How to make global education for changemakers happen?

UWC and Ashoka, the largest network of social entrepreneurs worldwide, share a common vision: to contribute and develop a world full of changemakers, where everybody has the opportunities and the skills to create change and make a positive difference.

To make this vision a reality, both organisations agree that education is key in order to provide people with a “changemaker skill set” and to help them to be a force for positive development in a rapidly changing world.

In its fifteen schools and colleges worldwide, UWC delivers this commitment by making socially responsible actions and projects a key component of its educational programme. Students not only have to follow a rigorous academic programme, but also engage in the communities around them to make a contribution towards positive development. Students graduating from the UWCs use the skill set they have acquired during their time at a UWC school or college to create positive change in their daily lives and realities. 

Ashoka, in turn, has established the Ashoka Changemaker Schools Network, which identifies, connects and supports innovative schools around the world that are empowering young people by equipping them with core skills such as empathy, teamwork, leadership and creative skills which will enable them to work successfully in rapidly changing environments – and to be changemakers. In this context, two UWC colleges – UWC Atlantic and UWC Costa Rica – are already part of the Ashoka Changemaker Schools Network and more are in line to follow shortly.

But how to make global education for changemakers really happen?

Jens Waltermann, Executive Director of UWC International, and Ashoka’s Director of Education Strategy Ross Hall discussed this important question in an interesting exchange:

RH: At Ashoka we increasingly strive to ensure that each young person in the world is equipped with the skills to become a Changemaker. The UWC schools and colleges offer an educational model where teaching young people those skills is very much at the core of the mission. Can you tell us a bit more about why and how?

JW: Yes, at UWC we aim to support and nurture students from very diverse backgrounds to make the world a better place. We want them to question the status quo, to question the inequalities they experience, to develop empathy towards other ways of living and seeing the world — and not to be complacent but to bring about the change they want to see.

At UWC, we believe that a self-empowered person — or somebody you would refer to as a changemaker is a person who has the energy to change things and the inclination to use that energy in the right way and for the common good. It’s also somebody who understands and can navigate the complexity of life and who reaches beyond easy answers.

RH: The world today is defined by accelerating volatility, complexity and hyper-connectivity — forces that make our tangle of social, economic and environmental problems everyone’s problems — and increasingly difficult to solve with traditional approaches that rely on top-down and centralised decision-making. We can no longer afford to be compliant — or simply follow the rules — or do what we have always done. For humans to thrive together, people need to become self-empowered (to live for our collective wellbeing)…

JW: What you’re describing is a reality. But what’s most troubling to me — given these challenges — is how easy it is to over-simplify, to provide or accept easy answers that lead us in the wrong direction — answers that take us to a place where people are worse off and not better.

Changemaking is about using your energy and your skills — entrepreneurial skills and skills for assessing your community’s needs. It’s about relating to people and putting empathy into productive action. It’s about continued openness. Curiosity is an essential quality, because if you’re not curious, your creativity will be limited, and you will likely settle for the first answer that you find. A person who is self-empowered will never say, “I’ve climbed the mountain. I’ve found the truth. All I need to do now is take it down to the people and tell them what’s right.”

RH: That’s a helpful perspective on what it means to be a self-empowered human being. But it seems to me that the perspective which dominates the provision of education — and the experience of school — is, for the vast majority of young people around the world, much more individualistic and economic in nature — and this mindset does not lead to the sort of self-empowerment that we now need…

JW: At least in the West, formal education started as a system of power projection: it was a system to sustain the powers that were in place. The King needed administrators, the Prussian empire needed able soldiers and administrators. That’s what Western schooling was initially built for: it was a system motivated by economic interests and power projection.

More recently, we’ve moved into a new paradigm which is much more individualistic and motivated by the idea the education equips young people to be the best that they can be. And being the best you can be is typically measured through exam results that help you go to a good university and get a great job.

At UWC, we believe this self-centered mindset is the wrong thing to buy into and especially so in a world that is changing in very fundamental ways. Our philosophy is not about being the best that you can be, but rather doing the best you can do, which is a different paradigm that takes you from just optimizing yourself, to optimizing your impact in the sense of positive, value-based impact on society.

So we educate for empathy and connections between people so that they can mobilize others and inspire them to join you. We optimize for seeing where there are problems and trying to do something about them. Rather than observe and record, we want to help our students observe and then act. And this is the powerful middle ground with Ashoka because Ashoka is so much about taking action continuously and for the common good.

RH: Your work is highly compatible with the work of Ashoka. We both share the vision of a world full of changemakers. And we both have in common the desire to create this kind of world through pioneers. But your work at UWC is not exactly the same as Ashoka’s work. Whereas our strategy is to find existing pioneers — connect them — and help them collaborate to transform the experience of growing up, your priority at UWC is to nurture young pioneers who will go on to make a better world…

JW: Yes. We believe we can contribute to changing the world through the strength of the students we send out into the world. Let me share one example. We know we need to change the way universities organise their intake so that schools are more incentivized to nurture changemaking skills. We have been very lucky to have had a great supporter in Shelby Davis who was willing to start a scholarship programme for our students at around 100 US undergraduate colleges — and our impact on university admissions has, therefore, not come through lobbying but directly through our students. How? Because when universities accepted the first UWC graduates, they saw the immensely positive impact of these students on their campuses. They brought with them the idea of global citizenship — of caring about what happens in far-away places — and of celebrating diversity. They inspired other students and positive action multiplied.

And so the universities came back and asked for more — and more — and more. And now this is the biggest undergraduate scholarship programme to US universities, exclusively focused on UWC alumni. We believe fundamentally that our students can change the way systems work — and not so much by calling out what’s wrong with the existing norms but by modeling a new culture of changemaking.

RH: UWC started as the initiative of a visionary educator, Kurt Hahn, so the direction you describe is no surprise — and your impact is now increasingly significantly…

JW: Yes, we are facing an exciting moment with our 15 schools and students of over 150 nationalities. In the last two years we’ve opened three new schools and our latest addition is UWC Changshu in China. Demand is high and when we look at the pipeline of new projects looking to become UWCs, we see that it’s critical to get the right schools to join the movement so that UWC preserves its distinctive educational mission and values.

And in fact a very important part of the distinctiveness is the scholarship aspect. UWC has an aspiration to become fully needs blind, with scholarship provision for all those who need it, because we don’t just want to serve the global elite. The UWC schools and colleges are independent schools that are not built on economic privilege. We want students from very privileged backgrounds, students from underprivileged backgrounds and everything in-between. This diversity is the source of our strength and is central to generating the changemaking mindset that we’re here to nurture.


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