by Zoe Weil
I believe that it’s possible to simultaneously solve our persistent problems in education along with our many interconnected global challenges: a win-win for our children and the world. I believe that we can create just, healthy, and humane societies; develop sustainable energy, food, transportation, production, construction, and other systems; end poverty; and ensure that everyone has equal rights. I believe that we can learn to resolve conflicts without violence; to treat other people and nonhuman animals with respect and compassion; to slow the rate of extinction; and to restore ecosystems. And I believe — based on thirty years of experience — that there is a clear, practical, and positive path to achieve this vision.
The solutions to the problems we face will come when we effectively and wisely address a single system — schooling. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “If we are to reach real peace in the world… we shall have to begin with children.” The education of children is the root system underlying all other systems, and for the sake of our children and the world I believe that we must:
1. Adopt a more relevant and meaningful purpose for schooling.
2. Make schools real-world- and solutions-focused.
3. Prepare teachers to educate their students to be solutionaries.
If we can successfully achieve these three goals, we will have created the best hope for thriving generations of people and a thriving planet. This belief in the power of education to prepare youth to be solutionaries — people who bring knowledge and skills to bear on pressing and entrenched challenges in an effort to create positive changes — stems from my work as a humane educator. Humane educators teach about the interconnected issues of environmental preservation, human rights, and animal protection, with the goal of providing students with the knowledge, tools, and motivation to be conscientious choicemakers and engaged changemakers for a healthier world for people, animals, and the environment. From the late 1980s through mid-1990s I directed a humane education program visiting schools and offering presentations, classes, and afterschool courses to approximately 10,000 middle and high school students annually. Almost everywhere I taught, there were young people eager to start school clubs, become full participants in citizenship, and make positive contributions.
Although it was rewarding to see my programs have an impact, they were add-ons, rather than the core of school curricula. I realized that unless the educational approach in the U.S. and beyond shifted significantly, we would be hard-pressed to solve the challenges that confront us. It’s time to create those shifts.
Uncovering Root Challenges in Education
Most people in industrialized countries have experienced thirteen to twenty-three years of formalized schooling. If the popular belief is true that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master something, then the majority of people reading this could legitimately be deemed to be experts at “being schooled,” and therefore to have valid opinions about schooling.
Each of us has biases, beliefs, and experiences, both positive and negative, which inform our opinions about schools and education. Our perspectives are shaped in large part by our memories of school. Some feel that if the curriculum and pedagogy were good enough for them, they should be good enough for children today. If discipline ruled the day when they were young, they may believe that today’s often less-disciplined students (and their often more permissive parents) are the problem. If rote memorization worked for them, they may believe that new approaches to pedagogy are the reason for school failures.
Plenty of other people remember school as primarily anxiety-provoking and boring. They know that the opportunities to learn today are abundant and exciting, making traditional approaches to schooling outdated. While the world is changing quickly, public schools have remained relatively unchanged, and a growing group of people believe that education and schools should be changing substantially so that students can avail themselves of the plentiful opportunities around them to learn and achieve mastery over a range of subjects and skills.
Others’ perspectives may be shaped less by their memories of school and more by their current needs. Many of today’s employers are frustrated by the failure of schools to prepare students for modern jobs where skills and dispositions like collaboration, innovation, effective communication, critical and creative thinking, initiative, self-management, and adaptability in a rapidly changing world are essential.
Many parents are upset that schools are limiting the arts, recess, and physical education, forcing their children to sit at a desk all day. They are dismayed that their once inquisitive, creative, enthusiastic children are becoming stressed, weary, and apathetic.
In other words, people are dissatisfied, frustrated, and saddened about the state of schooling today, but our reasons for these feelings vary considerably. There are simply so many problems, challenges, and issues in education that it’s common to hear dichotomous critiques. For example, in 2010 two wildly different, and widely viewed documentaries about education, Waiting for Superman and Race to Nowhere, came out within months of one another and epitomized divergent analysis of problems in education, implying (though unfortunately not explicitly suggesting) divergent solutions. Waiting for Superman criticized poor teaching, teachers unions, and limited high-quality, high-rigor school options; Race to Nowhere criticized our high-stress, competitive, burn-out-inducing schools and curriculum. Isn’t it odd that two popular films critical of U.S. schooling and produced at the same time did not share a single critique? What does that mean for improving schooling and solving our educational challenges?
