Festival of Hope, creating spaces for millions of young people


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Olli-Pekka Heinonen, Director General of the International Baccalaureate

Source: International Schools Journal

The International Baccalaureate (IB) was conceived at a moment in history when our global community was still reeling from the impact of a technology that, for the first time, posed a fundamental and catastrophic risk to humanity as a whole.

Today, once again, we are faced with a humanity-altering technological shift. The profound and exponentially increasing power of generative artificial intelligence has given many of us pause for reflection. This time, we are faced with the more complex question of how to put such technological capability to work in service of humanity and the biosphere, rather than have it outstrip our human capabilities and develop in service to its own objective function. This is the heart of the ‘alignment problem.’

Young people are also worried. Despite being enthusiastic early adopters of new technologies, they are concerned about the fragility of their future prospects, in which artificial intelligence is a significant factor (International Labor Organization - Global Employment Trends for Youth report 2020).

Furthermore, emerging from a global pandemic, we have heard from young people, educators and leaders across the IB network, that there was a prevailing sense of hopelessness about our collective future. Global research also validates that youth are deeply concerned about the state of the world, many struggling with mental health issues, and actively trying to balance the challenges of their everyday lives with their desire to drive societal change (Deloitte, 2022). Most critically, young people are ‘feeling less in control of their lives than at any point in recent history.’ (Hickman et al., 2021)

Such conditions call us again to respond. As Dr. Zachary Stein, one of our Festival of Hope guests, has well articulated, ‘education must make history again.’ (Stein, 2022) and with the same pioneering spirit on which the IB was based.

What is the World Asking of Us?

Understanding what the proper response is to such complex and fast moving dynamics is no easy task. We do know that new systems and institutions are needed and this requires proactive innovation.

We can see from the various educational responses to the recent launch of ChatGPT and other Large Language Models that many prefer to bolster their defences against the technology. I am proud that IB has led the way in taking a bold stance not to ban, but rather to thoughtfully embrace the emerging technologies.

As Matt Glanville, our Head of Assessment Principles and Practice told the Times (UK) recently, AI ‘is going to become part of our everyday lives, and so we must adapt and transform education so students can use these new AI tools ethically and effectively.’ (Glanville, 2023)

But the broader challenges of the ‘meta-crisis’ require a deeper and more reflective, collective response. As I have written, in my book Eletään ihmisiksi: Yhteisöllistä viisautta etsimässä / Let’s Be Human: In Search of Collective Wisdom, rather than being narrowly technological, ‘the meta-crisis we are living in today is social and adaptable, and therefore connected to the ways we live and behave. The risks of climate change, biodiversity loss, growing inequality, polarised sense-making etc, arise from a crisis of meaning.’ (Heinonen, 2021).

So If we are to support the next generation with the skills needed to cultivate meaning and collective flourishing in the face of such challenges, we must start by creating shared spaces for these new understandings to emerge. This is the Festival of Hope.

A Spirit of Collective Inquiry

Centred in community, inspiration and action, the Festival of Hope is an initiative created by the IB that aims to create spaces for millions of young people to speak up and turn complex challenges into positive action and hope. It is an inquiry led by young people to explore what it will take to inspire and transform humanity and address the complex challenges that they feel strongly about.

In live, in-person and virtual spaces, we have brought together diverse voices and experiences; hosting interviews, workshops, and opportunities for action. We are introducing students in schools today to those of their generation and a little bit older who are driving change and making the world a better place, such as Clover Hogan, Dekila Chungyalpa, Ziad Ahmed, Arifa Nasim, Kate Raworth and many others.

We are building bridges and forging bonds between those who might have a different life experience but who want to create a new dynamic of change.

This spirit of collective inquiry was strongly felt at our first live event in Chicago Public Schools in November. Young dynamic leaders from very diverse backgrounds and starting points shared their insights with each other, prompting deep thinking about pressing questions of mental health, privilege and the confidence to overcome barriers and tell your own story.

‘You see the thing is. We longed for role models that actually meant something. People to follow, people that have the courage to walk in front. But we can see through clichées and fake promises for a better tomorrow. So we have to become our own leaders.

This is not a confrontation. And it is not a generational showdown. It is an invitation to join.’

(Excerpt from Student Manifesto, co-created for Festival of Hope, UWC Atlantic College, Wales)

From Chicago, we went to UWC Atlantic College in Wales and, with a brief stop in Adelaide for the IB Global Conference, to Pathways School, New Delhi and Dhirubai Ambani, Mumbai.

In addition to the various live gatherings, young people from IB schools across the globe have been engaging in vital dialogues online with indigenous leaders, cutting-edge scientists and artists and designers committed to systems change - such as Ilarion Merculieff, Anil Seth, Kriti Sharma and Roland Mouret.

Through our Festival of Hope journey, common themes have emerged of deep interest that were shared and repeated by young people around the world.

These include:

  • Identity & diversity
  • Fairness & inclusion
  • The role of AI & technology
  • Personal & planetary wellbeing

And throughout these themes, the strong thread has been that hope, in the face of such monumental challenges, is not something that we can discover. It is something that we must build together through collective action. To quote David Orr, ‘hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.’ (ref)

Hope in Action

‘There is… this contradiction between young people feeling empowered and inspired, but then also not feeling heard… So, here we are trying to reimagine a better world, a world that works better for more of us, but still not being invited into the rooms where the decisions are made.’ (Ziad Ahmed, Youth Activist and Festival of Hope Chicago guest)

By nature, this generation is built on collaboration and community. We have heard from them, in various Festival of Hope events, that they frequently feel that older generations are not bringing them into the fold. They feel they are being talked to, but not spoken with. They are expected to bear the burdens of our current and future challenges, but they are not invited into the spaces to participate in building solutions that impact them most.

