Dr Marianela Diaz - Innovative Early, Bilingual Education in Panama

Picture of Peter Barnes
Peter Barnes

Psychologist and Educator, Dr Marianela Diaz searched the world for best practices in early learning before establishing the first Cleverest Education learning centre in Panama.  Dr Marianela Diaz

She discovered Singapore leads in many aspects of early education and spoke about her experiences in a conversation on the Learning Capacity Podcast.

Dr Diaz says, "Since I am a psychologist and I'm into education, I know that the most important years are the very early on, the first five years is where you make your neuron connections. So, that's why we decided to go into early education". 

"I also wanted to do something that would actually coexist with cognitive learning and emotional learning".

Listen to the podcast.

Topics covered

  1. Early education
  2. Bilingual education

People & organisations mentioned

  1. Cleverest Early Education – Panama
  2. Mulberry Learning, Singapore
  3. PISA test
  4. Reggio Amelia
  5. Howard Gardner – Multiple Intelligences
  6. Professor Costa from the University of California
  7. Singapore Ministry of Education

Resources/books/articles mentioned

  1. Habits of Mind

If you would like to read the complete podcast transcript, here it is:

 Episode 84 of The Learning Capacity Podcast

Cleverest Early Education - Dr Marianela Diaz

Peter Barnes:   My guest today is Dr. Marionella Diaz. She's the founder of Cleverest Early Education in Panama. She's a clinical psychologist and educator and she's building a network of early learning centers in Central and South America. Welcome, Dr. Diaz.

Dr Diaz:   Thank you very much. It's nice to be here.

Peter Barnes:   Yeah, so you're in Panama at the moment.

Dr Diaz:   Yes, we are.

Peter Barnes:   Most of our listeners I think will not be familiar with Panama and particularly with education, early education in your country and surrounding countries. Would you like to just start off by telling us about the scope of what's going on there?

Dr Diaz:    Well, Panama is a very, very small country in Central America. We have kind of like 3.5 million in population, so we're very tiny. Education in Panama is a bit complex being as we are in Central America. The public education is not where we would want it to be. So, what has happened, private education has been taking off quite a bit.

It's very difficult to get into really good schools here in Panama because there's not enough of them. So, placement tests are done in the K-12 area.

 We're trying to make a difference from early on, which I might explain that a little bit further on. But Panama is very, very varied. We have two ranges. We have either very good education or very poor education. I'm sorry to say.

Peter Barnes:   Right. And so, as far as early education is concerned, is there much early education available there?

Dr Diaz:  There is. There is in Panama. We have quite a few early education centers. The problem that I saw, even before I opened my first Cleverest Early Education was a lot of the preschools, which is what it's called here, are actually very homegrown preschools.

There are very few, maybe two Montessori's, which are very oriented in that way. I don't know if they're certified. I know most of the teachers are not certified because we don't have a certification team here in Panama. So, you have to go abroad so it's very difficult.

But most of the education, or the early educations are preschool like I mentioned or actually like daycare centers. This got me to thinking.

Peter Barnes:   Okay. So, what was your motivation then? You're seeing a lot of quasi-daycare centers in Panama. So, was your motivation to do something more educational, more research based? Can you tell us about what made you decide to do this?

Dr Diaz:   I would love to tell you my journey actually because it has been a journey. My husband, he has been in education for maybe over 30 years or so. I was in education myself and the way we were going about it, we saw that we were making very little impact. We were on vacation a couple of years back and we went to Singapore. If you go onto my website you will see that Cleverest Early Education is powered by Mulberry, Singapore.

So, when we were in Singapore, we had a talk about education and how well the people in Singapore were doing and we spoke about the PISA test and how they were very well ranked and how Panama ranked very, very low. When, actually I think it was two terms ago, we participated in the PISA test, we came out so low that the government decided not to participate anymore. That way we wouldn't have a problem with scores. You know?

Peter Barnes:   Right.

Dr Diaz:    So speaking a little bit on that topic, my husband said, "You know what? We're at the mecca of education. We're in Singapore. Tests across the board show that they are the best problem solving education in the world." So that's where my journey began. Speaking just with him over a glass of wine and seeing how we could maybe put our little five cents worth in the education system in Panama.

Since I am a psychologist and I'm into education, I know that the most important years are the very early on, the first five years is where you make your neuron connections. So, that's why we decided to go in early education.

Peter Barnes:   Right. So you're going to make a difference right from the beginning.

Dr Diaz:  That's correct.

Peter Barnes:   What I'm hearing is you're doing something different to what is available in Panama right now. Yeah?

