How do we know if a student is getting a valuable education? It’s not easy. Test scores offer some insight. Researchers can also watch the student after graduation—seeing whether they get a job, say, or go on to climb the economic ladder. But both of these metrics are flawed.
That’s because success in the real world is almost never quantified by a test score or one’s ability to memorize menial details, skills that allow students to be successful in school. With this, a necessary consideration becomes, “how can schools drive learning outcomes that allow students to develop practical skills that they can directly apply to progress in the real world?” The answer? Measure student achievement by civic engagement.
One form of civic engagement is building businesses, and schools should be supportive of (and even encourage) students who are getting early starts in business. At the most basic level, businesses create jobs, and in marginalized communities, job creation lies central to helping alleviate poverty. Interested in learning about how organizations are working together with schools to empower young entrepreneurs, I interviewed Thais Rezende, CEO of BizWorld.org, a youth business education non-profit organization founded by billionaire Tim Draper.
With a firm belief that “We need to empower kids to be 21st-century thinkers and become the architects of their future,” Rezende leads BizWorld to implement business education in 3rd to 8th-grade classrooms. Since founding, BizWorld has impacted over 680,000 students across all 50 states in the US. Unequivocally, many of these students will go on to start companies that spur the communities they are a part of.
But perhaps the most important idea that Rezende shared with me wasn’t even that schools need to empower young people to start their own companies; it’s that even if students don’t wind up becoming entrepreneurs, their creativity will still give them a leg up in becoming a successful employee. This idea isn’t new, but it’s profound; entrepreneurialism is commonly believed to be a valuable skill in the workplace. So thinking about using civic engagement as a learning outcome in schools in the context of business education will give students the exposure they need to learn more about what it takes to build a business and create jobs for their communities in the future.
More fundamentally, however, we must consider the youth skills gap, which refers to the gap between the skills that our students have today and the skills that will be required of them once they enter the workforce. Civic engagement is all about how people can utilize their skills to benefit their communities; as a result, schools should definitely consider implementing skills-based learning programs that allow students not to just become scholars, but rather also masters of what they learn to the extent that they’ll be able to apply their learnings practically in their own communities. To learn more about what this looks like in practice, I interviewed Emmanuel Nyame, CEO of Educational Communities Worldwide, a non-profit organization dedicated to closing the skills gap for youth in Ghana and beyond, as well as author of Rise Above, a book endorsed by the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations and several other prominent business leaders.
Nyame told me, “Rise Above is designed to practically underscore the steps that young people can take to be a strong force for societal development and trigger a conscious action for women and young people to start believing in themselves.” Enabling young people in communities comes from practically showing them that change is possible, regardless of age; otherwise, becoming a leader in one’s community will only be a pipedream for the majority of students. That’s what an education measured by how civically engaged students are would do – directly show students that what they learn in school is only as useful as how they apply it.
But then there’s the concern that some students won’t have access to resources that empower them to be change-makers if the communities they are a part of lack said resources in the first place. This is where technology comes in – online resources give all students the chance to play on an equal playing field. And that’s why I was excited to interview Omar Bawa, Co-Founder of Goodwall, an app that connects students to internships, apprenticeships, and other opportunities.
Bawa told me, “At Goodwall, we believe in continuous experiential learning, learning through experiences starting from a young age. For students, the best opportunities to acquire soft and hard skills like teamwork and leadership exist in the form of civic engagement, community work, and volunteering. Service learning is the future.”
And this makes a lot of sense. When students are civically engaged, they are able to look objectively at a problem they are interested in solving. They, in several respects, “fail fast,” and quickly come to understand the real difficulties that underlie some of the world’s toughest social issues and are naturally able to correct. That’s why schools should start looking more towards civic engagement being an effective metric for student learning.
Now, you might see the value of civic engagement, but might still be asking yourself, though, “Hmm…schools often mandate students to volunteer, to give back to their communities. Aren’t schools already making strides towards civically engaging their students?” The short answer is yes, some schools are making volunteer hours a part of their graduation requirements. But here’s the catch – civic engagement and volunteerism should be inherently about a student wanting to make an impact, not a direct result of being forced to do so.
That’s primarily where academia’s facilitation of civic engagement falls short – students might be engaging in volunteerism that benefits their communities but they have no idea why they’re doing what they do. Schools, I believe, are well-meaning and moving in the right direction, but the real reason for empowering students to be civically engaged isn’t even the direct impact they make on their communities, but rather the purpose-driven mentality that’s instilled within them to do great things in the future.
In the status quo, we’re fostering scholars. And that’s great because we need scholars – the scientists, the mathematicians, the professors. But at the same time, we can’t have a world of scholars or a world of entrepreneurs. Each and every student holds a unique set of beliefs and interests. What unites us all, however, is the world we live in, and that’s why our education system should push students to work in different capacities towards the collective goal of making the world a better place.