Education, Leadership

Teaching One World

We all may truly want the same things for our students. A big question started as a little doubt, a little question, as I was thinking about our undergraduate majors here at ASU. The courses our undergraduate majors take are broadly similar to other Earth and space science programs, and our programs are doing well. But my little doubt intruded… are we missing something? Are these degrees, built upon a couple of centuries of university tradition, the right ones for graduates today?

Crowdsourcing Questions

I decided to crowd-source. I asked members of our whole school (students, staff, researchers, faculty, about 700 people in all), what do you want our students to end up with when they complete their undergraduate degrees? What ideas, what content, what knowledge, what behaviors, what attitudes, what aptitudes, what desires?

I asked them in a spring assembly, and they wrote their answers on Post-It notes and pressed them onto sheets of paper in the hallway as they exited. Then over the next months I held a series of smaller brainstorming sessions with faculty. In the end I had hundreds of responses. A giant pile of Post-Its and dozens of photos of whiteboards with writing all over them.


Last June I traveled with a small team of academic friends and family to Tanzania. Through the fantastic NGO HEAL International we had arranged to work with 102 secondary school STEM teachers over two days in the village of Tengeru.

These dedicated teachers came from hours away, on buses, and in some cases, on foot. All had Swahili as their first language and so we had a translator through our sessions to help with the more complex English. We met over breakfast, served under a sheltering roof in a beautiful walled courtyard of a German philanthropic group that worked in that village. Some of the teachers told us they had always wondered what was behind that wall: on the other side was the dusty village of small concrete houses and banana fields, cows and chickens and a bare area that became a marketplace twice a week.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton

Teachers almost everywhere are underpaid, Tanzanian teachers as well, and in a country that is working to advance while surrounded by troubled neighbors (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda). They work hard to give their students the best educational experience possible , even when they themselves may not have not majored in the topics they are asked to teach, or when the students’ homes are disruptive or lacking even in electricity for studying at night.

I thought there were parallels with the challenges we face in Arizona. But I worried that the differences were greater than the similarities.

Each of the two afternoons, my son Turner Bohlen and I ran a workshop segment on leadership. We talked about how teachers are leaders in their communities. Teachers are the people who can change and guide society. They hold the future in their hands. Some people were nodding their heads. But I still could not tell if we were truly communicating. Though we tried to be ready for the inevitable cultural disconnects and misconnects, we couldn’t know yet whether what we were trying would work.

We asked the teachers, what are your values, as a person, as a leader? We built a beautiful list. I began to think we were connecting.

The next question is, given your values, what do you hope your students graduate with? What skills, knowledge, abilities? This was the question I had asked the university in Arizona. Were these high school teachers ready and engaged on this level? The teachers brainstormed together in groups and then began to report back.

The teachers said:

We want our students to be curious, to be problem solvers, to be engaged with their communities. We want them to be creative, and tolerant, and we want them to be influential. I felt a chill and a shiver — these were the same things my colleagues at the university in Arizona had said.

Here’s what those hundreds of Post-It note answers back at the School of Earth and Space Exploration at ASU boiled down to:

  1. We want people who are willing and able to tackle complex unsolved problems.
  2. We want people who have some real-life job or research experience.
  3. We require the basic skills: reading, writing, speaking, and coding.

Notice: We all want our students to be attracted to unsolved problems, and to be able to solve them. We want our students to be curious, to be joyful. We want the same things. We humans. We want to bring up kids who make our society a better and happier place.

No one said, I want our students to be great at integration by parts. No one said, my students have to be able to identify the P-wave of an earthquake in a seismogram. No one said, my students will not serve society if they have not read Jude the Obscure. Not in Tanzania, and not in Arizona.

Everyone said reading, writing, speaking. And caring. And solving problems. Being curious, taking action, being connected to others.

We’re caught in a disconnect. History and society has created an education with strong components of memorization, recital, and standardized testing, yet we agree that these are not the skills we need for a better society . We are transitioning: the content in the classroom is in some places becoming a vehicle for teaching how to ask questions, how to solve problems, how to care for others, how to build teams. That is, the impetus is there to transform the educational experience to one we actually want for the next generations.

Educators are showing their own positive creativity and problem-solving. They are leading the way. They are being leaders. We can do this, world.

Author image

About Lindy Elkins-Tanton

Lead of NASA Psyche mission; School of Earth and Space Exploration and Interplanetary Initiative at ASU; co-founder of Beagle Learning (www.beaglelearning.com)
  • Phoenix, Arizona