Tomás Despouy

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow Since 2014
This description of Tomás Despouy's work was prepared when Tomás Despouy was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014 .


Tomás Despouy is cultivating changemaker skills in students from vulnerable areas in Chile. Integrating these skills into the classroom, Tomás is making students protagonists in their own education and that of their peers. The students, as change agents, then infect their schools and neighborhoods, collaborating in a network to replicate this leadership, community by community.

The New Idea

Tomás is designing and handing over the tools for middle and high school students from vulnerable communities to lead their own education process and encourage that of their peers. Through his organization, Panal, students step into their self-confidence, through practice, and learn to inspire this confidence in their friends. Panal’s workshops and project incubators in schools are the grounds for learning and practicing the necessary social and emotional skills for teamwork and leadership as well as for being successful citizens and architects of better communities.
Tomás, starting with young people in the least favorable school conditions, is transforming the role of the student from passive recipient to proactive driver – learners that not only demand reform but take steps to achieve the changes they see for their communities. To realize this environment where students take matters into their own hands, Tomás is weaving a network of student leaders in each commune (the smallest administrative district of Chilean cities) so that they can function in parallel across a community. In Santiago, Chile’s capital and where Tomás began his work, distance is a barrier to spreading solutions and collaboration, especially in schools. As such, Panal’s design turns on bringing students from different schools together to encourage a comprehensive and efficient network.
The invitation to form networks and build confidence and changemaking abilities is also critical for teachers. The possibility that a student from a vulnerable school could be a protagonist in his or her own education changes the current paradigm, one that tends to equalize students through rote memorization of facts instead of encouraging critical and independent thinking and asking questions. Most of all, the current scenario does not promote problem solving or helping others become problem solvers. Through his own teaching experience, Tomás saw that the new paradigm cannot depend on teachers alone. When a teacher leaves, the old ways return unless the new learning style is infused into the DNA of the classroom. Given this context, Panal prepares teachers and students to be leaders and replicators of changemaking skills.

The Problem

The Chilean education system is in a state of distress. Students’ performance in Math, Reading, and Science falls well below the OECD average; in 2012, Chilean students ranked 51st in the 65 countries evaluated. Furthermore, Chile has one of the highest gaps in education between socioeconomic groups, with large inequalities in student performance between private schools and public schools, typically in low income neighborhoods. After four years of school, the difference in reading comprehension and math competencies (reflected in test scores) between students from the highest and lowest socioeconomic backgrounds is 26 percent and 36 percent respectively. After ten years of school, these differences increase to 36 percent and 55 percent.
The structure of government funding for education perpetuates these gaps. Public primary and secondary schools are under-resourced. In 2013, several of Santiago’s schools in vulnerable communities were even closed due to decaying infrastructure. Outside the classroom, schools provide little other opportunity for mixing between classes. Unlike the United States, where students commonly participate in school-sponsored sports teams that interact frequently with teams from other schools, in Chile, this is only common in private schools; most schools in vulnerable communities do not offer sports or other extra-curricular activities. This socioeconomic breach, reinforced by segregated schools systems, begins at home. In contrast to wealthier private school students whose families and role models are highly educated and whose networks are capable of generating future employment opportunities, students from vulnerable neighborhoods have neither these examples for completing education nor networks that lead to economic success. 77 percent of students who drop out of school come from households whose members also dropped out.
However, the education problem extends beyond family socioeconomic status, class segregation, and lack of funding for lower income students. The Chilean system itself is programmed to reinforce antiquated teaching methods to prepare students for an archaic workforce requiring repetition instead of innovation. The country-wide measure of educational success, Education Quality Measurement System (SIMCE), is designed to be “an explicit signal of the education system with respect to the learning objectives considered fundamental by the Ministry of Education.” Thus, the results are used to inform the national curriculum. Because skills critical for success outside of school are not tested, the SIMCE and resulting curricula encourage teaching to the test. Furthermore, schools and teachers are ranked based on their students’ scores and receive resources accordingly. So even in teaching schools, the pedagogy is centered on preparing students for memorizing and regurgitating the subject that will be tested and practicing multiple choice tests, thereby squeezing out room for creativity and independent problem solving. As a result, many Chilean students feel discouraged with their own learning process. Today, they are only passive recipients of a system that does not encourage overall development or allow them to discover their talents and passions.
Fortunately, the tide may now be turning. Chileans recognize the low quality of their education system and in recent years have begun to look for change. Two major protest movements swept the country in 2006 and 2011, led by high school and university students. These protests had the goal of highlighting the deficiencies and inequalities in the classroom and asking for top down change. In 2011, the protests specifically sought support of a referendum for increased spending and quality in public education. These demonstrations, at times becoming violent, were met with resistance from authorities but did contribute to some changes in policy, such as expanded merit-based scholarships for low income students. Protests simmered down but continued through 2013, drawing grade school and university students as well as teachers.
Since the new administration, elected in 2013, has come into office, the government has begun to respond on a larger scale by shifting fiscal priorities. The investment in education is a significant emphasis in Chile’s 2014 budget. For this fiscal year, 21% of the country’s total public spending will be in education, one of the most significant proportions globally.

