THE BLOG

We Need to Teach Our Children That They Can Change the World

03/23/2015 04:55 pm ET | Updated May 23, 2015

In a time of rapid change, educators worldwide are faced with the challenge of preparing children to handle unprecedented levels of stress and uncertainty. There is an unwelcome side effect of current practices in education being content-heavy and largely oriented towards academic achievement and success. We are in danger of cultivating in children a sense of helplessness and apathy when it comes to taking ownership for and tackling the challenges faced by the world today.

The education system focuses so much attention on passing exams, along with providing some understanding of how modern technology, business, corporations and politics works. But this means we are also in danger of allowing pupils to think that individuals alone can no longer change the world. In short, there is a real risk of adult apathy, disillusionment under the guise of experience, rubbing off on young minds.

To turn this story around, Design for Change was born out of the conviction that children are not helpless. The natural youthful optimism they feel; that change is possible and the belief that they can drive it, should be cultivated rather than discouraged. Through a simple four-step design process of "Feel-Imagine-Do-Share," we asked children to take practical steps to identify and transform anything that bothered them in their community -- shifting their mindset from 'Can I?' to 'I Can!'

Through 'Feel,' children take a close look at their surroundings, identify a problem they feel strongly about and engage with the community to scrutinize this situation from different people's perspectives, developing empathy in the process. In 'Imagine', we tap into the wildly creative optimism inherent in children to visualize an ideal scenario and brainstorm ways to achieve it. Children get to step out of the classroom and put their ideas into action in 'Do', redefining 'failure' as 'prototyping'. Finally, as they 'Share' their stories of change through the Design for Change website, they inspire another child in a different part of the world to say 'I Can!'

Everyone around the world can identify with comic book heroes, those with special skills and powers that enable them to change the world in a positive way. So we describe the four steps as helping create the 'I Can' superpower, casting the children who follow this route as real-life superheroes themselves.
All that Design for Change does is give children this simple tool and a platform to show the world what they could do. Over the last six years, we have been privileged to have the best seats in the house to witness the incredible, rapidly growing tide of change being led by a new generation of superheroes.

With superpowers of compassion, agency, observation, empathy, imagination and other similarly remarkable attributes, children around the world have addressed problems ranging from broken infrastructure to challenging age-old social evils like child marriage and caste discrimination. They have worked to include the elderly and the disabled, observed the erosion of their traditions and fought fiercely to preserve them. They have taken a stand for the environment, tackled bullying and resolved thousands of such challenges the world over.

Within a year of launching Design for Change, we had the opportunity to share the idea on TED and before we knew it, Design for Change was impacting lives in over 30 countries around the world.

We have come to realize that the tremendous success of the idea lies in the fact that it addresses multiple gaps in today's education system through one simple solution. Educators are now utilizing the Design for Change process to develop true 21st century skills by embedding knowledge into real-life learning. They're building an awareness and sense of responsibility in children towards their community, and above all, giving children the belief, the desire and the tools to be able to shape a better world.

However, one of the biggest challenges we face is that of measuring and conclusively conveying the impact of our work. Despite years of tremendous testimonials and feedback, there is a need to be able to more specifically quantify the benefits of being empathetic, collaborative and optimistic.

Across the globe, through Design for Change, we have seen children stepping up and learning that the power to create change lies in them as much as with the adults who educate them and influence their lives. This feeling of agency and advocacy stays with these children their entire lives, encouraging them to remain engaged and active in their communities when they are adults. By telling children they 'can' we are leaving not just a better planet for our children, but also better children for our planet.

This post is part of a series produced by The Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize, an annual $1M award for an exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession. For more information on Global Teacher Prize, read here.