“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Nelson Mandela – Education
What is needed to change the world?
Most agree that you can’t change much in the world if you don’t have the knowledge of what needs to be changed. With education comes understanding, perspective and a keen awareness of how to bring change into reality. Education is a powerful weapon indeed. But action in the form of protest and self-advocacy are also vital tools to effect change, and they don’t require an education as much as they require courage, spirit and drive. Knowledge and action must work together to make change happen.
Join Steve and Dan Fouts with Mary Ellen Daneels, Director of the Illinois Civics Hub, for a conversation about the power of education to change the world using the Teach Different 3-Step conversation method.
Image source: Picryl | Maureen Keating
Dan Fouts 0:00
Hello, Steve and Dan Fouts here. We’re veteran educators who have created the Teach Different podcast to inspire all of us to think deeper, listen with more intention, and understand each other better. On this podcast, we model a conversation method using claims, counterclaims, essential questions, and quotes from some of the world’s great thinkers. This method works with adults and students of all ages, at school or at home, and is implemented using Google Forms. So if you’re a teacher, parent, administrator, social emotional learning specialist, or anybody who wants to think in new ways and help others do the same, then you’ve come to the right place.
Welcome everybody to the Teach Different podcast. This week we’re extremely excited to have a quote from Nelson Mandela about education and its role in changing the world. It’s going to be a great conversation. Our guest tonight is Mary Ellen Daneels, who will be introducing herself when she weighs in on the quote. For those unfamiliar with the Teach Different 3-step method, we start with a provocative quote from a world leader, philosopher, or somebody famous. Then, we break down the quote by looking at the claim of the quote, our interpretation of what the author is saying. Next, we push against it with a counterclaim. This is when we disagree with the quote, or come up with an alternate interpretation that is equally reasonable. Therein lies the critical thinking piece of the Teach Different method, resolving two competing ideas. That tension is what gives birth to the conversation. We end with an essential question for you to think about. When you try this in class, you’ll discover that the kids come up with the best essential questions. Take note of those questions when you try this out. Here is the quote from Nelson Mandela. “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Mary Ellen, welcome to the show. We’d love for you to weigh in on this.
Mary Ellen Daneels 2:43 – Claim
Hi, thanks for having me. My name is Mary Ellen Daneels. After 27 years in the classroom at West Chicago Community High School, I’m now the director of the Illinois Civics Hub where I support teachers around the state of Illinois and outside the Land of Lincoln, in teaching powerful civics and social studies. I think you might have picked this quote for me, Dan and Steve, on purpose. This is really powerful for me on so many levels. At the foundation of any change that Mandela is talking about in his quote, is the recognition that there’s a problem or an opportunity for improvement. That sort of enlightenment comes from having a mind that’s open and flexible to learning or being educated. The way that you challenge the status quo is with the realization that something else exists beyond what we know, here and now. I think if you’re going to have change and challenge the institutions of power to make a more perfect union, as the preamble of our constitution says, then there needs to be education and awareness of opportunities for change. Not to double down on quotes here, but I was reminded of a quote from Maya Angelou, “when you know better, you do better.” Education plays a role in knowing better so that we can all do better. When we’re educated about our why, our what has more power. Those are some of my thoughts as I wrestled with this quote a bit.
Steve Fouts 4:34
I like how you picked up on the idea of education and learning as being something that naturally improves our situation. That may be overly optimistic, in the sense that there is a way to learn a lot, and maybe not want to do the right thing. But, I think you got the spirit of this quote down.
Mary Ellen Daneels 5:09
I think we need to pull apart, or I would dig apart with students, what we mean by education. I think a lot of us would think about formal schooling and formal education, but I think Mandela would also say that we need to be educated on the lived experiences of others, understand their perspectives and how certain policies and institutions affect them differently than they do me. I think that education, certainly formal education, is a part of this, but also life experiences, the awareness of others, getting to know yourself better, and how your identity fits into the world and those around you is part of it as well. That’s really the weapon that cuts through the marrow, that gets to the heart of issues.
