For our future, we need student leadership today

The 2017–18 school year is coming to a close in the northern hemisphere, and I’m going to remember it for the striking examples of student leadership and activism and how these examples have challenged expectations of young people’s capabilities. They have also challenged my own conception of what educational experiences today’s kids need if they’re going to be equipped to shape a better future for themselves and all of us.

In the United States, hundreds of thousands of young people marched in gun safety rallies in April in Washington, D.C. and in more than 850 sibling marches across the world. More recently, thousands of students joined in the teachers’ protests in Arizona and in other states. Meanwhile, in California, youth outrage at the Parkland, Florida mass shooting helped spur 100,000 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote.

Students at a March For Our Lives rally. Getty Images

In Colombia, thousands of students marched in protests in April demanding more funding for public education.

And in India, I met teenage social entrepreneurs — 13- and 14-year-olds who were starting veritable NGOs, introducing themselves as CEOs, and enlisting their peers in improving their schools. My visit came one month after the inaugural national summit in India — the Kids Education Revolution Week — that brought together 125 student leaders and over 450 educators from across the country to “reimagine education together.”

Empowered by the digital communication tools they’re so fluent in, young people are increasingly raising their voices and demanding change. This is a great sign for our collective future.

Indeed, the only hope for our future is for our young people to develop as leaders with the competencies, dispositions, awareness, and agency to navigate the rapidly changing economy and to solve increasingly complex societal problems. The best way to shape these leadership characteristics is to engage students in solving problems in their communities today. We can’t expect students to sit in classes now as passive recepticles of information and step up in a decade or two to start leading.

I’ve seen beautiful examples of educators unleashing their students’ leadership. In Chile, teachers founded Panal, an extra-curricular program for 13–17-year-olds that focuses on tackling local issues. Volunteer college students support teenagers in developing solutions that will improve their communities: reducing bullying, reducing drug use, reducing gun violence. The program has since spread to four other South American countries.

In Baltimore, Zeke Cohen initiated a program that ultimately supported his high school students to successfully advocate for two laws to be passed, one helping thousands of undocumented students access in-state higher education and one banning certain weapons and ammunitions. Today, Zeke is a city councilmember, and he continues to engage youth in the law-making process.

In 2017–18, students stepped up en masse. Now, as school lets out for the summer, educators, community leaders, elected officials, and others have an opportunity to pause, reflect, and consider whether there’s more we can do to foster student leadership. We adults should do so as a way to work towards a better world today and as our only hope to improving our collective welfare long-term.