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In education we talk a lot about 21st Century learning, and this term is linked to acknowledging we are now in a new era, ‘the Innovation Age’. It seems to be generally accepted that we are now moving on from the Information Age that’s governed the last 40 years. In this new era, the challenges ahead will affect all of us. The increasing severity of the climate crisis and the ongoing social and economic turbulence, are everyone’s challenges.

When it comes to education, the implications of the Innovation Age are that we need to be arming our students with the skills they need for life, not just to pass exams and gain employment. The future will be more complex than ever, and to successfully navigate the challenges ahead, skill sets will need to encompass greater humility and empathy-driven design thinking to produce truly human-centered solutions.

What does that look like in our learning environments? From the beginning, early learners can be introduced through hands-on learning to the concepts of sustainability, inclusion, problem solving and collaboration. We can build these attributes into the learning culture and increasingly challenge students to build their skill set around them as they progress through their grade levels. By high school, students can take on real life problems and be invited to contribute to the local versions of global challenges.

In effect, new leadership approaches are needed that take the long view of inclusion and sustainability, and develop structured problem solving skills that begin with empathy-based research. Starting with what empathy is – the general definition is ‘the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.’ That also includes understanding other people’s experiences by putting aside our own preconceived ideas and choosing to understand the ideas, thoughts, and needs of others instead.

Back in the classroom this means creating an educational environment that fosters and encourages empathy-based research through deep listening, inclusivity, collaborative and individual problem solving. For students to really engage with the curriculum and develop these essential skills, a major support piece is the physical learning environment. For educators and students to thrive, the learning space needs to be inspiring and offer them the adaptability and flexibility to meet the many different styles of learning needed. The inclusion of different seating and various surface options, alongside differing collaborative and individual quiet areas can greatly empower students to find their own learning style, feel ‘they did it’ when it comes to acquiring complex skills, and develop their confidence in their own capabilities and their resolve that they can make a difference in the world. We all need to encourage and support these potential future leaders and change makers to develop and provide human-centered solutions to the challenges ahead.