Dr Diaz:  That's correct, yes.

Peter Barnes:   And tell me, what's special about Mulberry Learning? You went to Singapore. I understand Singapore and it's reputation for educational excellence and how they rank really, really well on PISA. But what's special about, why did you select Mulberry Learning as a model?

Dr Diaz:   Okay. That's an interesting question. Actually, when I went to Singapore, I actually set up like 12 meetings before I went there. I did an extensive research on internet. I contacted quite a few preschools in Singapore, both private and mixed, because there were mixed with private. What I did was a started to talk them via Skype and I selected ... I actually did more than 12.

But I selected 12 and I went to Singapore to meet up with them, to see their curriculum team, to see their preschool, actually their structure and how the kids were. I interviewed with them and during all this time, I did that in maybe in about five days. So it was quite a lot of information that I had to pack in.

When I went to Mulberry, it actually was towards the end of my tour. So I was very tired and I didn't see that there was much interest in Mulberry. But then when I got home, and I slept quite a bit, I started doing some more research on Mulberry and I started to see that their curriculum plan actually was constructed on three pillars, which was Reggio Amelia, which I love the philosophy the Reggio Amelia inspired preschool.

Peter Barnes:   Is that project learning? 

Dr Diaz:   That is correct. That is project learning. Then they include actually multiple intelligences from Howard Gardner which actually is very much embedded into the Reggio Amelia approach. But then they have this Habits of Mind which was developed by Professor Costa from the University of California, which that caught my eye.

The Habits of Mind was something that I did not see in other preschools and they go very well hand in hand with my perspective on child psychology, if you will.  

Because for me, it's very important not only the cognitive side of the development of the brain, but also the emotional part. As you said, I'm a clinical psychologist. I actually have a private practice, so I see a lot of individuals who struggle with their emotional side.

So, I wanted to do something that would actually coexist with cognitive learning and emotional learning. And Habits of Mind just kind of embedded into that really, really well. So that's what took me over the top with Mulberry.

Peter Barnes:   Right, okay. So, you've built project learning, multiple intelligence, Habits of Mind into your curriculum and it's basically the underlying philosophy for your approach. Is that what you're describing?

Dr Diaz:  Yes. It is, but it's actually, it's created by Mulberry because all these three things are embedded into the curriculum. So, what I did was, I actually got their license for the curriculum to be able to teach literacy,] numeracy, fine motor skills, gross motor skills. So, and that is embedded into that.

What I added, or one of the things also that I came up with, it was going to be for me very difficult to bring a Singaporean model to Latin America, you know, knowing that we're two different cultures. We might have the same weather, but we're very different cultures. So, I knew that was going to be quite a challenge. So that's why we actually came up with our brand, which is Cleverest Early Education powered by Mulberry Learning Singapore.

So that was that with the curriculum. But on top of that, we embedded a lot of emotional working, mindfulness, yoga learning. We actually have a greenhouse so children can learn how to manage impulsivity, grow their own vegetables, see where they come from, not just learn about them. So it's actually a very holistic way of learning.

Peter Barnes:   That's interesting. When I think about the organic food, yoga, all of that stuff and then I think about a whole lot of alternative education approaches. So you've got that, but you've also got if I can say it, hardcore research based approaches, and you're blending the two.

Dr Diaz:   Exactly.

Peter Barnes:   With Habits of Mind, the Singapore Ministry of Education has adopted that approach for it's gifted education program which they offer for the top 1% of students in Singapore. So, my question is, given that and given the name, Cleverest Early Education, is Cleverest Early Education only for really smart kids?

Dr Diaz:   No, no, no, actually. No, they're for kids who just want to learn. We actually want to tap into their excitement in learning because when children are small, they actually don't know that they're learning. This is just embedded into what they're doing. They're learning through play, through activities and we just want to get them excited about how to learn. We don't want this to seem like it's a lot of work.

We want them to know that there are different ways of learning and if can ignite that into them, actually our theme is ignite your child's potential. If we can ignite this into them, we will make them in the best case scenario, lifelong learners which is what we're actually striving for.

Peter Barnes:   Wonderful, really, really good. So, what ages are you catering for?

Dr Diaz:    We're catering from one year old to ... We have the curriculum to six year old. But in Panama, we see that the K-12 school system, I don't know if this happens in Australia, they're starting earlier and earlier on. So we have a lot of schools who do have a Pre-K 3, and Pre-K 4.   So we actually are receiving children from one to four.

