The Future of Smart with Ulcca Joshi Hansen (Ep. 291)

Author, educator, researcher, and advocate Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen joins Tim today to discuss her new book, The Future of Smart. Dr. Hansen is currently Chief Program Officer at Grantmakers for Education, where she works with educational philanthropists committed to ensuring that all young people have access to equitable learning opportunities. Listen as they discuss the opportunity we have to remake our schools, how students should follow their passions and strengths, and why we need to rethink what it means to be smart. Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education University and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

I am very excited today to introduce you to Ulcca Joshi Hansen, an educator, and thinker, and writer, and an advocate for how we can change education for the better. Now, Ulcca has a BA in philosophy from Drew University, a PhD from the University of Oxford and a JD from Harvard Law School. She has been working in education almost her entire adult life, and she is currently the Chief Program Officer at Grantmakers for Education, where she works with educational philanthropists committed to ensuring that all young people have access to equitable learning opportunities.

Ulcca is here today to talk about her book, The Future Of Smart. Now I’ve had a chance to read The Future Of Smart, and it is spectacular. It’s very much in the same vein of Sir Ken Robinson, who you all know that I love, but both of them want us to seize on the idea that we have an opportunity to rethink what we are doing in education, rethink what we are doing with our students, take another look at what our schools look like, what opportunities we provide and how we teach the kids that come to us.

As Ulcca says, we need to rethink what it means to be smart. And we need to provide opportunities for students to explore their passions and their strengths and help them to find their place in the world. And I would say, I would add to that, as both an educator and a parent, that it feels like there’s just so much more out there for our kids. We have the potential to do so much better than we are currently doing. And there is just this disconnect between what we want for our kids and what they can actually get out of their school experience. And Ulcca has some ideas on how we can close that gap. So I want to talk to her today about those ideas, what she thinks we should be doing and providing for our students and how we as art teachers can do our part to change education for the better. So here is Ulcca Josh Hanson. All right, and Ulcca is here now. Thank you so much for joining me. How are you today?

Ulcca: I’m doing really well. Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Tim: Yeah. We are excited to chat with you. I guess before we get started, I want to say we were able to put together this interview and it came from an old interview I did with Sir Ken Robinson and I know you were able to work with him a long time back. So before we start talking about your book and all that other stuff, do you have any stories to share? Do you have anything that you can tell us about your experience working with Sir Ken Robinson in the past?

Ulcca: So I feel like Sir Ken sandwiched a lot of my professional life. My first job after teaching was with the Gerald R Dodge foundation in New Jersey and Dodge worked with Getty on the learning in the arts initiative that Sir Ken, although he was only Professor Ken Robinson, but I remember, and we all talked about it afterwards.

We remembered hearing him speak and everyone walked away, “That was brilliant. He’s amazing.” And then of course, I think it was 2001 that his TED Talk went around the world and I think became a household name, but one of the things I most remember about those early days of working with him, I was getting ready to go over to the UK and had asked him to support some of my work with my doctoral dissertation work and we had a long conversation about the arts and creativity and a little bit of a… Not a huge disagreement, but a little bit of a disagreement where, to my mind, part of what is valuable about the arts, they are inherently valuable and part of why they foster creativity is that if you’re an actor or a singer or a painter, you can’t get to the outcome without going through process.

And so we’re very attentive to process in the arts. And to me, the same could be true of history or of math or of science, where if our focus was on the process of learning the process of doing, that it’s that process that engages the creative capabilities. And so it feels like a very important topic and conversation.

We need the arts and schools, we should be advocating to bring them back and have them be a central part. And I think we should be focusing on this idea of process and how do we weave that throughout all of the work that students do as a means of developing creativity? So it was wonderful to reconnect with him again a couple of years ago to work at Boundless before his passing. So he was a really important foundational figure for me. So thanks-

Tim: Yeah, that’s awesome and I love all of those ideas as why I feel like you’re speaking to art teachers’ hearts there. Like that’s the stuff that we love talking about. Okay. So in the introduction to the episode, I gave a short primer that talks a little bit about your new book called The Future Of Smart, but can you share a little bit more about the book, the ideas that are in it, and I guess why you just think it’s so important that we take a closer look at our education system right now?