The U.S. media frequently report that schools are failing our children; that our graduates fall below those of other countries in international PISA tests that rank educational proficiencies; that bullying is rampant, cheating ubiquitous, and that too many students drop out of school. The hostility among many politicians and citizens directed at schools, administrators, and teachers is often extreme. So, too, is the vitriol aimed at government attempts to articulate standards.
Although this essay is based on the premise that schooling needs to be re-imagined and improved, the concerns you’ll find here overlap with, but are fundamentally different from, and go beyond, the common critiques we hear in the national conversation about education. For example:
• It’s not just that many students are graduating from high school without the necessary skills in literacy, numeracy, and science; it’s that even if they were to graduate with exceptional skills, they would not by design or purpose be properly educated and prepared for today’s world and the important task of solving critical global challenges.
• It’s not just that bullying is a problem in school and that values and character are not adequately cultivated to ensure kindness, responsibility, and empathy; it’s that our daily lives are inextricably connected through the global economy to institutionalized brutality, injustice, and environmental devastation, and that we do not learn in school how to be kind, responsible, and empathetic in a world in which our everyday choices impact other people, animals, and ecosystems across the planet.
• It’s not just that cheating is rampant in school; it’s that we have an outmoded system that tempts students to cheat. With facts literally at their fingertips, students most need to cultivate skills in research, collaboration, and critical, creative, scientific, systems, strategic, and logical thinking, all of which are most effectively taught and fostered in ways that are antithetical to cheating.
• It’s not just that many students drop out; it’s that these students perceive school to be irrelevant and not worthwhile, and many students — even those who don’t drop out — are largely disengaged.
• It’s not just that students aren’t performing up to par; it’s that the standardized tests we are using for assessment are often poor evaluation tools, unworthy of our students’ true needs, and often at odds with helping them gain many of the skills they require.
• It’s not just that many students are overly stressed by their packed schedules, their multitude of advanced placement (AP) courses, and their extracurricular obligations; it’s that they have little opportunity to connect their learning with the real world, develop and follow their own passions, and contribute in ways that are truly meaningful and demonstrate real accomplishments.
• It’s not just that there is an achievement gap; it’s that we continue to fail to address poverty, which is the primary cause of that gap, while we simultaneously fail to identify and measure many of the achievements that matter most for the future of all children.
• It’s not just that there is ineffective teaching; it’s that so many public school teachers are required to “teach to the test” and are rarely educated or prepared to teach about the interconnected, global issues that are essential subjects for our students.
• It’s not just that so many schools aren’t succeeding at achieving their stated objectives; it’s that many of their stated objectives are no longer the right ones for today’s world.
Thus, when we hear in the media and from politicians about the problems with today’s schools, it’s important that we look beyond the sound bites to recognize and understand the limitations of these critiques. We need to shift away from politically motivated side-taking and set our sights on solutions to education that are most meaningful to students and their futures; that are truly helpful to the profession of teaching; and that are ultimately best for the world our children will soon be influencing.
Shifting the Purpose of Schooling
In the United States the current purpose of schooling (2016) is expressed in the mission statement at the U.S. Department of Education website: to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access. Is this mission sufficient and appropriate for students whose future is threatened by global problems they will be required to address? Might they be better served by a more meaningful and comprehensive mission that includes learning to solve the challenges they will face?
Climate change is not a future possibility; it is happening now, with potentially catastrophic impacts. Species are becoming extinct at alarming rates. Human population continues to grow, and of the 7.3 billion people in the world, approximately one billion do not have adequate access to clean water and food, more than 2.5 billion lack basic sanitation, and more than 25 million are living in slavery. Additionally, tens of billions of land animals and more than one trillion sea animals suffer and die each year as part of an unsustainable and inhumane global food system.