Dan Fouts 6:01
I like that Mary Ellen. That’s fantastic. By the way, I’ve worked with you for about 20 years and it’s so great to have you on the show. It’s wonderful. I’m picking up on that idea of lived experiences and thinking about using this quote in the classroom with students. One of the questions we can ask students is to think about their formal schooling, what they learn in the classroom, and then what they learn outside of school when they meet people, or when they have a new experience, and ask them to compare them. What are the unique characteristics of those two types of learning, and would both be considered education? Mary, I want to unpack the word education, and have the kids become more aware of how comprehensive it is.
Mary Ellen Daneels 7:05
Yeah, I would agree with that. Something that I’ve been learning in my work over the past four years with students and adult learners in supporting the civics mandate is that you have to change people’s hearts before you’re going to change their minds. You look at the pyramid of persuasion, the logos, ethos, and pathos, and all of those things have a place. When you change a person’s why, when you get at those dispositions, then you can change some of those behaviors and attitudes. The reason that you gentlemen and I value these current and societal issue discussions, is it allows kids to wrestle with the why to make the what more powerful. It puts the heart behind the content. Education is not facts alone, but it’s the context of those facts, what those facts mean to other people, how they interpret them, and the impact they have on them?
Steve Fouts 8:21
I did not think of education from the angle that it seems like you’re coming from Mary Ellen, which I’m starting to agree with, which includes some of the social emotional aspects of education, understanding, empathy, perspective taking, walking in someone else’s shoes, becoming wise, sharing experiences…
Mary Ellen Daneels 8:48
Mandela and his quote say why are we doing this to change the world? That’s our why. So, what in the world needs to be changed? There’s that quote, “those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” What don’t we want to repeat? What is our why? Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy in their book, The Political Classroom, talk about the essential question that all of us should really be focusing on in education – how shall we live together? That’s the why. Who’s the we and what’s my role in making the world a better place? That’s what’s going to make education sticky in their schema, when they know the why. Formal education is super important. It’s what keeps all of us employed, right? The way we make that content come alive for kids is putting it in the context of that why, their own lived experiences, and giving them that agency. For many years as a teacher, I did a great job engaging students in essential questions, bringing the past into the present and taking the temperature of the past by bringing the question into the present. How are we doing? Are there still issues with women’s rights, human trafficking, food deserts, access to water, or whatever the issue may be in the social studies classroom. We take the temperature, take the temperature, take the temperature, and I teach the kids to be a thermometer through education. Then, we take the test. I realized that I was creating a cohort of cynics that could point out problems, but I wasn’t giving them any agency to do anything about it. We’ve got to go beyond just taking the temperature and being that thermometer to helping kids be that thermostat that can change the temperature. That’s what Mandela is talking about. Education is that powerful weapon that can change the temperature and change the world. I think it’s a challenge to you, me and our colleagues. How are we sending that message to students that education is a weapon, a tool that can make the world a better place?
Dan Fouts 11:20
That’s inspiring, Mary Ellen. I’m bringing this to a classroom. Think about an elementary, middle school, or high school classroom, and ask the kids to identify something they want to change about their school. Start there, and then ask the follow up question, what do you have to know? How do you need to educate yourself in order to make that change happen? Bring it down to a discernible, practical level, so they start seeing the connection between education and doing something that affects change. At my high school they would talk about open campus. That’s something they’d want to change. What would you have to do to go about doing that? Get them to think like advocates and do something about it.
