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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and independent consultant, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at

Education Opinion

Our Increasingly Troubled World Creates an Engaging Opportunity for Students

By Peter DeWitt — April 28, 2019 6 min read

Today’s guest blog, Part Two of two blogs, is written by Michael Fullan, an international expert on leadership and school systems.

We know that the world is becoming increasingly troubled because of climate change, unclear and diminished job markets, growing inequity, increased anxiety and stress, wild and unpredictable technology, deterioration of trust, and crumbling social cohesion. This has had an incredible impact on education because in many ways this all plays out in our schools. It also provides a great opportunity to transform schooling so that it simultaneously serves students and society. The new moral imperative in education is not just “college ready” but rather becoming good at learning and good at life.

In partnership with schools and systems in eight countries, we (see our team below) co-developed a framework that enabled us to pursue, discover, and develop radically new learning ways for students assisted by their teachers. It starts with six Global Competencies:

Character - Proactive stance toward life and learning to learn, grit, tenacity, perseverance and resilience, empathy, compassion, and integrity in action.

Citizenship - A global perspective, commitment to human equity and well-being through empathy and compassion for diverse values and worldviews, genuine interest in human and environmental sustainability, solving ambiguous and complex problems in the real world to benefit citizens.

Collaboration - Working interdependently as a team, interpersonal and team-related skills, social, emotional, and intercultural skills, managing team dynamics and challenges.

Communication - Communication designed for audience and impact, message advocates a purpose and makes an impact, reflection to further develop and improve communication, voice and identity expressed to advance humanity.

Creativity - Economic and social entrepreneurialism, asking the right inquiry questions, pursuing and expressing novel ideas and solutions, leadership to turn ideas into action.

Critical Thinking - Evaluating information and arguments, making connections and identifying patterns, meaningful knowledge construction, experimenting, reflecting and taking action on ideas in the real world.

To support the six Cs we developed four learning pillars: partnerships, high-yield pedagogy, learning environment, and leveraging digital technologies. Finally, we identified three sets of enabling conditions at the school, district and policy levels.

We have often observed that 80 percent of the best ideas come from leading practitioners. In this partnership, two powerful ideas emerged from the work that were at best implicit in the initial framework: one we ended up calling “engage the world, change the world,” related was the necessary and profound relationship between “learning and well-being.”

Engage the World, Change the World
This is Dewey, Freire 2.0. Deep learning can only occur if the learner is examining the world they live in and having an eye to improving it. It is not so much that this represents a good thing to do, but rather it is the only way to live—the only way to learn in complex society! You can’t learn if you don’t engage the world, big or small. And you can’t learn if you are not intimately linking your learning to how to improve the situation.

Students love to understand and do something about things in the world that need attention—whether it is addressing homelessness, protecting the garden from predatory birds, learning how to address inequity, dealing with severe living conditions, or examining the future of jobs. The best way to learn anything worthwhile is to engage the world with the idea of understanding it with an eye to changing it for the better. It was Kurt Lewin who observed: “If you want to understand something, try changing it.” Our motto is “engage the world as a learner, and you will inevitably find yourself in a change situation.

If school could become an institution of engaging the world with the natural idea of understanding it, deep learning would flourish. Masses of students would learn more and develop an active penchant for improving things.

Learning and well-being as partners
Getting to college—getting to the best college—has distorted learning. Certainly students and parents can be the worst culprits. The current scandal of Hollywood actors paying their way to get their children clandestinely into the best universities is a case in point. And many a student has expressed and acted in a way that explicitly said: “I’d rather have a good grade than participate in deep learning.” But something else is happening. Stress and anxiety are increasing for all students regardless of SES. The greater the emphasis on learning at all cost, the greater the anxiety. It is not easy to correct this, but such a perverse system serves only about the top 20 percent. And, as it turns out, it doesn’t even serve them well.

We are finding that students and their parents respond to the argument that learning and well-being are intimately connected. They know that you can go through school, get good grades, and still not be good at life. They know that many students who are doing well academically are stressed out and not necessarily heading in the right direction. In effect, they have a deal with the devil. Do well at all costs regardless of the consequences.

And then we have the majority who are not being served by the present system. They suffer from all the prejudices of the present system that limits their opportunity, as well as the conditions under which they live.

Increasingly, all groups suffer in the present system. Students across the spectrum are stressed. One of the natural outlets for addressing the situation is deep learning. Broadly, I think that most students are ambivalent. Many of them want the grades, almost at any cost. But we also have found that once well-being is introduced, there is a tendency to want to develop it. We use the term “connectedness” as a proxy for well-being. In our work, learning and well-being are treated as equal synergizing partners. This is not a matter of ‘“bolting on” SEL to enhance academic grades. It is the recognition that the new moral imperative puts learning and well-being on equal footing.

In short, we see an increased attention to the notion that learning and well-being are natural allies. Students see it, too. They intuitively know that deep learning and connectedness must be integrated as one phenomenon.

All and all, in the two blogs presented, we have the measures required to address the massive and growing inequities that are relentlessly trending in society. Deep learning, as we practice it with our partners, is good for all students but is especially effective for those students who are most disconnected from schooling and society.

Society is becoming increasingly complex. Ironically and worryingly, at the same time student engagement in schools is dramatically decreasing. We need to reverse this trend

The future of humankind depends on the massive mobilization of students as agents of change. Such mobilization requires partnerships with students and adults. This can be done through the two learning pathways discussed in the companion Part 1 Blog (the ‘pedagogical’ and the ‘political’ pathways), combined with the two powerful phenomena discussed in this blog—integrating “engaging the world” and well-being. It is no longer far-fetched to suggest that societal survival depends on these four forces in concert.

Michael Fullan, O.C., is the Global Leadership Director, New Pedagogies for Deep Learning and a worldwide authority on educational reform with a mandate of helping to achieve the moral purpose of all children learning.

For more information from our team, see: Fullan, Quinn and McEachen, Deep Learning: Engage the World Change the World (Corwin 2018), and Dive Into Deep Learning: Tools for Engagement. Quinn, McEachen, Fullan, Gardner & Drummy, Corwin, in press).

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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