Setting New Visions for Student Success

Today’s kids will almost certainly inherit a world that is full of complex, even existential, global challenges. Half of all types of jobs today are likely to become obsolete due to automation. The consequences of climate change are already destabilizing societies and resulting in humanitarian disasters around the world. And age-old problems — conflict, poverty, disease, discrimination, and oppression — will plague the next generation just as they have plagued our own.

While there’s only so much we can do to help lighten the heavy load facing our children, we have an opportunity — and an obligation — to ensure that they can gain the skills and knowledge they’ll need to not only navigate this new world, but to shape a better future for themselves and all of us.

For the most part, however, education systems around the world are oriented towards narrow academic outcomes that won’t adequately prepare our young people for the future. Too often, skills like teamwork and critical thinking, competencies like agency and awareness, and values like empathy — which are all so critical for improving not only their own life chances but also our collective welfare — are a secondary priority, or not prioritized at all.

Many people have been considering how to increase the pace of change in education, and I’ve come to think that our best bet is to begin by coming together at the community level to develop shared visions for children. By the age of 25, what do we want to be true about today’s students?

To answer this question, a local leader (perhaps a mayor, community organizer, or school system leader) would convene students, parents, educators, local policymakers, business people, and others to consider their values and aspirations for their communities, and the challenges and opportunities facing the children growing up in them. At the same time, they would consider the effects of global economic trends, challenges, and the potential consequences of an increasingly interconnected world on their own local community.

This vision-setting process would ideally foster strong relationships among all those involved, and mark the start of an ongoing effort to create space to reflect together regularly on what needs to change for their vision to be realized.

Engaging in this process is crucial for two reasons.

First, it will help us orient towards building the skills necessary for today’s children today to succeed. Our current education systems were created in a different era, when there were different objectives for what children needed to learn and who they should grow up to be. We need to develop new, locally rooted and globally informed visions for what student success should look like.

When communities come together to develop a vision for children, inevitably it is a holistic vision that requires cultivating skills and traits that go beyond reading and math. For example, Nedgine Paul, the CEO of Anseye Pou Ayiti, a Haitian organization that is a partner in the Teach For All network, engaged with community stakeholders to grapple with questions including their views of what a great education would be without constraints and the types of assets present in their communities.

Through the process of answering these questions, Anseye Pou Ayiti co-created with community stakeholders a vision for local students that they are working towards together:

When our students are 25 years old, their education will enable them to provide for themselves and their families, ensuring their basic needs are met and a high-quality education for their children and future generations. They will be proud of and value where they come from, equipped to be active citizens in Haiti with a deep knowledge of the historical, social, and economic catalysts for change both locally and globally. They will be respected leaders in their communities on a path to being decision-makers for our nation, while contributing to an ecosystem that respects social justice for all.

Having stepped back to decide what they hope for their children’s futures, Anseye Pou Ayiti and the community stakeholders began to consider the implications for the outcomes schools work to achieve, the instructional strategies utilized to reach them, and the way that students engage with their families and others to chart their paths forward.

There’s also a second, critically important reason for working together at the local level to shape and pursue shared visions. The process itself is an effective way to deepen engagement and develop the collective leadership — among students, parents, educators, local officials, and other stakeholders — that is necessary to sustain and speed up progress.

We all know that progress in education, given its complexity, tends to be incremental. Too often, the presence of bitterly competing ideologies makes it hard to come by at all. And many in education view classrooms or schools as the unit of change and the places to target interventions — even though major factors that affect student achievement, such as poverty, fall largely outside of that scope. Bringing communities together to ask fundamental questions about what they want for their kids’ futures, and to shape a shared vision to work towards together, helps develop a broader bench of community leadership and provide the direction and purpose necessary to sustain it. Cultivating engagement, alignment, and collective leadership among a broad set of stakeholders promises to surface solutions that are tailored to the needs of the local community, while also helping to ensure that they have broad buy-in and, thus, are sustainable.

In “The Dawn of System Leadership,” Peter Senge and others draw on their experience across many sectors and share their thoughts about how to effect system change. They write that it involves building collective leadership, which emerges through relationships, shared vision, and through regularly convening stakeholders to reflect on progress, learnings, and what more needs to be done. They make a powerful case for prioritizing the creation of “reflective space” among stakeholders:

“[Leaders must] create the space where people living with the problem can come together to tell the truth, think more deeply about what is really happening, explore options beyond popular thinking, and search for higher leverage changes through progressive cycles of action and reflection and learning over time…[this] seems to be crucial not only in initiating collaborative efforts but in what ultimately can arise from them.”

If today’s students are to grow into adults who are ready to tackle the tremendous challenges that will be waiting for them, we must orient ourselves towards new, shared visions for children in our communities, while investing in the relationship-building and reflection necessary to develop the collective leadership necessary to achieve them.