Ulcca: So the book itself is trying to help us think differently about what it means to be smart and the role our system plays in that. So what would it look like to move from a system that asks the question, “Are you smart,” right? Where there’s a yes or no to, “How are you smart and in what ways do you have capability that make you able to contribute to the world?” And so the book takes… It spends a lot of time in the beginning trying to help us spend time on understanding the values and assumptions that undergird our conventional system and how we got here. And the second part of the book brings us to, okay, so here’s the landscape right now and here’s why it’s really difficult for programs that operate in ways that are about human centeredness, that are about creativity, individual potential, why it’s so hard for them to operate.

And then the third part is really a step by step what would it take to get from here to there? And I think it’s a critical conversation. I remember I was probably 13 or 14 thinking about what I wanted to do and I remember thinking there are these issues I care about in the world, whether it was climate change or poverty. And I thought, “But those are all about the world that we built and the world is built out of people.” And so if you want to actually prevent many of the issues that we spend so much time and money trying to fix, it feels like education is the place. And I think over the last decade, we’ve seen whether it’s in the disruption of civil society, democracies, climate, the economies of different countries, we’ve seen all of these things that I think have us all talking about the world that we want versus the world that we have.

And so I wrote the book very intentionally to not only be for educators, but to really say, even if you’re a grandparent or even if you have no kids, you should care about education. And there are ways in which you can be a part of building something different.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely. It’s so much stronger if we’re all invested in that. And I think that’s an idea that needs to be out there more. So that’s an excellent point. So one thing I think is great about your book, one thing I really appreciated is that each section ends with suggestions on how to apply the idea. It’s not all just theory, like you have actual specifics, but I want to ask you about one idea that really caught my attention. You said that less than 10% of Americans define success for themselves in terms of status and in terms of how we compare to other people, but a vast majority of people think that other people define success in that way. So I guess my question is about whether you think school should reinforce that idea. What does it mean to be successful in school right now? And what should it mean to be successful in school?

Ulcca: So that bit of research, I want to give credit to Dr. Todd Rose and Populous, his organization that does broad scale social research that I think is one of their key findings, right? That our narratives around success, our narratives around widespread beliefs often influence our actions, even if they are at odds with our own beliefs. And so this one about success… I do think schools reinforce that idea, right, so that we say we have parents and I think you see this more and more as kids get older, right? So when kids are young, we’re willing to put them into play based preschool or Montessori and then as you get into middle school and high school, all of a sudden, our definitions, parents go, “My kid’s not happy. Something feels like it’s not right.” And yet at the end of it, they need to have a high GPA.

They need to have a resume that looks really compelling. They need to be able to get into one of the top colleges. You can make a list. I think we all could, and schools absolutely reinforce that idea. I think of it as the way that the game is defined. And so people look at the game. They don’t like the game. They know they don’t enjoy playing the game. They know their kids aren’t doing well inside the game, right. They go, “But I have to have my kids succeed in the game as it is.” And if we could all recognize, right, that really the current system doesn’t serve anyone well. I think even the people like me, right. I played the game of school pretty well. I know, well said to me, “Isn’t it a bit ironic that you’re saying that now and it is true.

I played the game of school pretty well. And what I will say is that my parents… I did study abroad programs and missed my senior high school. I did theater. I did all sorts of activities and for my parents, that stuff was learning as well. And so even inside of school, I was playing the game of school, but I was the one who was researching ESP and reincarnation! That was what was interesting to me. So I think I played the game, but I think I wasn’t as constrained, but I think there are a lot of kids today and the research bears this out, even though they look like they’re doing fine underneath it all, they are stressed, they’re anxious, they are not happy, they’re not enjoying their learning. And at the end of the day, I don’t think they’re developing the skills, the mindsets, the capabilities that we know they’re going to need in the world of tomorrow.

