The Future of Smart: A Conversation with Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen

Q&A   07 October 2021
By Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen, Grantmakers for Education


You can’t ask people to have a sense of mutuality and agency and to build the communities in human-centered schools if they don’t have the sense of belonging, the sense of relating, or the sense of being part of something bigger than themselves.

Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen
Chief Program Officer, Grantmakers for Education

We spoke with Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen about her new book, The Future of Smart: How Our Education System Needs to Change to Help All Young People Thrive. Discover how her experience as an English language learner, educator, researcher, and parent have influenced the possibilities she sees for a transformed education system.

Q: What influenced your views on what education could and should be?

Ulcca: Three things greatly influenced how I view education and learning today: growing up in multiple countries and communities; how my parents raised me; and the teachers I had as a child, many of whom I later job shadowed while I was training to become a teacher myself.

I grew up in non-Western and non-American contexts, from early childhood through my mid-twenties. It taught me that there are different rhythms of life and ways of understanding the world and our connections with nature, other people, and the broader community. 

When I experienced the highly individualistic, competitive nature of American culture and schooling, it didn’t quite feel right. It was in such stark juxtaposition to how a lot of non-Western cultures approach life, and, in particular, to how my parents raised me and my brother.

My parents had a real sense that you learn all the time. When I did something like take a study abroad trip over a summer break, my dad would say, “Why can’t you write something and get credit for it in school?” This sense that my learning and growth could happen anywhere—with other examples like practicing martial arts, doing theater, and writing plays—was essential to strengthening my belief that learning is more than what children are exposed to in a classroom. But, I still found great influences inside the classroom as well.


What I propose in the book is that we have a misunderstanding of the problems we need to solve and the roots of those problems. When we view problems of education and schooling from inside the dominant worldview, we end up with more divisive conversations than are needed.

Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen
Chief Program Officer, Grantmakers for Education

I had teachers who would encourage me to explore learning opportunities beyond what the school could offer. This encouragement led me to job shadow as many of my former K-12 teachers as possible when I was becoming a teacher myself.

I think they were the last of a generation of teachers who went into teaching when there weren’t a lot of alternatives for women and people of color, so you had really capable, committed people who went into the classroom and stayed there for decades because that was one of their only job prospects. I learned many things from them during my shadowing, but one experience really stuck out for me and influenced my sense of what education could and should be.

I shadowed a fourth grade teacher who I didn’t actually have growing up, but knew she had a powerful influence on her students. She was the teacher who, if you saw her name on your third grade report card, you spent the summer kind of scared knowing she was going to be your teacher in the fall. But, you also noticed that everyone who had her, loved her.

I shadowed her for two weeks, and one day, there was this little boy who fell asleep in the back of the classroom. This teacher ran a very organized classroom, so when this student fell asleep, I thought to myself, “uh oh.” But, she didn’t end up saying anything.

Once class ended, I asked her why she made that decision. She told me the child’s parents were getting a divorce and he hadn’t been getting much sleep at home. I then asked if she was worried that letting him sleep would be a signal to the other students that they could do the same.

Staring at me above the glasses sitting at the tip of her nose, she said, “Every one of my kids knows that I love them. If they saw that I handled that in a certain way, they know there’s a reason. And no, I don’t worry that they’re somehow going to take that as license to do the same.”

Q: How did those three influences impact how you experienced the education system as a teacher?

Ulcca: In The Future of Smart, I talk about the misalignment of what education could be with the debates we have been having ever since I started teaching in 1998. The main debates back then, just like today, were about questions like: Are charters better than public schools? Are unions good or bad? Should we test this much or that much?

What I propose in the book is that we have a misunderstanding of the problems we need to solve and the roots of those problems. When we view problems of education and schooling from inside the dominant worldview, we end up with more divisive conversations than are needed.

I began my teaching career in a district that was doing No Child Left Behind before No Child Left Behind was a thing. We were teaching the standards, conducting weekly tests, and gathering all the data. This felt so misaligned with what I believed education was supposed to be—how we were supposed to see and hold our students and create a sense of belonging for each student we served.

This was when I began searching for and finding other models of schools and programs like Edgemont Montessori, The Met High School, and High School for Recording Arts that provided that sense of spaciousness, of belonging, that I really started yearning for this possibility of “doing” education differently.

Q: Why is having a sense of belonging so important for a child to have in a learning space?

Ulcca: If I don’t belong, it’s also very hard for me to have that sense of mutuality, which is central to how a community builds ways of operating together that are not simply about myself and about my own needs and my own wellbeing. If I don’t belong, I don’t see why what I do or how I am will influence and impact others. So, I don’t really have an incentive to care.