Peter Barnes:   Right, okay. And what language, I mean, you've got ... You're Spanish. You speak Spanish in Panama, correct?

Dr Diaz:    Yes. We do, yes.

Peter Barnes:   So, is the language in your centers Spanish or English?

Dr Diaz:   It's actually, it's bilingual, but it's ... If I would have to give it a percentage, 80% English, 20% Spanish. We do try to speak to the children in English. Sometimes we have to translate so they can understand. But we do want to create a phonetic listening into them, so when they do go to school, it will be a lot easier for them to learn the English.  The correct, grammatical way of learning English.

Peter Barnes:   Great foundation. So, is English taught ... I guess the education system over there generally is in Spanish. But is English taught? Is that a compulsory subject in schools?

Dr Diaz:   They do have English as a subject in schools. We have a lot of bi-lingual schools and we have a few English speaking schools, with an international curriculum.

Peter Barnes:   Uh-huh. And what about your staff? You mentioned a lot of the early education centers in Panama are sort of like child minding with well intentioned Moms I imagine.

Dr Diaz:    Of course.

Peter Barnes:   Looking after kids. So, tell me about your staff. Are they, they're obviously a different mold to that.

Dr Diaz:   Well, what I wanted to do, since for me like I said before, for me the emotional side is so important. My idea, I went to the universities here in Panama, the private ones and I was looking for bi-lingual psychologists because for me, it was important for them to be able to know about the emotional side. It was very important for me to know about the developmental way of the brain, which also you learn in psychology. So, my teachers are psychologists.

And we train them, because actually I went with the director and my partner, which is also my sister Annette. We went to Singapore to train for the curriculum and what we do here in Panama is we train them. We took a two week training before we opened and then we do a weekly three hour training with them.

Peter Barnes:   Wow, excellent. So, I gather your plan is to start in Panama and then extend the Cleverest Early Education model into Central, other countries in Central America and in South America. Is that ... that's correct?

Dr Diaz:    That's correct. That is correct. Because one of the things that we actually, my husband and I, our vision is long term, is to be able to make an impact in Latin America. Not just my country. We also ... This is a very elite segment of the market population and we are actually looking right now into making something a bit more accessible to maybe middle class population and then go a little bit lower.

We're making efforts to be in touch with the government to be able to provide this for public schools or public ... They have a specific name here, but it would be like a nursery where they go, and they are public. So we actually, we're starting to speak to them. We're talking about training, giving them the curriculum because we want to make an impact.

Peter Barnes:   Well, absolutely, if you can get into the public schools, that's the way to make a big impact and probably way faster than you can setting up stand alone Cleverest Early Education centers.

Dr Diaz:   That is correct.

Peter Barnes:   One of the things that's caught my eye and just doing a little bit of background research for this conversation, I've been following your Instagram, which is very, very active and interesting. You're all posting pictures of what's going on in your, with your children and so forth.

One of the things that struck me is how bright and colorful the whole thing seems. Is there something deliberate in that? Is there a design philosophy in what you've done? Does design, does physical design and physical environment influence the learning?           Cleverest Education- Panama

Dr Diaz:   Well, actually, since we do try to engage the child, if they are in ... Let me go back a little bit. If you see the pictures of our center, you will see that it has a lot of colors, but they're not bright colors. They're kind of like low purple, maybe light bluish, and light pinkish. It doesn't have bright, bright colors, neon colors, because that's a little bit destructive.

But we do want to make the environment engaging because we work with learnings patients and we want the children to be able to engage. So if it's something monochromal, I think it's in English, it's not going to be very exciting for the child. So we do want to engage them. So, yeah, that is very deliberate. We chose colors that are not too exciting because we don't want to children to get over excited, but it's very appealing.

Peter Barnes:   Yeah, just looking at the Instagram images, it is appealing. I thought, "Wow, I'd like to go there." If I was a lot younger.

Dr Diaz:   Yeah, so some of the parents do tell us that they wish that they could go back to school and come to the preschool. And now, let me just say something now that you touch upon that, about parents.

One of the things that I thought was very important was to engage the parents in the learning of their children. I know they do this a lot in different schools and different kinds of learning environments. This is something that's very important for us.

We actually have workshops for parents once a month. We try to make it very also appealing to the parents and we actually ask them what they want to hear us talk about, or what kind of workshop do they want to hear us give or information that they would want. So, it actually, we have a really, really great response with the parents.

What we do is when we do have this workshop, right at the beginning, maybe the first 15 to 20 minutes, I talk about the Habit of Mind that we are working on. I actually  give pointers to the parents of what they can do at home to help us, or to, yeah, to help us teach their children. It's in a very simple way.

