Bring three prominent education reformers together for a conversation and the result can be revolutionary.

An Oct. 31 panel discussion titled “Revolutionary Pedagogies on a Global Scale” brought education reformers Bill Ayers, Bonisile Ntlemeza, and Allison Rouse to the Hill for a dialogue on combating inequality and oppression by way of innovative teaching strategies.

The panel began with a simple question, posed by anthropology professor and event organizer Catherine Bestemen: “What is your current obsession in education?”

“A school is always a mirror and a window to a social order,” Ayers began. “Schools teach values reflective of that society.”

The author and editor of more than 20 books on education, Ayers has risen to the forefront of the reform movement by voicing—often quite radically through activism—his discontent with the values of American society that make education prone to inequality.

Ayers said that public education is an essential element of democracy, and because of its power to instill social values, education “is and always will be a contested space…a focus of struggle.”

To address the social value of the classroom, Ayers urged that curricula democratize the teaching process by creating a conversation between students and teachers: “We must learn from each other,” he said. “We must have a dialogue.”

Ntlemeza located his approach to education in personal experience, reflecting on his youth growing up in an impoverished community in South Africa. “Sometimes I say I was lucky,” he said about overcoming his disadvantaged background and returning to the community from which he came. Yet with his success as the principal of the prominent LEAP Science and Maths School in South Africa, one question still plagued him: “How do we minimize [relying on] luck?”

Ntlemeza noted that his LEAP school emphasized the ways in which a value-based education model addressed social inequality and engrained psychological resistance in post-apartheid communities.

He described his school’s “life orientation program,” as an unusual curriculum in which students brought their personal issues into class discussions in order to have students listen to and respect the voices of other students.

The program continues to result in higher test scores across the board and has helped students become problem solvers in their lives and in their communities, Ntlemeza said. Most importantly, it has helped students develop a voice of their own—an impressive achievement in a society where social norms are often predicated on silence and complacency in the post-apartheid social order, he said.

As a result of having grown up in a poor section of the Bronx and attending the Riverdale Country School in a wealthier neighborhood, Rouse recalled how the racial divide in American society made him aware of problems in the education system. He invoked “the back door” that many African Americans have been conditioned to go through, and drew attention to his work in South Africa and India to help students face the oppression that “shackles” the adults that surround them.

“So many of my peers didn’t make it past eighteen,” he said, noting that many of his friends growing up in the Bronx simply “disappeared” to prison or became participants in gang activity. “Kids shouldn’t have to be limited by what they have in their community,” he said.

EdVillage, the organization Rouse founded, connects different educational reform initiatives across the world so that they can learn from each other’s progress in changing the way teachers facilitate change in the classroom.

As Ayers, Ntlemeza, and Rouse continued to question the importance and complications that underlay education around the world, one thing remained in focus: that education is a dynamic and misunderstood field that has much to teach even its educators.

“Why do we pretend that education [only] happens to the young?” Ayers said, “The beautiful thing about a curriculum of questioning is that it never ends; it leads to a culture of questioning and a culture of developing a mind of your own.”