What I’ve Learned It Will Take to Re-make the World

Wendy Kopp speaks at the WISE Summit 2021 Closing Plenary

I began this journey when I was 21, driven by the idea that we should channel the energy of a diverse group of society’s most promising leaders into working with marginalized communities towards ensuring that all children have the education and the opportunity to fulfill their potential. Through this journey, through all the years with Teach For America and now having the incredible opportunity to learn from so many pioneering social entrepreneurs across the Teach For All network who have adapted and innovated on this approach, and from the brilliant and committed teachers and alumni they’ve developed, I’ve learned so much. I thought I would take this opportunity to share three of the most salient lessons and how they have shaped this pursuit in profound ways.

First is about the purpose of education.

For many years in this work, we sought to make the education system with its implicit purposes and goals work for all children. We focused most of our energy on providing the students who faced extra challenges with the additional resources and time and support that would enable them to attain an “excellent education” by the standards of the systems in which we worked. But across our global network, many began asking: What do we mean by “excellent education”? What should be the purpose of education? And so about five years ago, we came together to consider this question and what we’re working to achieve together over the next 25 years.

We began by looking at where the world will be in 25 years — and considered how much the economy is changing and the planet is degrading and the increasing polarization. We considered our values, including that the students our network reaches, who have experienced inequity and marginalization in their countries, are those who must lead us towards the equitable world we envision. Thinking about all this, we were struck by a realization — there is no path to any of our aspirations for peace, justice, sustainability, and inclusiveness without developing today’s students with the skills and mindsets to tackle the injustices in their communities and beyond, to solve the increasingly complex problems facing our society, to create meaningful careers in a changing economy. This must be the purpose of education — to develop students as leaders who can shape a better future for themselves and for all of us.

Of course, we’ve long discussed that young people are our future. But we are rarely radically true to this notion. When we are, new skills become crucial and some of the things many school systems have been focusing on fall to the wayside. In order to realize this purpose, we will need to come together in communities and countries all over the world to reconsider the outcomes we’re working towards. Considering local values and history, challenges and opportunities, as well as our global aspirations, what must we be working towards if we’re going to develop young people as leaders who can shape a better future?

In fact, we’ll need to reconsider everything. For example, at Teach For All we started studying the classrooms across our network where students are developing holistically as leaders — with the agency, awareness of the world and of themselves, problem-solving and critical thinking skills, empathy and ability to work across lines of difference, and sense of well-being — and we realized that the mindsets and actions of teachers who are fostering these broader outcomes are different from those of teachers who are focused on effecting academic achievement gains alone. And so we realized we would need to develop a whole new approach for training and developing teachers to live into this purpose.

We will need to evolve so much — about the relationship between students and teachers, about the curriculum, how we structure school days, and the very priority we place on education — but it all begins with the crucial step of redefining our purpose rooted in an understanding of today’s realities and possibilities, our aspirations for sustainable development, and our belief in the potential of every child. Incidentally, once we’ve done this, we will realize that we as educators have perhaps the most important role to play in remaking our world.

My second learning is about the need to develop what we call “collective leadership” to realize this purpose.

With decades in this work, I have the privilege of seeing whole communities that were once at a standstill in outcomes for children where there is now significant progress. It’s interesting to see what’s at work in these communities and to consider how that matches up to where we put our energy in education. Much of the effort and research aimed at improving education focus on particular solutions — policies, programs, technologies, classroom practices and so forth — and yet, from looking across these communities, I can see that there’s not one fixed set of interventions that’s responsible for the progress. Moreover, I think there’s a tendency to define “system change” as something driven top-down by the government alone, and yet from what I’ve seen, it’s not government leadership alone that differentiates these communities.

What I’m seeing in the communities where systems are changing and children’s outcomes are improving is many diverse people working together, from every level of the system, recognizing their agency to address problems, learning constantly and pushing and supporting each other. There are teachers and school leaders showing that something different is possible and investing themselves in the extraordinarily challenging work of meeting students’ individual needs and inspiring them to achieve at high levels. There are students and their caregivers, and the leadership they exert in their own education and also to advocate for what they deserve. There are school system administrators — inspired by those teachers and school leaders and students and what they’ve shown is possible — setting a vision and making it easier for everyone in the system to succeed. There are policy makers and civic leaders creating the context, priorities and resources that speed progress. There are social entrepreneurs and civil society leaders identifying and addressing the gaps in the system. And when systems move fastest, all these actors are working together and rowing in the same direction.