Mary Ellen Daneels 12:27
Yeah. I think if we go to the C3 framework, for those of us in social studies, or the inquiry project-based learning from The Buck Institute, they share this idea of taking informed action. We’re learning about taking inquiry to action. It might start with open campus, but then it might go into other issues. If you’re delving into really great essential questions in your classroom, then how does this essential question relate to the world around us? I’ve seen kindergarteners and first graders learn lessons about the story of Ruby Bridges, that inspired their elementary school to be upstanders in their school community. I’ve seen eighth graders, who have studied environmental issues, make a living science classroom for their peers and their communities with the prairie land on their school property. Let’s take something like the holiday food drive that’s coming up. All of us are engaging in that season as Thanksgiving and the holidays come around. How powerful might that food drive be if students were informed about why people in their communities are hungry. What are the root causes of hunger? How can we educate ourselves about this so that we can educate others and have a really powerful experience to support people in our community? There are so many great things that we’re already doing in our schools and in our communities. Now, it’s about taking it to the next level. Think about how you can go beyond and help kids be that thermostat and be the agent of change.
Steve Fouts 14:25
Right. Having education provide that why, because if you don’t have the why, you’re not going to have the change, the motivation, the dedication, or the commitment. You’re not going to have the ability to overcome obstacles, to have perseverance. I want to leave weapon for now. That threw me a little bit. Why didn’t he just say tool? Education is the most powerful tool you can use to change the world. I’ll go with weapon.
Dan Fouts 15:01
Maybe the reason why Nelson Mandela used weapon is, given his background, that he was fighting against injustice. It has to be a weapon, because you’re on the defensive most of the time. Maybe that’s the reason.
Mary Ellen Daneels 15:20
I think a weapon is sharp and powerful, and like a tool, it’s useful. A weapon is powerful, and exudes strength that cuts through. I can see unpacking a lot of different words. It could be really interesting. You can have students in small groups unpack the words education and weapon. You can do some sharing with that as well.
Steve Fouts 15:48
Should we move to the counterclaim?
Dan Fouts 15:53
We’re ready Steve. Move us in that direction.
Steve Fouts 15:57
This is my role, Mary Ellen. This is what I do. The minute I get convinced of something, I start trying to disagree with it on some level, or at least come up with another truth that’s more insightful or probing. Does anyone have a good counterclaim?
Mary Ellen Daneels 16:19 – Counterclaim
I was kind of wrestling with this a little bit. I actually went several different ways. Maybe I’ll just start with the first way, and if we have time, and if you’re curious, I can talk about the other things that I was thinking about. The first thing that came to me was a scripture, “faith without works is dead.” Thinking about education, and how power without action is kind of useless. Education, in and of itself, is not power, but it’s the application of that knowledge that is power. I guess I want to make the implicit explicit in this quote. I actually found a quote from a minister that said, something like, if there’s anything worse than knowing too little, it’s knowing too much. Education will broaden a narrow mind, but there’s no known cure for a big head. The best you can hope is that it will swell up and bust. I think we know people who are academics and educators, but they’re bystanders to what’s going on in society. There’s no action. There’s a lot of head knowledge, but there’s not an application of that knowledge. That’s the counterclaim that I was thinking about. I’ll lay that on the table to hear what you guys think about that.
Dan Fouts 17:53
I thought of the word education. If you know a lot, you have a lot of things in your head, but you’re not doing anything about the change. That’s not going to get you very far. I was thinking, for the counterclaim, to add or substitute words in the quote. That’s what we do sometimes. I think you could reasonably say courage and perseverance are the most powerful weapons to use to change the world. We were talking about the why. Courageous people who persevere in the midst of failure are going to be successful in changing the world. They might not know a lot intellectually about what they’re doing, but they have a passion and a spirit that will not stop. At the very least, you need those people on your team to get it done.
Mary Ellen Daneels 18:58
Yeah. I really like that as well. That’s another direction I was going with this. I’ll just speak to myself as an educator. Sometimes you feel like you have to front load all the knowledge before the students can take the action, but the fact of the matter is that you learn by doing. That seems to be what you’re saying, Dan. You have to take that first step and be courageous and willing to risk falling flat on your face. But, if you fall forward, you’re a little bit closer to your goal, right? Somebody has to be the first. I was reminded of FDR during the Great Depression and how he came into office and said, listen, this is bad. We’ve got to change things, and I’m willing to experiment here. Let’s try some stuff, and if they don’t work, then we’ll try something else. When I talk to teachers about having these types of conversations, sometimes they will say, kids don’t know enough. I need to teach them lots of stuff before they can have conversations, before they can do something. No, you learn through the struggle, right?