The importance of this sense of belonging is the reason I spent so much time in the book trying to drill down and address the question: What are the values, assumptions, and ways of being that make up the cultural stew that we’re all sitting inside of? We have to see them and very intentionally not be operating inside of them to be able to build something new.

You can’t ask people to have a sense of mutuality and agency and to build the communities in human-centered schools if they don’t have the sense of belonging, the sense of relating, or the sense of being part of something bigger than themselves. You have to make a wholesale shift and then you can build something very different around that different set of values and assumptions.

Q: Creating this different set of values and assumptions invites the question: What is the purpose of education and how can we think about that question without relying on how mainstream education is operating today?

Ulcca: I want to start with an example outside of education and put my parenting hat on. If, as a parent, I say that what I’m going to try to do is make sure that our home works really efficiently—everyone’s getting where they need to go on time, my kids are getting their homework done, they’re getting good grades, and I’m getting my job done—then I will focus on my calendars and schedules. With the purpose being efficiency, time management is my top focus.

If, on the other hand, as a mother, I say my primary purpose is to make sure that our home is a space where my kids can grow emotionally and feel connected and feel safe coming to me, then I’m going to organize my time and my ways of being with them in really different ways.

How we think about the purpose of whatever we’re doing—be it how we organize and arrange our families or something bigger like our education system—is going to drive the design.

So, if in education we say it’s about getting kids into college and making sure that we have a workforce full of people with degrees, then, those end goals feel like the most important things to design the system around—efficiency, expediency, and maybe even equity in the sense of “let’s make sure every kid can get to college or get a degree” become the drivers.

Now, if I say the purpose of education is to help unfold and grow healthy human beings who have what they need to thrive, then all of a sudden I’m looking at a child between the ages of birth and 20 and saying, “Gosh, they’re human beings. They’re unfolding. They’re going through developmental stages that are predictable but that growth is going to be jagged, not all that efficient, and unique for each one of them. Now I see each kid is different, so how do I design the system around that?”

Not only does this shift in purpose change your aim in terms of where you’re trying to go, I think it forces you to think about the “here” to “there” in a more complex way.

I also think it makes you focus on the how. We often talk about the “what we do” and we don’t focus as much on the “how we do it.” We don’t value the process or the “how” as much as we value the outcomes. I think shifting the purpose of education in the ways I explore in the book means valuing the “how” equally, if not more so than, just where a kid gets. It also makes it easier to accept that the end outcome is going to look different for each individual child based on who they are, their context, values, and where they want to go in life. Shifting purpose shifts everything else.

Q: There is a real concern many parents might have when it comes to considering this huge shift regarding the “what” and “how” of education. It’s so different than what they may have experienced growing up. As a parent yourself, how do you talk about that concern?

Ulcca: It is hard. As a parent, you think, “I don’t want to experiment with my child.” I might think that I want them to experience something different, but when I look at the game of education in America today and what it considers to be “success,” I’m likely to push aside those feelings of wanting something different for my child and instead take the safest route. I’ll search for the best option according to the rules and goals of the current game.

What’s important here is to affirm parents’ instinct that shifting the purpose of education and learning to a human-centered approach feels deeply counter-cultural. Any program that has been taking this approach over the last half century has had that counter-cultural or “alternative” label. But, the exciting thing is that these counter-cultural models are now more aligned with how our world is evolving than are the mainstream systems we are most familiar with.

Up until this moment, the safest path was to give your kid what worked for you. I would argue that this generation of parents is probably the first one to have to deeply grapple with the fact that if you put your kid on the path that the conventional system gave most of us, it’s like walking down a sidewalk that’s crumbling towards you. The world is changing and what our children need to know and do in the world they will enter as young adults can’t be learned within the mainstream system of education. 

I think we have a generation of Millennial parents who are starting to see this and they’re saying: “Okay, wait a minute, what you told us to do hasn’t gotten us what you said it would.” I think we’re seeing demand from them and other parents whose children have not been well-served by the conventional system for something new—even if they aren’t fully clear on what “new” looks like.

Q: Looking beyond parents and considering any reader who picks up your book, what is the number one thing you hope they walk away with?

Ulcca: I hope everybody will walk away with—and it’s why I wrote this book and not another book more exclusively aimed at practitioners—the idea that what happens in education is really important and that they are a part of what happens. Not only should I care about it as a taxpayer or an employer, I should care because I’m part of a community. There are young people in this community and the growing of our next generation is about me in many different ways.

I want people to ask: How does that shift my own understanding of my place in this conversation, regardless of the identities I hold and whether or not I’ve related to those identities within the context of education? We all have an enormous role to play within our spheres of influence if we are going to drive the kind of emergent change I describe in the book. It is the only way that we will truly transform the system into one that centers the humanity of our children and begins to build a different kind of world.

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