Despite the grim realities above, we’ve seen real progress and have ever-expanding opportunities to solve our problems. For example, people in countries around the globe are living longer and more materially secure lives, and (media reports notwithstanding) there is less violence toward people than ever before in recorded human history. Only in this century have we had the capacity to communicate and collaborate instantaneously with so many across the globe. Even in many countries where poverty is pervasive, mobile phone access is enabling millions to connect with others worldwide and to access the growing body of knowledge humans are creating and disseminating. There are also exciting innovations occurring in green technology, architecture, construction, and production. Clean energy systems and regenerative farming practices are expanding, and people in every country are devising solutions to what have been seemingly intractable problems.
In other words, today’s world presents our children with unprecedented challenges as well as unprecedented opportunities. Our ability to acquire pertinent information, share our knowledge, work together to solve our challenges, and create a more just and healthy world is real and growing. Yes, we face potential disasters, and yes, through the right kind of education, we can solve the problems that threaten us. Given all these factors, doesn’t it make more sense for schools to ensure that students understand the formidable challenges before them; to prepare young people fully and well to address these challenges; and to engage youth in cultivating their ability and desire to create meaningful solutions to potentially calamitous global problems?
Henry David Thoreau once said, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” Because the education of children is the root system underlying all other systems, it is critical that we reexamine and shift the purpose of schooling. If schools were actually successful at achieving the current U.S. Department of Education’s mission — so that graduates were all able to compete effectively in the global economy — these young people would likely perpetuate and perhaps even escalate the global challenges we face. However, if we embrace a mission more worthy of our children and their future — to prepare them to be engaged and knowledgeable solutionaries for an equitable, peaceful, and regenerative world — we will have a purpose that propels us toward a deeply meaningful and relevant education that benefits both youth and all on Earth. Our children are far more likely to be successful and happy if they have the knowledge, skills, and motivation to effectively address and solve the problems they will face through whatever careers and jobs they choose to pursue. Just as what harms our world harms our children, what benefits our world benefits our children. This is why we must commit to educating a generation of solutionaries.
The skills and capacities essential for becoming a solutionary
Critical, creative, and systems thinking are among the essential cognitive capacities that form the core capacities for solutionary thinking.
What exactly is critical thinking? The Foundation for Critical Thinking defines it as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” Critical thinking is challenging. Most of us (myself included), are not proficient enough critical thinkers.
How do we know what we know? How do we know that our planet is billions of years old? That we are comprised of atoms? That more people died in the 1918–19 influenza pandemic than in World War I? That a mass extinction is underway? That millions of children are currently living and working as slaves? That nonhuman animals experience pain and suffering on modern industrial farms and in testing laboratories?
Few of us have direct evidence to substantiate the above statements. Rather, we rely on research, experts, and media we’ve come to trust. We also rely on the collective involvement of educated people in many and varied fields to corroborate and demonstrate the validity of hypotheses and theories and to accurately report historical facts and current events.
Unfortunately, however, we may come to trust illegitimate and highly biased sources of information based on our already established belief systems. To the greatest degree possible, young people need to learn how to find and evaluate evidence and discover what is factual. They also need to learn to endure the discomfort of cognitive dissonance when their beliefs are challenged by contrary evidence, and this dissonance is difficult for several reasons:
1. We are disinclined to abandon our deepest beliefs no matter how strong the evidence, and often the greater the evidence the deeper we remain attached to our faulty beliefs.
2. In order for young people to learn to think critically about their assumptions and beliefs, their teachers must commit to doing so rigorously themselves.
3. If young people do become adept at critical thinking they may begin to think differently from their parents, who may not appreciate their children challenging family norms or beliefs. Parental displeasure may translate into criticism of teachers and schools, causing many schools to keep the curriculum as uncontroversial as possible to avoid conflict.
Several years ago I was invited to a middle school to give a presentation on learning to make choices that do the most good and least harm to oneself and others. During the presentation, students shared their thoughts in response to my question, “What are the biggest problems in the world?” One boy said “War.” My agreeing that war was a problem alarmed the principal who worried that this assertion would make parents who were veterans, or fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, angry. (Ironically, it is soldiers and veterans who know better than most that war is a problem.)