Steve Fouts 20:09
There’s an intuition, and maybe a faith, that you need to have with people when they see something they don’t like or something they want to improve, that they’re going to be spirited and motivated to fix it. They don’t need to know everything. Education isn’t that important. What’s important is that they have a voice and an opportunity. They have people who will listen to them. That’s what you need to change the world. You need to get everybody feeling like they’re empowered and part of the solution, then we can educate everybody. Let’s get better, learn more, and get more efficient. But, what you need is that learning community or that spirited community first.
Mary Ellen Daneels 21:10
Yeah, absolutely. Something else that I came up with, as far as a counterclaim, that is really pertinent to this day and age, is the firehose of information that’s out there right now. I think some people can get overwhelmed into inaction. There’s just too much information. What is the right information, and how much is misinformation? I don’t know what to do. Because I don’t know what’s right, and I don’t know what to do, I’m just going to do nothing. I also thought about Gretchen Rubin, who has this framework called the four tendencies where we can understand ourselves and what motivates us by our tendency. One of the tendencies is a questioner. That person is not going to act until they have all their questions answered. Well, sometimes you can’t get all your questions answered. You just have to go by faith and have that courage to take the risks that you talked about, Dan. Then, see how it goes and modify as you go. I think in this world, knowledge is power, but sometimes you’re not going to know it all. You might have to learn as you go.
Steve Fouts 22:23
Paralysis through analysis, or something like that.
Mary Ellen Daneels 22:28
Yeah, absolutely. There’s a book, The Paradox of Choice, that says we have all of this information and all of these choices right now, but we’re overwhelmed by it.
Dan Fouts 22:39
There’s a conversation we had a couple of weeks back, Mary Ellen. It was a quote from Winston Churchill, “success is moving from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” You just have to keep going. That’s the only way to succeed. That is so difficult to help students in the classroom understand because of the paralysis of fear. They think they have to have everything figured out before they move forward.
Steve Fouts 23:12
Sorry, go ahead.
Dan Fouts 23:13
No, go ahead. I’m just trying to think about how to break that, because if we can help the kids rethink that, then that’s a step in the right direction.
Steve Fouts 23:27
I thought of what you, Mary Ellen, said at the beginning with education helping provide the why. I’m seeing a connection between someone who’s persevering and just won’t quit. I think that what makes people persevere, is that they have a why, and that’s why they don’t stop. You have to know enough to know what your why is, but you don’t have to know everything. You have to put yourself in situations where you’re learning along the way and persevering. I’m just trying to find a delicate balance here. I don’t know if I succeeded.
Mary Ellen Daneels 24:23
No, I think that’s right. I think part of that process is self-education and knowledge of self. My why might be different from your why, but where do they overlap, and can we find commonality to move over? Where can we find consensus? I think that’s why these conversations work. I’m bringing it back to the 3-step method. I hope you appreciate this. These conversations are so important because they help kids find consensus and maybe further define and broaden their why. I didn’t think of it that way. That connects with me. We can work together to find allies in the places where we’re looking at polarization and differences. These sorts of conversations offer a different kind of education and knowledge building.
Dan Fouts 25:16
They gain awareness of their own thinking and awareness of the thinking of their classmates. They recognize that they’re not alone. Conversations give us that sense of community and wholeness that we need so badly, because we’re so divided politically and in so many other ways. Yes, that is the magic of conversations when they happen the way they should.
