Students across the globe have been forced to adapt rapidly the past year as schools have tried to combat the spread of COVID-19. Many changes have been practical and surface level, such as moving lessons online. Yet there are deeper currents prompting forward-looking educators, parents, and students to reimagine school at the level of purpose and function. For perspective on the future of education, we turn to Siva Kumari, director general of the Geneva-based International Baccalaureate (IB), a community of more than 5000 secondary schools in 158 countries, and Diana Wells, leadership group member and President Emerita of Ashoka, the world’s oldest and largest network of social entrepreneurs and changemakers. This conversation, hosted by IB Middle Years Programme student innovator Faiza Farheen, is condensed for clarity.
Faiza Farheen: The pandemic is forcing schools everywhere to change and innovate. Millions of students like me are seeing this up close. But IB and Ashoka have been approaching education differently for many years. Why?
Diana Wells: Because our education system isn’t keeping up with the accelerating pace of change. Most schools are still built for a world of repetition— this worked in the Industrial Revolution, but it doesn’t fit today’s reality. We need to equip all young people to thrive in a world of change, to be comfortable with and drive change, to connect their agency and power, to step up with their ideas for shaping the world they want to see. This is core to Ashoka’s values, and IB’s.
Siva Kumari: Yes – and adding to this, the IB community wants to help students develop their passions. One of the things I always hear is that the IB program is very hard. This is true! And yet this is the time in life to do the hard things, to master foundational skills that allow you to choose later what you want to do, and how you want to contribute to a better world. We want to ensure that the vast majority of students get this preparation. This is why we partner with Ashoka in fact. Ashoka is influencing education and how young people grow up from the vantage point of social innovation and IB is influencing it from within the education sphere—it’s useful complementarity.
Farheen: I started my first venture a few years ago. One challenge young changemakers like me face is limiting ideas of what we’re ready for, what we’re able to contribute. How can we change this so adults enable and support?
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Kumari: We can make the successes and contributions of young people more visible. We’re in a moment when we see many young people standing up and leading. And if we look closely, we will see that most successful social movements—for gender equality, civil rights, now climate activism – started with young people standing up for the future they want to see. We need to rethink how all the institutions in society interface with young people—schools being a key institution but not the only one, by any stretch.
Wells: I would add that adults need to trust young people. One of the first global gatherings of Ashoka Fellows—in the 1980s we saw how many social entrepreneurs put young people in charge—and those that did, whether running community recycling efforts, doing eyesight screenings in schools, creating their own entrepreneurial ventures, were having dramatic impact and spread. The phrase “children in charge” caught people by surprise and alarmed some. But a century ago in the 1910s, Maria Montessori, the Italian educator and social entrepreneur who introduced the Montessori method was putting young people in charge of their own education, right? That was her insight and it spread far and wide. Yet all these decades later, it still seems our education systems for the most part haven’t put that principle at the center of how we educate not to mention how we parent.
Farheen: As I know from my own project connecting employers with students living with autism, schools are pipelines for employers. What new skills are employers looking for?
Wells: If I were CEO of a business, a forward looking business, IB would be the kind of network I would tap to find the next leaders of my company. Why? Because I would be tapping people who are not afraid to try new things or stand up for what they believe in. People who have probably failed and picked themselves up and found a new route forward. Don’t estimate the power of failure! And there are concrete skills, too—empathy and the ability to organize and lead effective teams. These skills serve changemakers well. As CEO, this group of people would be my go-to for hiring.
Kumari: Add to this the ability to go above and beyond, and to follow your convictions. You can teach people to perform tasks, but teaching innovation, perseverance, civility—these are leadership qualities we need in today’s world. And it’s up to schools to make sure young people have chances to practice these skills—this is why we started the Student Innovator Awards. I’m extremely hopeful and reassured when I see students’ proposals and the power of young people making change. In the future, there will be many occupations we don’t yet know—it won’t be just doctor, engineer, or lawyer.
Farheen: Yes. The experience of creating something from nothing, is defining for sure!
Wells: Yes! And if you talk to any group of social entrepreneurs, anywhere in the world, you will find that a high percentage of them started something in their teens. And that an adult ally, family member, faith leader, sports coach, someone in their community helped them develop the self-permission to cause change. After you have an experience of creating something, you keep at it—something that IB knows well.
Faiza Farheen is a grade 11 student at International School Dhaka in Bangladesh, an IB-affiliated school. One of 32 student innovator finalists in 2020, she created Project Independent that connects young people living with autism with employment opportunities.
Dr. Siva Kumari, the first woman and seventh Director General of the International Baccalaureate (www.ibo.org), was appointed in January 2014 after serving as Asia Pacific Regional Director and Chief Operating Officer. Prior to the IB, Dr. Kumani served a 15-year tenure at Rice University, USA, leaving as the first Associate Provost for K-12 Initiatives.
Dr. Diana Wells is President Emerita of Ashoka, the world’s oldest and largest network of social innovators who are building an Everyone a Changemaker world—a world where people of all ages and backgrounds can contribute ideas and drive social change. Diana holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from New York University.