Stop thinking that the responsibility for educating our world’s children is purely the mandate and responsibility of the adult. Start thinking that the incredible mission of educating all our children to do both well and good is our collective mandate.
It’s therefore fairly obvious what I say to young people. I say know and care about yourself and those around you. Know what matters to you, and to them. Raise your voice in gentle, loving ways. Come up with solutions. Tell us why you want to learn, what you want to learn, and how you want to learn. I say don’t leave the responsibility for the world to the adults around you; partner with them to make the world what you wish it to be.
Partnership in classrooms looks like this. Students and teachers sit together to explore why learning matters. Teachers share classroom concerns with students and brainstorm solutions together. Take Vedika’s eight-year-old students who solved a problem they cared about – making their hearing-impaired classmate Shiva feel comfortable in class. Using the Design For Change methodology where students first feel a problem, then imagine what will change if they can solve it, then create a solution, and then share the process to spread learning, Vedika’s young students developed a whole sign language that they learned and taught Shiva so that he could feel more a part of the class.
Partnership looks like Pooja’s classroom, one of many-to-many learning, where students teach and learn from each other. It looks like Rebecca’s kindergarten classroom, where her students co-design lesson plans. It is Afsaar’s initiative called Project IQ, where students come together to run nine extra-curricular clubs for other students, culminating in the form of a showcase. It is daily sharing circles where teacher and students share their stories vulnerably in order to foster a deeper understanding of each other. Take Jai’s Guftagu circle, where students hold a regular space that brings diverse school and community members together to just listen to each other’s stories. In India, where prevailing socialization doesn’t bring a grandmother, a second standard student, the lady who cleans the school, and the principal together, the Guftagu circle very powerfully challenges social norms and fosters deep respect and empathy for each human being.
Partnership looks like students working on problems and projects they choose and really care about and building knowledge, skills, and mindsets through the solving of these problems. It looks like a teacher requesting student feedback at the end of each day to quickly improve his or her teaching. It looks like a student asking a teacher how he or she is feeling and whether he or she needs help in class today.
Partnership can extend beyond the classroom to the school. It looks like students being an important part of all governance structures – management committees, school councils, school planning sessions. It looks like students and teachers having access to workshops and learning experiences together. It looks like student councils that have real power to shape a school. It looks at student feedback for everything linked to the school. Take 14-year-old Huda, who has trained students to lead morning circles that encourage them to share anything openly, building community and trust and setting them up for the day ahead. From setting a vision for the school and creating its core values to implementation, partnership gives students authentic voice and agency.
Partnership can extend to a community and to the education system. Students can choose real issues that they care about solving in their community and learn the steps to solving them. Take 12-year-old Rehan, whose community is in the midst of Ahmedabad’s garbage dump. In partnership with his teachers, Rehan has spearheaded Pencil Bricks, an organization that runs 15 community centers for pre-school students facilitated by 10 12-year-old students, has nurtured organic gardens, and has lobbied with the Ahmedabad government to start removing the mountains of garbage that surround his community. Or 13-year-old Devika’s Kindness Week project, where each day of the week she follows a different form of kindness. Wednesday, for example, is Careful Wednesday, when she is very aware of little creatures like ants whom one may step on by mistake. She even raises money for her project through an act of kindness, recycling goods and using that money to keep her project going. Imagine how our education systems would change if students were at the table as we draft our education policies, rewrite our curriculum and textbooks, advise our governments.
Here is why this makes sense. Simply put, a child and an adult both bring unique things to a partnership. A child can bring a freshness, a propensity to laugh and have fun, an unbridled idealism and youthful energy, the courage to take risks and embrace mistakes. An adult brings the wisdom of experience, the realism and practicality of having seen life, skills that have been honed over time, a wide perspective of experiences. When both come together, they form something beautiful. Partnership moves the teacher’s overwhelming responsibility of meeting every child’s every need to a collective opportunity to grow and nurture each other together. In a world that my friend Nipun Mehta points out is moving from one-to-many leadership, like the Gandhi model, to a many-to-many model, like Google, partnership fosters leadership in every one of us. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, when we listen, our children tell us that responsibility is a driver for their learning. That when they learn through solving things they care about, their learning is accelerated. That when they are given the space to develop agency, they are eager to help. Partnership is perhaps the most effective way to accelerate meaningful learning in our students. And when we think about partnership, we move from feeling overwhelmed that 2.2 billion children across the world need to attain an excellent education to knowing that we have 2.2 billion partners who can help us reach this goal – and grow in their leadership along the way.
Here is how you can start. Search for organizations already doing this and learn from them. Design for Change has a beautiful website with countless stories of students driving change in the world. Do Something Good is a platform where you can find a project and join it. Reap Benefit’s Solve Ninja App lets you start solving problems in a fun, gamified way today. The Kids Education Revolution explains some of these principles and shares more stories of partnership. Envision what partnership could look like in your classroom, school, and community. And then, well – just start. All of this is a big experiment and, as with all experiments, you may fail. When you do, just rise up and try again, knowing that partnership matters.
Partnership matters because we need all the hands we have so that we do not lose another generation of students, anywhere in the world, who leave school ill-equipped for the world they live in. It matters because students are the most important stakeholder in the education system – the recipient of all our decisions – and it is therefore right for us to listen to what they need and want. And it matters because so many of our students are ready; they are just waiting for us to shake their hands in partnership and walk alongside them.
Shaheen Mistri is the CEO of Teach for India. Shaheen grew up in five countries around the world and returned to India when she was 18 to start Akanksha. For 17 years, she worked with teachers and students, building Akanksha to provide 4,000 children from low-income communities the kind of education that would maximize their greatest potential. Today, Akanksha serves 6,500 children through their School Project and after-school centers in Mumbai and Pune. In 2008, Shaheen founded Teach For India, with an audacious vision of providing an excellent education to all children across India through building a pipeline of leaders committed to ending educational inequity in India. Today, Teach For India directly impacts approximately 38,000 children across seven regions in India. Shaheen serves on the boards of the Akanksha Foundation and Simple Education Foundation. Shaheen has been an Ashoka Fellow and is the author of the book Re-drawing India. She has a bachelor’s degree from St. Xavier's College, Mumbai, and a master’s degree from the University of Manchester.
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