Mary Ellen Daneels 25:43
I want to just give voice to one more thing to go back to the struggle and the grit that you’re talking about. When kids wrestle with these deep questions, and try things out, like open campus at your school, what happens when they fail? I think we have to reframe what success and failure is. Were they heard? Do they understand the process? Do they now know the points they need to address if they want to try it again? Do they have more awareness of the viewpoints of others? Going back to the Churchill quote that you talked about, I think sometimes we have to reframe what failure is. I think the type of education that Mandela is talking about is not a destination, but a journey. It’s a process. We have to reframe that for kids, and sometimes for ourselves, as teachers. You might try this 3-step conversation for the first time and it may not go well. Then, you learn from that experience, and pick yourself up to try again. I’m sure you guys went through a lot of experimentation before you landed on this method, and you had to take a risk. No one’s doing this. I’m going to try it and learn as I go.
Steve Fouts 27:05
So true. You never have it worked out at the beginning. At least I don’t. Personally, I don’t learn that way. I think most people don’t. You have to mix it up with a little bit of planning and some vicarious experiences.
Dan Fouts 27:24
Definitely. You just have to stay in the game and continue learning. I think this is where it’s really important for teachers to share their failures (or setbacks) with the students and how they learned from them. Kids need to hear that we have more life experiences, and we’ve had more setbacks. It’s helpful to share these experiences with students. I tried something and it didn’t work out, but look where I ended up. I think it’s important for us to reveal that to them.
Steve Fouts 28:13
This reminds me of a conversation we had with a principal, Amy Fast, at I think it was McMinnville High School. She talked about understanding the difference between being a failure and failing. You have to make that distinction. Kids sometimes don’t, so that’s what we can provide them as adults. We’ve overcome challenges, and we make it look easy. We have to somehow convince them that it wasn’t easy.
Dan Fouts 28:55
All right, this was really great. I think this worked out extremely well, Mary Ellen. Your insights and perspectives are fantastic and dynamic. Do you want to just talk a bit about some of the work that you’re doing? I give you permission to promote the good work that you’re doing in the state and nationwide.
Mary Ellen Daneels 29:21
I want to circle back to some of the curricular connections to this conversation we’ve just had and the curricular connections. If you go to Illinoiscivics.org we have resources for creating safe and reflective classrooms where these types of conversations can happen. We have a toolkit around service learning where students can take informed action using essential questions you’re talking about in class. Dan, if you want your kids to tackle that open campus policy, I’ve got tools for you and for them to dig into root causes, engage, and explore options to take that action and reflect on their experience. We’ve got all sorts of tools there for folks. My contact information is there for you. As I was thinking about curricular connections to our conversation today, I was reminded of Project Zero from Harvard University. They have this toolkit for making thinking visible. These are short, quick, formative assessment exercises you can do with adult learners and students in your classroom to help them process their education to identify the why, and engage in metacognition in a deep way. I was thinking that after having a 3-step conversation in your class, one of the tools they have is for an exit slip. That quick little exit slip after having a conversation over a quote like this can really help kids think about the why. Why was this conversation in the classroom important? How has it changed me? How is it given me more agency as a learner? I used to think, but now I know, so I will. I used to think this about power, but now I know this, because we had this conversation about redistricting and gerrymandering. What’s my responsibility? How does this apply to me? What is my role in changing the world?
Steve Fouts 31:48
That’s your informed action?
Mary Ellen Daneels 31:51
Exactly. A lot of people think you need a field trip budget, a bus, and a dirty park. No, that’s court ordered community service. Informed action could be, how am I going to take this learning outside of the walls of this classroom or into my school community? How am I going to engage my parents or others in my community in a conversation to make sure they’re informed about this issue? How am I going to be personally responsible and change my behavior as a result of this information? That could be the informed action. How am I going to take action based on this information? Here are three things I learned from this conversation. Here are two questions I still have, and here’s one way that this has changed or challenged my thinking. These are little metacognitive strategies that go full circle. If knowledge or education is the most powerful weapon, we need to help kids reflect on that weapon and use it for good. The conversation isn’t the endpoint, it’s the reflection on that conversation that helps students process the information. I’m learning this more and more working with adult learners and taking them through these tools. They are then iterating it with their students and seeing a lot of power. Wow, that was just a five to seven minute investment. That was so important. It’s linked on our website, but Project Zero visible thinking tools, and the toolkit could really be a great enhancement to your 3-step process after they’ve had the conversation. You know, if I do another think-pair-share, I’m going to poke my eyes out. What else can I do to get the kids to reflect? The visible thinking toolbox might be a really good place to look.