As I highlighted in my previous ISJ article, ‘agency is central in creating conditions for young people to flourish, as individuals, but also as communities’ (Heinonen, 2022). But we must also heed Ziad’s words that creating moments where they feel empowered and inspired is necessary but insufficient. How do we cultivate and sustain learning cultures in our classrooms and our teams in which people (young and older) feel seen and heard, and are given the space and support to step into their own agency?

Festival of Hope has been exploring this question in a few ways.

Young people have been at the heart of every Festival of Hope gathering. They have co-created the events with us, identified the big questions of interest to them, and led the dialogues. Every time they have surprised us by what they are capable of. And guests have felt a sense of something different and important too. Giving time to sit in dialogue - between cultures and between generations - has been a powerful invitation for people to listen and feel heard.

Building events around the things that ‘hurt our hearts’ (Arifa Nasim) and the questions that we have about the world has also provided ways for young people involved to bring themselves into them. None of the challenges or opportunities we currently face are discipline-specific. Indeed, they never were. Everything is a rich soup of context. Whether reflecting on the way their dance practice connects with questions of consciousness (in dialogue with Prof. Evan Thompson), or discovering examples of entrepreneurship in a war zone (presented at Festival of Hope PSI Kyiv), our young people are making these connections. Creating spaces in which this interdisciplinarity is central allows people to bring together all of the ways that they understand what is real - reason, intuition, imagination. Different ways of knowing complement, contrast and balance each other. And in so doing, we create more inclusive cultures where multiple perspectives are valued, not those where a few loud voices of (false) certainty dominate and exclude.

Lastly, we have found that for some young people, the pathway to taking up their own agency is clear and straightforward. They have a focused goal and a single-minded approach to reaching it. For many others though, the pathway is more meandering and sometimes obstructed. Perhaps they have not yet found that thing that ignites them, or they are dealing with life situations that mean they can’t even start looking. Sometimes our role as educators is to help point out previously unseen possibilities, build bridges and remove obstacles where we can. And then we must move out of the way.

Through partnerships with some outstanding organisations, such Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots, HundrEd foundation, Generation Global, the International Bateson Institute, Celo and HackerEarth, youth led IBlieve, we are working to build pathways to action for young people. Joining others already on the journey and bringing our collective impact together can be a great way to create systemic change.

We have also set up our own Global Youth Action Fund to provide financial support in the form of grant funding, for those with great ideas but who need a little resource to get moving. This expands on the impact of the Dr Siva Kumari MYP Innovators’ Grant and is open to any student or student group ages 12 through 19 who has a project or idea they believe will make an impact in their community, both at IB World Schools and beyond.  

Where do we go from here?

‘We are witnessing one world giving way to the next.’ (Festival of Hope trailer)

Festivals are gatherings and celebrations marking particular moments in a cycle - beginnings, transitions and endings. This may be the culmination of the inquiries of our young students in the PYP Exhibition, or the celebration of the momentous achievement of graduating from high school. But these moments give way to the next challenge - arriving in secondary school, or leaping off into the big wide world as an IB graduate.

In a similar way, Festival of Hope marks the transition to something more sustained and systematic. The IB plays a crucial role as convener. We can help to set the enabling conditions for the enhanced agency of schools, educators and young people. But with this also comes the responsibility for the IB to put into practice the things that we are learning through Festival of Hope.

Giving young people the platform to become ‘active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right’ has always been central to the IB’s raison d’être. But the conditions in which we do this work are rapidly changing. So what agency looks like, and the types of learning environments, curricula and approaches to teaching and learning that support it effectively are also changing. We are working hard to ensure that our programmes respond to these changing conditions.

Through innovative pilots across the IB Continuum, we are harnessing the vast creativity and expertise of our network of educator leaders to explore the possibilities of new and groundbreaking new approaches to curriculum and assessment that are responsive to the needs of young people and local contexts.

The way we do professional development is another important shift. We are convening more spaces for communities of practice, networking and inquiry around subject disciplines and transdisciplinary themes as part of the IB Exchange.

Building on many schools already having done so, we will also be formally inviting schools around the world to run their own Festival of Hope as on-going opportunities for young people to transform their passion to action and lead gatherings that put hope to work in their local community.

A ‘flourishing future with AI’

As Steve Wozniak, Elon Musk and others stated in the recent petition to pause training of powerful AI systems, ‘humanity can enjoy a flourishing future with AI.’ (Future of Life, 2023) However, to ensure this, it is our humanity, not simply our technology, that needs continued development, enhancement and refinement. To become more fully human, in community with others and with nature, is at the core of our mission as educators. This is what Festival of Hope and an IB education into the 22nd century is about.

Olli-Pekka Heinonen started his tenure as the eighth Director General of the International Baccalaureate (IB) in May 2021. Previously he served as the Director General of the Finnish National Agency for Education and, prior to that he held various positions in the Finnish Government, including State Secretary 2012–2016 and Minister of Education and Science 1994–1999. He graduated with a Master of Laws (LL.M.) from the University of Helsinki in 1990.