How to Create Actionable Hope in Our Students

by Leah Van der Sluis, Director of Teaching + Learning, EXPLO Junior.

Actionable hope needs to be the north star that guides our work in education right now, and the tools of immersion and overview can help get us there.

In Brené Brown’s Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience, she writes, “…hope is not what most of us think it is. It’s not a warm, fuzzy emotion that fills us with a sense of possibility. Hope is a way of thinking — a cognitive process… made up of goals, pathways, and agency.”

I’ve seen actionable hope at work in classrooms. You can’t miss it, because students are lit up by their own sense of purpose and the joy they’ve found in a meaningful learning experience. It looks like 5th graders embodying characters from Esperanza Rising through original monologues to a room full of community members, and then sharing conversations about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It looks like 7th graders applying the tools of scale and artistic design to create a rendering of a tiny home they’ve created that can sustain the effects of climate change.

To create actionable hope in our students, we must first create it in ourselves. This is our first call to action as educators, as caregivers, and as leaders. The design tools of immersion and overview can work in tandem together to underpin actionable hope in our students and in ourselves.

  • IMMERSION locates us within an experience. It helps us build personal meaning.
  • OVERVIEW reminds us of the bigger picture. It helps us build meaning around our interconnected humanity.

A design focus on immersion creates learning experiences that are sensory, embodied, and narrative.

Immersive learning weaves the physical environment and storytelling into the curriculum. Classrooms become rainforests, interstellar galaxies, and restaurant kitchens. Students become explorers, space engineers, and food scientists. Instead of distinct ideas or information that exists purely within a textbook, when learning takes shape in the tangible form of a playful conceit or simulation, students form deeper connections. The knowledge they gain is more meaningful because it is relational and memorable — it’s tied to a real, sensory experience that was had with others.

Immersion’s partner is overview — a tool that locates experience and learning within a larger picture.

When we make space in learning to “zoom out”, to engage in deep listening, ask questions, and reflect, our perspective shifts. When the immersive explorers discovering a rainforest in their classroom participate in overview, they are making larger connections to how climate change is impacting those natural resources.

When we all have the opportunity to approach learning as an experience about being immersed in discovering something new, we feel a sense of care and understanding. We are grounded. This is essential, because when overview inevitably does the important work of reminding us that we are small in the midst of this big world, instead of feeling hopelessness, we will feel something more akin to purpose and awe. Our hearts and minds are opened to the potential of what’s possible.

As students, teachers — all of us — will continue to face a future that is uncertain and shifting, the ability to remain grounded, manifest courage, and believe in our sense of purpose will be essential. And it will not be without challenges. Access to equitable resources that can create immersive learning environments, space and time in the school day to carve out time for conversations rooted in overview, and a lack of professional support around the learning design process are just a few of the obstacles that may make this shift seem unattainable. These are the questions we must continue to ponder, prioritize, and problem-solve.

As we continue to envision a future of education stemming from our present ungrounded moment, I believe that this future can be a place where immersion and overview are held as central learning design principles. I believe we can have a world where teachers feel empowered, supported, and creative. And I believe that learning can be a place where students stay curious, seek to understand and unite, and act with hope.