So I think one way that I talk with parents about this is up until now, the safest bet was probably to give your child the thing that worked for you. Right. [crosstalk 00:11:36] was fine. I didn’t love it, but it worked for me. I’m successful now. I would say putting your child on that path now is like putting them on a path that’s crumbling towards them because of the changes in technology, in artificial intelligence, in the rate of change, where there’s just going to be a lot of instability and opportunity to upskill, to relearn. And so we have to, I think, for the first time grapple with the fact that we might feel like we’re experimenting with our children, by giving them something really different, but actually we’re not. We’re simply being responsible in preparing them for a future that’s very different than the one that we were going to be entering.

Tim: Yeah. That’s next. I remember you talking in your TED Talk a little bit about that with just how do we prepare kids for the future? I think you brought up the point, who knew what an app was 20 years ago and now there’s so many jobs out there. And so, yeah, I think that’s a big shift in thinking and just trying to figure out how we are going to navigate this with our kids. I think that’s an excellent point. If I can shift gears for a second here, I wanted to talk to you about the idea of building community in schools and the importance of helping students feel a sense of belonging. It’s something I have always worked towards as a teacher with students in my classroom. I think a lot of teachers feel the same way, but I want to ask you, how can we, as teachers do some of those things in our classroom? How can we help students feel like they belong or feel like they’re part of something?

Ulcca: I have been so glad to hear the term belonging surfacing in the last couple of years in a way that I haven’t heard or seen in the last two decades. And I think you you name it, right. It’s such an important part. I write in the book about… I think for a lot of reasons, I always felt like I never belonged anywhere, and so what drew me to the kinds of schools that I explore in these human centered schools was at its core, this idea that it was a space where people belonged. I couldn’t intellectualize that, but the book tries to delve into that. I think, absolutely that feels like the central starting place but we can’t [inaudible 00:13:59], right? We can’t be anything else. We can’t really do anything else until we feel safe and known and seen and valued, and relationships are the ways in which we as human beings have that happen for us.

I think this question of how do we, as adults, make space for that… I’ve grappled with that as a parent. I remember when my first son was born, I was like, “Oh my God, I don’t know how to open myself up to this sense of vulnerability, to this sense of letting go of my own idea of who he is supposed to be based on my biases, my values, versus letting him be who he’s going to be.” So I feel like we live in a culture that doesn’t ever really teach us how to do this, right. We assume we’re just born knowing how to belong and knowing how to allow other people to belong. And I think that’s actually wrong. And I think our society, a lot of the institutions and rituals and traditions that used to be a part of building that fabric amongst people, we’ve let them go by the wayside without replacing them with anything else.

So all this to say, it’s a really long way to say to your teachers who are listening, it’s hard. So first of all, I think being compassionate with yourself that we are asking ourselves to sit in a space of vulnerability of openness of doing the work of getting comfortable with ourselves enough, that our sense of identity, our sense of safety as people, isn’t contingent on and isn’t going to be wrestled or disrupted by who someone else is. So that when my child comes to me and he’s in my mind being defiant or not doing something or pushing back, that I can step back and say, “Actually, this isn’t about me. This is about something that’s going on with him and can I be compassionate with myself for having the reaction that I do,” might be a push back, right, compassionate with myself, and then to step back a little bit and go, “Okay, so what’s going on with you?”

And so I think of it as like, how do I hold space for myself in a way that allows me to then hold space for other people? And I tried in the book actually in the chapter endings to put some of the exercises that over time and through different types of programs and interviews with teachers in these schools, that feel like they help us build these new muscles, right, that we live inside a dominant world culture that tells us that my individual identity, who I am, right, I need to keep that safe at all costs. And it’s a new muscle to say, “Actually I am okay and somebody else can be who they are and the world can be okay. And to be able to work through the discomfort that comes up when we encounter a person, a child, a worldview or perspective that feels like it’s disruptive to us.

So there’s no easy answer, but I think I found it helpful to think of it as building new muscles and to really intentionally do that work every day in community with other people to build the muscles outside the context of the classroom so that when you go into the classroom, you just have a little bit more space.