It is worth reporting that no parents were upset by my visit to their children’s school, and students told the principal that they learned the following: making connections between one’s choices and the impact of those choices on others is important; each of us should endeavor to model a message we’re proud of; and giving of oneself increases one’s own joy. I tell this story because it represents a trend among many school administrators and politicians to discourage teaching and learning that may be perceived as even remotely controversial. For example, in 2015 members of the West Virginia House of Representatives introduced a bill to prohibit the teaching of “social problems, economics, foreign affairs, the United Nations, world government, socialism or communism until basic courses in American state and local geography and history are completed” (HB 2107). If this bill passed, an offending teacher would be charged with a misdemeanor crime and fined. And then fired.
Such legislation should appall us all. One can imagine schools teaching the prerequisite courses only in the upper grades of high school, preventing students from ever having class discussions about important global and social issues — even those heavily reported in the news — throughout most of their schooling. What’s ironic, and perhaps tragic, is that there are few places better than school to address and grapple with “social problems, economics, foreign affairs” and any number of issues, controversial or otherwise, relevant to the lives of our children. Schools and teachers can provide one of the best venues for investigation, research, and analysis, with the goal of turning controversial issues into the clay from which students can mold new ideas and develop meaningful solutions to problems that are all too commonly perceived and presented in either/or terms. As long as the topic is age appropriate, and teachers and administrators take great care not to subtly influence students with their own biases, transforming controversy from polarized camps into problem-solving for all is a wonderful challenge for students and offers the potential for real contributions to society. Moreover, if young people are to become solutionaries, they must be permitted to explore and grapple with controversial topics. One of my favorite examples of the power of young people to address the gravest issues of our time is teacher John Hunter’s World Peace Game, in which fourth graders devise solutions to bring about peace.
Key to addressing controversy is the ability to determine what is actually true. Controversial issues often stem from conflicting beliefs about what is factual. Therefore, learning how to discern facts from conjecture and misinformation must become an essential goal of schooling. To navigate the information age, in which any opinion, perspective, pseudo-scientific statement, illegitimate conspiracy theory, etc., vies with valid research, careful journalism, real science, and actual conspiracies, our children must become expert critical thinkers able to challenge biases, including their own, everywhere.
When people actively and energetically pursue information and gain knowledge, they often want to share their new perspectives with others. Occasionally they do so with a critical attitude, not just critical thinking, and when this happens, learning and thinking suffer. It’s important to ensure respectful dialogue in classrooms and reinforce good communication and listening skills. Children need to feel that their opinions and beliefs may be expressed openly, and that no one will be marginalized for having unpopular ideas and perspectives. Parents want to know that persuasive teachers who have different values or views won’t unduly influence their children, and that the classroom will not become a venue for indoctrination or disrespect toward others’ beliefs, values, or cultural traditions.
While our children must become capable critical thinkers, critical thinking alone is insufficient for the tasks they will face. In order to solve problems, our children need to be creative thinkers as well. Whereas critical thinking usually entails focused analysis and evaluation to ascertain the truth, creative thinking often happens when we are not seeking the “right answer,” when we are open to any and all ideas, and when we are in a playful, relaxed state. The creative impulse is a birthright, but all too often, it becomes buried in school. The more the arts — whether visual, dramatic, choreographic, improvisational, or musical — are cut from the school day, the less opportunity our children have to tap into the creative force from which inspiration and ideation often flow.
Because life in our world — both ecological and societal — is dependent upon interconnected systems, to be a solutionary it is also essential to become a systems thinker, able to identify the interlinking components that contribute to the challenges we face. Over time, and despite revolutionary and positive innovations and breakthroughs in science, governance, food production, health care, economics, and more, we have developed entrenched, interrelated systems that have caused, and continue to cause, escalating problems. Although many of our most effective, efficient, and powerful systems have brought great opportunities and liberties and have alleviated tremendous suffering and injustices, our current energy, production, transportation, agricultural, political, and economic systems perpetuate many of the challenges and crises before us.