The Strategy

Tomás’s organization, Panal, meaning “honeycomb” in English, began with the question, “what would happen if students were put in charge of classes instead of teachers?” What started in 2012 as leadership classes on Saturdays for a few students from Santiago now involves over 100 students in six schools in Santiago, and is gathering momentum to implement its strategy for spread across the region.
Tomás works with parallel communities -- that of the students and the educators -- but always with the goal of getting students to lead. The selection process for both students and teachers is through either self-nomination or recommendation. Participating teachers are handpicked by Panal’s team of two staff and two volunteers, or are recommended by other Panal-trained instructors. Students are selected by their teachers or through an application letter. They must demonstrate only one condition: motivation. Once selected, the teachers receive training in how to conduct the leadership workshops for students. These workshops have the goal of developing empathy, strategic thinking, collaborative leadership, and entrepreneurship, among other skills, in both students and teachers.
Once Panal teachers are trained and the students are selected, about 10 students (aged 13 to 17) from each school, there is a welcome seminar for all students from the different schools. Then, each school cohort meets weekly after school for five weeks. The workshop curriculum is based on the Design for Change model, and is intentionally simple to learn and then lead so it may be easily replicated. The basic concept of Design for Change, created by Ashoka Fellow Kiran Bir Sethi, is to give young people the framework for realizing their own solutions for problems they see around them through the four basic pillars of Feel, Imagine, Do and Share. Unlike Design for Change, the workshops not only impart the theory of creating change in one’s environment, but use this only as the starting point, a foundation for practice. Panal then tracks students’ success based on their execution of a project by the end of the workshops. The students not only actively participate, they become the leaders of the workshops. The goal of this practice is for students to return to their schools with leadership tools that allow them to support their teachers and their peers.
After the first five weeks of workshops within individual school communities, Panal hosts a seminar to bring together the students from all of the schools in the network. This gives students the chance to meet peers from other schools and pulls together their learnings form the first block of workshops. These cross-school seminars continue every five weeks for a total of six times per academic year. Students report that these gatherings are so important because of this mixing with students in other schools, whom they would have never otherwise had the chance to meet. Once the first block of five workshops and seminar have concluded, students shift from general skill-building to project planning. The teacher is no longer the guide, the students lead as they generate possible project ideas. Then, for the rest of the semester, students work in teams to develop and implement their projects.
For example, one group of students noticed that due to the lack of easily accessible information about scholarships for secondary or higher education, qualified students do not apply for them. As a solution, the Panal leaders compiled infographic fliers for each scholarship and hung them in their school. Another group saw that their peers struggled with the transition from the second to third year of middle school because they suddenly found themselves in classes where they knew no one. In the third year, students are divided according to academic interest -- math, humanities, science, etc. They then find it harder to attend class when they are thrown together with students from other courses. To mitigate this, the Panal leaders designed activities beginning in year two so that everyone has the chance to get to know each other a year before students separate into tracks.
Panal is designed to ignite change not only in the individual students and teachers, but in entire school communities and beyond. The workshops themselves initiate the passing of the baton: After a semester linked to Panal, the “veteran” students become mentors to the new Panal students. Panal´s strategy also involves the school communities in helping the students take responsibility and lead. In each school, Panal sets up a physical space called a micro-incubator, in which students can gather to work on their community improvement projects, even outside of the weekly workshops. They are also engaging school leaders, even principals, as partners in spotting potential students and teachers to join Panal and as general leaders of the process of transformation in schools.
There are now three “generations” of Panal graduates, and teachers are reporting the changes occurring in classrooms, both in the attitude and actions of the Panal leaders and their peers. The Panal students too see the difference in their own behavior. Some, for instance, say that before the Panal training, they were not able to talk about their feelings in public, or speak in front of a group. Others have a different view of education entirely. In one particular Panal class, a student had never imagined herself finishing high school, as none of her siblings have. Since being invited to join Panal, however, she now knows she has an important role in her classroom, a reason to be there, and she is determined to attend university. Others in the same class were similarly indifferent about future work or education before Panal. Now, they feel useful, have realized that they have many skills, and aspire to travel, go to university, study medicine, and more.
Beyond the school communities, Tomás is generating partnerships with companies, CSOs, and municipalities to broaden and strengthen the network. Enseña Chile and SociaLab (a social innovation initiative founded by Ashoka Fellow Julian Ugarte) are allies as is Nutra Bien, a food company, that provides snacks during workshops. During the first year, he coordinated with the municipality of two communes (Quinta Normal and Lo Barnechea) to find space for the workshops and seminars and to get introductions to other schools. Working with neighboring schools has helped bring entire communities together. To help connect schools that are located further away, a web platform is being established. Ultimately, Tomás has plans to have the skills that Panal imparts incorporated into the official school curriculum across the country. By including more schools in different municipalities Tomás thinks that a network of 120 schools will be enough to tip the system.
Tomás also knows that Panal´s measurement of impact, demonstrating how much the program helps students to grow, is critical for uptake across the region and official incorporation into curricula. The design of this measurement is based on a rubric grading students’ observable skills as well as surveys analyzing students’ competencies in relation to the school environment and that of other schools, students, parents, and larger the community. These evaluations will enable Panal to refocus its efforts, if necessary. Tomás expects that with the intervention of Panal, students will not only develop the skills for leading and changemaking, but there will also be improvements in test scores, such as the SIMCE.

