Interview with Howard Blumenthal, Founder, Kids on Earth

Meet Howard: For many years, I was a writer, syndicated newspaper columnist, television producer, and an executive in media companies. I’ve won many awards for work in children’s media, documentaries, and instruction. I’ve been fortunate; I have worked with learning, kids, media, and fun stuff for decades—and I’ve worked with great people all along the way. Now, I focus entirely on how people grow up in the 21st century, how they learn, what they learn and how we can improve the situation for large numbers of people. Not just students—people under 25—because they represent a minority of people on earth, but everyone.

Introduce the Kids on Earth project and its objectives: why did you start it and what are key lessons you learnt that are meaningful to you?

In the early 1990s, I developed and produced a series for public television in the U.S. based upon the computer game, Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? It was very popular. In fact, our format was used to produce international versions in Germany, Spain, Italy, and other countries. The show engaged student interest in geography and the world. Of course, the staff learned even more than the students. We dreamed about traveling to the many places we described on the show. Fast forward about twenty years. By now, I’ve been working as an executive for a long time, and I have produced several international projects, but I feel as though something is still missing. I want to travel the world, visit large and small communities, and interview kids everywhere I go. And that’s what happened! I started in Uganda, then went to Hong Kong, and before long, I was in northern Bulgaria, Kentucky, Sweden, Slovenia, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, Brazil, and the list continued to grow. People started finding out about the project, so I was invited to speak to university audiences in many different countries, and of course, when I visited, I also interviewed more kids. Now, there are nearly a thousand segments to be watched on www.vimeo.com/kidsonearth.org. Before COVID limited travel, the last place I visited was India, but with ZOOM, I’ve been able to interview a smaller number in Egypt, Turkey, and Iran. Often, I work with partners, and sponsoring organizations, and, of course, with translators when necessary.

Tell us about your new “The 21st Century Learning Project”?

Our goal is very simple: we focus on what people need to learn, need to know, in order to survive and thrive in the 21st century. Initially, we are focused on K-12, but we are finding interest from pre-K and also higher education, and I’m increasingly drawn to questions about learning for people who are 25-100 years old. We all learn all of our lives, but there is nothing school for the majority of people on earth!

Before I explain the new 21st Century Learning Project, I should mention that COVID stopped my travel for Kids on Earth, but I was able to use ZOOM to speak one-on-one or in small groups to learn more about how school, learning and education work in the U.S, and around the world. This led to a series of hour-long discussions with government education officials, teachers, students, union leaders, experts in particular parts of the curriculum (math, science, etc.), and many discussions about topics less often discussed, such as community engagement, well-being, curiosity, creativity, hope, faith, play, and other aspects of school and learning. The series of interviews is called REINVENTING SCHOOL, and you can watch nearly fifty episodes by visiting www.reinventing.school. There’s lots of information about the many guests on the web page.

Now onto the 21st Century Learning Project, which is something new; we are just getting started. When I started on Reinventing School, I discovered that the educators and the students were expressing very different ideas about the experience of school. And mostly, I found myself agreeing with the kids–but wanting to learn more. So, as I do from time to time, I wrote a book-length manuscript to explain how school and learning ought to work. I distributed the manuscript to several publishers, but more to professors and influencers. Quickly, it became clear that I was describing something more like a movement powered by a research and communications project. I decided to move away from the book–why just write about it when you can do so much more? I found some like-minded people at several universities, but I’ve started with just one, a large one in the U.S. (to be announced soon).

Our next step will be developing partnerships–not many, some universities, foundations, government agencies. That’s a one reason why I’m part of #LearningPlanet–to help build the future of learning. I am seeking partners who are willing and able to work on parts of the project throughout the world–with two requirements. First, they must care more about learning, children and teenagers than they do about school, education and the status quo. Second, they must share our focus on the next 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 years of the 21st century.

What new narratives for learning do we need to better equip future generations?

Ask me that question after we are underway with The 21st Century Learning Project!