When my children were young, my wife and I moved to a house in a neighborhood where a new secondary school was being built. The school needed volunteers — what we in the UK call school governors — to give time to help our schools best serve students. Even though my children were still quite young and wouldn’t be attending that school for quite a while, I signed up.
My participation in education has grown significantly over the years. In my two decades of educational leadership and 30 years of industry leadership, I’ve visited schools around the world and spoken at numerous global education events like the World Education Summit, the WISE Conference, BETT UK, GESS Dubai and many more. In the spirit of being an education servant leader, here are some of the programs and mindsets from around the globe that I think all of us in education could benefit from thinking about.
Introducing girls to STEM
One effort that stands out immediately is actively introducing girls to STEM careers. Not only do such initiatives vibrate at the industry level with programs like Million Women Mentors, but dozens of programs teach young women and girls to pursue STEM jobs, notably organizations like Girls Who Code and Girlstart. The US is a global model in this regard.
Girls Who Code, for example, is a nonprofit organization teaching girls to code in all 50 states and throughout the globe. It has reached 500,000 students in 10 years, with half of the girls served coming from historically underrepresented groups, such as Black and Latino, or those from low-income backgrounds. Girls Who Code aims to close the gender gap in new entry-level tech jobs by 2030.
Girlstart, too, has been successful. Girlstart is a nonprofit group creating extracurricular programs specifically designed to introduce girls to STEM topics and potential careers in STEM. In one Texas district, the nonprofit was able to boost girls’ interest, participation and grades in advanced science and math courses significantly from previous years.
Other paths to careers
Also within the realm of technical training, I’m heartened by programs guiding students to work experience and technical careers without having to pursue a college degree. While colleges and universities experienced declines during the pandemic, trade programs are becoming a welcome alternative for a growing number of students. In Utah, seven of the state’s eight technical colleges saw an enrollment increase in 2021, according to statistics in a Hechinger Report story. The Georgia Piedmont Technical College reported a 13% enrollment increase in 2021 from the previous year.
In a different vein altogether, Dubai is a model program of developing self and individual confidence. The country’s leadership takes the skill of public speaking very seriously, and the schools have a coordinated effort to make sure that students stand up and learn to present material on a variety of subjects. School leaders there recognize that this builds self-confidence and also pulls students more deeply into their studies.
Recognizing fake news, social media’s impact
I’m also keenly aware of the importance of social media citizenship for today’s young people. It becomes more complicated each year for youth to see boundaries between truth and falsehood, made worse by social media and the proliferation of fake news. Now AI technology like ChatGPT and other generative AI applications are on the scene, exacerbating the problem. To counter this, look to Finland as a model. Here, the teaching of social media citizenship begins in kindergarten and runs all the way through secondary school.
In just one example of their excellent programs, Finland teaches students how to spot misinformation in digital media. Finnish educators walk through published stories and TikTok videos with their students, showing them how the information in these can be slanted or outright untrue. Teachers encourage students to create their own videos or photos to illustrate how videos can distort and manipulate the truth and explore how search algorithms handle requests for things as seemingly innocuous as “vaccinations.”
Efforts appear to be paying off: Finland was recently named the top European country in “resilience to misinformation” by the Open Society Institute.
Connectivity + access = equity
We can also learn a lot from other countries’ creativity in getting students connected to the internet. The US still has many gaps in coverage either due to geographic or economic boundaries. A lack of connectivity doesn’t only just stop students from getting online, it prevents them from competing in the modern economy, effectively isolating them from the rest of the world, notes Henrietta Fore, UNICEF executive director.
While it is not surprising that in less economically advantaged countries such as Bangladesh only 13% of the population can access the internet, there are digital divides much closer to home. In the UK, 1 in every 4 vulnerable children still doesn’t have access to a device equipped for digital learning.
Solutions to this problem vary widely. While the government in the Maldives provided every student in a government school an internet-connected device, the schools weren’t ready to take advantage of this rollout, leading to a chasm between the students’ devices and the schools’ teaching styles. But in Sweden, the government decided in 2016 that the entire country should be connected for mobile coverage and broadband by 2025. So far, the country has allocated about $275.2 million for this task. By 2021, 95% of the country had high-speed access, up about 10% from 2009.
Estonia has a similar long-term vision about connectivity. In 2001, Estonia declared that the ability to connect to the internet was a human right. The country’s schools met the charge by creating a digital curriculum, and today students can take classes in programming, robotics and 3D technology.
I often ask myself what the common thread is that makes initiatives like these successful despite the vast differences in cultures, governmental structures and economic prosperity. I’m convinced that it isn’t necessarily government funding that makes the difference. After all, many successful programs are grassroots and driven by volunteers.Other initiatives are driven by individual professionals or industry groups whose motivations are to bring young people into their industries. These programs don’t cost governments a dime.
While I realize that affecting change can never be simplified to just one or two factors, it is abundantly clear to me that what is common to these successes are having a cadre of people willing to roll up their sleeves and drive programs forward, lending whatever talents they have. These are servant leaders, people who have given their vision, effort and passion into developing movements that become self-sustaining or that cause governments to take notice and kick in the necessary funding to make them national initiatives.
It always starts with people. That’s the common thread to positive change.
Al Kingsley is an author, podcaster, chair of the Multi Academy Trust cluster of schools in the UK, Apprenticeship Ambassador and chair of his regional Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Board. He is also a 30-year veteran of the edtech industry as CEO of NetSupport. He writes about servant leadership models that school leaders can engage in their schools, including in his most recent book, “My School Governance Handbook,” and upcoming book, “My School & Multi Academy Trust #Growth Guide.”
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.