By Ali Nomani
Former High School Principal – Community Charter School of Cambridge
 EdM – Harvard Graduate School of Education 

Our world is undergoing an unprecedented transformation. Borders are sealed, travel and tourism have come to a grinding halt, cities from London to New York and Tokyo to Melbourne are under curfew, and malls and public transport are indefinitely shuttered. Around the world, billions have hunkered down in social isolation, all waiting for a way out of our new reality with bated breath. Empty cafeterias, athletics fields, graduation halls, and prom venues bear testament to the unyielding dreams of a generation whose lives will forever be marked by the experience of going through a pandemic.

Generation Z, today’s high school children, are the planet’s first digital natives. This globally driven generation has set itself apart from its predecessors, the Boomers and Gen-Xers, in one crucial way: Rather than a competition for resources, they demand a collaboration for a healthier, happier, and more sustainable future. Whereas the Millennials were content to get a seat at the table, Gen-Z wants the entire table upended and rebuilt. And they want it rebuilt big enough that everyone can have a seat.

Our recent past is dotted with a few examples of small Gen-Z voices leading to an uproar:  

  • Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swedish environmental activist, sailed across the Atlantic to put Climate Change front and center on the United Nations’ agenda.
  • Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students’ March for Our Lives shut down Washington and made the most meaningful contribution to the firearms debate in United States history, capturing the attention of the president, congress, and the nation alike.
  • Malala Yousafzai’s stand against the Taliban inspired a global movement to advance the rights of every girl seeking education, and led her to become the youngest Nobel Laureate in history.

Time and again, Gen-Z has shown a commitment to issues that extend beyond their immediate lives. So what can educators do to become catalysts that amplify, rather than silence these voices?

Gen Z and the upcoming Generation Alpha (2010 onwards) require a completely reimagined education. The days of running schools like factories – producing standardized, underprepared workers – are gradually drawing to a close. Future learning will be personalized, keeping the needs of each individual in mind. The lessons will adapt to the learning speed and style of the students and will not follow a one-size-fits-all model. Increasingly, students are demanding content that prepares them to tackle the challenges of the world their parents have left them. Tomorrow’s leaders need to learn about immigration management, sustainable agriculture, water conservation, social entrepreneurship, and renewable energy. What must emerge from this unprecedented opportunity is an education system that prepares its students to address the critical global issues of immigration, food and water shortage, and the indifference towards our rapidly depleting natural resources.

In every crisis there is an opportunity, and educationists who are used to spending their years jumping from one deliverable to the next are already asking big questions. Educators’ technology adoption rate over the last two months far surpasses what we have seen in the last decade. This crisis forced the use of technology, and teachers around the world rose to the challenge overnight.

This increased technology adoption rate elevates an important consideration: When school buildings became irrelevant and a passionate global force of educators wanted to preserve their children’s learning, could they not use the crisis to reimagine what knowledge children around the world are exposed to every single day? The foremost educator of the last century, Albert Einstein, left us with a parting thought: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world…”

Whether it is through famines, terrorist attacks, devastating earthquakes, wars, or refugee resettlement crises, educators around the world have a long history of rising to the Earth’s challenges in service of the children they so hold dear. Today, our children, and indeed our planet, need us to reimagine the world we will leave behind for our children. That starts in the classroom, with a fresh perspective. The work we do today will determine the world our children get from us. Upon landing on the moon, Neil Armstrong reflected, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Let’s take the first step. A small step. Each day. 

Let’s do it for our children. 

Let’s do it for mankind.

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