Attempting to solve a problem in isolation may potentially exacerbate another problem inextricably linked through various systems, and while it’s not easy to take everyone’s interests into consideration, it’s necessary in order to avoid partial solutions and/or solutions that help one group while harming another. Here are a few examples of solutions embraced in the United States that have helped alleviate one problem while exacerbating another:
• As we have worked to expand our economy in order to create more prosperity for people, we have contributed to more resource depletion and pollution.
• As we have developed systems to increase the production and reduce the cost of food, we have created both environmentally destructive agricultural systems as well as confinement operations that are cruel to animals, resource intensive, and highly polluting.
• As we have outsourced production to developing countries to better compete in the marketplace, keep costs low for consumers, and increase company revenues, we have lost the ability to effectively monitor working conditions and ensure that people producing clothes, food, electronics, etc., overseas are paid a living wage, treated fairly, and work in safety. Moreover, modern supply chains make it difficult to ensure that slaves and children are not used in the production of many of the goods we purchase. Outsourcing has also meant the loss of U.S. jobs.
• As we have tried to ensure that chemicals entering our environment are safe, we have subjected millions of sentient animals to painful toxicity tests in which chemicals are force-fed to them in quantities meant to kill.
Addressing and changing entrenched and interconnected systems is challenging. When an entire society is structured around certain systems (such as centralized energy grids) it is difficult to move from the predominant system (e.g., fossil fuels) to less centralized systems (e.g., solar, tidal, and wind). Transforming such systems becomes challenging because of other systems (e.g., political and economic).
Thus, to prepare young people to think comprehensively and deeply about interrelated challenges and to solve problems systemically, strategically, and wisely we must educate them to make multiple connections and seek answers that do not cause new problems while solving existing problems. Students need to be able to understand complex, interconnected systems; evaluate them thoughtfully; and become systems thinkers and changers.
It is with the combined cognitive capacities of critical, creative, and systems thinking that they can become truly effective solutionaries.
Systems within education in need of change
There are many systems within schools themselves that we rarely examine as a society, often because we assume a significant amount of wisdom went into their creation. Below are some of common school systems and practices in the United States. As you read each one, ask yourself if this system or practice best helps achieve the goal of educating and preparing students for their futures and enabling them to most effectively participate in the creation of a more sustainable and just world.
• Divide the core subjects we teach into the four categories of math, science, language arts, and social studies?
• Teach all children essentially the same things, at the same ages, and in the same ways throughout school?
• Divide units of instruction into short, specific, and predictable time periods of approximately 45 minutes?
• Divide days into class periods with no particular relevance to one another?
• Evaluate student learning primarily with standardized tests and grades?
• Assess schools and teachers based on students’ standardized test scores?
• Pay for public schools largely through property taxes, which favor children who live in wealthy areas and limit the funds available for children who live in high-poverty areas?
• Conduct school Monday-Friday, starting around 8 a.m. and ending around 3 p.m. and taking summers off?
• Learn almost exclusively within the walls of the school building, with field trips as a rare treat often distinct from the curriculum, and internship/mentorship opportunities uncommon?
• Avoid democracy in the school as an organizing, decision-making principle worth modeling and practicing?
These pervasive systems and practices have been in place for a long time, and each one deserves reexamination if we are to best educate young people for their important roles and great responsibilities in today’s world. The good news is that many schools, teachers, administrators, and parents are transforming schools in their communities and creating innovative programs and approaches. The bad news is that these initiatives are not yet recognized as models worthy of large-scale replication at any level of state or federal government. Moreover, the few schools that are dedicated to educating their students to be real-world problem-solvers are generally focused on a single concern like social justice or the environment, rather than on ensuring that their students are educated and prepared to find answers that are good for all people, all species, and the ecosystems that sustain everyone. School reforms are myriad, but not necessarily comprehensive in their nature and vision. That is why it’s time to imagine and develop curricula, pedagogical approaches, and schools that simultaneously serve the true needs of individual students while enabling them to be contributors to a more equitable, healthy, and humane world for all.
Let’s teach children that a just, humane, and healthy world is possible.