It's just a little bit of a difference of how to engage with them. It's not making them do homework or it's not making them come you know, with a big project or anything like that. It also gives them techniques that they can use with other children if they have other children.

So this has been really wonderful. I mean, I've had a response way more positive than what I thought it was going to be.

Peter Barnes:   Wow, that's ... Yeah, that's really interesting. So, as opposed to what happens here a lot is parents outsource the care or let's say the education of their kids to schools and early learning centers and so forth. There doesn't seem to be generally a lot of crossover back into the home. So, I think this is wonderful what you're doing. And if you're getting positive feedback, that's validating for what you're doing. Correct?

Dr Diaz:   Yes, yes, yes. But the thing is when you actually, or what I saw I cannot generalize, but from what I saw, a lot of engagement with the parents is giving them work. You know?

Peter Barnes:   Yeah.

Dr Diaz:   Bring your child dressed up as so and so, or we were having a fair about something else, which is very good actually, but it usually brings a lot of workload to the parent that already works all day. Because if you have your child in a childcare center or in a preschool, you're probably working. So, it gets very ... It gets a little bit heavy sometimes.

 So, what I did was I kind of turned it a little bit around and I don't ask for anything from them. I actually give them stuff. I give them information. I give them how to help with the emotional side of their child. We talk a lot about anxiety because I see that a lot in my consulting room, so I kind of bring it over the preschool.

Peter Barnes:   Anxiety in the children or anxiety in the parents?

Dr Diaz:   Children, parents, adolescents, everybody. We live in, my husband likes to call it the microwave age. We're in a hurry for everything. We can't even wait for water to boil. We need to put it in 30 seconds and for it to be warm. So, in this day and age that we're living, everybody's in a hurry and hurriedness actually builds up anxiety.

Peter Barnes:   Sure does. Sure does. Everyone's hurrying, pretty much.

Dr Diaz:   Yeah. Five, six, seven years old, that you know, they get picked up from school. They have to change in the car. They have to do their ... Because they have to go to ballet and then they have to go to maybe a tutor and it's like a whole day affair and with traffic as it is, because traffic doesn't get any better in any country. I don't think I've seen any country with better ... Where traffic gets better, it actually gets worse.

So, we're time constrained. Children are very anxious because they need to get somewhere on time and if the parent is anxious, that child is going to be anxious and it's just going to be a lot of havoc.

Peter Barnes:   Yeah, well, you're hopefully making a difference to that with your program, with Cleverest Early Education and how you're extending that into the families. Sounds like it's a really interesting thing you're doing. Sounds like you're absolutely passionate about it. When do you start to move out of Panama?

Dr Diaz:   Well, we're actually, we're talking about opening two more here in Panama. I'm trying to concentrate on this. I think in 2019, we actually it was funny, I think we had been open maybe a month and a half, two months.

Somebody contacted me from Costa Rica because they had seen it and they called to their attention and they were interested about it, what it was and how they could maybe bring it to Costa Rica. It was a very, you know, it was just a one-time thing that happened, but it was really early on. You know?

But I think we would be talking about 2019, maybe middle, second half to 2019. It's a lot more work than what I thought it was going to be.

Peter Barnes:   Everything is, isn't it?

Dr Diaz:    Yeah.

Peter Barnes:   It's easy to think, but harder to do.

Dr Diaz:   Yeah totally. I have a wonderful team.

Peter Barnes:   Yeah, sounds] like it. Well look, I think that's wonderful. Thank you for talking with us. So if someone, one of our listeners, or some of our listeners would want to learn more about what you're doing or get in touch with you, how's best for them to do that?

Dr Diaz:   Well actually, they can go into the website and write there because you have a tab for information. I do get that email and I can connect with them through that. That's ... It's very actually straightforward and easy.

Peter Barnes:   So, that's Cleverest, C-L-E-V-E-R-E-S-T, EarlyEducation.com?

Dr Diaz:   No, actually CleverestEducation. Not early education.

Peter Barnes:   CleverestEducation.com. Okay. That's pretty easy. Well, thank you Dr. Diaz. Thank you for your time. It must be towards the end of the day where you are now.

Dr Diaz:   Yes, it is. It's actually almost six o'clock.

Peter Barnes:   Brilliant. So, thank you. And perhaps we can talk again some time.

Dr Diaz:   I would love to and it was great to speak to you and I was recently as you know in Australia with my daughter and we had a wonderful time. It's a beautiful place.

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