Winston Churchill by historian William Manchester.


Whenever I read this perspective, I am reminded that although it refers to Mr. Churchill, it might just as easily refer to Mr. Baird, and the way he approached and idealized so many generations of us schoolboys that had the great privilege to be students in Mr. Baird’s classroom. It reads:

Isaiah Berlin saw Churchill as a leader who imposed his “imagination and his will upon his countrymen,” idealizing them “with such intensity that in the end they approached his ideal and began to see themselves as he saw them.” 

In doing so he “transformed cowards into brave men, and so fulfilled the purpose of shining armor”.

— William Manchester, The Last Lion