What I’ve seen has led me to believe that if we want to address the massive learning crisis that persists while reshaping the system altogether towards a different purpose, we will need to put a lot more of our energy as educators and policymakers into understanding how to develop the collective leadership that’s needed, and acting on those insights. No set of interventions can work sustainably without an intentional focus on developing the people in these systems, their sense of purpose and mindsets, their agency and ability to work together, and their understanding of the principles underlying solutions that are proving effective in similar contexts.

We’ve defined “developing collective leadership to ensure all children fulfill their potential” as the core purpose of Teach For All’s global network, and we’re on a learning journey about how to accomplish this. How can we enlist still more of our society’s most determined, thoughtful, and innovative people — those with lived experience of marginalization and their allies — in this work? How can we develop ourselves and teachers and leaders and students with the mindsets and skills to exert collective leadership towards this end? How can we partner with communities and work within systems in a way that contributes to developing the people and relationships among them that’s necessary for systemwide progress?

My third learning is about how important it is to foster global learning among educators.

From what I’ve seen over the years, any particular solution we believe in today will surely be seen as insufficient with the perspective of a few years. Realizing our vision of all children fulfilling their potential and shaping a better future will not be about identifying a fixed set of “answers,” but rather about a tremendous amount of effort and continuous improvement over time. The implication is that we should be investing in learning systems and networks, supporting educators to gain inspiration from each other and to leverage the ideas and principles undergirding success in different contexts for adaptation in their own communities and countries — thus fueling a never-ending cycle of innovation and continuous learning and improvement.

I’ve learned that this can and must be a global learning journey. When we first started out building the Teach For All network, I told myself that I would need to remember how different each country is and therefore how different the solutions would be from place to place. What soon struck me though is that as different as cultures and contexts are, there are also remarkable similarities in the roots of the issues facing the most marginalized students and communities. In countries all over the world, whole segments of students face extra challenges, including discrimination and poverty; they attend schools that weren’t designed to meet their needs and that weren’t designed to foster their leadership; and a prevailing ideology of low expectations for these marginalized students fuels this cycle. At first, this seemed really depressing — as if we’re fighting the forces of gravity, everywhere. But we soon saw a silver lining. This means the solutions are a lot more shareable across borders than we’ve assumed in education, which could provide a huge opportunity for speeding up progress.

What I’ve learned is that we need to work in ways that are both locally rooted and globally informed. Everything in education needs to be contextualized to local circumstances and culture. We must be centered in affirming the identities and histories of the students and communities we’re working with, and work in ways that are rooted in an understanding of the values they hold dear. And, there’s tremendous power in exposure to what’s working in other communities for shifting mindsets and understandings about what is possible. To be clear, we’ve seen that educators in the wealthiest countries in our network have learned at least as much from those with the least economic resources as the other way around — there’s something so powerful about seeing the perspectives and practices inspired by different cultures and even by a lack of resources.

I’ve come to believe that if we can act on these three learnings — by reorienting education towards the purpose of developing students who can shape a better future, making intentional efforts to develop locally rooted collective leadership for realizing this purpose, and creating opportunities for these local leaders to learn from each other across borders — we can change the trajectory of the world.

Which brings me to a closing thought — I want to close with a message to young adults out there across the world who are searching for where to channel your invaluable energy, who’ve had the privilege to attain great educations, perhaps despite the system, whether you grew up experiencing inequities or came from greater privilege. Speaking personally, I feel incredibly lucky to have found my way to this pursuit so early in my career, early enough that I’ve been able to learn about the complexity of the challenge and the solutions and to have a chance to make a meaningful difference in the face of something so big and important in my lifetime. For all of you determined and thoughtful young adults, especially the innovators among you: as you consider how to live a life of meaning, I hope you’ll consider channeling your energy into working with many others in the world’s most marginalized communities to transform the systems around children who have the potential to remake our world. I can’t imagine a more fulfilling and important choice.

Adapted from WISE Summit 2021 Closing Plenary address