During last week’s Monday assembly, Mr. Mathata Mpela addressed our students. Mr. Mpela founded Nalane, an organization that has developed after school programs for orphaned and vulnerable children in Lesotho.

Mr. Mpela was born and grew up in Lesotho and studied in the United States. He spoke to us about privilege. While it is every child’s right to have access to a quality education, too many children do not. The reality is that those of us with a quality education are privileged.

‘What are you going to do with your privilege?’ Mr. Mpela asked us this question. Mr. Mpela, for a variety of reasons, decided to use his education and privileged position to help others.

After the assembly, Mr. Mpela met with our Middle School students. He went into more detail around the plight of Lesotho’s thousands of vulnerable children, why these children are vulnerable and why he decided to take action.

I asked him what he thought schools should focus on to develop more people that were willing to use their privilege to help others. His answer struck a chord with me and I believe that it is worth sharing:

  1.       Schools should teach children that it is important to love others.
  2.       Schools should provide children with opportunities to show their love for others.
  3.       Schools should teach children to think critically about important problems.
  4.       Schools should teach children to persevere.

Mr. Mpela’s answer speaks directly to my favorite quote of Dr. Martin Luther King, ‘Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.’

It takes character to love and to show love for others and it definitely takes character to persevere. Character can be taught. It can also be caught. People can be taught what it means to show love for another person or persevere or they can ‘catch’ love, perseverance, self-discipline, diligence, empathy, positivity or any other character trait from anyone that has it.

Whether a child is taught or catches character, Mr. Mpela wants schools to provide opportunities for children to show their character and their love for others. A good service learning program provides a context within which character can be both taught and caught. But in a busy school, service learning is also very susceptible to falling into the ‘nice idea but no time’ trap. Service learning that is explicitly connected to character education and development has a better chance of evading this trap. Service learning becomes an efficient and meaningful way in which to develop something that needs to be developed anyway.

Traditionally, schools have told students what to think about, what questions to answer, and what answers are right. This approach might lend itself to passing grades on standardized assessments but it does little to equip our children with the confidence and skills needed to solve problems that have confounded humanity for centuries or have not yet even been imagined. For this reason, more and more emphasis is now being placed on teaching students how to think.

It is easy to tell a child what to think. It is considerably more complicated to teach a child how to think. But in teaching children how to think, we are helping them imagine creative and innovative ideas that might just help us all.

Teaching children how to think is complicated by the fact that thinking is invisible. Making Thinking Visible (2011) presents the idea of thinking routines to help teachers make the invisible visible to promote and structure student thinking regardless of the subject or context. Thinking routines used in an environment where student thinking is truly valued, visible, and actively promoted become more than just activities. They provide students with mental models or ‘boxes’ within which students can think critically about any issue, identify problems and imagine creative and innovative solutions.

I believe that thinking routines are the key to future proofing our children’s education. We might not be able to anticipate the issues that our children will need to wrestle with in the future. Despite our best intentions, it may be that we are teaching them content and skills that will be redundant or obsolete in the not so distant future. But that might not matter if, while we are teaching that content and those skills, we are teaching our children how to think.

Mr. Mpela would suggest that students need opportunities to think critically about important problems. A good service learning program provides these opportunities that are difficult to replicate in a classroom. Classroom problems might be difficult but they tend to be abstract or hypothetical. Service learning invites students to think critically about current issues, identify problems that require immediate attention, imagine creative and innovative solutions to those problems, and ultimately take action.

Whatever the future holds, those that have the capacity to think and the character to act will be the ones making a positive difference. What a privilege it is to be in a position to support those that will be making that difference.