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Innovation at the Intersections

On a windy day in January, legislators and education practitioners gathered at The University of Vermont’s Davis Center for a UVM/Legislative Summit on Education Policy. It was the first large-scale meeting of its kind and the McClure Foundation is proud to have helped to underwrite costs to bring the summit’s keynote speaker Tony Wagner, co-founder of Harvard University’s Change Leadership Group and author of The Global Achievement Gap  and Creating Innovators. Dr. Wagner highlighted the urgent need for education reform to better prepare today’s students for the 21st century. His insights resonated with many legislators, and his list of the seven skills that students need to develop in order to participate successfully in today’s “innovation economy” struck a chord with us, too — as one of Vermont’s grantmakers in education. Here are just two examples:

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving:  Just as employers are looking to employ school graduates who ask the right questions and come up with creative solutions, society benefits when someone cares enough to ask the hard questions on a regional or state scale. Often it falls to potential benefactors, concerned folks with fresh perspectives who are often “outside the system,” to question the status quo and to envision new possibilities and collaborative solutions to leverage resources, reduce duplication, and direct more funds toward programs with documented impact on citizens (or, in the case of our foundation, on students and student outcomes).

Collaboration:  To Dr. Wagner, this term means more than “working together.” Just as employers need students to be able to appreciate each others’ differences to work better as a team, our state’s nonprofits, professionals, state leaders, businesses, and philanthropic organizations all have essential roles to play in creating effective solutions for Vermont. Through collaboration and coordination, we can deepen our philanthropic impact.

A lot of the skills Dr. Wagner identified — critical thinking, adaptability, working collaboratively, and curiosity — create what he describes as innovation at intersections. This insight was perhaps our biggest takeaway from the UVM keynote speech and the sessions that followed. We observe innovation in education when students cross classroom learning with their innate curiosity to work together on real-world problems. We see it when organizations form new partnerships to leverage resources and talent — say, public institutions and private funders meeting to develop and promote career education programs. And we see it when business and community leaders unite with educators to focus on the learning outcomes needed to build a workforce to keep Vermont’s economy competitive.

So you see, we agree with Dr. Wagner. We want to help ensure that Vermont students learn in environments that value critical thinking, collaboration, adaptability, and intellectual risk-taking.  We seek, too, to be mindful about how we apply those same skills to the work of our foundation. 

In recent months we’ve adapted our philanthropic model to evolve into a more transparent and inclusive organization by better articulating our funding goals and by highlighting our initiatives on the McClure Foundation website and via social media.  In order to take advantage of the “innovation that happens at the intersections,” we’ve reached out to a wider range of organizations working in Vermont to explore new possibilities for collective, collaborative efforts to promote access to workforce and postsecondary education. We’ve moved our grant application and evaluation process online and have invited public and nonprofit organizations to submit for our consideration brief online Letters of Intent each February.

And, echoing Dr. Wagner’s remarks at the UVM/Legislative Summit, we encourage Vermont’s legislature, professional educators, individual school districts, postsecondary institutions, and state and nonprofit organizations to engage fully in education reform — by elevating the conversation beyond budget considerations into positive systemic changes, by asking the hard questions, and by looking for every opportunity to collaborate.

This blog post first appeared on Stuart Comstock-Gay's "What's Stu-ing" blog on February 13, 2014.

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