The Future of Learning: Skills + Action

In the world of K-12 education, no one argues anymore that learning needs to move away from content memorization and towards mastery of skills. But the future of learning, which was on display at Wednesday’s Social Impact Design Workshop, is what I call “Skills + Action.”

Schools of the future will not only help students develop skills like collaboration and critical thinking, but also create opportunities where students can use those skills to have impact in the world. Programs that integrate skills and action are critical because they allow students to explore purpose — and purpose, as research shows, is a game changer for students in terms of stress management, learning engagement, health and happiness.

Bo Adams, Executive Director of the Mt. Vernon Institute for Innovation (MVIFI), and participants of the Social Impact Design Workshop. The event was one of many off-site gatherings timed to coincide with the NAIS conference.

The Social Impact Design Workshop was hosted by the Savannah College of Art and Design and organized by the R&D labs at Mt. Vernon Presbyterian School (Atlanta, GA) and Hillbrook School (Los Gatos, CA). The event was a far-ranging exploration of the question: “How might we explore, design and experiment with social impact projects and programs in schools?”

The highlight of the workshop was hearing from students at MVPS and Hillbrook, who were vivid examples of how students come alive when given a chance to use their skills to work on problems that matter to them. MVPS senior Megan Lienau is enrolled in MVPS’s Innovation Diploma, which is a 4-year program organized with the Mt. Vernon Institute for Innovation.

Last year Megan and her teammates completed a 5-year master plan for the Frazer Center, a nonprofit that serves adults and children with disabilities. Her senior project is even more ambitious: she and others are working on a virtual reality experience in honor of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, which will be on display at The Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.

“Making something that is museum-quality scares me,” she admits, “but it’s also exciting.” Megan is an example of a how students of purpose commonly take on more stress than other goal-driven students. But because purposeful students approach new challenges through a framework of meaning, new stress for them is often “good” rather than “bad” stress. In other words, the stress energizes and strengthens them, rather than drains and debilitates them. “The Innovation Diploma has completely changed my high school experience,” Megan says. “It’s 20 percent of my week but more than 70 percent of what I will take away from MVPS.”

Bennett Shaw (left) of Hillbrook School and Megan Lienau (right) of Mt. Vernon Presbyterian School

Bennett Shaw, who graduated from Hillbrook a few years ago and is now at Emory College, says a turning point in his life was when a high school science teacher asked him to participate in a 3-week design contest to design an ocean trash collector. That experience led Bennett to engage with other problems, including working as a Spanish translator at a health clinic that serves migrant farm workers near his home in California. There, he saw the tremendous epidemic of diabetes, which affects Hispanics more than double of other populations, he says. He also learned to listen and see the problem in new ways. “I learned the biggest problem was seeing the actual patients,” he said, explaining that many migrant workers had a hard time making it to the clinic for treatment. Students like Bennett are a main reason why Hillbrook has recently launched the Scott Center for Social Entrepreneurship, a program that allows students to work on global problems in partnership with local NGOs.

In the afternoon, Megan and Bennett and all of us educators in the workshop broke into small teams for a “Design Sprint,” where we prototyped and received feedback on potential social impact programs. Bennett’s team worked on a program where students learn about nutrition and health, and understand inequalities around food access. Megan’s team worked on a concept where students embark on expeditions to better understand equity and inclusion in their communities.

Megan Lienau’s Design Sprint focused on Diversity and Inclusivity
Bennett Shaw’s Design Sprint focused on Nutrition and Food Access

Megan and Bennett are obviously very hard working and ambitious students — Bennett is planning on doing a gap year after college to work in rural health clinics, and then he wants to get a medical degree. Megan is applying for a prestigious scholarship program at University of North Carolina. Amidst all the work, these two students are connecting to things bigger than themselves, and they are taking action. Their high school experience gave them the skills and the disposition to act. Their brightness is proof that enlightenment is a literal term. When students understand what they are good at, and use those skills to make an impact in the world, they become illuminated.

Ross Wehner, @rosswehner, is Founder of World Leadership School and TeachUNITED. He published an article in the Spring 2018 issue of Independent School Magazine and is writing a book exploring the question: “How can K-12 schools help students explore, discover and articulate a sense of purpose?”