Steve Fouts 33:46
I really like that. Our drill is that you can actually plan out conversations. Get the claim, counterclaim, and essential question responses out with a Google Form, and then walk into the conversation as the facilitator with a lot of data and information that you can use. What you’re describing is a longer reflection at the end of the conversation. I’m imagining something as simple as another Google Form that would allow them to write these things down. We use an essential question, which Dan will get to in a moment, but I love those prompts that you gave. We might have to borrow them.
Dan Fouts 34:33
Yeah, those are great. The key is the metacognition when it’s over, the movement in your thinking based on what you just experienced in the last thirty minutes.
Mary Ellen Daneels 34:46
Yeah. Maybe this just happens with my students in West Chicago who say they don’t want to change their minds about anything. I’m not asking you to change your mind about anything, but do you have more evidence now? Do you have more clarity in your thoughts? If so, how are you more clear now on what you think about this issue, or about your own agency, or your voice, or your power, or your role, or your understanding of this issue? I don’t need you to change your mind, but how has your mind changed? You may not have a different opinion about this issue, but hopefully your mind has changed, and you have more clarity.
Steve Fouts 35:28
Exactly. You can have more clarity of the opinion you already have.
Dan Fouts 35:33 – Essential Question
…with better evidence. You can see kids change their minds through these conversations, which is always wonderful. The best essential questions come from the students in the spirit of the conversation itself, but here’s one we came up with. What is needed to change the world? A big question, right? If you ask that at the beginning, and then ask that same question at the end, you might see some significant changes in how they’re thinking about change, and what is needed based on what they hear in the conversation.
Mary Ellen Daneels 36:19
Yeah, absolutely. Another one is what’s the purpose of education?
Dan Fouts 36:28
We could come up with these questions all night, Mary Ellen. Once you start with this you get very excited about it.
Mary Ellen Daneels 36:38
Yeah, I don’t know if you could tell how excited I am talking about these things. I don’t know if it’s coming through. I hope it’s coming through.
Steve Fouts 36:43
Yes, it’s coming through.
Dan Fouts 36:46
You are a superstar, and you’ve had a huge impact on my professional career. I appreciate you beyond words, and I’m so happy you came on this podcast Mary Ellen.
Mary Ellen Daneels 36:57
Back at you friend. You make me a better teacher, but you also make me a better person, because of your friendship and your leadership. I really appreciate both of you guys and what you do for the field. I direct traffic towards you, and I think you’re actually going to be doing a webinar for Illinois Civics on November 7th. If you’re intrigued by this podcast, and want to see how animated we are in real life as we talk about things, you can pull back the veil. Talk about an education. Go to Illinoiscivics.org, click on our PD calendar, and sign up for our webinar on November 17th. It’s free and you can see it live.
Dan Fouts 37:45
Teaching civics through conversations in three easy steps is the title.
Mary Ellen Daneels 37:52
Yep. Civic learning happens across all disciplines. We all send messages to kids about power representation and justice by how we engage in voice in our classroom. Whether you’re an English teacher, a math teacher, science teacher, or a civics teacher, you should be at this webinar with these guys in November.
Dan Fouts 38:12
We’ll teach you the method. Well, thanks again Mary Ellen. Have a wonderful evening. We love the work that you do and your advocacy for civics and everything else.
Mary Ellen Daneels 38:25
It was my pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.
Dan Fouts 38:27
All right, take care. Thanks, everybody. We hope you are walking away feeling energized by some great ideas, and are confident that conversations like this are possible. With a little bit of planning and a 3-step method. Make sure you go to teachdifferent.com to learn more. Check out our library of conversation starters where we’ve compiled dozens of quotes, each with their own claim, counterclaim, and essential question. Good luck. And don’t forget to teach different with conversations and make a difference every day.