Problem, Challenge, or Focus:

Evaluating a Program to Teach Entrepreneurship to High School Students in the Middle East

Listen to Fernando Reimers's Story

  • Profession:
  • Focus:
    Global Education, Entrepreneurship Education, Education Policy and Instructional Improvement, 21st Century Skills Development
  • Job Title:
    Professor of International Education, Director of the Program in International Education Policy
  • Organization:
    Harvard Graduate School of Education
  • Song Credit:
    Ping Pong by Big Bang
  • Possibility Fellow:
    Nora Eccles
  • Profile Made Possible By:

Please describe who you are, where you are from, and your current role.

I am a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the director the program in International Education Policy. I teach courses on education policy and education innovation.

What problem or challenge are you currently working to address?

I try to understand the impact of policy and programs in helping students develop skills that allow them to become self-authoring individuals in the 21st century. At the moment I am evaluating the impact of a program to teach entrepreneurship to high school students in six countries in the Middle East. I am also studying the impact of two different approaches to develop citizenship skills among high school students in Mexico. In Brazil, I am studying how school leaders can help students develop 21st century skills.

What do you work on as the director of the International Education Policy Program?

The International Education Policy Program is one of 13 Masters degree programs at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. My goal in designing the program for International Education Policy at Harvard was to contribute to educating a next generation of people who could promote education reforms globally, especially ones that help the most disadvantaged students essentially earn freedoms by developing their talents and their skills. I am especially interested in helping students in the program develop entrepreneurial capabilities, and the ability to develop creative and innovative solutions to the challenges that constrain educational opportunity globally. My colleagues and I offer a rigorous programs of courses to help them develop a solid understanding of what are those key global education challenges, to develop analytic and research skills to assess alternative options to address those challenges, and to develop their leadership and entrepreneurial skills. We also support a range of opportunities for students in the program to engage with leaders of thought and practice in the field of international education, including speaker series, conferences and seminars, internships, study abroad and encouraging and supporting students as they develop their own plans to improve education around the world.

What are some of the recent projects you have been involved in?

I am developing an initiative here at HGSE to look at some of the best innovative practices around the world to help students develop competencies that allow them to become self-authoring individuals in the 21st century.

I have spent the last two years studying a program to develop entrepreneurship among high school students in six countries in the Middle East. The program brings mentors from the business community to the school to work with kids for about 14 weeks, teaching them how to create a business. It is a very empowering experience, at the age of 15 or 16, to learn how to create a business. At the moment, I am writing a book based on this research. I am also studying the impact of various programs to develop citizenship skills in Mexico and studying what supports school leaders in effectively improving instruction in Brazil.

I am also interested in working with education leaders developing the global sensitivities and competencies of their students. I chair an annual Think Tank on this subject that brings to Harvard about 100 teachers and school leaders interested in those subjects, and I’m working with public and private schools interested in advancing global education for their students.

Please describe the path that led you to where you are now.

I was born and raised in Venezuela. It was only towards the end of high school that I began to develop the aspiration to go to college, an opportunity my parents did not have. In high school, I had an interest in public service and I thought that studying law might be a good way to pursue that interest. As I was finishing high school, the government of Venezuela launched a very ambitious initiative to promote the development of human intelligence. I found that very inspiring and decided to study something that would help me associate with efforts to promote human intelligence or human talent, rather than law. I did a five-year professional degree in psychology, specializing in experimental psychology. Immediately upon graduation I was hired to teach on the faculty of the Department of Experimental Psychology at the Universidad Central de Venezuela. At the time I was interested in studying how to promote the creativity of children.

I then came to Harvard to do a doctorate in education policy because I became interested in how to bring good practice to scale. Upon finishing the doctorate, I joined an institute at Harvard called the Institute for International Development, which provided advice to governments, mostly in the developing world. I worked in a range of countries, conducting research on how policy could improve the effectiveness of public schools.

After 8 years, I took a leave of absence and went to work at the World Bank, where I helped design large-scale programs to support education in Mexico and Peru. From there, I returned to Harvard, joining the faculty at the Harvard Graduate School for Education. Here I led the design of the program in International Education Policy that I direct to this day.

Give a sampling of the work you do on a day-to-day basis.