A few years ago, I spoke to a group of fifth and sixth graders at an independent school in Connecticut. The children shared a list of global challenges, which I wrote down on a white board. I asked them to raise their hands if they could imagine us solving the problems they named. Of the approximately 45 children in the room, only a handful raised their hands. This was one of the most disturbing moments in my career as an educator. I thought to myself, “If these children can’t even imagine us solving our problems, what will motivate them to try?”
I knew I had to do something to bring these ten- and eleven-year-old children some hope, so I asked them to close their eyes, sit comfortably, take some deep breaths, and imagine that they were very old, approaching the end of a long life. I described a healthy and humane future, painting a vivid picture of clean air and water, and a world without war, poverty, or cruelty to people or animals. It was a similar picture to the one that begins this essay. Then I asked them to imagine a child approaching them. This child has been studying history in school and wants to understand how the world has changed so significantly. The child asks this question: “What role did you play in helping to bring about our better world?” I ended the visualization by inviting the students to answer the child’s question. With their eyes still closed, I then asked them to raise their hands if now they could imagine us solving our problems. This time, only a handful didn’t raise their hands.
I have come to believe that much of the cynicism and despondency young people feel — at least those who are not enduring poverty, violence, and oppression — may not run very deep. Their belief in a brighter future may lie just below the surface, and it’s our responsibility as teachers, parents, grandparents, mentors, and advocates for a more peaceful world to cultivate practical hope among young people.
We have much environmental damage to repair and many systems to transform to create a humane and healthy world for all. The work ahead may seem overwhelming at times, yet it is doable, and the reality is that we don’t need everyone to be engaged in the effort. As anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” As long as a critical mass of people create equitable, compassionate, and sustainable systems, others will readily utilize and engage with these systems whether or not they were involved in their development.
To inspire the greatest number of solutionaries, however, and to improve the likelihood of success, we must commit to ensuring that students believe a just, humane, and healthy world is possible. If we begin the educational endeavor with this premise, our children will have every reason to engage enthusiastically and fully in the exciting, challenging, and meaningful work ahead of them. In the process, they will come to know, deep in their minds and hearts, that what they do matters.
Let’s ensure that students understand that we are all inextricably connected, and that we are each responsible for the effects of our choices and our collective future.
In his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” While specifically written about social justice, this statement is true about all interconnected systems. Our societal decisions can have negative consequences if we carelessly ignore our “network of mutuality.” In just the recent past, we saw mortgage loans issued in the U.S. to people who couldn’t afford them (and then bundled into tradable commodities) bring down economies across the globe. Today, greenhouse gasses emitted into the atmosphere in the U.S. and China are leading to rising sea levels in the Maldives, while growing resistance by bacteria to antibiotics, caused by both indiscriminate use of these medicines in animals raised for food and excessive and inappropriate prescriptions, now endangers the health of people everywhere.
While intention matters — and only a small percentage of people intend to harm others — our choices may cause suffering and destruction whether we are aware of our impacts or not. This is why it’s so important that schools teach students to become cognizant of our interconnected lives and the responsibility we share for the effects of our decisions. It really isn’t enough to teach our children only to be proximally kind (kind to those with whom they interact directly); in today’s world it’s also important to teach our children (and to learn ourselves) how to be kind through all of our choices.
Let’s ensure that students understand how to develop solutionary solutions.
If you conduct a web search for “kid heroes” you’ll discover wonderful children doing great things. It is inspiring to read their stories, learn about their generosity, and know that kindness and compassion flourish. Yet you’ll likely discover that many of these children are involved in efforts that do not seek to change the systems that are causing suffering, injustice, and destruction in the first place. And sometimes these efforts cause harm to one group while trying to help another.
I just searched for “kids saving the world” and “kid heroes,” and below are some of the hundreds of stories I found about what children have contributed. As you read this list, consider which are truly solutionary: that is, they solve a root, systemic problem in a way that does not cause harm to people, animals, or the environment.
• Donated groceries to a food bank.
• Raised money for schools to open in developing countries.
• Designed a dialysis machine at a small fraction of the cost of typical machines.
