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Difference Making at the Heart of Learning

Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented countless times because she knew it would make a difference in the lives of women in the future. She knew that taking a stand, crafting an argument, and ultimately getting to work on behalf of other women would fundamentally change human rights. She knew it would make a difference. 

More than ever, we need young people to be activists and leaders who will follow in her footsteps. People who find their purpose or a cause that matters to them and prioritize doing something about it. A healthy democracy depends on communities to contribute and that work to address our world’s most pressing issues and challenges. 

We know young people care. We know they want to make a difference. We also know that many of their K-12 schooling experiences haven’t engaged them in ways that help them contribute to their communities in meaningful ways. The pandemic, resulting in a massive flux of learners at home, has only further highlighted how critical it is to engage learners in meaningful learning experiences.  

In our new book, Difference Making at the Heart of Learning, we highlight why difference making matters, how there has never been a better time for young people to contribute, and examples of schools and communities around the country that are prioritizing community-connected projects.    

With a new priority set and leadership focused on contribution and not compliance, communities and schools can help young people figure out how they want to make a difference. Schools alive with difference making have a positive and inclusive culture, increased student agency,  and see broader engagement and more self-directed learners. 

The book is divided into three sections, each building on one another: 

Part 1: We Are All In This Together 

For the first time in history, challenges–pandemics, climate, trade, and nuclear war– are shared globally. Opportunities–communication, computing, capacity for creation, and access too capital–are also more broadly shared. This mutuality demands that we extend dignity to every person and acknowledge mutual dependence. 

Unfortunately, many have experienced more oppression than mutuality. In the innovation economy, inequity is expanding rather than contracting. That is why our first work is to connect, to create communities and schools where people feel a sense of belonging. We need to start with young people where they are, what they need, and what they care about. Through community-connected projects, young people connect with their strengths and interests, and they gain a sense that they can make a difference. 

In the book, we present an “Earth Owners Manual,” or the 25 most important issues of our time. These are issues that we could, in this new mutuality, work on together and with young people.  We believe these issues ought to be the frame for learning in schools—driving students’ lifelong quest to find purpose and contribute through meaningful projects and work. 

Part 2: Everyone Has A Big Next Step 

Everyone can make a difference. We believe that everyone has extraordinary potential to do so, and the expanding opportunities that technology brings can exponentially grow our ability to create solutions for our most pressing challenges. It is up to us to prioritize relationships, meaningful work complemented by smart technologies, and helping to unleash the potential of every individual. Prioritizing these challenges and putting them at the center of schooling could lead to a more just, stable and productive world. 

At the heart of this new priority set is helping young people find their purpose so that their work is aligned directly to who they want to be and how they uniquely choose they want to contribute. 

Part 3: Schools Alive With Possibility 

If we want all young people to have the space to explore strengths, dream possible futures, and begin making their unique contribution, we need schools that are alive with possibility. Students need sustained mentors and relationships that support them in their academic, social, emotional, and physical well-being.  

If we want to be healed, especially those communities who have been oppressed and systematically left out, we have to create connections and meet students where they are. Institutions of learning have the opportunity to connect talents, purpose, and opportunities for youth—synthesizing who they are with who they want to ultimately become in their lives and in this world. Building on learners’ backgrounds, not dismissing them, ought to be at the heart of their experiences in schools. 

Schools that do this work well—schools that provide learners the space to explore their purpose and dreams, support to achieve academic, physical, and emotional health, and that help them to connect their goals with opportunities and meaningful projects—are what we should be striving towards. Schools like this, schools alive with possibility, are emerging in cities and towns across the country and around the world. In the book, we share countless examples of schools and students who are already making a difference. 

Whether you are K-12 educator or a community member working with young people, find a way to work on a project that makes a difference. The time is now!  

Join the #differencemaking movement: 

  1. Buy the book. Order a copy of the book!  
  2. Sign-up for our book club 
  3. Join our Virtual Launch Party. Join us on November 18th at 6:00PM ET/3:00PM PT.


For more on difference making, follow Tom at @tvanderark and @Getting_Smart and Emily at @EmilyLiebtag. 

Written by

Tom Vander Ark is an advocate for innovations in learning. As CEO of Getting Smart, he advises schools, districts, networks, foundations and learning organizations on the path forward. A prolific writer and speaker, Tom is author of Getting Smart, Smart Cities That Work for Everyone, Smart Parents, Better Together and The Power of Place and has published thousands of articles and co-authored more than 50 books and white papers. He writes regularly on GettingSmart.com, LinkedIn, and contributes to Forbes. Previously he served as the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Tom served as a public school superintendent in Washington State and has extensive private sector experience. Tom is a board member for Education Board Partners, Director for 4.0 Schools, Digital Learning Institute, Latinx Education Collaborative, Mastery Transcript Consortium and eduInnovation and an Advisor for One Stone, Teton Science Schools and Whittle School & Studios.

Dr. Emily Liebtag supports communities in their efforts to lead innovation and school change from the ground up. Emily has been a teacher in a Title 1 elementary school, an instructor at the University of Virginia, and most recently was the Vice President of Advocacy at a national education firm. Emily has helped lead national projects focused on school transformation. Her work on these projects has ranged from designing strategic plans to creating long-term evaluations, to hosting community conversations. She has led over 100 learning trips with educators and community members to see innovative practices in schools across the country.

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