In many ways, every day is different. During the academic year, I spend part of my time teaching, advising students, serving on committees, and writing and lecturing to various groups. During the summer, I have more time to write. Throughout, I attend to my research projects. In general, I don’t organize my life in terms of days, but rather in terms of categories of things that I am working on, and it is in terms of those categories which I prioritize the activities on which I spent my time. Those categories include research and advancing knowledge, engaging with practitioners and policy makers to understand the world as they see it, understand their needs, and figure out ways to connect those needs to the work I do. Teaching is very important to me – teaching and mentoring my students in the masters program I direct and my doctoral students. I have seen so many of them go onto do great things. It gives me great pleasure to see what they do upon graduation and to stay in touch with them.

The academic year has more regularity and predictability than the summer. In addition to my teaching, which involves lecturing, meeting with my teaching fellows each week, grading student work, and holing office hours, I also meet with doctoral students to supervise their dissertations and research. Additionally, I spend time writing both during the academic year and in the summertime. During the summer, I tend to do a lot more travel related to my research projects. Just this summer, I’ve been to Brazil, Istanbul, and Australia.

I’m also involved in a number of service activities in the field of education. It is an excellent way to engage with practice and to keep my ear to the ground on what are authentic problems that require academic attention. I was appointed by the governor to serve on the Board of Higher Education for Massachusetts and in that capacity look for ways to support the improvement of public higher education in the State. I also serve on a state commission that looks at the future of the teaching profession – assessing teacher preparation programs and analyzing what skills future teachers need to develop to help their students gain 21st century skills. Right now, I am helping UNIVISION, the Spanish language television channel, design a campaign to generate awareness within the community of how important it is to support the education of Latino students. I have led the creation of a partnership between Univision and College Week Live that is supporting programs to help first generation college applicants gain knowledge about how to apply to college. My wife and I also co-write a column addressed to Latino parents to empower them to support the academic success and development of their kids.

What are the enjoyable parts of your work? What are the less enjoyable parts?

Enjoyable Parts:

I identify with a dream that was put forth 400 years ago by a Moravian Minister, Jon Amos Comenius, or what in the present day would be the Czech Republic. Comenius lived through 30 years of intense religious prosecution and civil war in his country. Reflecting on the intense violence that he was witnessing, Comenius asked, “Why do we kill each other?” and concluded that we do so because we don’t know a better way. He was the very first person on record to say that we should educate every person if we want to have peace in the world. I think that is a very profound insight. To have peace, sustainable peace, every person needs to have the talent not only to work out differences in peaceful ways, but also to become the architect of his or her own lives.

I have tried to help advance that dream of allowing all children and youth have the opportunity to develop their talent. When I work with my students at Harvard, who go on to work exactly on this mission, I contribute indirectly to advancing that dream. That is why I take my students seriously, have high expectations of them and never miss a class. When my students graduate, they will work to promote this dream, and 600 people working to advance educational opportunity globally is quite a force for good in the world.

I also hope that when I write, those writings inspire people and support effective actions to advance educational opportunity. Writing is for me a way to engage in conversation not just with the people I teach directly, but with people I may never meet.

I think everything I do: teaching, writing, serving on these different boards, is aligned with the same goal of working with others to make it possible for every child and youth to develop his or her talent. And having the privilege to spend part of my life in work that aligns with values that I hold dear gives me great satisfaction.

Less Enjoyable Parts:

When you spend a lot of time in the real world and develop empathy for the needs of the people who don’t have access to good education, you develop a sense of urgency that can make you impatient. You ask yourself, both as a person and as an institution, why aren’t we doing more and why aren’t we doing it faster to help all persons have a chance to develop their talent, to expand their freedoms? I have the same impatience about Harvard, about higher education more generally, or about the organizations on whose boards I serve. Basically, I know our time and resources are limited and that we must make rapid progress in closing opportunity gaps so that we can expand human well being and contribute to peace. That awareness of my own limitations, and of the limitations of the institutions in which I am involved, to do more is a downside of my work, a cause for pain because I understand that those limitations result in human suffering.

I know there are great education needs in the world and I believe that we should do everything in our power to address those needs. That awareness of the suffering we can’t alleviate causes a certain level of pain. It is the unhappiness of knowing that we could be doing more. I’m always looking for ways to make sure that we are doing absolutely the best that we can because ultimately all of our resources, including our life and time, are severely limited.

