We can’t just go “back” to school; we must reinvent it

Across the country, high schools and colleges are working mightily to safely open their doors and get “back to normal.” 


But shame on us if we aspire only to “normal.”  In-person, remote, or hybrid—at its core, our education system deserves a failing grade.


Long before the pandemic, our schools were precariously out of step with the demands and opportunities of the 21st century—in part, because we’ve been relying on a centuries-old model. 


We still use GPAs and test scores to measure aptitude, even while letter grades no longer represent what a student has learned and robots can now ace entrance exams. We define the path to success narrowly, hustling students from high school to college, even though just 3% of U.S. college students report having a transformative experience that “fosters personal success and happiness.” We send young people hurtling into adulthood without any sense of who they are beyond the lines on their resume. 


The results are what William Deresiewicz calls “excellent sheep,” box-checkers and profit-maximizers whose myopic definition of success reflects the system they were brought up in––and whose leadership has pushed society to the brink of a mass-extinction event. 


The pandemic has forced us to rethink everything from how we work to how we visit the doctor. It must also inspire us to reimagine the institutions most responsible for defining our shared future: our schools.


Today, we have a once-in-a-generation chance to throw out the old playbook. 


For two decades, I’ve been obsessed with the gathering crisis in education and a question we keep avoiding but urgently need to answer:  As inequality widens, pandemics rage and temperatures rise, how will we equip young people with the insights, skills and networks needed to address our complex global challenges? 


Through my exploration, I’ve become convinced of two things: First, what today’s young people most need to learn can’t be taught in a classroom alone. The challenges our young people will face as they come of age will require a new set of skills, what we might refer to as the REAL skills of the future:


The resilience required to find comfort in ambiguity, and problem-solve in an uncertain world. The empathy to connect with people of all cultures, backgrounds, and economic classes. The agency to define one’s own path, and the confidence to choose it. And the leadership practices—curiosity, conviction, and courage—that drive real change.


In my own experience, these skills have been foundational to my personal development and professional success — and yet my formal education did little to cultivate them.  Only by venturing far beyond my campus and comfort zone did I learn what gets me out of bed when there’s no alarm clock, who my teachers are when they aren’t assigned, and what syllabus I follow when there’s no final exam.  


The second insight is that the year after high school — when a young person has the maturity to leave home but has not yet fixed their values or identity — is unparalleled in its developmental magic. 


Societies and religions have long recognized late adolescence as a pivotal moment for formative experiences.  From the Mormon mission to the “gap years” popular across Europe, time immersed in the world beyond the classroom launches young people into adulthood with maturity and perspective. 


Evidence shows that students who have access to such experiences emerge with the self-awareness and sense of purpose that are key predictors of success in college, and beyond.  


But the idea has yet to catch on widely in the U.S.  While the concept of a “gap year” has become de rigueur in elite circles, the vast majority of participants are still wealthy and white.  


Global Citizen Year, the non-profit I founded and lead, seeks to change this. Our immersive Fellowship and virtual Academy allow high school graduates from diverse backgrounds (more than 80% receive financial aid) to spend a year developing those REAL skills, and learning about people whose lives are wholly unlike their own. 


Preparing the leaders our world needs will require a new path into adulthood — one which embeds a year of exploration, apprenticeship and real-world learning into our educational paradigm. Finding one’s purpose can’t be a privilege, it must become a shared rite of passage.  


Colleges can lead the way, by making “launch years” a requirement for admission––and by granting course credit and financial aid. Employers can sponsor these experiences as an investment in a more diverse and adaptable talent pipeline. Counselors and teachers can empower high school seniors to step off the treadmill to figure out who they are, and who they hope to become. And each of us can resolve to ignite the next generation’s commitment to repair the broken world they will inherit. 


To those who will say the cost of adding this year is untenable, consider this: we know the price of the status quo individually and collectively, and we can’t afford to maintain it.


The Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy has compared the pandemic to a portal, “a gateway between one world and the next,” a marked break from what was––and a precious opportunity to decide what will be. 

Let’s rise to the occasion.  We must resist the pull simply to go “back” to school, filling in the gaps from a “lost year.” Instead, let’s seize this moment to launch education into the 21st century, and shape the leaders who will shape––perhaps even save––our world.  

Abby Falik is the founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year — and an expert on social innovation and the changing landscape of education.


Illustration by Lucie Rice

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Global Citizen Year is moving forward as part of our new, larger brand: Tilting Futures. New name, same mission, expanded programs and impact.