Thinkabout Blog
Building from the Ground …Down


by David Hyerle
Founder of Thinking Foundation, Developer of Thinking Maps
Last month I travelled for two reasons. One reason was to work with educational leaders in Ethiopia and the other was to travel across northern Ethiopia. Little did I know that the real reason was waiting far beneath the ground.

After flying into Addis Ababa and then north, our Thinking Foundation team began working in the city of Mekele in the northern Tigray region of Ethiopia. We are collaborating with a dozen university professors and lecturers, lead by the Tigray Development Association, to initiate the Thinking Schools Accreditation Process (TSAP). This means that the 37 public schools (that have begun professional development in the TSI approach some months ago) will begin documenting their own evolution as a Thinking School with direct support from highly qualified university researchers. The two day, highly collaborative, seminar was ground breaking for all of us. I wanted to make sure that these leaders evaluated, challenged, and adapted our design to fit the culture, language, values and goals set by Ethiopian educators. The vision is to build quality model sites from which an educational movement supporting high quality teacher professional development in Ethiopia can grow – indigenously.

After the work it was time to explore: we went on several very bumpy road trips in northern Ethiopia to historic Aksum and surroundings (now a international travel destination). Three eight hour journeys took my breath away: crossing high mountains laced with terraced farming, broad river valleys, Grand Canyons one after another, and 15 mile long high plateaus graced by small villages. This trip was beyond my imagination, and ultimately, brought me to sit on the barren floor of an unlit kindergarten classroom surrounded by smiling, eager faces in a town called Lalibela. I had only heard about and looked at a few pictures of the UNESCO site at Lalibela. They call the town the 8th wonder of the world. Like sculpture through which an artist releases a form from solid, cold stone, what I witnessed in this dry, mountain top village transformed my vision of what is possible. There are wonders of the natural world, and then there are the natural miracles of imagination and human potential that transcend our notions of the possible. As this is a season of miracles for many, if you visit here you may come to believe that the human mind can envision most anything … and build it. I certainly see transformative, secular education as such an endeavor.


A sculptor emancipates a vision from stone, slowly bringing it into light, into sight that then often sits untouched upon a pedestal. But what happened in the late 12th and early 13th centuries in Lalibela was the sculpting of 11 churches carved out of stone – literally from the ground…. down. Like building an intricate sandcastle on the beach downward rather than up. Give your mind a moment to consider this: imagine being up high on a mountainside in a village and at that turn of a dusty road, you take a tight, curved steep pathway down into a courtyard nearly two hundred feet to the base of a church. Look up and you see a multistory church … and then above it the ground level from which it was carved. The church was NOT BUILT. It was carved. Completely from the level ground, down. From the outside in. Walk into the church center, a scared crossing of rooms, that could hold a hundred people, and see in the darkness men, women and children dressed in pure white, glistening, sitting or standing while leaning their hands and chins on prayer sticks. Chanting scripture by candlelight. Become transformed as I did by the strange feeling that you were standing INSIDE a sacred sculpture seeking light from the underground darkness.

After stepping out into the full light and heat from the churches (many connected by underground passage ways) up the road we visited a Lalibela kindergarten school owned by a single teacher. She is a mother who started the school in her small home, on her own, to serve the community and the memory of her son who passed away in early childhood. I was sitting on the floor amongst 20 or so 4-5 year old children. I began playfully showing them the hand signs for each of the eight Thinking Maps– each for learning how to visually pattern ideas from a blank page. I looked up at the teacher and beheld the smile of a mother. Outside in the courtyard, I asked her what she needed. And then I immediately asked myself within… as I listened to her: “What doesn’t she and these children and this school and this community need?”

She said she needed $400 for a computer as she needs to create and transmit reports of attendance and other key information to the government so that she can receive funding. And toys – simple toys as she explained – to bring the kinesthetic development required for growth. She needs the basic tools of the trade for the 21st century. I told her I would reach out to my friends for help.
You are those friends.

I have always considered education in its hightest form to be the release of the unlimiting thinking capacities of students into the open, rippling across generations, centuries, human kind – yet all projected forward from thousands of years ago. In Ethiopia you can visit the the bones of our ancestors: the archeologists’ remnants of Lucy under glass at the National Museum. This in a country dominantly Christian in the true cradle of civilization. Many Ethiopians hold, quite naturally in mind, a belief in God and the science of Darwinian evolution.

I was reminded on my visit to a Lalibela church that one of the three wise men, Balthazar, came from Ethiopia and, from a kindergarten classroom in Lalibela, that every child should have the opportunity to grow wise with age.We are seeking funds for one computer in Lalibela, resources for Thinking Schools teachers and students across Ethiopia, and for supporting an evolution in thinking.

For donations to the Lalibela kindergarten and the Thinking Schools Ethiopia projects, please contact David through


Short History of Lalibela from Wikipedia:
During the reign of Saint Gebre Mesqel Lalibela (a member of the Zagwe Dynasty, who ruled Ethiopia in the late 12th century and early 13th century), the current town of Lalibela was known as Roha. The saintly king was named so, because a swarm of bees is said to have surrounded him at his birth, which his mother took as a sign of his future reign as Emperor of Ethiopia. The names of several places in the modern town and the general layout of the rock-cut churches themselves are said to mimic names and patterns observed by Lalibela during the time he spent as a youth in Jerusalem and the Holy Land.Lalibela, revered as a saint, is said to have seen Jerusalem, and then attempted to build a new Jerusalem as his capital in response to the capture of old Jerusalem by Muslims in 1187. Each church was carved from a single piece of rock to symbolize spirituality and humility. Christian faith inspires many features with Biblical names – even Lalibela’s river is known as the River Jordan. Lalibela remained the capital of Ethiopia from the late 12th into the 13th century.

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