The Fierce Urgency of Now: Reimagining Education at the Speed of Change


We live in unprecedented times. New challenges, opportunities, and technologies present themselves almost daily. The future of work is a moving target, and changing demographics and global challenges require new skills and dispositions to successfully navigate our communities and workplaces.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman says we are living through a “Promethean moment.” We cannot slow the pace of change, but we can transform our education system to meet this moment and adequately prepare all young people to thrive in their communities, locally and globally.

Here are three important ways to reimagine learning and create a system that helps students know more, care more, and do more.

Elevate skills

If we want young people to be responsible and engaged citizens, we need to teach them the skills and dispositions this requires. We must rethink and reimagine the classroom experience, along with the traditional assessments teachers have used. No longer should we be grading to see if a student knows dates, facts, and definitions—they can find that information on their phones. Instead, we should be grading their ability to think critically and creatively about the information before them, ask deep and probing questions, seek out multiple perspectives, form opinions based on fact and exploration, and find comfort in ambiguity. 

In life, there are no easy answers. Why should school be different? 

It is also time that we shift our language when describing empathy, resilience, and collaboration. These are not “soft skills.” In our complex and interconnected world, they are essential skills, and they should be taught and assessed with intention and urgency.  

Elevate relevance

At a recent event in rural Minnesota, I shared a series of statements with students and asked them to stand if it applied to them. “I use the internet everyday.” Everyone was on their feet. “What I learn in school feels relevant to my life outside of school.” No one moved.

Students can practice critical thinking, research, empathy, and collaboration with any topic, so why not give them topics relevant to their lives right now and that prepare them to engage in a world that is complex, interconnected and rapidly changing? 

This shift requires a reimagining of the role of school. So much of K-12 education is about core requirements and checking boxes. It is based on what adults think kids should know, just in case. But a just-in-case education is not getting it done. We need a just-in-time model that encourages curiosity, perspective taking, and deep thinking. We can give students work that directly connects to the world beyond the classroom so that they can begin to make sense of the present and get prepared for the future. 

Elevate student choice and agency

Many schools offer students choices when it comes to the classes they take. It is good for kids to have options, but none of those choices matter as much as the choices they get to make once they are in the classroom.  

Students need to have a voice in their own learning. Essential skills like critical thinking, coping and resilience, and questioning prevailing assumptions can be demonstrated in a myriad of ways, so let’s give students some power over how they show growth in these areas. When teachers move from the center of the classroom, a place where they are the keepers of knowledge, and into the role of facilitators of their students’ learning, they empower students to fully and authentically engage with the material and learn to think for themselves. There is nothing more powerful than asking a student, “What do you care most about?” and seeing their curiosity ignited. Schools can and should help students identify their passions and prepare them to take informed action on the issues that matter to them.

School should not be a place that kids have to get through in order to do something more exciting; it should not be a box that has to be checked. School should be a place where important and complex work gets done, where students feel seen and valued, and where they learn how to see and value others. By centering the development of the essential skills and dispositions that young people need to thrive in this ever-changing world, schools can create learning spaces that are relevant, inclusive, and engaging—places where students want to be. We can transform classrooms into places that move beyond what kids know and instead focus on what kids can do with what they know. This is what the world needs: a generation of young people who are curious, empathetic, critical thinkers who will take action on issues of global significance. 

The time is now to start reimagining what is possible, so that young people can graduate not only with the skills and dispositions they need, but that the world needs.

— Mallory Tuominen

Mallory Tuominen is the chief program officer at World Savvy. Beginning her career as a classroom teacher, Mallory was quickly exposed to the inequities in public education and worked diligently to create a classroom that was inclusive, relevant and real-world based, while holding all of her students to high standards. A desire to work more closely with educators to develop their cultural competence inspired Mallory to leave the classroom and join the Minnesota Humanities Center. Working closely with community members in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Greater Minnesota, Mallory developed and facilitated humanities-based professional development offerings for educators. 

Prior to joining World Savvy in 2015, Mallory worked as an Assessment Manager in Chicago Public Schools providing leadership around assessment for student learning for the district’s high schools. She also worked as an Instructional Supports Manager for Minneapolis Public Schools, collaborating to support the district’s new and tenured educators through professional development and mentorship. Throughout her 15 year career in education, Mallory’s focus has always remained on high-quality teaching and learning and providing educators with professional learning opportunities to transform practice. 

Mallory holds a BA in History and an MEd in Social Studies Education, both from the University of Minnesota. She also holds an MEd in Education, Culture and Society from DePaul University and a certificate in Instructional Design from the University of Illinois – Urbana Champaign. She can be reached at

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