A conference room is filled with diverse leaders poised to create the future of learning—deans of major university schools of education from across the nation, researchers, school leaders, faculty, entrepreneurs and education innovators.
Building on weeks of preparation, these leaders spend several days engaged in patient, reflective dialogue surfacing the deep framework underlying education policy, theory, curriculum and school design—a dialogue leading to profound questioning, exploring new boundaries and setting forth new visions for positive change.
It really happened.
Toward Educating Changemakers
I’m describing the Education Track at Ashoka U’s February 2015 Exchange, where an inspiring “team of teams” met for three days in Washington, D.C. As the snow fell and the temperature outside plummeted, dozens of focused experts generated their own light and heat exploring possibilities. What would happen if universities preparing teachers and school leaders transformed our education systems so that they strengthened support for changemaker education?
Changemaker… What does this mean?
Changemaker is Ashoka’s word describing a person prepared for meaningful engagement in the future, an environment that no longer embraces rote repetition or learning divorced from action. We know that those prepared only with ideas from the past, and only for what exists now, will struggle to make a meaningful contribution in the future. As a world community, we cannot afford to lose this opportunity for full, impactful engagement. When one is diminished, so are we all. The emerging world is calling forth our proactive response—indeed, our creative leadership. The future is not a mere extension of the past. It invites us to meet the opportunities and challenges that confront human communities around the world with bold innovations and universal connections.
As the seasoned educators on this track reminded one another repeatedly, Ashoka’s vision for changemaking centers on empathy: the new foundation of creative human engagement in building our shared future. Empathy-inspired change brings forth a world in which we recognize and value the light of the soul in one another. Empathy means that we feel a deep sense of care and concern for others. It means that we demand the liberation of our collective well-being and positive potential.
The Ashoka U Education Track participants maintained a strong grip on reality. They fully recognized the gap, the challenging chasm between Ashoka’s compelling vision of a world transformed by empathy and the realities encountered on the front lines of the education field. The educators of teachers, counselors, school leaders and policymakers are pragmatic. They focused on the sometimes harsh conditions within existing systems and their many entrenched problems: inequality, insufficient resources, stifling bureaucracy, oppressive governance and restrictive testing regimes. Too often the existing systems suppress innovation and creativity. This leads to professional burnout and early departure from promising careers. Too many talented innovators give up.
Nevertheless, Ashoka’s education-track participants were able to dream wide awake. They felt called to innovate and create, to explore education’s new frontiers and their own highest aspirations. Like so many of the world’s most impactful social entrepreneurs, they believe that education is the most powerful resource for positive change in the service of social equity and increasing human freedom.
Transcending the Past and Present
A high point in the three-day dialogue came as the participants described the potential for education systems that lead everyone—every single learner—to become a teacher.
Think about that. A striking idea. What would it really mean for every learner to become a teacher? It’s an inspiring thought that goes to the heart of education-system transformation. Our policymakers often seem to think about schools as if they were dysfunctional achievement factories; they sometimes behave as if children were best understood as data points on abstract academic assessments, disembodied scores that can be improved and quality-tested. In this way, policymakers risk dedicating schools to the stunted mission of merely increasing GDP, as if the value of individual lives could be adequately measured only by increasing traditional measures of efficiency, productivity and competitiveness: dollars without sense. Our children are not widgets.
In contrast, the Everyone a Teacher vision strives toward a new ideal, one premised on empathy and passionate, creative engagement among community members who value one another as human beings, as ends in themselves. The capacity to teach requires every learner to have full social and emotional engagement. It calls for self-awareness, sensitivity and deep understanding inspired through loving relationships that seek to help others achieve their full potential, their highest and best selves. At its best, teaching combines empathy and changemaking. Ashoka’s education leaders forged practical collaborations and concrete action steps. These included ambitious objectives such as developing curricula to include empathy and collaborative leadership skills, creating the time and space for system-reform dialogues, while inviting cross-system collaborations that bridge institutional silos, opening universities and schools to expansive community and civic engagement.
It will be thrilling to encourage and support this work. Ashoka U’s university members—a widespread network of organizations and leaders in higher education across the United States that now extends into Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom—serve as a powerful community, a dynamic tribe extending social innovation, social entrepreneurship, innovation and changemaking into the greater universe. Together, these institutions do not merely have the potential to tip the world; they are already tipping it as you read these words. The education leaders and changemakers now joining the movement have both their minds and hands focused on these active transformational levers within the global system of education.
Everyone is a teacher.
Get ready. Our world is about to learn something new.