Tapping America's Potential

Bob Pianta is not dismayed by the challenges facing education and society at large. Now in his ninth year as dean of the Curry School of Education, Pianta believes a plentiful and rich resource has long gone untapped, and when released, could profoundly impact our communities and the world.

That resource is America's youth.

"We are surrounded by young people with energy and talent, a willingness to take risks, a desire to be engaged and involved, and droves of creativity, but we have done very little to provide the space to develop and channel that talent and energy," said Pianta. "With the right support from adults and society, young people will do incredible things."

Q: What kind of potential do you see?

A: Teenagers and young twenty-somethings have the eagerness and the capacity to take on some of our nation's greatest challenges: public education, a productive economy, environmental degradation, massive inequality, and a rapidly aging population. All of these will require the creativity, commitment, and decision-making talents of today's youth.

And we know they are capable. The capacity of youth to tackle significant problems is on display in the Black Lives Matter movement, in the High Tech High charter school system, and in teen-led TED talks on topics ranging from human rights to nuclear fusion. When educators and civic leaders give teens interesting, challenging and relevant problems to solve, they rise to the occasion.

It's a mistake and a missed opportunity to view the teenage years as a kind of threat that must be contained, or as a stage of life to be tolerated until a more productive or useful time arrives.

Q: What prevents this kind of potential from being realized?

A: As adults, we have created a system that at best treats youth as incomplete, and at worst as threats. Teens' assets don't fit neatly into our system, so we often don't recognize what they can accomplish. For example, what many see as the "risky behavior" of youth, I believe, is the creativity and energy that makes them innovators. They are square pegs in the systems of round holes created by adults.

Q: What is the impact of that disconnect on youth?

A: Contrast the promise of youth with the staggering loss of their human capital — near-record dropout and unemployment rates; 50 percent say school, including college, is irrelevant; almost half of teens show health and mental health problems.

Middle schools in America are a great example of our utter failure to design environments based on what we know of the development of the average 13 year old. Our system tells them to sit in desks and memorize facts all day. And when young people signal their dissatisfaction with this sort of treatment, our schools respond by reinforcing the "round hole" that created this in the first place — zero tolerance for what we describe as misbehavior; referrals for medication; or routing youth to special education services. At worst, we funnel them into the justice system.

Q: What is the Curry School doing to champion youth as assets?

A: For years, Youth-Nex, our research center focused on positive youth development, has led the way for UVA faculty and researchers to identify the connections and disconnections between education and human development. We know that if we can synchronize how to educate youth with what we now understand about how youth learn and develop, they will flourish. The upside of this effort is tremendous and touches on scientific progress as well as social change.

Our work going forward is to continue bringing together researchers from a wide variety of fields in education and human development, as well as others such as neuroscience and cultural studies.  It is this whole university effort that can make a transformative difference. Once we gather the knowledge that surrounds youth as assets, that knowledge needs to be applied in places it can matter, through work on policy, programs, and education.

If we get this right, it's transformative for society and for youth. Then, just watch what they will accomplish. That excites me the most.