Preparing Innovative Change Agents for Justice

After spending yesterday in a district discussion about how to remake and rebrand our high school, I spent a lot of time thinking about what we should be preparing students for after high school.

Before I go further, I want to emphasize that I believe that school is not just about preparing students for the future. It's about helping them manage their now. I think we often get so caught up in a focus on the future that we do damage to the now, but that's for another blog post.

When we do think about the future of students, which is often, we talk in terms of creating equal educational outcomes that will prepare them for participation in the economy.

"How can we ensure they'll be able to compete in the real world?"

"What skills and knowledge do they need to have options when they go looking for jobs?"

Now, I acknowledge there is a shred of legitimacy to these discussions. But I find them to be extraordinarily problematic because they presume the purpose of an education for an individual is, ultimately, to make money. And that notion is based on the even more problematic notion that the larger purpose for education systems is primarily to create a highly-competitive economy.

Even if we were to accept participation in the economy as the highest aim of public education (which we shouldn't), the way we talk about preparing students for their wage-earning futures is wrapped in language about how they can be good workers and consumers.

We don't ask how our schools can help students think innovatively to identify and solve the pressing problems facing our world. We don't ask how they'll need to be prepared to be active citizens, researchers, creators of knowledge, or entrepreneurs.

It is for these reasons that the ideas of Yong Zhao and Ken Robinson resonate with me. Both propose that schools must be retooled to develop the skills, knowledge, habits, and dispositions necessary for a student to go into the world and play an active role in its creation and recreation. This seems to me an endeavor fundamental to the human condition.

Where I diverge from Zhao and Robinson is in their discussion of creating an entrepreneurial mindset.

Because entrepreneurs bring together the factors of production in order to make a profit, I actually don't think entrepreneurs are at all what we need.

I've heard Zhao mention that students, if they want to be successful, have to find ways to create things that other people want. He references Kim Kardashian as an example of a person who found a unique way to make a living. To be fair to Zhao, he is a hilarious guy with lots of great material, and he probably does not mean to spread the idea that following Kardashian's model is a healthy path forward for students.

However, I would go so far as to say that any entrepreneurial pursuit that seeks to provide a dopamine fix to that segment of our population privileged enough to afford excess with some form of thought-blocking entertainment (e.g. a new line of clothing, fashion accessory, or other luxury) and does not consider the environmental costs of the waste and social costs of the time that will necessarily be a byproduct is decidedly not what we want to produce in schools.

I agree with Robinson and Zhao that we desperately need to start talking to students with the understanding that they have it within them to change our world. Indeed, they are our greatest hope to change our world. Though, to do that, they're going to have to be even better at thinking outside the box than the entrepreneur.

The entrepreneur can rely on a traditional model for creating goods and services enshrined in our law. Create a business plan, apply for the license, find your capital, etc. But change agents for justice in our society are going to have to step outside even that model.

Change agents for justice are going to need a strong understanding of justice, freedom, love, community, democracy, and civic engagement. They're going to have to identify seemingly intractable social problems. These problems will be the type our economy normally doesn't create space for people to do work around because they don't typically appeal to individuals who want to spend their excess income. They're going to have to do the hard, hard work of identifying solutions to those problems, and then they're going to have to bring together the people and resources necessary to implement those solutions. Along the way, they'll learn lessons, and they'll need to share those lessons with future generations. Perhaps most challengingly, they'll need to find funding to make their solutions happen.

Start talking about students' futures like this in schools, and I bet a lot more people start participating in the conversation.


  1. Thank you so much for putting emphasis on how it's our jobs as educators to empower these students and pull their voices out from within. Great read!

  2. How would you incorporate a more positive outlook on getting an education? What would be a good motivator for high school students other than a salary?

  3. It is such an inspiring notion as a student to be told that I should be changing the world, instead of just following the paths of others before me. I completely consent to the idea that scholars directed towards being another tool towards out economy are worse off, than students directed towards directing themselves to pursue what they believe in. Fantastic read!

  4. This was a great post! You propose an interesting idea that could have the power to change our outlook on school and therefore will change student attitudes about school as well. I think an important part of this will be to encourage students not only to solve problems in general or to solve the huge, overarching problems of society, for example environmental concerns as you mention. Instead they need to be encouraged to look at the issues in their own lives, their own communities, and think critically about how to prepare themselves (and how their teachers can help prepare them) to tackle those issues that they see on the forefront of their experience.


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