Tim: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. I also wanted to ask you about something that you said in one of your TED Talks. I really appreciated the comparison that you made between biodiversity and neurodiversity. Can you maybe just speak a little bit to the idea of embracing neurodiversity and why those different ways of thinking are so important for, like we just talked about our future systems and our future jobs and future ideas.

Ulcca: So for those who might not be familiar with this idea of biodiversity is that in biological and natural systems, you want to have lots of different types of genes, plants of living organisms, because in a sense, these ecosystems are more complex than we can ever understand. And that biodiversity allows for the system to adapt to unexpected challenges, right? So that if you have a… I’m making this up, but if you have an insect that are emerges and becomes a large part of an ecosystem and is destructive, biodiversity makes it more likely that you will have another organism that might be able to counteract that. And it’s one of the things that we’re seeing in the world, right? It is why scientists are really concerned about the lack of biodiversity and productions and biodiversity.

Neurodiversity would be the idea that different minds, different brains experience the world, see the world, think about the world in different ways. And to my mind, given an uncertain future, not uncertain in a bad way, but it’s just changing very quickly and we don’t know what we’re going to be encountering, it seems to me that this idea of different minds working together around complex problems and ambiguous problems is incredibly important. So there’s a book called Neurotribes that explores the history of autism and folks on the autism spectrum in this country. And there was a time during, which, I mean, there were efforts through eugenics to really try and reduce the number of minds that were on the spectrum in the human population. And it turns out that Silicon Valley has been driven by individuals on the autism spectrum. That there is something about the ways in which those minds engage with the world that helped them to drive this revolution in digital technology and coding.

The same is true at NASA. A lot of scientists at NASA have dyslexia and the reason is that dyslexia is one of those processing skills where it might be hard for you to do the kind of reductionist sequential processing that reading English requires. And they have these incredible visual spatial minds. So to my mind, the conventional school values certain types of the ways of being. You can be still, you can be compliant and not too much of a divergent thinker. You can read and write well and you can calculate well, but in certain ways. And I think what we’ve seen over the last 20 years is that we have more and more kids being labeled with problems, right? Some are simply cognitive difference. And I don’t think that’s a reflection of kids. I think it’s a reflection of a system that has inadvertently been narrowing its conceptions of smart, of capable, of what kind of mind counts. And the irony, of course, is that as soon as all of us graduate, all of that is enough for us. Right, and I just think schools need to be places that reflect that as well.

And again, I come back to the point that the world is different now in a really distinct way than it was 150 years ago. The case of change is much different. And so I think it’s even more important that we embrace the idea of different minds coming together around complicated problems and seeing that as a win-win.

Tim: Yeah. For sure. Okay. And that last point actually brings me to the next question that I wanted to ask you about. A big part of your book, you talk about how education system has not changed for 150 years and we need to get on with it here. So just for my own curiosity, I would like to know what the ideal school system would be in your eyes. If you didn’t have any constraints, if money or budgeting were no object, what would your dream school look like?

Ulcca: Well, it’s interesting because I’m not sure it would be a school, right. System and this is why it’s so important to design inside of a worldview. Inside our current view, I have to think about what would my ideal school look like? And I have a picture of that, but in my ideal ideal world, schooling is this other holistic indigenous paradigm. So if I were designing inside of this holistic indigenous worldview, I wouldn’t necessarily think about it in terms of schools, which is not to say that I don’t believe that communities of learners and having places and spaces where we come together as people to learn together, to create together, those are very, very important. So I still think you might have hubs of learning and you might have things that look more like school for little children. So first I think I would have a system that really thinks about and distinguishes what we do based on kids age.

So I tend to think of it in age bands. So what does it look like from 0 to 8 versus 9 to 12 or 13 and then from 14 to 17 to 18. And so you might have things that look more like schools for the younger kids. And then by the time they get to high school, they would be a little bit more free flowing. I think I would have a system that really thinks about what we know about learning and the idea that learning needs to be relevant to me, it needs to be contextualized. I need to be able to make connections between different parts of my life and the different things that I’m learning. I think I would have a system that starts to blur the line between school and learning and life, right.