• Donated blankets to a homeless shelter.
• Raised money to send livestock to developing countries.
• Developed an early detection test for pancreatic, ovarian, and lung cancers.
• Organized protests against whale captivity at SeaWorld.
• Raised money to help people recover after a natural disaster.
• Held a rodeo to raise money for a health charity.
• Successfully campaigned to have their school adopt Meatless Mondays.
I could list pages of good works that young people are doing around the world. I want to be clear that these efforts stem from generous hearts and need to be encouraged. Yet, as I hope you noticed, not all of these efforts addressed a system in need of change, and some may have inadvertently caused harm to others, especially animals (e.g., the rodeo and providing livestock). Charitable donations won’t, by themselves, solve causal problems unless they are directly addressing and contributing to a change in an underlying problematic system.
If, for example, we ignore the root systems that are causing climate change, then we will perpetually be putting out the fires of what have become frequent, less-than-natural disasters. If we don’t develop systems for people to move out of poverty, we will always be faced with the need for aid.
Distinguishing between a solution and a solutionary solution can be challenging. As you read the account below, ask yourself whether it represents a solutionary solution:
In May 2015, a news report highlighted the good work of a young man who wanted to solve the problem of food waste and hunger simultaneously. His idea was to create a non-profit to utilize the efforts of volunteers to bring food from restaurants that would otherwise be thrown out to hungry people living in poverty. Soon he had built a thriving program with many volunteers transporting food disposed of by restaurants to soup kitchens.
Is this idea solutionary? If so, how would you rank it on a solutionary scale: Emerging? Developing? Proficient? Exemplary? While it certainly remedies some local problems and helps many individuals, does it address or seek to solve the systems that perpetuate poverty and hunger and the systems that perpetuate food waste?
Were we, each and every day, to transport the excess food produced (and wasted) around the world into the hands of the approximately one billion people living in perpetual hunger, we still would not have solved the problems of poverty, massive income inequality, unsustainable agricultural practices, and the polluting energy and fertilizer systems involved in food production and transportation, so while I personally consider this non-profit program as somewhat solutionary, and while I applaud the founder’s work and am glad that he and his volunteers are doing it, thinking only at this level of solutions is not enough. Developing high level solutionary solutions needs to be one of society’s primary goals. And as I’ve said before, preparing young people to devise such solutionary solutions needs to be a primary goal of schooling.
Let’s make learning interdisciplinary and organized around real-world issues.
In most schools students study math, science, language arts, and social studies in discrete classes. A student might be learning algebra in math (from a textbook or computer program); studying biology in science (from a different textbook or computer program); reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in language arts; and exploring European history (from yet another textbook). Every 45 minutes the bell rings, and the student switches gears entirely. There is little continuity, connection, or common thread. Nothing about this typical school model has a counterpart in the working world.
To make schools both solutionary-focused and interdisciplinary we can organize learning around pressing, real-world challenges. Using current overarching issues as keystones will enable many schools, which may not be able to easily or quickly change their current course structure, to integrate otherwise discrete disciplines through the lens of a relevant theme. Below is an example of how the real-world challenge of climate change could fit into the current structure of most schools, making the curriculum both more pertinent and interdisciplinary.
Students could learn topics in science by studying the greenhouse effect; the changing chemistry of our atmosphere and oceans; the physics of rising sea levels and air currents; the biological impacts on ecosystems and rates of extinction; and the migration of some plant, fungal, and animal species toward the cooler poles. They might also analyze the data produced by approximately 97 percent of climate scientists who conclude that humans are contributing to global warming. They could then offer ideas based on their scientific knowledge for addressing and slowing climate change while also adopting and advocating personal choices to reduce climate impacts on a school-wide level.
Students could gain language arts skills by engaging with current writings on climate change; dystopian and utopian literature; American nature-oriented classics like Thoreau’s Walden and the poetry of Walt Whitman, as well as modern poetry by Camille Dungy and Mary Oliver. They might write blog posts, op-eds, fiction, poetry, and/or essays sparked by these readings, with the goal of producing publishable written work that has a meaningful real-world impact.
