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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

Young People Have a Desire to Save Their World. How Can We Help?

By Michael Fullan & Joanne Quinn — May 02, 2021 5 min read
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If the pandemic has revealed anything, it is the absence of leadership. You can almost see society crumbling. At the same time, we can sense the possibility of a radical new solution built around the fact that young people—some very young—have an interest in learning, their personal growth, and have an innate desire to be part of saving society.

We find that the young seem to be a bundle of 50 percent anxiety and 50 percent wanting to change the world. They need a focus and a way to mobilize that consists of both short-term success and a clear, moving path to fundamental changes in how and what we learn and its impact on creating a better planet.

The present education system lacks purpose, failing to capture the interests and needs of the vast majority of students. It does not generate individual and collective engagement essential for breakthrough learning. It does not operate as a force for equity and equality. It is a fault of the system, not the students and teachers in it.

The pandemic has discombobulated schooling and as such, presents a once-in-a-century-opportunity to transform the system. First, we have to stop COVID-19 itself, addressing its immediate devastation. We then must pounce on the opportunity to create a new learning system. It will require a moonshot-like campaign that we can call Mission Learning. It turns out we know quite a lot about what is needed, namely a focus on four interrelated foundational pillars: well-being and learning, social intelligence, monetary investment, and a well-run system

What Are the Four Foundational Pillars?

Well-being and learning - The goal of well-being is to develop people who are good at learning and good at life. It focuses on purpose, meaning, connectedness to others, and making a contribution beyond oneself. Equity for all is a centerpiece. The learning is based on the 6Cs of Global Competencies (character, citizenship, collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking).

All of this is buttressed by new learning with students as active partners along with others including teachers, parents, and the community. The joint work of health workers and teachers will be at the heart of this new learning. Many of these practices are already in place but need to become a system priority. We need to revamp the assessment system to focus on the formative development of global competencies and new measures based on indicators of accomplishment.

Social intelligence - The ability to work productively in diverse groups takes social intelligence. It is partly addressed through the 6Cs and additionally developed through collective projects with communities and businesses partners. Social intelligence places a premium on “cultural competency.” Increased diversity in this world is a given. The variable is whether it will become a force of destruction or a source of creativity for humankind.

Social intelligence, interestingly, involves figuring out the role of technology—learning how to live with and beyond it. It is worth thinking about whether we have underestimated humans and overestimated machines.

Monetary investment - For equity, equality, and new capacity—"new monetary theory” (NMT) as it is called—has seemingly come out of nowhere, buttressed by half a dozen deep economic analyses e.g. Boushey, 2019, Unbound: How inequality constricts our economy and what we can do about it, Harvard University Press). NMT first documents that the economy has been structured for the past 40 years or more to relentlessly favor the very rich over the middle and most disadvantaged to the point where survival of both the poor and the rich is being threatened.

NMT is not afraid of deficits as a means to a deeper end; it recommends investing in rock-bottom support, along with developmental capacity: early learning and child support, resources related to a stronger infrastructure for dealing with poverty, jobs, and quality of teaching and learning. Its measure of success is a new prosperity across the levels of society and for society as a whole.

Well-run systems - When people complain about bad leadership, they are usually talking about corrupt and/or incompetent leaders. Whatever success has been obtained is not because of science and technology per se, but rather it arises from scientists collaborating (social intelligence) and competent systems of response. Good old-fashioned competence to get things done seems to have gone out the window. The solution must include establishing well-run systems devoted to the first three drivers of mission learning. I am betting that it is easier to develop quality systems when you are building on the right rather than the wrong things. We need well-run systems to be the hallmark of mission learning.

The pandemic has swept away many of the props of an ineffective learning system. Success is possible as a modern-day moonshot. The good news is that the most powerful potential forces for transformation are inversely related to the hierarchy. That is, the main energies for radical change seem to reside at the bottom: students, teachers, principals, and parents. Coming in second is the middle (school boards, communities, nonprofit agencies, businesses). A distant last is the policy level, where we find a dearth of ideas.

We need a policy breakthrough. There does seem to be a glimmer of dissatisfaction among some policymakers. A few system leaders who are willing to step forward and lead mission learning may start to turn the tide. In this respect, “new leadership” consists of partnerships and co-determination across the levels. People at all levels must be cultivated and seen as “experts” and “apprentices” because both their ideas and ownership are essential for success.

A New Leadership Is Emerging

A new conception of leadership is emerging from the pandemic. We would call this the democratization of leadership in which participation, voice, inclusion, innovation, and influence is on the rise. It will require coordination, and something even tougher—integration—leaders at different levels who can forge unity of purpose around the new agenda. Equity of participation and greater equality of outcomes are core to this mission serving simultaneously social justice and societal prosperity—a win-win proposition.

The human instinct for survival is deep. Social intelligence—the capacity to work effectively in diverse groups is more variable. But when the conditions are right, namely a weak and ineffective status quo combined with desirable alternative solutions such as the four foundational pillars, deep change can happen in relatively short periods—a few years, not a few decades. We need leadership at all levels, including the top, to make this happen.

As we head to 2022, the timing is favorable, but the obstacles are many. A new purpose and a new public education system as an instrument of societal transformation are our best hope. Dare we miss this rare opportunity!

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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