What is a challenge that you have faced in your career? How did you deal with that challenge?

Upon completing my doctorate, my first job at the Harvard Institute for International Development was to work with the government of Pakistan studying how to make schools more effective. I spent two and a half years working studying 500 schools across the country to discern what distinguished the most successful schools from the lest successful. I thought I had found some pretty interesting, clever findings that had serious policy implications. I basically concluded that the government should provide incentives to attract people with higher levels of education to the teaching profession and focus on training these teachers well. At the time, the main priorities of the Government of Pakistan focused on expanding access to school through construction of new school buildings, and I thought it was important to change those priorities giving more attention to the quality of teaching.

My colleagues and I presented our findings to a group of 60 influential policymakers over 3 days. To make a long story short, I did not communicate well. I was so in love with the data that I spent no time thinking about these policymakers – who they were and what would motivate them. I realized after 3 days that they were going to ignore my work, which made me feel terrible. I thought I had some knowledge that could make a difference for kids in Pakistan, but I had failed to communicate this knowledge in a persuasive way. So that was very challenging. I came back to Harvard believing that I had been miseducated. That despite my doctoral work and professional degree in psychology, I had missed a critical link: communication.

I started on a journey to figure out the sociology of how organizations use knowledge. I read up on the subject, and actually began to do some experiments of my own by organizing my presentations in different ways. It is not enough for researchers who want to influence policy to just do the best research they can and hope the findings will find their way into policy. Researchers have to think about the process of knowledge utilization from the get-go by concentrating not just on the data, but also on the organizations that might utilize the results. I actually ended up writing a book about this.

So to summarize, I think what that experience taught me is that you often have blind spots, and you can learn a tremendous amount from your failures. If you try to understand what caused the failure, it may point to a whole new avenue, in this case scholarship, which you didn’t know existed before. It can be a lot of fun, and if you are lucky, you will do things better the next time around. I try to learn as much from my mistakes as I do from things that go right. I have come to value time to reflect. When I’m on airplanes, which is often, I like to pause and look back at what I am trying to do, what I am achieving and where I am not making as much progress as I expected, and learn from that.

What types of interests and activities do you maintain outside of your work?

I enjoy raising children. I have two sons who are teenagers, and so I enjoy spending time with them and watching them grow. At every stage of life kids can be rewarding, but the teenage years are especially fun because they are so clearly their own persons. They will challenge their parents and they have their own ideas on life. So it can be a lot of fun to be challenged in this way and to admire these creatures that are almost ready to fly on their own, but not quite. I also enjoy spending time with my wife, who I met when I was a student here. We are both in the same field, so we share so much about the work we do. One of the things we most enjoy is to talk with each other. When I can, I love to take long walks with my wife, or with my sons, and just enjoy the walk and have a conversation.

Can you recommend pieces of media that profoundly shaped you?

– The Revolution of Intelligence, Luis Alberto Machado
– Beyond Freedom and Dignity, B.F. Skinner
– The Social Animal, Elliot Aronson
– The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Khun
– Open Society and its enemies. Karl Popper

What advice do you have for people in their early stages of exploring?

Be open-minded. When I was in high school, deciding whether to go to law school or not, I could not have anticipated the changes in the world. I could not have anticipated that I would do what I am doing. This is not what I chose back in 1976. It is pretty hard to predict the future, and so to say, well I want to do this because this is what I see myself doing in 30 or 40 years, doesn’t mean much. Being open-minded toward the possibilities that life will bring is important.

Work on your commitments. What helps you not get lost is to work on understanding who you are and what you deeply care about, your values. If you are clear about that, everything else falls into place because you can make decisions on how to divide your time between many competing interests. I’ve felt a passionate commitment to helping disadvantaged kids since I was in high school and I have worked in developing that commitment with knowledge and understanding. I have a very simple norm: I want to be of the greatest possible value to the greatest possible number of kids. That helps me decide what to do on a day-to-day basis and beyond.

So my advice would be to find something you care deeply about that is bigger then yourself, think big because working to solve a big challenge will make life more interesting than the alternatives. Know who you are and try to find time to reflect and to study so that you can discover and develop your strengths, your comparative advantages, and where you should be to best serve your goals.

Explore The Possibility Profiles Below