A quiet education revolution worldwide is giving kids the skills to be 21st-century citizens

Good start.
Good start.
Image: Reuters/Jianan Yu
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As a child, Dana Narvaiša hated school. Her teachers thought she asked too many questions and her English instructor used to gleefully skip over her when it was time to read aloud to the class.

Narvaiša now runs Cesis New Primary School in a town of 40,000 people, about an hour and a half from Riga, the capital of Latvia. Kids decide how to construct much of their own learning. Every child has his or her own learning plan. “They take responsibility for their learning, and how they want to develop it,” Narvaiša said.

In doing so, they also develop skills that go well beyond the purely academic. For example, third-graders recently decided to observe the changes brought on by autumn. They wanted to learn why leaves change colors, so they decided to write a story about it and document what they were seeing in pictures and a with a PowerPoint presentation—thus gaining not only scientific knowledge but also literacy, digital literacy, and communication skills. Other students put on an art show about emotions, and laid out all of things they would need to do to pull off the show—thus practising communication, collaboration, and project management.

Narvaiša is not alone. In small pockets around the globe, teachers and education innovators are looking beyond rigid systems and high-stakes standardized tests. They are trying to use education to allow students, especially poor ones, to “become architects of their own lives,” in the words of Fernando Reimers, director of the Global Education Innovation Initiative at Harvard University.

“The good news is there is a growing consensus among educators that we have to educate the whole child, and there is a lot more knowledge about how to do that,” Reimers said.  “The bad news is we don’t have 100 years to solve this.”

At stake, Reimers thinks, is nothing less than world peace itself.

This year’s Brexit vote and the US election revealed the remarkable inability of citizens to have thoughtful debates on policy. Both events revealed electorates divided as much by education as anything else. Rebecca Winthrop, head of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution, said the US election showed that education needs to go beyond academic knowledge to deal with the disruptions wrought by automation, free trade and other economic shifts.  “It’s not just skills for work, but skills to develop strong citizens,” she said.

Reimers concurs: Give kids the right skills, and they can be productive citizens and fulfill the great promise of the Enlightenment, which “espoused that ordinary people can rule themselves, assisted by reason and science and by the capacity to associate with others to improve themselves and their communities, and in so doing reduce human suffering,” he wrote in a 2014 paper. Fail to give them the skills to be part of a fast-changing, interconnected, digital economy, and they will strive to take it apart, as voters around the world are now doing.

Those skills include the ability to take control of one’s own learning; to empathize and get along with others; and to appreciate the wider world and its diversity of viewpoints. They are what cutting-edge educators around the world are now finding ways to instill—often despite still being constrained by rigid, test-based systems.

The problem with testing and the debate over skills

For the past 25 years, most developed countries have pursued standards-based educational reform. They have built standardized tests for a few core subjects, like math and reading, and looked for ways to hold teacher accountable for the results. Many aim to teach other skills, but when a school’s or a teacher’s worth is measured by a standardized test, meeting that inevitably becomes the priority.

But while you can’t think critically without substantive knowledge, you also cannot work productively or engage in civil discourse if you can’t control your emotions, get along with your teachers and peers, and persevere when things get difficult.

That realization is gradually leading some to a broader movement to reduce the focus on standardized testing and teach more skills relevant to life. In Singapore, a country notorious for the pressure to succeed academically, the government, and some citizens, are now trying to de-emphasize test scores and focus on things like effort and self-worth. In Denmark, empathy is part of the curriculum.

In the US, after decades of intense debate about how to test kids, and on what, a broad acceptance exists that it’s important to learn more than just reading, writing and math. After 20 years, “people are finally having a more holistic conversation about what it takes for kids to be successful in work, career and college in the 21st century,” said Diane Robinson, deputy director of Global Nomads Group, which connects kids virtually to spark conversation and empathy.

There are ample ivory-tower debates over which skills matter most: some say grit, others say self-regulation. But policy groups like the Partnership for Twenty-First-Century Skills (P21), active in 19 US states, are working with governments and schools to change mindsets about what 21st century skills are and then to help them put them into curriculum.

In Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek of Temple University and Roberta Golinkoff from the University of Delaware integrate the sciences of learning—neuoroscience, developmental psychology, and education research—to figure out what skills matter and why. They map the most important skills and how they materialize in different developmental stages of childhood. (Self-regulation in a five-year-old looks different than a teen, for example.)