So I think one of the things our current system did was take children out of the world to teach them. And so I think I would be putting kids back into a world. I often think about having age band competencies. So let’s say between 0 and 5 and then 5 to 8. What would the competencies and skills and mindsets be that we want young people to have? And I think of it almost like a bingo board that every parent and child would get this board that had these competencies, but where you got it, with whom you learned it, how you learned it, actually wouldn’t matter as much. And so you’d be almost ticking off the things that you learned, whether it was at a museum or cooking with your grandmother or learning a second language because your grandparents speak it. right.

So, I think that idea of counting learning all of the learning that happens, no matter where, I think we would have a lot more community engagement in the process of learning. We would see elders as learning facilitators because they have a lot to offer, right? I think we would diversify our schools in our educational institutions, not by recruiting more of this race or this gender, but rather because our communities are diverse and we’re seeing everyone as part of the process of learning.

So those are the characteristics that I think about and I think at the end of it, every young person would, with the help of their families, mentors, educators, and then they themselves, really be thinking about their own outcomes plan. So who am I? What is important to me? Where do I want to go once I finish this first part of formal schooling and how do I have a very unique and individualized set of outcomes that I’m working towards knowing, right, and in the world that I’m talking about, you’re not done at 17 and there’s no pretense that somehow we have to cram it all in between 0 and 17, because you’ll never be able to learn again, right. That we see this as the first part of a lifelong process of continuing to learn and grow and change and adapt.

Tim: Yeah. Oh, that all is incredible. I love all of that. It gives me a lot to think about. One last question for you here. I’m just thinking about our audience of art teachers listening to this podcast. We talked about creativity at the beginning, but as art teachers, we talk a lot about that individual voice and choice, how that can come through in the art room. Choice is obviously about letting students learn how they want voice being… Trying to find what kids have to say through their artwork. So do those ideas of choice and voice align with what you want to see with individual learners? I feel like there might be some connection there. Do you think that art teachers can be teachers that can lead the way with student centered learning?

Ulcca: So I’ll say yes, but first I’m going to go back and just say voice and choice is fascinating. Words are really fascinating because people will take the words and put them into whatever worldview they’re operating in. So [crosstalk 00:26:54] a lot of places use voice and choice, including conventional schools, but the voice and choice is… We have this stuff that you’re going to learn in this timeframe. You can have voice and choice about whether you sit at a desk or a couch or on the ground. You can have some voice in maybe the order you do it, right? So that’s one conception of voice and choice. I think a lot of this starts with what we believe young people are capable of. And I think, in general, in our society, we don’t think young people are capable of much. And we certainly don’t believe that they are capable of having agency over their own learning and kind of that process of learning that they don’t know themselves well enough that they’re not really capable of making good choices about the future. All those kind of things.

So I think, and I do think art teachers, dispositionally, because of the work that you do, do tend to be folks… And this has been born out in the interviews that I’ve done over time. Folks who tend to be the adults that have the capabilities and skills and mindsets for these human centered schools are often folks who came in through the arts, through out of school programming, through youth development programming, right. And again, because you live inside of this space of creation of creativity, of autonomy and bringing something through you out into the world, I think there is a belief that that is important for other people to do and that others are capable of it. So, yes, I think our teachers are going to be part of the group that leads the way.

I think it is hard and I appreciate how hard it is when you’re working inside of systems that don’t fully value what you do, that don’t have ways to fully assess the impact of all of the things that you do that might not be seen at the end of the semester or at the end of a year, because they’re really about what you are changing about how a young person sees themselves. And so I think telling the stories of what we have done, the power of the experiences you create for students is incredibly important. I believe we should be measuring the value and the outcomes of what schools and teachers do by asking young people. And so I think, honoring, recognizing, elevating those stories is super important.

This is an aside, but I tracked down my fifth through eighth grade teacher, middle school teacher.

Tim: Oh wow.

