Our Schools Can Turn Students into Lifelong Learners — If We Empower Them


As adults, each of us depends on our education—or more precisely, on our ability to continue to learn.

Education is not a period in a person’s life. It is a process that manifests itself throughout one’s lifetime. We apply our critical thinking skills at work, in our attempts to make sense of social mores, in our parenting practices and community engagement opportunities. Our numeracy permits us to budget and plan, to forecast and analyze, to comprehend consequences and play out scenarios. We need to write elegantly and persuasively to share knowledge and advocate our beliefs.

We are a country that values, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We seek to give every individual a chance. The resulting opportunities depend on perseverance, hard work, grit, and even luck. But the possibility itself –the individual opportunity that is America’s great contribution – comes to us through education. Without a quality education, an individual cannot access the promise inherent in our national vision.

High School Today

The hard reality is that not all students in our country are getting the kind of education that sets them up for success. An increasing number of American students are not prepared to succeed at college. They are unprepared for 21st century citizenship and a 21st century workforce. This is especially prevalent with respect to the lowest-income students and to students of color as revealed by performance-gap statistics. This gap undermines our very aspiration to equality.

In addition, we’re lagging behind the rest of the world in innovation and opportunity. Consider these alarming facts:

  • Globally, we rank 17th in literacy, 20th in science, and 27th in math.
  • Only 2 out of 5 of our high school graduates are college-ready.

These troubling statistics suggest the magnitude of the challenge that confronts us. Without the renewable energy of bright and trained minds, we will struggle to lead in the future.

The Evolution of the American High School

The American high school was instituted to produce workers for the industrial age – for rote jobs and defined tasks. But the industrial age has given way to the post-industrial age, to the information age, to the digital age, and the American high school must keep pace with these revolutions. A new kind of learner will require a new kind of learning.

In America today, college, work, and citizenship require critical thinking and imaginative problem-solving. In a world where entire cohorts of children have a decent probability of living to 100, an ability to re-imagine and reinvent one’s own path becomes essential.

So what does a school look like when its purpose is to bring out in every student the capacity for lifelong learning? It would be a school that favors thinking over memorization, mastery over passing the test, self-determined work and ambition over rote assignments, personalized learning over mechanized tracks. This school would build confidence and esteem, and support the concept of life-long learning. And this school would be built for all communities—every color, creed, income level, and origin. An all-out school for all.

To the end of making this school a reality, we recently helped launch a nationwide invitation for the best local ideas to spur new thinking for high schools. XQ: The Super School Challenge is based on a belief that though resources and wealth are not evenly distributed in America, imagination, creativity, and hard work are. XQ is an open call to all communities across the nation to field teams that will generate ideas to radically rethink high school – a student-centered, design-driven method that will spark bold new thinking.

It is time for American education to take the leap that will level the playing field and allow our youth to take advantage of evolving knowledge regarding creativity, globalism and technology. The struggle for a better society begins in the struggle for better schools.

Our work at Emerson Collective is guided by an unwavering belief that a quality education is the greatest key to unlocking human potential. Our students are our future.