MohitAtTEDTalkMohit at TEDx Costa Rica: On The Three Most Important Aspects of Educating Changemakers

Educating Changemakers: Not Another Brick in the Wall 

I know a lot about all of you here. I’ve been studying you for a long time.

Who here is a parent?

I know that you’re concerned about what your kids are going to do when they grow up. You wonder what’s the best education for them.  But more than anything else, you want them to be happy.

Who here is a student?

I’ve been observing you too. I know that often, when you’re sitting in class, you lose interest and get bored. But yet, you are smart, curious, and love learning.

Who here is an educator?

I know that sometimes you feel like you are stuck with a curriculum that has not been updated for many years.  You really want to impact your students’ lives, but there are times when it’s very difficult to keep then engaged.

Ok – so who here has not yet raised their hand?

I know something about you too! I know where you live. I also know that your home is at a critical juncture in history. Issues like environmental degradation, social injustice, violation of human rights are putting it at risk. In fact, we share this one fragile home, also called planet earth.

Ooh – I feel like I’m getting people depressed and I don’t want to do that. Ok so here’s the good news. I’m going to talk about four things schools need to do to transform the problems I described.

They are:

  1. To help students reflect on their purpose
  2. Focus on their strengths
  3. Adopt Inquiry Based Learning and
  4. Nurture Empathy

Watch the Video (and see the rest of the transcript below)


1. Reflect on Purpose:

Let me start by telling you the story of how I decided to go into education. I was 25 years old, working as a management consultant, and living in San Franciso. My childhood best friend, Julien, who I had not seen in several years, was visiting me. He arrived a few days before our vacation started and had observed me leaving for work every morning in a dark suit and then return about 12 hours later.  As we drove down the coast of CA, he asked me: “Mohit, why did you become a management consultant?” I struggled to explain to my best friend what I did and why I had chosen that that job, ending with “I’m gaining a lot of skills across different industries.”

This question had made me feel very uncomfortable so I changed the focus to him and asked, “Julien, what are you doing?”  “Mohit, you know me well.” Julien answered.  “I love kids, I love sports, and I feel when kids engage in sports it’s good for them – so I became a sports teacher.” It took Julien less than 30 seconds to explain to me not only what he did but why he did it too. Julien had found his calling.

This exchange helped me realize that I had never thought deeply about my purpose. So at the age of 25, I started reflecting on the question: What did I really care about and what was I going to do about it?’. Within a year of that conversation, I had left my job in corporate America and transitioned into teaching. That was 15 years ago and I’m so grateful for that decision.

These conversations about purpose cannot be left to chance!

We ask children “What do you want to do when you grow up?” but we should be asking them: “What impact do you want to have when you grow up?”


2. Focusing on Strengths and not Weaknesses:

When I was eight years old, my family moved from the Calcutta, India, to Geneva, Switzerland.  I remember being terrified my first day of school – not only was I new kid in school but I did not speak French, which was the language of instruction.  But I’ll never forget my first contact with my new teacher. My mom, who spoke French, was explaining to him about how concerned that I was starting school in a new language and that she would work extra hard with me.

Mr. Belde, a young tall man with a spark in his eye, smiled at me, and bent down, shock my hand, and said to me in his best English:

“Don’t worry, you’ll be just fine! You can help us all learn English”.

By focusing on my strengths rather than my weaknesses, he gave the self confidence that is still with me today.

The research from the field of psychology is overwhelming – we rise to meet the expectations set for us. We learn much better when we feel confident, validated, and are enjoying the process. Sport coaches and executive coaches alike are using this approach.

  • Do we really need more research before we implement this strengths-based approach in our schools?
  • Can we start putting the spotlight on the ‘high grades’ and not the ‘low ones’?

Probably not as long as there is a standardized curriculum all our unique students must go through. So, let’s change that! Our schools need to help children to discover what they’re really good at and then develop those strengths even further.


3. Inquiry Based Learning:

For those of you who are students and find yourselves sometimes bored in class, here is what’s probably going on:

  • you had very little say in deciding what you learn.
  • you don’t know why you are learning it and
  • you don’t find it relevant to the world you live in

 Story: Belde Throwing out his lesson plans

Five years ago, I had the opportunity to meet up with my teacher 3rd grade teacher again – the same man who had shaken my hand 30 years ago. We spent a fantastic hour together catching up.  I let him know how influential he had been in my life and asked him: “Mr. Belde, what’s your secret sauce to teaching?”  He smiled, and replied: “You know Mohit, no surprises there – you have to care for your students and do what it takes.”

Then, after a pause, he added. “But there is one thing that I do every year, that’s not easy to do, but I think makes all the difference. I take all my lesson plans and trash them. I re-create new ones every year. It’s a lot of work.  But the fact is Geneva has changed so much since the 1980’s when you were in my student.”

Mr. Belde has entered the 21st Century with a curriculum that reflects the changing times.

I have been working with social entrepreneurs for nearly a decade. I hear stories of young social entrepreneurs who are dropping out of school to start organizations that are impacting society positively. They are following an issue that they are passionate about and that plays to their strengths. And guess what? They have created a job for themselves in the process.  Our schools need help nurture these changemakers – not force them to drop out because of the rigidity of our curriculum!

How could we put such a curriculum in place? What if we asked our students the question:

What’s the impact you want to make and how can we support you?  

Their self-generated inquiry question would become the backbone of their learning.

In fact, a charter school that has done exactly that. Students develop an inquiry question which they then focus on for a semester. The different subject areas, such as Math, English, Social Studies, integrate into their semester-long inquiry.

We need such schools not to be the exception but the norm. Crowdsourcing the curriculum from our students – wow, what a concept!


4. Nurturing Empathy

Bill Drayton, a pioneering social entrepreneur, affirms that with the world changing faster and faster the rules matter less and less. We’re increasingly dependent on the people around us to guide our behavior, which requires more sophisticated empathetic skills.

Empathy is at the heart of Emotional Intelligence. It is not being explicitly nurtured in schools and it needs to be. We live in a world where more and more of the analytical work is being done by computers. Empathy is fundamentally human – it cannot be outsourced. Empathy can certainly help young people be more successful in our global economy that requires increasing collaboration. And it is a signature-strength of Changemakers.

Can schools help develop empathy? Certainly!  I teach at a university that focuses on transforming conflict. It helps develop the skills of our students to step in the shoes of the ‘other’ through techniques like role-playing. Such approaches can start at a much younger age. And frankly, I can’t think of a better way to prevent bullying at schools than nurturing empathy.


So what if we did all this? What if we changed our schools and more broadly our educational process to:

  1. Help students reflect on their purpose
  2. Develop their strengths
  3. Encourage Inquiry Based Learning
  4. And nurture empathy

This is not rocket science. If we did this we’d be providing the conditions for them to happy.

So I have a vision. I have a vision of schools where students graduate with confidence in their abilities to address some of the biggest challenges facing us.

I see youth with razor-sharp clarity of purpose, who understand themselves and their unique strengths. Youth who are not afraid to try, fail, and learn from their mistakes.

I can picture youth unemployment becoming extinct as these changemakers will create their own jobs. Jobs that are meaningful won’t feel like work as they love what they do.

But perhaps most importantly, our students will be fulfilled – and by that I mean where they measure success not by how much they have accumulated, but by the impact they are having.

I am a student; I am an educator, and I am a parent too – I look forward to being the change! (Thank you)

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