Tony Pennay, Chief Learning Officer at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, shared with us how he sees the future of education shifting from what we’ve always known to what it may become.
How have students best learned to develop soft skills, like communication, decision-making, and leadership in the past? What does data and evidence tell us about these skills now?
Some methods of teaching are timeless. But what I found teaching middle school English and social studies is for students to immerse themselves in activities outside of the textbook. That’s been the best way for kids to learn these essential soft skills.
In fact, when we look back to the medieval apprentice system, kids learned through hands-on practice of their respective craft or trade. The same principle applies to students who aspire to be strong leaders. It takes practice.
When I taught world history, students retained the information better when the lesson revolved around a simulation. When learning about the feudal system, for example, we would build castles out of desks. Students would then simulate battles between feudal lords and knights and fend off attacks. This allowed them to connect to a world beyond themselves.
The same is largely true of durable soft skills. You learn to communicate better by communicating. Students need a real world context to apply their knowledge.
Have you seen a shift in students’ comfort levels and development of certain soft skills from years past to now? What do you think has caused this change?
Yes, I have seen a shift in students’ comfort levels, due in part to two factors: The pandemic and the rising tides of polarization. During the pandemic, our educational system seemed to shift away from practicing the true art of civil debate.
Civil debate is no longer seen as a tool in the classroom, which is an essential method to developing a whole host of soft skills. It’s not that students are unable to engage in polarizing topics. Each year, 25,000 – 50,000 students are involved in field trips, scholarships, and summer leadership programs at the Reagan Library and the Nation’s Capital. Not all of them agree with everything President Reagan stood behind.
Lately, it’s been up to the students to take the initiative and develop their own critical thinking, decision-making, and ultimately leadership skills. And this is partially due to shrinking social studies programs, which is doing a disservice to students and the landscape of civic education. It’s that historical context that’s important to understand why this country is a special place in the history of the world.
Even non-civic educators agree that civic education should be incorporated in the realm of “21st-century skills.” Civic education, the art of debate, and the development of durable soft skills are very interconnected.
As Ronald Reagan said in a radio address to the nation on education,
“Since the founding of this nation, education and democracy have gone hand in hand… Jefferson and the Founders believed a nation that governs itself, like ours, must rely upon an informed and engaged electorate.”
Debating from a civic framework allows students to dive into information about history and policy while also forcing them to deeply understand the opposite side of the argument.
The pandemic certainly created a shift in learning. What are the most positive discoveries made about student learning during the pandemic? What have been the most detrimental?
Despite the pandemic’s undeniable impact on learning, I’ve been extremely encouraged to discover students still eager to intellectually grow. Middle school and high school are when kids begin to form conceptions of themselves as young leaders.
While the Senate was conducting their Supreme Court nomination hearings earlier this month, I had the privilege to witness kids across the country critically debate on the topic of instituting term limits on Supreme Court Justices.
Whether students debated remotely or in-person, their well-crafted, policy-focused arguments leapt off the screen and from the podium. These kids were engaging in high-level policy debates on-par with, and in some instances surpassing, their senior counterparts. In preparing for their academic debates, they carefully examined everything from the Constitution to a long history of policies and political debate.
They then had to summarize and deliver the most effective arguments and illustrations for their side. By grappling with resources and acquiring a deep understanding of the opposition, these kids were able to unlock the power of critical thinking and gain confidence in their own public speaking and communication skills.
On top of that, the students left the competitions as friends. It’s brought me an overwhelming sense of hope to see the next generation dodge the waves of polarization through civil debate.
The most detrimental has been the lack of in-person leadership opportunities. The pandemic has exacerbated these lingering concerns surrounding the soft skills gap. This is because our kids missed out on a crucial component of their education that is integral to cultivating soft skills and leadership – extracurricular activities and learning opportunities.
Much learning takes place outside of the classroom. Growing up, I was very involved in extracurricular activities—from Boy Scouts, to student government, to sports—and I have found many skills that have translated well in my academic and professional career I learned through these experiences.
What have you found most surprising about students’ learning styles through your work with Reagan Academy?
I have been most surprised, not necessarily by their learning styles, but by their ability to practice historical empathy. Watching students learn from president Reagan and his leadership journey, students are often inspired to embark on a similar leadership journey. All from engaging with our program materials.
As a former history teacher, overcoming the tendency to read history backwards was one of my greatest challenges. It clearly continues to be an educational struggle in the classroom today.
Historical empathy calls for a deep understanding of people’s actions in the past. Multiple forms of evidence are needed, along with a healthy degree of intellectual separation from the topic and a basic understanding of the time period being studied.
Unfortunately, today we tend to see history with a present-day lens without appropriate contextualization. We often find historical figures and leaders under assault for mistakes they made hundreds of years ago. It is essential to invite students to suspend their present world views when examining the past. Rather than shield our kids from debate, we should encourage them to embrace it.
Through our hands-on, community-building Reagan Academy online courses, we aim to empower students with these very skills.
What are some of the best pieces of advice you can give parents who may be reading this? How can they encourage and support their child to become effective communicators and well-rounded citizens?
I strongly advise parents to encourage their kids to participate in a variety of extracurricular activities. Help them explore passions outside of the classroom. This is one of the main lessons of pandemic learning.
For example, Studies have also shown that competitive debate participation is linked to improved academic performance and college readiness. It allows students to confront varying viewpoints in an active, enriching way. Studies have also shown debate has positive outcomes for strong social-emotional development and self-efficacy.
With that in mind, I advise parents to look to outside sources to put them ahead of the game and make them more competitive for university admission preparedness and employment readiness down the road.
It is critical to get kids out of the mindset that school and learning is not just about GPA, it’s a lifelong journey of intellectual growth and development that should continually be pursued outside of the classroom in order to be a well-rounded citizen.
What do you see as the most important aspects of educating future American leaders?
I think the most important aspects of molding effective future leaders are to bring back civic learning, historical empathy, and informed, civil debate.
Ronald Reagan famously called for an “informed patriotism.” History instruction today is often presented with bias or a particular slant. Conclusions about what it all means in the broader context come prepackaged.
We should trust the intellectual ability of our children. Present history with all its complications, with a multitude of primary sources, and then allow students to interpret the story. The American story is compelling and interesting. When we present it as it happened, students will develop their own love for it.
Cultivating conversations around civics and history is essential to educating the future leaders of America.