I became convinced that we won’t get the traction we need as long as the dominant story about education is allowed to go unchallenged. We need to tell a very different story, and that story needs to have a well-defined purpose at its epicenter.
Co-Founder and Author (Innovation Unit, Global Education Leaders Partnership)
Valerie Hannon is a former educator, global thought-leader, and co-author of THRIVE: The Purpose of Schools in a Changing World (the follow-up work to THRIVE: Schools Reinvented for Challenges We Face). Here, Hannon chats with us about why learning needs an overarching purpose, what it means to thrive as humans, and the role our relationship with the natural world plays in enabling that thriving.
Q: Where did the inspiration to write THRIVE come from?
Valerie: It’s been five years in the making and the timing of the release is really interesting. I think a lot of people are starting to focus on purpose, in the context of education, in a way that they weren’t when the first edition came out in 2018. Back then, people were asking “Do we need to talk about purpose?” I was convinced then that we did need to talk about it, and I’m even more convinced now.
I’m someone who’s very impatient about answers such as “Schooling is about learning to learn.” Seeing learning as an end in itself creates a vacuum of purpose—it’s simply not a sufficient answer. For example, the Nazis were great learners and terrific at collaboration and creativity. But, to what horrible end? So, purpose is fundamental. And, it’s not enough to cultivate great learners.
The second motivation for writing THRIVE is, for the better part of 15 years, I’ve been laboring in the vineyard, so to speak, to get education transformation aligned with the vision that organizations like Education Reimagined are pushing forward—wholesale reinvention.
Similarly, my organization (Innovation Unit) had been focusing on transformation; not reform and much more than “improvement.” And, we had to face the fact that we were getting very little traction at the systemic and the political level—though plenty with practitioners. Although many people working in education, whether it’s practitioners, principals, or superintendents, really get the need for transformation and are passionate about it—the conventional system always prevails.
I became convinced that we won’t get the traction we need as long as the dominant story about education is allowed to go unchallenged. We need to tell a very different story, and that story needs to have a well-defined purpose at its epicenter. That’s why I wrote this book, and many of the questions I’ve raised are really starting to resonate with others.
Q: Can you expand on the inertia that has, for such a long time, prevented us from changing the story of education?
Valerie: I would say that the story about education remains as it has been since the middle of the 20th century.
Fundamentally, the narrative is about economics. If you look at what politicians have to say about education, they’re prepared to invest public dollars in it because it is rooted in the cause of prosperity, and in particular, the need to grow a country’s GDP. They see education as the root of a nation’s economic wellbeing and also claim it will enable more people to experience economic mobility by securing better jobs and, ultimately, having more satisfying lives.
And, if you stick with that argument, you see the impetus for a credentialist prejudice in education and the elevation of the college degree as the passport to success. New economists and writers, like Kate Raworth, Daniel Markovits, and Michael Sandel, are emerging to challenge that. Similarly, it is clear that the current system has not consistently enabled social mobility (despite anecdotal evidence beloved of politicians).
Conventional economic theory is largely to blame for the critical predicament that we are all facing as humans. In particular, we now recognize that infinite growth on a planet with finite resources is impossible and that the competitive scramble for better jobs in the age of automation is misguided and corrosive to society.
If our value frame continues to be defined by the old story of education, we won’t get a new paradigm or real transformation.
Co-Founder and Author (Innovation Unit, Global Education Leaders Partnership)
So, as we wrote this book, I started thinking, “If we’re trying to create a story about education for the 21st-century, what are the changes that we can see coming down the line?”
My review of the work of scholars, analysts, and a few future strategy-focused organizations suggested that there were three big pivot points facing humanity: 1) the crisis of our planet; 2) the apotheosis of technology; and 3) the nature of humanity itself. These three “pivots” signal the changes that lie ahead and, in fact, are already unfolding before us.
In that context, if we (as a society) ask what our purpose should be, we (the co-authors of THRIVE) suggest it is shaped around the idea of thriving. But, not in terms of the old “success.” We have to revisit the ancient philosophical question: What is a good life?
As humans, we need to be thriving on four levels: 1) internally, in terms of developing a real sense of self, accessing calmness, and taking care of our bodies; 2) interpersonally, in terms of our relationships; 3) societally, in terms of our communities; and 4) planetarily (or globally).
All four levels of thriving are intimately interconnected. And, if you start with that as your premise, you start to come up with some very different answers regarding what we should be doing to transform education.
Q: How much is the opportunity for transformation about what technology has made newly possible compared to a more general cultural driver motivating a shift to occur?
Valerie: Disruptive innovation is a very interesting idea and the comparison to education is an intriguing one. If you think about the shift from horse and cart, to the petrol engine, to the electric engine, to the self-driving car, you begin to see that each of those advancements were a disruptive shift from the model that went before them.
But, what’s also interesting about them is that with each disruptive shift, it’s not just about technology, it’s about how our values have changed over time as well.
Today, we’re less interested in how quickly a car can go from zero to 60. Rather, we’re interested in sustainable energy and saving our planet, which spurs disruptive innovation. I think the same is true of education; if our value frame continues to be defined by the old story of education, we won’t get a new paradigm or real transformation.
Q: How much does reconnecting with the natural world play a part in inventing a new purpose for education?