The Person

Tomás came up with the idea of creating Panal while working as a teacher for Enseña Chile (Teach for Chile) in an underprivileged community. During this experience, he realized that teachers were overworked, and he needed the help of the students to be more proactive in the classroom and in their own learning process, rather than continue the model of students as passive recipients of learning and teachers as emitters of information. In addition, Tomás realized when he and other teachers in Enseña Chile completed their two-year terms, no one became responsible for maintaining or furthering the progress they had made in classrooms.
Instead of waiting to tackle the problem, Tomás began Panal during his contract with Enseña Chile. He formed a nonprofit organization with the support of other Enseña Chile teachers and an advisory board of education experts, and involved students and instructors from more than 10 schools in the first year.
Tomás has been linked to the social world since childhood. His father was a diplomat so he was able to travel and experience different realities. At age 17, living in Venezuela, he participated in a project that sought to identify leaders in poor neighborhoods in Caracas, accompanying them in the execution of an idea to resolve challenges that affected their daily lives. He found that local leadership was a key tool for transforming environments. Back in Chile, he coordinated volunteer social projects for the campus ministry at his university. There, he directed more than 40 volunteers in building transitional housing for the homeless, running self- esteem workshops for children, and remodeling a community’s plaza. Most of the volunteers were his age or older, and the challenge of coordinating everything made him realize he did not need previous experience to do so, only the confidence to face challenges.
In 2009 he launched a student center at his university. As president, he formed a team to combine experience and new energy and organize volunteer experiences for students, thus creating a network within the university for placement in volunteer work. With this experience, Tomás saw a need in the educational system and decided to create a solution, head on. He is in the early stages of establishing a powerhouse program that has already been well received. By turning failing schools into centers of learning, Tomás is preparing not only students and future leaders, but also neighborhoods and for success.