Some articles just pop up and lead your mind into new pathways. This happened to me as a recent column came across my desk, published in Forbes by education specialist Tom Vander Ark. He was reflecting on the trends that are reshaping global learning. His focus is mainly on high school education, and he has published numerous articles analyzing how teenagers are being educated in the USA.
What caught my attention was XQ, an initiative launched by a group of education visionaries in 2015 as an open call to rethink and redesign American high schools. I watched a brief video that used footage from 1900 to highlight how much had changed since then, and yet how the classrooms (and the educational system) of high schools hadn’t significantly evolved. It reminded me of the oil painting The Children’s Class by French artist Henri Jules Jean Geoffroy, depicting a classroom in 1889 which I had referenced to make a similar point in my book Stop Teaching. Both XQ and The Children’s Class highlight the unexplainable fact that how we educate our youth is completely anachronistic and in need of urgent action.
For that purpose, the XQ organization has been supporting high schools across the US, offering free, open-source tools and materials to help schools rethink how they operate. Their Super School project has involved 19 high schools to date, which are pioneering a very different approach to teaching and learning. This is how we can live up to the new realities, suggests Vander Ark, “because most high school graduates will enter the freelance/ gig economy or manage their careers as a series of projects; everyone will be an entrepreneur in the new economy.” What is it that these “Super Schools” are doing? A few key (and simple) things: they are creating student-centered learning spaces, where there is engagement, project-based learning and student ownership of learning as they build on their interests and skills, and support each other’s progress.
High school today, College tomorrow
As I was reading about this, and losing myself in an exciting virtual forest of connected links, I reflected on the landscape of Higher Education, especially the Management and Business Administration schools that are part of my life, and that prepare – or so is the promise – the future entrepreneurs and leaders to create or to find jobs, and thrive in a world that we, Boomer-generation educators, can hardly imagine.
Much research has been focused in the past decade to identify the skills and competencies that will be needed in the coming decade. This is a task that seriously challenges the imagination if we consider how innovations like Google, Skype, Uber, Airbnb or AI have, in just a handful of years, changed the landscape of our world forever. Alas, research has the limitation that we are mostly looking back, or asking technology leaders how the future will be, which, of course has no empirical validity. But knowledge has to be built, one way or the other, and we have new lists of competencies: critical thinking, systems thinking, complexity, design thinking, creativity and innovation, collaboration, communication skills, global citizenship, entrepreneurship – and for the more advanced: social and emotional skills, self-awareness, personal mastery, and social sensitivity. I wish I could add “spiritual intelligence” or “a sustainability mindset”, but this is far too progressive still, and while it is on the agenda of a minority of scholars, the description of “life readiness” that Canadian educator Michael Fullan suggests is not quite there yet.
Going back to the Super High Schools and their graduates that are streaming into higher education, I asked myself: How are we prepared to foster and hone in on those advanced students of the world? How are we prepared to engage them, mentor and support them to reach new heights? It probably will not be sitting them in classrooms organized as amphitheaters to accommodate more students for financial reasons, nor offering them programs with set-courses that are mandatory. And it definitely will not be helpful to fragment the reality of our world into separate, siloed disciplines and subjects.
How are we welcoming “the Gretas” of the world into colleges and universities around the globe? These leaders and members of unstructured, organic movements of teenagers, fearless like the Sudanese kids protesting the government’s violence against school demonstrators? How are we prepared for the followers of the Zero Hour Movement, started in the US in 2017 by then 14-year-old Jamie Margolin, to convene her friends and become climate activists.
Now – two years later – Jamie and a team of teenagers from across the country organized a two-day Summit in Miami. I was intrigued and attended the free summit near the Miami Airport a few weeks ago. What I witnessed was another mind-opener for me. There I saw hundreds of high schoolers attending sessions, listening to inspiring presenters of all ages, and to video interviews with political candidates whom these young organizers had approached. There were small action-oriented breakout sessions, and the emotional experience of keynote speakers like Little Miss Flint, the young girl that became famous for writing to President Obama about the water contamination in her town. She was a bit overwhelmed and her speaking notes were getting mixed up as she stood on stage, while the crowd was cheering her on: “You’re GREAT!” and “We love you”.
Of course, the breaks during the Summit were the times when loud music played, everyone left their seats, went on stage or on the aisles, danced and sang songs that were unfamiliar to me, but everyone else seemed to know by heart. The energy was off the charts. It was their party, of course, and I was one of the few adults peeking in.
Lining the walls of the big ballroom were the makeshift stands of a variety of activists and movements. I met with some of them, and was impressed by the “founders” standing at their booth-tables, handing out their business cards, and explaining what their organization or concept was all about. One of them, Ethan Vandivier, came from Washington DC to the Summit. His business card, with a self-designed image of a hand holding a melting planet, states his title as “Youth Climate Change Activist,” and lists other achievements: “Advocacy team member of Zero Hour. Founder of S.O.S. – Solar Our Schools. Youth advisory board member of Young Voices for the Planet. Speaker towards youth.” Quite a resume for a 12 year old.
As I walked out of the hotel, I reflected on the strange global phenomenon that was taking place and radically changing the landscape. The phenomenon is unraveling at the convergence of several factors: The surge of teen-leaders across the globe; use of social media as their natural way of connecting; the multiplication effect as other fearless teens hear and read about it, and get inspired. They age between 8 and 16, love causes, and don’t hesitate to step up into action. At an age where belonging and going against something shapes their identity, they are finding causes that tackle what the planet needs most: climate action, social action, nature, pollution, human rights, their (our) future.
These kids are very different from their older siblings, the students in our current classrooms. A couple of years have made all the difference, and I can see how we will be looking back in a few years and will have realized that a new generation was emerging. We will give them a name: perhaps the Greta Generation, or Generation G.
That they are accelerating change, I have no doubts. We can see it. I ask myself now how we in higher education will get ready to help, support, coach, mentor, prepare and gear them up with what they need. I cannot see them sitting in an auditorium-type hall, listening to a lecture, learning neoliberal capitalism maxims that disconnect profit from greater purpose, that teach marketing for growing consumption on a planet with decreasing health, while they are thinking how they could restore and shape a world that works for all. How will we meet the challenge?
We had better give some urgent thought to this, and act. Because this time, we educators are the students running late for the lesson.
Keywords: Educators – Management Education – Learning – Pedagogy – Climate change – Capitalism – Consumption – Planet – Youth – Movements – Greta Thunberg – technology – Little Miss Flint –
Isabel Rimanoczy is an author, a contributing blogger and an educator who has made her life purpose to develop change accelerators. She developed the concept of the Sustainability Mindset and is the convener of the PRME Working Group on the Sustainability Mindset, a network of academics promoting a new mindset with their students. www.IsabelRimanoczy.net