Valerie: Derived from our experience with COVID-19 and the experience of many people being locked in place, for many of us, we’ve suddenly rediscovered our appreciation for the natural world.
We’ve become more aware of how much we miss the outdoors and the incredible solace, peace, and reflection it provides. It’s forced us to see that this planet is a precious gift. People don’t fight for what they don’t love and now, maybe, more people are recognizing how much is at risk.
We need to fundamentally shift the relationship between humans, the natural world, and our place in it, understanding that we are all part of the natural world, not outside it. We have to ingrain a greater level of humility and appreciation.
That links directly with the other end of the continuum regarding the negative impact on people’s mental health. There are large numbers of young people who are experiencing eco-dread and becoming profoundly depressed about the prospects for life on this planet.
One of the most therapeutic things you can do, if you are susceptible to anxiety or depression, is to get comfortable being outside and experiencing nature. Nature can play a hugely productive role in helping young people find the space to reflect, be at peace, and positively nurture their inner wellbeing and mental health. The research evidence is really mounting up on this—education needs to catch up.
Part of the transformation we need is to get kids intentionally out into nature for significant periods of time. We need to reassess how much time is wasted in school buildings, to acknowledge how precious face-to-face time in the physical world shouldn’t be wasted, and to cultivate a mindset that you can use time very differently.
Q: Why is it important to see that learning can happen anywhere?
Valerie: It’s a complete fallacy to imagine the classroom as the only place where learning happens. Learning can happen powerfully in lots of other spaces, and we need to scaffold and support that thinking. I believe that schools need to see themselves as one part of larger ecosystems of learning.
I envision schools as base camps from which many different learning experiences can be choreographed. Schools can, and should, serve as connectors to other places where learning can take place, such as neighboring schools, local organizations, businesses, cultural organizations, and open spaces in nature.
We’ve learned during COVID-19 that kids can manage their time much more effectively when they’re not stuck in a classroom or building. There’s so much they can do at home (or anywhere outside of a school) that enables them to maximize the precious face-to-face time provided by schools.
I think we should be using face-to-face time really carefully and not for things that could easily be done otherwise. As an example, let’s be more intentional about in-person time for cultivating relationships, whether it’s between learners and their peers, or learners and adults.
And, if we start to envisage learning as a journey—and as the most exciting journey a human can take—we’ll start to see that learning can be happening all the time and everywhere.
Ecosystems of learning are fundamentally about diversity, and the most critical thing they offer through their diversity is infinitely more possibilities than a single institution can provide.
Q: And, what about the role of adults in that ecosystem?
Valerie: The role of adults at every level of thriving is critical. And, within THRIVE, we launch into a new paradigm for learning, as Education Reimagined is advocating, that suggests a much more sophisticated role for teachers.
In this vision, they are choreographers—enabling young people to access various resources and learning experiences. Their subject expertise remains important, but their primary role is not to be a transmitter of that knowledge. A computer can do that. But, deep learning is a fundamentally social activity. And, in the course of a learner’s journey, there should be a gradual transfer of power and control from adults to the learners themselves.
I think we can do much more of that power transfer earlier in a young person’s journey than previously thought. Sadly, many teachers get enculturated and think about their job as crowd control and crowd management. As a young teacher, I thought it was all about controlling the class. If you had 30 kids and didn’t impose discipline early, you had an uncontrollable, unruly environment where learning couldn’t happen.
We need to adapt the repertoire teachers need to engage young people, while not losing sight of the fact that the relationship between teacher and learner is powerfully important. Schools need to redesign and reengineer the ways in which relationships are cultivated.
If you stop thinking that the teacher is the holder of all the knowledge, wisdom, and understanding that needs to be learned, you can start to see why an ecosystem of learning is so critical. And, technology can help us by making other sources accessible.
It’s now possible to connect any classroom or any group of kids with accomplished scientists, artists, or other adults who are experts in their fields. They can bring those adults into the classroom, from around the globe, in ways we never could have imagined. We also can bring in real adults from the local community, including and especially, parents and other family members.
Q: We speak about ecosystems of learning within the context of learner-centered transformation. What type of phrasing do you prefer?
Valerie: My vision, which we’ve set out in THRIVE, is a post-humanist vision. I’m arguing to anyone who will listen that it’s not all about us as humans, and that we need to unlearn our complete focus on highly anthropomorphic approaches, which are insufficient for the challenges that we now face.
It brings me back to our place in relation to the natural world. Being learner-centered ignores the fact that we are not the whole story. It’s not all about our well-being or our thriving. It’s also about the planet and other species, who also have a right to this planet.
In London, there’s a legal firm called Client Earth that takes legal cases on behalf of the planet against major corporations and governments. I also see this same level of activism in the United States, in which communities are arguing on behalf of the rights of, say, lakes, which I know sounds absurd. But remember, it’s only quite recently that we have acknowledged that children, women, or people of color have rights that must be expressed in law.
Now, it’s time to understand that the other species have rights, too, and that their right to thrive impacts us hugely. I think, as we go through this century and understand, with a bit more humility and wisdom, our place in the great scheme of things, we can evolve to see that it’s a matter of our survival that we think about other issues which are beyond the anthropomorphic. It should condition our view of what learning now needs to be for.