The Future of Smart with Ulcca Joshi Hansen

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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I was thrilled to have a discussion with Ulcca Joshi Hansen regarding her powerful book, The Future of Smart: How Our Education System Needs to Help All Young People Thrive (2021) and what she has seen since the book’s release last year.

Who is Ulcca Hansen?

She is a mother, educator, researcher and advocate working to change the way we think about and do education. She believes each young person deserves the chance to discover their unique potential, and to explore what that means for how they contribute to the world.

Making this happen is the future of smart, which we discussed in Part 1 of our interview.

Part 1: The Premise of The Future of Smart

We dive in right away with the provocative title as to what “smart” is in school and why the complexity, acceleration, and ambiguity of our world right now necessitates a broader conception of smart in our system of education.

I mentioned a quote Ulcca wrote that I nicknamed “the feels.”

Here it is in its entirety:

“This book is an exploration of what smart should mean and what our system of education should value most: the complexity and richness of our humanity and the many different ways in which people engage with and contribute to the world. The schools that gave me that feeling, I now realize, were the ones built entirely around an idea of smart centered on these latter values.

“Over time I realized that what drew me to these schools was the feeling I had the moment I walked in, which I think is a version of what the children and teachers must feel. It is an experience comprised of a thousand dynamic interactions—a sense of welcome, curiosity and openness, combined with deep knowledge and expertise. It’s a hard feeling to describe, but it emerges from a philosophy, a plan and a set of capabilities that I explore in this book.”

Part 2: All Hands on Deck

Mindset as we re-imagine our relationship both the idea and practice of education

Our conversation shifted to explore how to engage in this deep, collaborative work starting with articulating at local levels what we hope for our young people.

Ulcca clarified that, “it cannot be imposed from above or outside. It cannot be implemented technocratically. It requires a change in our relationship with both the idea and the practice of education.

“For a long time there was no room in the mainstream conversation for this holistic way of thinking about education — only a reform agenda. But something is shifting now, and a window has opened. We need to recognize it for what it is: a conscious choice point.”

We also discussed the power of developing an instructional model that is anchored in what school community members hope for young people. In her book, Ulcca shares some inquiry prompts to craft an instructional model to “create a coherent and consistent structure that facilitates the complex work of learning and community-building.”

  • What are we doing, and why? (What is the purpose of education here?)
  • What are the developmental needs of students during the stage(s) of development we are designing for?
  • What do we believe and/or know about how learning happens?
  • In light of development and learning, what skills, knowledge and dispositions are we going to teach, and how will we teach them? How will we assess students’ learning and growth? How do we prepare and support adults in understanding this content and set of practices?
  • What other systems do we need to support this work?

In this part of our interview, Ulcca referenced a NGLC Report on Preparedness. She has since provided two links:

  1. What Made Them So Prepared? Why these schools and districts could take on COVID effectively – and what you can learn from them
  2. Her podcast episode, Applying Ecological Design Principles to Rebuild Education Post-COVID

Part 3: What has become clearer since the book has been released

In the last part of our interview, we talked about promising practices that she has seen since the book’s release a year ago. Small, bold actions that can inspire others to consider how to close the learning opportunity gap between what we hope for our young people and what current practice looks like.

A quote that resonated with me from the book:

“One school network I admire asks every new student, ‘What do you do when no one is telling you what to do?’ ‘What are you interested in?’ and ‘Who do you want to be in the world?’ Ask the young people in your life how they spend their time at school, during extracurricular activities and with their mentors or coaches. Consider where they seem to find happiness and fulfillment, and how much of it comes from being at school.”

References from our Interview:

Reference to Cedar Rapids, Iowa and the launch of the Big Iowa Project –

Reference to Mesa Arizona and empowering school leaders –

More about Ulcca:

Ulcca’s website for book: and please continue to engage with the conversation via the podcast:

For more information about Ulcca, visit her website or connect with her on social media.

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