One Student at a Time. Leading the Global Education Movement

08/04/2017 10:27 pm ET Updated Aug 08, 2017

One Student at a Time. Leading the Global Education Movement the title of a book, just published and written in collaboration with sixty one of my former students, alludes to how best to improve the world through education. In this collaborative project, I reached out to the almost one thousand students who have graduated over the last twenty years from the International Education Policy Masters Policy Program I direct at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I surveyed them on four topics: what work they did, what impact they had, what challenges they faced, and what lessons they had learned in addressing those challenges. I also asked ninety of those students to write extended essays on those topics. The book includes an analysis of the results of the survey and of the essays, and also the essays my former students wrote.

I wrote this book because I am persuaded that the global expansion of the opportunity to be educated, which has taken place since education was included as a universal human right seventy years ago, is a remarkable achievement which constructed a shared experience for humanity. This shared experience is rooted in the aspiration to expand freedom and equality, the tenets of a global project that gave rise to democracy, public education and the modern university. This cosmopolitan and humanistic project is currently challenged by a rising populist movement that devalues the notion of universal human rights, as well as global collaboration, reason and expertise as avenues to help advance freedom and justice. Rising populism poses also challenges to the institutions of democracy, public education and higher education. The future of the global education movement to educate all is squarely in the hands of leaders such as those I studied in this book, of ordinary people who do the extraordinary thing of providing other people’s children the opportunity to become architects of their own lives and contributing members of their communities. The work of these leaders of the global education movement is extraordinary. It involves challenging mindsets, norms and institutions, to do more, to continuously seek in search of helping all gain the capacities that will set them free.

These leaders describe a wide range of professional challenges, from the challenges underlying the education problems they are trying to address, to the challenges of mobilizing and empowering others to collaborate in order to address them. The education challenges they describe involve inadequate organization, capacity, funding or alignment and coordination among the various agencies and actors. The challenges these leaders describe are complex: they require innovation, strong alignment between different moving pieces, a high degree of coordination between complex processes, and high levels of resources, among other elements. The long time it takes to produce results increases the fragility of the consensus and coordination necessary to produce alignment between the different moving pieces of the education system. Politics, organizational as well as national politics, often undermine this consensus. Many of these leaders speak of how prevailing mindsets and deficient capacities limit openness to change.

These leaders highlight ten lessons drawn from their experience in addressing these challenges of making education relevant to the demands of the twenty first century:

1. Lead ethically.

2. Understand the education challenge you are trying to solve.

3. To understand the challenge, understand the people involved. Map key stakeholders.

4. Understanding how to solve an education challenge requires continuous learning.

5. Collaboration is key to learn and to act: There are opportunities in Collective Leadership.

6. Collaboration requires good personal relationships

7. Attend to execution and to the details of getting the work done.

8. Communication is critical to learning and to execution.

9. Balance patience with setbacks and processes, with impatience for results.

10. Do we need to educate for a new kind of education leadership?

I wrote the book for three reasons:

First, I was genuinely curious to spend some time thinking through what work my graduates do and what challenges they face. As a result of following their careers I had learned that some of them followed paths I had not expected. This study was done to help help me re-examine some of the hypotheses on which I base my teaching and the direction of the program.

Second, I do think that leading this global education movement is hard and difficult work that requires expert knowledge. I am concerned by the trend in the world that devalues expertise and institutions, including universities, and I think it is necessary that we codify the expertise that undergirds professional educational practice. This expert knowledge is available to some who do this work; they have earned it as a result of experience and study. But it is private knowledge, shared often only in the context of workplaces or with close friends. I thought it would be valuable to make some of this knowledge visible to others, as a way to invite others to do the same, and to stimulate dialogue on the challenges of this valuable form of global education leadership.

My third motivation to write this book is to test an approach I think would benefit many educational institutions: to take the time to follow our graduates and to learn from them. Most of the goals we care about in education are long-term. Unfortunately, we have few instruments that provide ready access to the long-term outcomes of our work for guidance. As we displace metrics on long-term outcomes with metrics of short-term results (grades, graduation rates, satisfaction of students) we run the risk of displacing also the most meaningful goals and of losing sight of what really matters.

I hope that this book will be valuable to others as well. I invite you to read this book, and to let me know your thoughts once you do.

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