Students around the world were forced to adapt quickly last year as schools tried to combat the spread of COVID-19. Many changes have been practical and superficial, such as moving classes online. Yet there are deeper currents that are urging forward-looking educators, parents, and students to reinvent the school in terms of its purpose and function. For a perspective on the future of education, we turn to Siva Kumari, chief executive of the Geneva-based International Baccalaureate (IB), a community of over 5,000 secondary schools in 158 countries, and Diana Wells, member of the and President Emeritus of Ashoka, the oldest and largest network of social entrepreneurs and changemakers in the world. This conversation, hosted by the IB Middle Years Program innovative student Faiza Farheen, is condensed for clarity.
Faiza Farheen: The pandemic is forcing schools around the world to change and innovate. Millions of students like me see it up close. But IB and Ashoka have approached education differently for many years. Why?
Diana Wells: Because our education system is not keeping up with the accelerating pace of change. Most schools are still built for a world of repetition – it worked during the Industrial Revolution, but it doesn’t fit today’s reality. We must equip all young people to thrive in a world of change, to be comfortable with and lead change, to connect their agency and power, to step up their ideas to shape the world they want to see. It’s at the heart of Ashoka’s and IB’s values.
Shiva Kumari: Yes – and on top of that, the IB community wants to help students pursue their passions. One of the things I always hear is that the IB curriculum is very difficult. It’s true! And yet, this is the time in life to do the hard things, to master the fundamental skills that will 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 obtain this preparation. That’s why we partner with Ashoka actually. Ashoka is influencing education and how young people grow up from a social innovation perspective and IB is influencing from within the education sphere – it’s a useful complement.
Farheen: I started my first project a few years ago. One of the challenges young changemakers like me face is limiting ideas about what we are ready for, what we can deliver. How can we change this for adults to facilitate and support?
Kumari: We can make the successes and contributions of young people more visible. We are at a time when we see many young people rising up and leading. And if we look closer, we’ll see that the most successful social movements — for gender equality, civil rights, now climate activism — started with young people standing up for the future they wanted to see. . We need to rethink the way all institutions in society interact with young people – schools being a key institution but far from the only one.
Well: I would add that adults have 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 the driver’s seat – and those who did, whether spearheading community recycling, doing eye screenings in schools, creating their own entrepreneurial businesses, had dramatic impact and spread. The phrase “kids in charge” took 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, left young people in charge of their own education, right? It was his insight and it spread far and wide. Yet, all these decades later, it still seems that our education systems have mostly failed to put this principle at the center of how we educate, let alone how we educate.
Farheen: As I know from my own project connecting employers with autistic students, schools are pipelines for employers. What new skills are employers looking for?
Well: If I were the CEO of a forward-looking company, IB would be the type of network I would tap into to find the next leaders for my company. Why? Because I would reach people who aren’t afraid to try new things or stand up for what they believe in. People who probably failed and picked themselves up and found a new way forward. Do not estimate the power of failure! And there are also hard skills: empathy and the ability to organize and lead effective teams. These skills serve the agents of change well. As CEO, this group of people would be my go-to for hiring.
Kumari: Add to that the ability to go beyond and follow your beliefs. You can teach people to get things done, but teach 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 the opportunity to practice those skills—that’s why we launched the Student Innovator Award. I am extremely optimistic and reassured when I see the students’ proposals and the power of young people to change things. In the future, there will be many professions that we don’t yet know about – it won’t just be doctors, engineers or lawyers.
Farheen: Yes. The experience of creating something out of nothing is decisive for sure!
Well: Yes! And if you talk to any group of social entrepreneurs, anywhere in the world, you’ll find that a high percentage of them started something as teenagers. And that an adult ally, a family member, a religious leader, a sports coach, someone in their community has helped them develop self-permission to bring about change. After you experience creating something, you move on, which IB knows well.
Faiza Farheen is a grade 11 student at International School Dhaka in Bangladesh, an IB affiliated school. One of 32 student innovators finalists in 2020, she created Project Independent which connects young people living with autism to employment opportunities.
Dr. Siva Kumari, 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 held a 15-year position at Rice University, USA as Senior Associate Vice Provost for K-12 Initiatives.
Dr. Diana Wells is President Emeritus of Ashoka, the world’s oldest and largest network of social innovators building a world Everyone is a changemaker, 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.