Teaching a Future President

What if we equipped every student with the tools to solve the world's most challenging problems?

October 13, 2016 9:25 AM
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By Zachary Herrmann

Zachary Herrmann is a candidate for the Doctor of Education Leadership degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is a former math teacher who researches and writes about teacher innovation. Follow Zachary (@zachherrmann) on Twitter.

Would you teach differently if you knew that a future president was sitting in your classroom?

A president’s job is a special kind of difficult — not just demanding, but exceedingly complex. One of President Obama’s advisers once said that nothing comes to the desk of the president unless it’s “almost impossible” — and he has to figure it out.

What sort of education would help prepare a future president for solving “almost impossible” problems?

Incidentally, presidents aren’t the only ones who have difficult jobs these days. Pathways to Prosperity, a 2011 report [PDF] from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, found that the labor market had transformed over the past several decades. Jobs now require more formal education and higher-level skills than ever before. But in spite of the new demands of this complex labor market, schools have yet to undergo a similarly monumental shift. Tony Wagner, a Harvard-based innovator in education, has probed the question of why even our “best” schools are not preparing students for success in college, career, and citizenship. In The Global Achievement Gap, Wagner offers seven “survival” skills for the 21st century, which I list below. What if we acted as if every student required these president-worthy skills?

The world is full of “almost impossible” problems, and schools need to prepare students to take them on.

1. Critical thinking and problem solving
Like the president, students must be given daily opportunities to dig into problems that are open-ended and messy. Imagine the power of students working on problems that haven’t already been solved by someone else.

2. Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
A president must find effective ways to work across differences and with diverse groups of individuals, organizations, and countries, building coalitions to solve truly complex challenges. Students must have the opportunity to collaborate in authentic ways around meaningful work. Classroom tasks must require students to coordinate, negotiate, influence, and collaborate in order to succeed.

3. Agility and adaptability
A president must have the ability to recognize and adjust to changes in the environment. While predictability and consistency certainly have their place in school, too much of them can stifle growth. Intentional and carefully designed uncertainty and volatility in classroom tasks and procedures can provide powerful opportunities for students to develop agility and adaptability.

4. Initiative and entrepreneurship
Just as a president must know when to act first and how to successfully navigate uncharted territory, students must be encouraged to think of new and important ideas and to find support as they explore them. Students have to recognize the difference between productive failure and unproductive success, and teachers must design their classroom systems and structures to reinforce thoughtful exploration.

Intentional, carefully designed uncertainty and volatility in classroom tasks can help students build agility and adaptability.

5. Effective oral and written communication
A president relies on adept communication skills to convey complex and important ideas to a variety of stakeholders across a variety of mediums. Students must be given frequent opportunities to share their ideas and develop their communication skills across disciplines, formats, and media.

6. Assessing and analyzing information
In a world where information and data can be used to make competing arguments, a president must have the skills and discipline to assess the veracity and relevance of information in order to make an informed and thoughtful decision. Students must be given problems where information is both scarce and abundant. They must have opportunities to sift, analyze, evaluate, and deploy information to make consequential decisions.

7. Curiosity and imagination
Presidents are rarely valued merely for what they know or can do. They are valued for their ability to envision future possibilities, create solutions never before imagined, and ask truly essential questions. For students to gain those same skills, curiosity and imagination must be nurtured. Teachers must help students find connections between disciplines and pursue answers to their own essential questions.

Whether or not you’ll ever teach a future president, each of your students will have to meet unprecedented demands placed upon them by college, career, and society. As educators, we should work to develop a long-term vision for our students, one that considers not only who they are today, but who they will one day become. The world is full of “almost impossible” problems, and schools need to prepare students to take them on.

Additional Resources

The Pathways to Prosperity Network, a project run by Jobs for the Future.

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