They call these skills the ”six C’s”: collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation, and confidence. These are intricately intertwined.

“Creative innovation requires knowing something. You can’t just be a monkey throwing paint on a canvas. It’s the 10,000-hour rule: You need to know something well enough to make something new,” Pasek told NPR.

This skills discussion is by no means limited to the US. Winthrop, from Brookings, mapped out what she calls the “breadth of skills” movement around the world. She and her colleagues looked at 102 countries, and what they found surprised her: “The mindset shift has already happened,” she said. Dozens of countries said communication and creativity were top goals; critical thinking and problem solving were also cited in mission statements, curriculum documents, and educational-reform materials. “We really didn’t know how much most education systems wanted to move in this direction.”

Image for article titled A quiet education revolution worldwide is giving kids the skills to be 21st-century citizens
Image: Center for Universal Edication at Brookings

The skills don’t matter just because a bunch of academics think they do. Research shows that kids who show perseverance and self-control perform better academically than those with higher IQs. Jobs don’t require people who have high scores on standardized tests, but who who can work analytically with others to solve problems.

Moreover, automation is leaving a sea of workers without work, and with few prospects of re-training. Winthrop notes the dramatic drop in jobs that require mostly routine tasks, including routine “cognitive” skills like accounting and routine manual skills like assembly-line work. At the same time, non-routine analytic jobs and non-routine interpersonal jobs like nursing are on the rise.

Governments need to help displaced workers get new training. But schools also have a responsibility. And Winthrop said for all the desire to teach new skills, a huge number of educators expressed frustration over how to do it. Even fewer were actually pulling it off.

Agency: Owning your education

The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research defines agency (pdf) as “the ability to make choices about and take an active role in one’s life path, rather than solely being the product of one’s circumstances.” When it put together a framework for young adult success, agency was a key component.

“If every single kid assumes ownership over their own education and develops the sense of agency that they can solve problems today, that’s the only way they will know they can solve bigger problems tomorrow,” says Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for All, a network which supports local efforts in 40 countries to recruit teachers and develop local educational leaders.

Agency has many roots. Teachers know that kids thrive when they play an active role in their own learning; when they know and can reflect on how they learn (metacognition and mindsets); and when they can relate it to others (empathy). Innovators, educators and technologists know all this can be shared across borders.

At the Khan Lab School in Mountain View, California, kids shun traditional subjects, grades and school calendars. Instead they work towards “independence levels” and learning targets such as self-control, goal management, and self-evaluation. They choose their learning goals, design spreadsheets for meeting them, and work on their own and with “advisors.” Technology is ubiquitous, and kids are trusted to manage it.

“Agency is at the forefront of what we do,” said Orly Friedman, head of Khan’s lower school.

If you give students a choice about their time, she says, sometimes they waste it, just as adults do. “We take the perspective that there is a reasonable trade-off to be made; it’s OK to lose a little efficiency for the long-term outcome of students owning their education.” Giving them more control, she argued, helps to guarantee they will become lifelong learners, something that is critical to being able to adapt to a changing world.

At the Riverside School in Ahmedabad, India, kids use design thinking to solve real-world problems of their choosing, such as trash collection in their local communities. “The school is a lab to prototype, to design processes to infect minds with ‘I can’”, says Kiran Sethi, the founder, in this TED talk. That process includes showing kids the stages of how to make change happen: feel, imagine, do, share. The school then builds the time and expertise to let them go and try it.

For example, grade five children spent eight hours rolling incense sticks to see what the life of a child laborer was like. Once aware of the back-breaking nature of the work, they became child advocates, talking to local leaders and shop owners in their communities to discourage the use of child labor.

Riverside is based on building up children’s inner worlds so they can confidently manage everything outside. The school encourages them to be agents of change, but it also recognizes that they must show them how.

“Kids are so much more than their grades,” Sethi said recently. “At the heart of global citizenship is this simple well-being that needs to be developed.” Sethi is also quick to point out Riverside consistently outperforms the top 10 schools in India. Academics and active citizenship are not at odds.

Empathy: Why can’t we all just get along?

Allowing kids to play a bigger role in their education may help build future leaders, but they also need to know how to get along with others and understand their views.

