The United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals to “transform the world” speak to the idea that we need a cultural and societal shift. The aim of the goals is to try to find massive and overarching opportunities to solve the world’s greatest problems, such as educational deficits to food insecurity, economic stagnation, and income inequality. In order to attain these goals, we need a global culture that equips students with the ability to contribute to combating these challenges. This requires a change in culture from what currently exists. Cultural change is most easily elicited in schools where educators have the opportunity and prerogative to shape young minds that encourage future paradigm shifts.
Despite global efforts over the last two decades, modern civilization has not attained these goals nor is it likely to do so within a single generation, in part due to a lack of innovation. Where our generation initiated progress against these goals, it will be up to future generations to complete them. Accomplishing this level of progress will require new ways of thinking. This starts with inspiring and educating our students to be more imaginative and collaborative than prior generations ever have been. Today’s education system does not provide the instruction needed to imbue these qualities within our students. Fortunately, where academic institutional change may not occur in the near future, there are a number of grassroots programs already in operation that can supplement existing education and form a model for progressive education.
School curricula and educational standards are still heavily focused on specific subject matter content (i.e. History, English, Chemistry, etc.). While content knowledge is certainly important as a basis for future learning, it is equally important (if not more so) that we develop students’ awareness of global problems, train them to problem solve collaboratively, exhibit increasingly high emotional intelligence, think critically, and constantly reflect upon a diversity of perspectives and experiences.
How does the present academic institutional organization limit innovation?
Our current school structure still mirrors the system put in place during the Industrial Revolution. Curriculum and teaching methods were and, consequently, are still frequently based on standardization. Unsurprisingly, the required skill sets of modern industry has changed drastically over the last century and a half. Although some progress has been made to modernize the education system, the gaps between this classic style of preparation and the needs of the professional world are only widening.
Educational researchers and statisticians have long defended that small class sizes, technological integration, problem/project-based learning, student-centered learning, and access to varied resources all contribute to imbuing students with transferable skills that apply well to the modern world. Arming current students with these skills will give their generation the best chance yet to develop their countries to include less poverty, lower unemployment, higher economic growth, increased productivity, and (hopefully) better solutions to finally fulfill the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
How can educators catalyze this curricular change?
There are many different models for how educators can revamp or rewire curricula to elicit the educational change for which the global community is waiting. These models can integrate directly into curricula or stand alone as extracurricular programs. The following are six such programs that provide the tools and resources modern students require.
ListenWise is an online tool that has curated news stories from NPR in both audio and text form. These stories include lesson plans that help teachers and students to dissect stories, think deeply about content, engage in analysis and discussion as well as to explore relevant topics to their community. The lesson plan activities provide a roadmap for engaging in difficult conversations around topics such as social conflict, natural disasters, and economic hardship. Applying this tool within a classroom provides students with an avenue to express their ideas, thoughts, and emotions through real world content.
The Tribes Learning Community program is a potentially useful tool for any classroom in creating a caring, compassionate, and understanding academic community. Throughout the lessons and activities that Tribes has created, students engage in social development exercises with their classmates. The activities include reflections on challenges in students’ lives, daily exercises for students and teachers to gauge the emotions of others (and develop meaningful responses to various emotions), and game based learning to create a sense of belonging and community.
LevelUpVillage provides courses for students on global topics and issues through partnering with schools in developing countries. The direct exposure to other students around the world encourages students to broaden their minds, become more internationally minded, and understand and care about global dilemmas.
The World Peace Game was created by grade 4 teacher, John Hunter. The game engages students in research, in-depth conversation, collaboration, and problem solving skills to solve world peace. The components of this game give students a real world overview of the systems governing our planet and how they interact.
The four FIRSTⓇ programs give students a chance to learn science, math, technology, and engineering skills while investigating real world problems and collaborating to develop solutions. FIRST requires students to engage in friendly robotic competition. They design an innovative project demonstrating a solution to a real-world problem as well as practice their social skills through the core values (Gracious Professionalism and Coopertition) developed by FIRST. This unique program creates young engineers who are socially capable and work collaboratively to solve today’s problems.
Foundation for Change
These programs all attempt to supplement traditional teaching institutions with education more suited to modern professions. While broad institutional change typically does not occur quickly, programs like these may form the basis for future change, possibly a grassroots movement for educational paradigm shift. These programs are already helping the next generation of professionals grow their innovative and collaborative skill sets which, in turn, may lead them to finally fulfill the global goals that our generation has not.