The world has collectively marveled at the poise and fierce determination of Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old from Sweden who inspired millions with her passionate pleas for immediate action on climate change.
Before Greta, there were the group of students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who took their collective grief and anger to organize a #NeverAgain movement that helped shift the debate about gun control. And before them, we were captivated by Malala, the teenager from Pakistan, who in the face of unimaginable violence from the Taliban, chose to speak up about the importance of educating young girls and women.
These are incredible stories and incredible young leaders. But what I find most striking about the fascination with them is that, ultimately, they aren’t that exceptional. There are hundreds—likely thousands—of young people whose names don’t make the headlines: Maya Penn became an eco-business founder and environmental campaigner at age 8; Kelvin Doe began to make generators and batteries for his community in Sierra Leone at age 11. Young people’s interests and passions are leading them to help the homeless, support children with special needs, invent and patent technology solutions, and advocate for social and policy changes on issues big and small. They have started both local campaigns and global non-profits.
And yet, we encounter an alternative narrative that civic education in this country is in a state of crisis; that young people don’t vote or volunteer; that Gen Z is too self-involved and egotistic.
So, how do we counter this perception and inspire more young people to follow in the footsteps of not only Greta and Malala—but also Maya and Kelvin?
First, why do we think our young people aren’t engaged? Well, for twenty years, education reforms have focused on pushing students to meet higher, broader standards for the content they learn. Two decades later, we claim to have “successfully” standardized both the content and the ways in which we measure young people’s understanding of it. Young people, though, are left with less time to engage with their communities and the world at large. Longer school days, longer school years, more homework, and more pressure to curate résumés attractive to college admissions committees has meant less play, less free time, and less of an opportunity to actually participate in a vast world that exists outside their schools’ walls.
Meanwhile, up until the age of 18, when our society formally recognizes young people as adults, they are forming their identities, their understanding of the world, and the potential intersection between those two things. Our formal education system has gone all in on academics, de-prioritizing our children’s natural desire to understand themselves, to explore the needs of their communities, and their role within those communities.
Not surprisingly, the longer young people are in school, the more disengaged they feel from both their education and their communities. This in turn appears to be eroding young people’s overall sense of well-being, contributing to a surge in mental health issues. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 96% of US teens ages 13 to 17 named depression and anxiety as problems among their peers, with 70% naming it as a major issue. To top it all off, as the disconnect between generations increases, our communities don’t benefit from the energy, passion, and new possibilities that young people can bring to critical conversations and challenges.
The good news is that with any problem we create, we have the power to fix it. With mounting research across the fields of human development, cognitive science, and learning science, we know that the formative years of childhood and early adolescence offer a prime opportunity for young people to identify their interests and passions, intentionally shape their identities, and engage in experiences that support this growing sense of self. In structuring learning experiences that promote and reinforce these behaviors, we can lay the groundwork for strong, visionary leaders that can solve grand societal challenges.
Rather than make random, isolated overtures to structure projects that attempt to make school-based learning more “real,” more and more educators and communities across the country recognize the power of co-creating authentic learning experiences with young people, harnessing their innate desire to engage authentically and deeply with their communities. And in the process, young people are realizing the academic and professional goals we aspire for them to achieve along their educational journey, becoming the innovators and inventors of the future.
At Iowa BIG, students learn through projects that address real needs from businesses, non-profits, and civic organizations across the Cedar Rapids community. At Design39Campus in San Diego, age is just a number. Elementary school students actually help lead hiring conversations for prospective educators—and offer input in every aspect of the system’s design. And, GripTape, a national organization that provides $500 in starter funds for young people to pursue a project of interest, has watched as their investments propel “grantees” to write books, launch businesses, and engage with topics they would never find in a conventional curriculum.
Young people in programs like these are learning enough about themselves, their values, and their communities to identify issues they and their communities care about—and take action to make change happen. They are working alongside others in service of a shared purpose or goal, seeing themselves as capable and valued members of society. Most importantly, they are developing the skills, knowledge, and habits of mind they need to make a difference.
Given challenges that require all of the creativity, passion, and commitment we can gather to design and implement solutions, they just might save the world.
Ulcca Joshi Hansen is vice president of partnerships and research for Education Reimagined and previously served as vice president of the Public Education and Business Coalition. She began her career in the classroom as an elementary teacher in Newark Public Schools.