Turning Urban Challenges into Education Opportunities

March 18, 2016James Centenera and Melay Lapeña

Guest blog by James Centenera, CEO and Co-Founder of TULA - The Ultimate Learning Accelerator

Millions of children grow up in Metro Manila, a vibrant, rapidly changing urban environment with much to explore and experience. But there are challenges that come with living in a city of more than 15 million people. At TULA Philippines, an innovative chain of after-school learning centers, we see those challenges as opportunities and have developed a new approach to learning after school.

The Philippines, much like other developing countries, has undergone significant urbanization in the last few decades, and now has an equal number of people living in urban and rural areas. The driver of that urbanization has been Metro Manila, which is home to over 20 million people including adjacent urban areas. While not without its difficulties, the Philippines’ young population has been the main driver of economic growth, helping the Philippines become one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Accounting for 36.3 percent of the country's GDP, Metro Manila placed 30th in the 'Global Top 30' list of mega cities according to Jones Lang Lasalle

This growth is clearly evident as one travels throughout the city and while optimism abounds, many issues still remain. New office buildings and residential spaces are everywhere. New cars fill the streets and young professionals fill the ever-increasing number of malls. However, poverty is still a problem - squatters occupy large areas of land across the city and beggars are prevalent. Furthermore, simply getting around is a problem. Transport infrastructure and public transportation has failed to keep pace, resulting in regular traffic jams lasting two to four hours. In fact, in 2015, experts claimed Metro Manila had the worst traffic on Earth. And where there is traffic, there is pollution. Metro Manila’s air quality is slowly getting worse despite government regulations.

Considering all these challenges and the other realities of living in such a dense urban jungle, what problems do children specifically face when it comes to learning and growing up? How can we turn those into learning opportunities? Here we discuss five problems and TULA’s approach for turning these challenges into learning opportunities.

The first challenge is space. Public schools are overcrowded, and usually have up to 100 students for every physical classroom. This has resulted in double or triple shifts, which means that most children in Manila only attend school for a portion of the day. Kids therefore have hours each day where they are left unattended without much to do. This gap presents an opportunity for them to learn in new fun ways. During those idle mornings or afternoons, TULA and others provide interesting forms of supplementary education, covering remedial education or even enrichment activities such as character development.

The second challenge is language. Although English is an official language and many people speak it well, it is not spoken well by most and even many teachers, including those from private schools, struggle to speak it fluently. However, Metro Manila has a booming young professional population passionate about helping other people out. So TULA leverages those young people, as part-time mentors or volunteers, and immerses children in an English environment so they can fully develop English-speaking skills.

The third challenge is mentorship. Teachers are overwhelmed by large class sizes - one teacher to 45 students. At the same time, parents are busy or may even be absent from a child’s life. As a result, there is little individual mentorship or role modeling. There are, however, many young role models with a desire to contribute to education. TULA finds those passionate people and develops them as mentors. They come from the top universities and eagerly spend time on weekdays and weekends coaching the next generation, for love of their country.

The fourth challenge is technology. Parents do not always see technology as a good thing. Most have felt the addiction to games, and everyone knows the danger of freely exploring the internet. Therefore many parents are very cautious when it comes to embracing technology. That said, technology can allow students to explore the rest of the world and interact with others in interesting ways. Also, tech literacy itself is an essential skill. TULA embraces technology, helping children use it safely. Kids have access to internet-enabled tablets to connect with the rest of the world and the incredible amount of resources out there. Kids can be found exploring countries on Google Earth, researching about the environment using Wikipedia, practicing Math whilst fighting off zombies in a game, learning about space watching YouTube videos, or analyzing conflict through Disney. The resources are endless and so are the potential insights.


The fifth challenge is getting into university and becoming a professional. This is the ambition of nearly every single Filipino family. However, the competition to get into university is tough, and since jobs are not prevalent, you need to distinguish yourself as much as possible. This helpfully means that many parents recognize academics are not enough. As a result, parents value the development of character and 21st century skills such as thinking and leadership. And the good news is that all this can be taught in fun ways. For example, TULA develops “missions” for kids to explore and work together on, as they come up with creative solutions to real-world problems, whilst practicing curiosity, grit, resilience, and other critical traits.

Education in a vibrant city like Manila is critical and necessary to sustain economic growth. Yet the population density creates many difficult challenges. New education organizations like TULA are embracing these challenges, and it is these challenges, that are fuelling innovative, more interesting and effective ways to learn. Come visit Manila and see for yourself.

James Centenera is the CEO and Co-Founder of TULA - The Ultimate Learning Accelerator, with prior experience at APEC Schools and the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund.

Photo Credits: TULA - The Ultimate Learning Accelerator

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