Looking at a photo from a schoolroom 100 years ago is like peering into a different world. Students of all ages seated together in one room, the teacher, ramrod straight and strict, teaching lessons by rote from an old-fashioned slate blackboard.
It's hard to believe past generations really learned like that.
In 20 years' time, I believe today's classrooms will appear to future generations much as those old one-room schoolhouses look like to us now. If we have a goal for the next 20 years, it's to fundamentally change education to include compassion, service and global citizenship.
Trends in education come and go. But we have some pretty solid evidence that engaging young people in volunteering and social activism improves confidence and interpersonal skills, enhances academic performance, produces responsible consumers and creates innovative entrepreneurs.
In 2014, a third-party firm, Mission Measurement, undertook a survey of educators and young people who participated in We Schools, our year-long service-learning program, and We Day, our celebration of youth making a difference in their local and global communities.
More than half of youth involved in our educational programs report their grades improving as they became more engaged in service, with teachers noting these students were three times more likely to have "a deep understanding of local and global issues." They were more likely to feel prepared for college or university by an almost 20-per-cent margin over their non-engaged peers. The survey showed higher confidence and self-esteem among our alumni, and teachers say these students are twice as likely to be viewed as leaders by their peers.
As workers in the labour force, 94 per cent of our alumni say employers responded favourably to their service experience. And to our surprise and gratification, almost 20 per cent of our alumni have become entrepreneurs, starting enterprises or non-profit organizations of their own.
Imagine the results that could be achieved if service was taught in the classroom every day.
But what would that look like?
For a start, it means adding some important subjects to the course curriculum. In some respects, our school curriculum today – with math, science, history and geography – is no different than it was in our grandparents' day.
But what about the skills we need to get along in society, to interact with our fellow humans, such as compassion and empathy? We expect young people to pick these up by osmosis. In elementary school, these should be taught as specific subjects, with the same deliberation and emphasis as we might teach quadratic equations or the War of 1812. Already provinces including British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario are incorporating concepts of compassion and empathy into curriculum guidelines.
Social-change clubs dealing with issues from environmentalism to human rights exist in every school today. But they are still treated as extracurricular activities, divorced from classroom learning. That must change. Core subjects should be connected to real world events and issues with practical hands-on engagement projects. For example, a science unit on water should include a class on water pollution. Students could research a local water pollution issue and take action on it, perhaps by writing letters to local politicians. Recently we spoke with a teacher in Paris, Ont., who was teaching her students about world events by having them correspond with an aid worker in Yemen, in the middle of that country's civil war.
Every school should have a sister school or village in another country with whom there is constant interaction and support.
Technology such as Skype should play a huge role in empowering students to become globally connected and engaged citizens. A student doing a classroom project on the environment can partner, not with the child beside them, but with a student in Nairobi, Delhi or Sao Paulo.
And we want to work with the education system to create more opportunities for international experience at all levels. Studying abroad should not be the sole preserve of college and university students.
In a sense, over the next 20 years we want to bring the classroom full circle back to the one room schoolhouse. One world-sized schoolhouse where everyone learns compassion, engagement and citizenship.