The IMPERATIVE Case for “Future-Proof” Parent Education

There is a shift afoot in the education paradigm.

It’s not news that the world we are preparing our students for is not the world from which we came. After a global pandemic, the greatest social unrest our country has experienced in decades, and the birth of ChatGPT, our schools must prepare our students for a very unknown and ambiguous tomorrow—and we must innovate curricular programs accordingly.

While educators and school leaders intuitively know this, the future is disturbingly at odds with how parents and caregivers of today’s school-aged and college-bound students have been programmed to think about educational excellence.

Despite being in workplaces where dramatic shifts are occurring under their noses, parents often cling to outdated notions of K-12 excellence as demonstrated through hours of homework, achievement of GPA and class rank, and admission to highly ranked colleges. Conversely, skills like collaboration, creativity, communication, and navigating ambiguity are miscategorized as “nice to have.”

Parents are the constituent group that can either pave the way for or stand in the way of curriculum innovation in our schools—so it’s imperative we use bolder thinking to meet the moment, and greater intentionality in how we engage them in this conversation. How can we help parents embrace the needed changes?

I’ve had the privilege of attending three gatherings of educators already in 2023: one local, one regional, and one national. And while each had different goals and formats, my key takeaways from the featured speakers are urgent and deafening. On the return flight from the third event, I was overcome with a feeling of responsibility to help school leaders educate their parent communities about what we learned.

The Local Event: A Board Retreat for a Liberal Arts College

“A robot-proof model of higher education is not concerned solely with topping up students’ minds with high-octane facts. Rather, it refits their mental engines, calibrating them with a creative mindset and the mental elasticity to invent, discover, or otherwise produce something society deems valuable.”

– Joseph Aoun, President of Northeastern University

Lisa Helmin Foss, Senior Consultant at AGB Consulting, shared this quote to help our Board (not of Northeastern) reimagine the liberal arts through the lens of entrepreneurial thinking vs. critical thinking. There are shifting public perceptions of the value of college, technology and digital transformation, and the changing nature of work and credentials are impacting colleges and universities nationwide. Colleges ignoring these realities are losing relevance and are unsustainable.

The Regional Event: An Annual Conference of the California Association of Independent Schools

“The future is not your ability to get a perfect score or your likelihood to go to a selective college. The future is taking the unknown and transforming it into something that matters.”

These words of theoretical neuroscientist, entrepreneur, and author Dr. Vivienne Ming still ring in my ears. Not only because her moving personal history inspired her to improve the lives of millions of people today (her AI systems benefit diabetics, bipolar sufferers, and even orphan refugees), but also because her work inspires educators to prepare students for an unknown tomorrow. School heads and trustees were urged to “future-proof” our students by teaching them to ask well-posed questions rather than solve well-posed problems.

The National Event: An Annual Conference of The Heads Network

“Our brains treat uncertainty like a threat. Our bodies go into a fight-or-flight threat response. Educators must design conditions and environments in which students practice to navigate ambiguity through enduring (getting to the other side), engaging (persisting until they get the right solution), and embracing (the new territory and new wonders).”

Author and Designer in Residence at the Institute of Design at Stanford, Lisa Kay Solomon’s goal was not to convince several hundred school leaders that we’re living in an age of ambiguity—they get it; they led their schools through the two-year journey of the coronavirus pandemic. Rather, Lisa is making the case that ambiguity will always be an inevitable part of work and life—teaching students to embrace and navigate that is a must.

My biggest takeaway: Future-proofing our students begins with future-proofing their parents.

The old model would suggest we invite parents to campus, put them in a room with an inspiring guest speaker (like those mentioned above), and cross our fingers they recognize the value of viewing education in new ways.

But if this isn’t the best way to teach children, how can it possibly have an impact on adults?

Here are three ways Mission Minded has collaborated with our school clients and their parent communities to elevate how they think about and plan for the future:

1. USE YOUR VALUES to guide you. It’s well understood that people generally fear change. So, rather than positioning innovative curricular advances that meet the moment as being monumental, talk instead about change through the clarity of your values:

Here’s how: “Our core value of ______ has always inspired and guided us to reimagine excellence and evolve how we approach teaching and learning.” Use the value of yours that most closely relates to academic excellence, curiosity, aiming high, engaging minds, or blazing the trail. This anchors change to strategic ideas that predate most of your parents, but are presumably values they admired when selecting your school.

2. IMAGINE THE FUTURE and plan backward. When parents describe what they imagine will be happening in classrooms in the year 2050, it’s never children sitting in rows—cemetery style—listening to lectures or taking multiple-choice tests. Instead, we hear, “they’re working in teams/with their hands,” “their teacher is Zooming in from overseas,” and even “what classroom?… they aren’t in one!” They get it. Engage your parents in exercises in which they imagine your campus, your classrooms, and how teaching and learning in 2050 differs from today. Next, ask them to articulate what they, as concerned and risk-averse parents, will need to forego to bring about that future.

3. SHOW, DON’T TELL, through experiential exercises how teaching and learning are evolving to equip students for a very different reality than the one parents remember and cling to. If you invite a futurist to campus to educate your parent community, break every mold you’ve ever followed in your parent education program: invite role-playing, engage them in using their hands, and challenge them to solve a ridiculously ambiguous problem. Whatever you do, don’t sit them in rows (maybe remove all the chairs!)… you won’t change minds if you don’t change their frame of reference, and that starts with you changing behaviors.

Once they experience the joy of learning in the same way we need to teach their children, they will be more likely to let go of what they are familiar and comfortable with.