In the US, empathy appears to be waning. A University of Michigan study of nearly 14,000 college students found that students today have about 40% less empathy than college kids had in the 1980s and 1990s. Michele Borba, an educational psychologist and author of Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our-All-About-Me World, writes that the rise of narcissism and loss of empathy are key reasons why nearly a third of US college kids are depressed and mental-health problems among them are rising. When the US president-elect is someone who insulted Mexicans, Muslims, and the disabled, there is clearly room for improvement.

When the Iraq war broke out, Global Nomads connected students in Iraq with kids in Connecticut. The US students talked of sending fathers off to a war they did not understand; the Iraqi children expressed fear about having their cities and homes bombed. A decade later, some of those students remembered the call, and what it meant to them to see another person’s perspective. ”It is our role to help our kids understand who they are and how they fit in the world,” said Robinson, the deputy director of the program.

Other schools are trying to do similar things. The School for Ethics and Global Leadership brings 11th graders from around the US to Washington, DC for a semester of study designed to broaden their perspective. “We have students with live-in housekeepers and students whose parents clean homes,” Noah Bopp, the school’s founder and head, told Foreign Policy. “They do chores together. We have students who are gay and students who think homosexuality is sinful. They live in the same dormitory. We have libertarians and socialists. They write collaborative political speeches together.”

Globalism: It’s a small world, if you look out your window

According to the US Department of Education, a globally competent student (pdf) is one who can investigate the world, weigh perspectives, communicate effectively with diverse audiences, and take action.

And yet, for most US schools, “global” comes in the form of a once-a-year festival with international foods. Only four US states prioritize some kind of global and cultural competencies.

Some educators are trying to change that. As chancellor of Washington, DC’s public school system, Kaya Henderson spearheaded a program to send 400 children in the 8th and 11th grades to 13 countries for a week. Many of the kids were poor; Henderson helped raise $2 million to fund the program, which included fees for passports and clothes for children who needed it. She said she had traveled as a student and wanted others to have the same experience.

“Those experiences completely changed my life,” Henderson told the Washington Post. “I know what the power of language and study abroad can do for regular little neighborhood kids like me,” she said.

Others are trying to find ways to scale global awareness by producing teaching materials. Reimers, from Harvard, and his colleagues wrote a global curriculum for kindergarten to 12th grade called Empowering Global Citizens: A World Course. (It was originally created for an exclusive New York City private school, but he has made it free and available under Creative Commons.) It is project-based, inter-disciplinary, hands-on, and encourages mastery—all the buzzwords of 21st-century education.

Reimers says we need it because we are at a moment when we can try to make globalization relevant and accessible to more people, or we can let it be an agent of further division and potential destruction. “Which way things go rests on what teachers do,” he wrote.

The short end of the stick

“Education systems, in most parts of the world, are slowly getting better,” said Winthrop, of Brookings. “But it’s so slow compared to the pace of change, and it is not fast enough for kids who are on the short end of the stick.”

Friedman, from the Khan Lab School, used an example to show that pace. At her school, kids see Google’s self-driving cars pass by every day. She notes that Uber—which is also in Mountain View, and also trying out driverless cars—started life in 2009. In other words, less than a decade after the ride-hailing industry was born, the people who found new careers as Uber drivers already face the prospect of being replaced by machines. “That’s less time than a kid will spend in school from kindergarten to graduation.”

Networks, plus technology, will help. Teach for All supports educators in more than 40 countries who build “locally-rooted-globally-informed” networks which recruit, train and develop graduates to teach for two years in underprivileged schools. After a two-year stint teaching, they often go on to become principals, or education innovators, or local and government leaders in education.

Tomas Despouy taught for Enseña Chile (Teach for All’s group there) and later launched Panal (“honeycomb”) to help students develop skills such as collaboration, perseverance, curiosity, and empathy through designing and doing service projects. After meeting Despouy, Agustina Faustin, an alum of Enseña Argentina, launchedLider.ar,a similar effort in her country. There are now groups in Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador.

Ultimately, though, it falls to teachers and innovators like Narvaiša in Latvia or Sethi in India to make the changes, one classroom and one school at a time. “Children are learning what you are not teaching them,” said Sethi at a recent conference in Bulgaria. “The students will see your face for 180 days. What will your face show them?”