Ulcca: She was my English teacher, but she was also the one who introduced me to playwriting and really helped me think of myself as someone who was creative. And I wrote to her. I tracked her down through public records and found her at a nursing home in New Jersey and sent her a copy of the book. But what I wrote in the front was, this might feel kind of random, but I think teachers should be reminded of everything that they brought to our lives. And unfortunately it sometimes takes us 20, 30 years to be fully aware of that. And I think that’s something that the arts as a discipline should and could be doing more of, which is how do we do this more longitudinal assessment of who our kids are and who they become as a result of the experiences we give them? And I think that’s a really important conversation inside the arts space and to explore, and I think the world’s ready for that, right.

I think what COVID has done has disrupted our ideas of accountability of assessment. I think racial justice conversations are making us much more aware of the need to think about street data, as what change of fear calls it, but the data of peoples’ experiences, their lived experiences, their feelings. And I think that lends itself really well to telling the story of the power of art.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that’s a conversation that we’ve been having for a while and it’s accelerated and I think it’s something that we’re going to continue to talk about into the future.

Ulcca: Well, just that one more thing. I mean, as you say, can our teachers be the one to lead the way? I do hope we are getting back to a place where we will do more learning from each other as educators, whether that’s visiting each other’s classrooms, doing professional learning together, where we are taking our colleagues whose classrooms are spaces, where kids are excited and engaged and not seeing that as a threat to me, but rather what do you do, right? How are the ways in which you establish a culture, establish expectations and create and maintain a culture and to share that. And so for teachers who are listening to this, I think that is just an incredibly powerful opportunity to help share what you know, and what you do in hopefully ways that give concrete examples to your peers and colleagues of ways that they can make small shifts, but small shifts can often have huge implications in terms of the experience that people have.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely, that’s an excellent point. And I don’t know. I think that’s something that teachers, art teachers need to do more of. We’re doing great things in our classroom. We need to share that out more. We need to be an example for the people we teach with. So I think that’s an excellent point. So, Ulcca, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate the conversation. I love talking to you and you have given me and given our listeners so much to think about, so thank you.

Ulcca: Thank you for having me.

Tim: Of course, I think you should read The Future Of Smart. It is an outstanding book and it gives you so much to think about when it comes to not only our school system at large, but also what we do every day with our students. And we’ll add a link to make sure that you can find the book easily. And if you do, give it a read. I know Ulcca would appreciate a review on Amazon. I will also link to Ulcca’s TEDx talks, which will be worth your time if you’re interested in hearing more. She has two of them. They’re both wonderful. And then to wrap up, I just wanted to talk quickly about three things from our conversation that I think are especially important.

The first is the mind shift that Ulcca talked about, where we need to quit asking kids if they’re smart, but instead start asking them how they are smart. And that idea, I think, resonates with art teachers, especially because we usually have a couple of art superstars in our classrooms that maybe don’t find as much success in other classes. Art is their thing. And we need kids to know that they can be smart with creativity and smart with visual expression, and that is incredibly valid. And we need to be able to support that idea. We need to think differently about what it means to be smart and show our kids that there are different ways in which they can be smart.

Secondly, we had a conversation about the idea of belonging, because I think building community is one of the most important things we can do in our classrooms. And I feel like I’ve talked about that ad nauseam on this podcast, but the more we can do, the more we can provide for our students, the better off they will all be.

And finally, I wanted to touch one more time on the idea that we need to continue to learn from each other as professionals. Teaching is not a competition and sharing what we’re doing is not a threat. It is an opportunity. And as Ulcca said, we need to be willing to help share what we know. We need to be willing to share what we do because that sharing is going to help your colleagues and in turn, help your students and your school and your community, right? You need to be willing to share, be willing to put yourself out there. And that can all be a part of what we’re talking about today. It can be part of how we improve our schools, how we better help our students and in the end, how we can reimagine what it means to be smart.

Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art of Education University with Audio Engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you to Ulcca for joining me and moving this conversation forward. It was a great one. I hope that our discussion has given you some things to think about, and I’ll be back with you next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.