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Global Education and Social Entrepreneurship: A Conversation with Prof. Fernando Reimers

Fernando ReimersThis week 150 prominent experts, activists, advocates, and thinkers from around the world will visit Harvard to participate in the Global Education Think Tank. As part of the Advanced Leadership Initiative, an interfaculty initiative that brings together accomplished leaders interested in complex social challenges such as education, health, environment, and poverty, the conference will consider how social entrepreneurs can help fill leadership gaps to support educational institutions that promote children and youth to develop the skills and dispositions necessary to get along and live together in an increasingly diverse and interdependent world.

"Globalization has increased the opportunities for interaction among people from diverse cultural backgrounds, through exchanges via telecommunication technologies, trade, and immigration, and through the multiple new global challenges and opportunities that connect societies and individuals, from energy and climate challenges, to terrorism and religious conflict," explains Professor Fernando Reimers, who hosts the three-day conference exploring how to better prepare young people for work in a more culturally diverse society, and other impacts of increased globalization. Among the events will be a public Askwith Forum on Thursday night entitled, "Educating for Character and Citizenship." Here Reimers discusses some of the topics to be covered at the conference.

Q. What is the role social entrepreneurs' play in partnering with educational institutions to support children and youth?

A. The search for solutions to the kind of social challenges that are the focus of the Advanced Leadership Initiative increasingly involve organizations of civil society (the third sector) and leaders who develop innovative approaches to complement the way in which governments address those challenges. These "social entrepreneurs" constitute an emerging field of practice and many work in education. The social enterprises created in this way offer innovative and creative programs that in some cases are also sustainable and can reach scale. The range of areas where social entrepreneurs are active in education is very vast indeed, including afterschool services, summer enrichment programs, programs to support the professional development of teachers or school leaders, or to bring different candidates to the teaching profession or school administration, programs to build schools or school libraries in the developing world, and programs to support peace and conflict resolution in regions affected by conflict through the development of competencies among children and youth.

The role of social entrepreneurs in education is increasing for a number of reasons, including the availability of technology and capital which can support entrepreneurs; the emergence of social networks to identify, support, and fund entrepreneurs, such as Ashoka; and the emergence of academic programs to support the professional development of social entrepreneurs.

This field of practice is advancing much faster than the body of knowledge that codifies and examines the effectiveness of what entrepreneurs do. The study of social entrepreneurship in the field of education is an area of scholarly opportunity, involving the study of the effectiveness of what some of these social enterprises accomplish, the study of the extent to which they generate innovation, or the study of the process of leading, sustaining, and scaling up such enterprises.

Q. Does the field of social entrepreneurship interest HGSE students?

A. Very much so. There is a growing group of people interested in contributing to the field of education who want to do so as innovators creating or working in social enterprises. A number of our graduates already do this and many among our students are interested in this field of practice. I am teaching a new course, Educational Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship in Comparative Perspective, which has generated great interest among our students fascinated by domestic and global issues. Many of our courses at HGSE have great appeal to people interested in social entrepreneurship in education and they include both the courses which focus on leadership or the management of nonprofits, as well as the courses that focus on the core of the educational enterprise, learning and teaching, teacher professional development and the organization and management of educational institutions. It is interesting that among the Advanced Leadership Fellows, who are selected because of their explicit intent to work as social entrepreneurs, and who can take courses anywhere at Harvard, the majority are taking courses at our school over any other school at Harvard.

Q. How do HGSE students interact with the Advanced Leadership Initiative?

A. There are multiple avenues of interaction because the Advanced Leadership Fellows take many courses at HGSE and many of our students are their classmates. For instance, in my course on educational innovation and social entrepreneurship five of the 55 students are Advanced Fellows. They have engaged in group collaborations with many of the students in the course. I know there are similar collaborations happening in other courses the fellows are taking at HGSE, and they get involved in courses on mind, brain, and education, arts in education, management of non profits, and civic education.

In the course I teach, students have been researching some of the innovations that will be discussed at the Think Tank and they are now in communication with the participants in the Think Tank, who have created a range of educational innovations in the area of citizenship and global education. On Thursday, te school is also hosting an Askwith Forum in collaboration with the Advanced Leadership Initiative which will focus on education for character and citizenship. This forum will be open to the entire HGSE community as well as the general public.

Q. What is the focus of that event?

A. This forum, as well as the entire Global Education Think Tank, focuses on an important purpose of education in an age of globalization: developing citizenship and global citizenship. We will examine the role educational institutions can and should play in developing skills and dispositions that prepare students for civic engagement, for working with others to make democracy succeed in the daily actions of ordinary citizens, for working across cultural and geographic divides addressing shared planetary challenges to advance freedoms and socialjustice, and achieve peace and sustainable forms of interaction with the environment.

The forum will include leaders who are advancing democratic citizenship education in emerging democracies, creating globally-themed high schools in the United States, engaging youth in global collaborations across the globe, bringing together emerging leaders of regions marked by historical conflict, and implementing innovative programs to develop character and leadership.

Q. What do you hope will be the take-away message from the conference?

A. That some of the most important education questions are questions of purpose. To paraphrase the inventor Alan Kay who once said that the best way to predict the future is to invent it, the most important way we can educate children and youth for the future is preparing them to invent it. Globalization is one of the most significant forces affecting our lives and as we think about purpose we must ask what needs to change in schools to prepare students for a more interdependent and highly-interconnected world. Social entrepreneurs are an important group inventing the answers to those questions and as educators we must study and shape this emerging field of education practice making sure it is well grounded in the best knowledge about learning and teaching, about how children and youth develop, and about how educational institutions are governed and funded so they contribute to valuable social purposes.