KAYA HENDERSON: What we’ve learned over time is if you really want to see transformational education change it doesn’t just take teachers or educators or politicians. It actually takes an ecosystem of people, including communities. Folks closest to the problem often have the best solutions and when you bring educational expertise together with community expertise it unleashes amazing things. We’ve seen the most transformational change, the most impactful change and the most long-lasting change when a bunch of people in a community come together around a shared vision. They know what they want for their kids and they decide on how they’re going to get there. And then what happens is each different role in the community from grassroots people—students, parents, families—to grass tops people—politicians and policymakers—and everybody in between—teachers and principals, business people, nonprofit organizations, government agencies—everybody knows what their role to play is in working towards that vision. And when we see that ecosystem come together and work together, when they know where they started and where they’re trying to go, when they are measuring their progress along the way, when they are bringing new resources together… it’s a little like the story “Stone Soup” where at first there’s just some water and a stone and then each villager brings what they can to the mix and then there’s a soup, and that’s the way we see educational change happening. A lot of different people across the ecosystem working together toward a shared goal.
When I think about superpowers maybe the greatest human superpower is empathy. The ability to see, the ability to deeply connect with other people and to see yourself in them and to see them in you. I think if part of the reason why we are so divided in this world today is because we see people as ‘other’ and we don’t see them as extensions of ourselves or we don’t see the interconnectedness of the world. When I think about teaching—at a former role, I was the chancellor of DC Public Schools. I was responsible for all of the public schools in Washington DC and I would always say we’re going to treat these kids the way we would treat our own kids. The things that you would do for your own kids, you would go out of your way to give them the very best. You would literally climb a mountain to give them everything that they need. And I think if we saw the children that we taught as our own kids, if we empathized with them and connected with them in that way then we would provide an amazing education for all the kids that we serve. And so, I think empathy, the ability to see and know and connect with other people might be the greatest human superpower ever.
We really have an opportunity to make education look very different. I think the global pandemic and then some of the things that have happened since then have totally upended our notions of schooling. School is not just about a place that you go to every day with 20 or 30 or 80 kids in a classroom and a teacher in front. In fact, school has taken on all kinds of new forms. ‘Who can teach?’ is an open question at this point. Parents are teaching, community members are teaching, and so I think this moment causes us to fundamentally question who are teachers and what the teaching job looks like. I think it is a question around how we structure learning moving forward. I think we’ve figured out that formal learning, we won’t have the standardized tests that we usually have to mark progress, and so we’ll have to find new ways to evaluate young people’s progress. That’s probably a good thing. I think necessity is the mother of invention and I think we need, because of this moment, to invent new ways to think about the whole enterprise of schooling from the human capital to the location to the best instructional methods. Everything is up for grabs and I think we have the opportunity to push something brand new or to retreat to what we’ve always been doing. My hope is that we use this moment to push forward and not to retreat backwards.
I see schools who are being challenged, I think, to not just deal with the academics for their kids but to think about the whole child. And we’ve seen schools rise to the occasion in terms of being real hubs in the community for everything from food distribution to a gathering place for community action. And I think that has reopened the question of what is the role of a school in the community? I think we are seeing burgeoning innovations in the educational technology space. I think we’re seeing our technologists think differently about how we use technology to connect people and for learning. And so, I think that there is a lot of stuff popcorning around. I think our people, our systems are intolerant of that kind of activity. Our systems kind of want a consistent, static approach and I think we have to let this popcorning of innovation happen. We have to foment it. We have to watch it. We have to scale the things that are coming out of this really creative time and I think then we lay the foundation for some very new things moving forward. The things that give me optimism are not just the things that I’m seeing from adults, but the things that I’m seeing from students.
I talked before about how agency is a really important part of a great education and we see young people all over the world who are taking responsibility, who are standing up for things that they want, who are leading the conversation around how we are going to improve our world. And so that gives me optimism. I think when young people are released from the shackles of the status quo and when they have new technologies at their disposal and when they feel a sense of agency they are going to be the ones who deliver us from whatever it is we’ve been doing and take us into a brave new world.
My hope for technology is that, first of all, we will understand that it is a tool to facilitate a lot of different things, but it’s not a replacement for anything. I still believe very deeply in the human connection in education. The most important part, the thing that enables kids to learn is the relationship that they have with the adults in the classroom or across the screen or what have you. And so, my hope is that our technology will continue to honor, I guess, the importance of the relationship between teacher and student or student and student, mentor and student, whatever. I also hope that technology allows us to get our best teachers in front of far more kids. One of the most interesting innovations that I’ve seen is a superintendent who has brought together five schools and let’s say they have five fifth grade classes, she has one teacher, the best fifth grade teacher, teaching all of the fifth grade kids through Zoom and then the other fifth grade teachers work with students in smaller groups. We’ve always talked about the desire to do things in smaller class sizes or with smaller groups of kids. We now have the opportunity to do that. We also have the opportunity to put our best instructional deliverers in front of far more kids than they would be able to be with if they were just in a classroom. And so, I hope that technology allows us to take advantage of those kinds of efficiencies, to scale excellence in very different ways. To allow folks to work with kids more directly. To bring new resources and tools, things that kids can’t see—I mean, some of the coolest stuff out there in technology is the virtual reality stuff which allows you to go to places and see things. You can visit the Louvre and never leave your home because of technology. And so, I want technology to amplify and to scale excellence. To amplify knowledge and to scale excellence all at the same time while paying deep attention to the human connections that are integral to education.
- The old adage that it “takes a village” has proven true for education in the time of coronavirus. What constitutes a “school” and who is considered an “educator” has changed out of necessity, but important opportunities for the future have come from these unexpected circumstances as communities have and continue to adapt.
- “The greatest human superpower is empathy,” says Kaya Henderson, “the ability to deeply connect with other people and to see yourself in them and to see them in you.” She argues that “a part of the reason why we are so divided in this world today is because we see people as ‘other’ and we don’t see them as extensions of ourselves.”
- While technology has become a big part of the education landscape, community is still the keystone. “I want technology to amplify and to scale excellence,” Henderson says. “To amplify knowledge and to scale excellence all at the same time while paying deep attention to the human connections that are integral to education.”
This video is part of Z 17 Collective’s Future of Learning series, which asks education thought leaders what learning can and should look like in the midst and wake of the coronavirus pandemic.