Students could learn about history and geography as they explore the societal impact of environmental factors such as droughts, floods, topsoil depletion, desertification, and deforestation on civilizations throughout time and compare these historical impacts with current realities. They would have the opportunity to think critically and strategically about the politics, psychology, and economics involved in climate change, and the various methods and approaches of groups working to reverse the changes we’ve set in motion, covering the core of social studies. Some students might explore how and why many people dismiss climate change despite the evidence and the overwhelming scientific consensus, and cultivate the ability to respectfully and effectively challenge persistent climate change myths. Their solutionary work could include preparing and meeting with legislators to present their suggestions, creating educational presentations to share with the greater community, bringing their social studies analyses to a wider audience through shareable and publishable work, etc.
Students could practice and develop their math skills through equations, statistics, and graphing to analyze climate trends; design and conduct quantitative research studies; conduct cost-benefit analyses; and solve climate change–oriented mathematical problems. They could also create and innovate through the visual arts, theater, and dance, producing design solutions, films, and thought-provoking and entertaining performances.
Here’s an interdisciplinary idea for meaningful curricula across all grade levels that could have a positive impact on both individual students and the larger school-wide community: once a year, an entire school district could address the same topic for a four- to six-week block of time. Let’s take the topic of energy as an example. While young students might be learning about energy in their own bodies, calories in food, and healthy eating for optimum energy; middle school students might be studying renewable energy sources and comparing them to coal and other fossil fuels, learning about geography, politics, economics, and science, and using math and probabilities. Older students might learn from scientists and engineers developing clean and sustainable energy systems, and conduct independent research with the goal of drafting proposed energy solutions.
The final week of each real-world topic could be set aside for celebrations of learning during which students share with both the school and greater community the knowledge gained, problems identified, and solutions achieved. Imagine both the learning and doing (and learning by doing) that would take place; the engagement and motivation that would be inspired by the students’ passion about a particular issue or problem; the community involvement that would enrich the students’ investigations and projects; and the excitement of seeing the ways in which what happens in school relates to what happens in the real world when an overarching topic provides the keystone.
And imagine the topic categories themselves. Here are just a few examples:
Things we can’t live without:
• Food and water
• Energy, transportation, and shelter
• Clothing and essential products
Persistent problems in the world:
• Pollution and habitat destruction
• Prejudice (sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc.)
• Violence, poverty, and war
Creating positive change:
• Conflict resolution and peacemaking
• Ethical choicemaking and effective changemaking
• Regenerative and just systems development
To understand and meaningfully address these topics, students would necessarily build their knowledge of and skills in the sciences and math, learn about history and current events, and practice oral and written communication. Moreover, to make any significant impact students would likely gain leadership, goal setting, and the critical, creative, strategic, design, and systems thinking capacities mentioned earlier. As we encourage students to explore their creative impulses, we might also find them developing innovative and dramatic responses and solutions to these issues. These students would likely find themselves striving to live with greater compassion, integrity, and responsibility as well.
Here’s another idea: what if we had solutionary-focused questions that guided curriculum development throughout K–12 schooling; that were connected to skill and knowledge acquisition; and that covered the truly essential needs of our lives? Here are some:
• How can the systems in our world work effectively, ethically, and sustainably?
• How does positive change happen?
• How can we be solutionaries for a just, peaceful, and sustainable world for all people, other species, and the environment?
Now imagine that from each overarching question come more questions that serve as topics within developmentally appropriate units. Below are just a few ideas. As you read them, consider what ages the question is best suited for, and what disciplines and transferable understandings the students might learn while exploring the answers.
From the question, “How can the systems in our world work effectively, ethically, and sustainably?” classes might explore answers to the following questions:
• What are ecological and societal systems, and how do they connect?
• On what societal and ecological systems do we depend?
• What are the impacts on a system from decisions made in another system?
From the question, “How does positive change happen?” students might ask and answer these questions:
• How do ideas develop and spread?
• In what ways is technology transforming our capacity to create positive change?
• What kinds of advocacy and activism change societies for the better?
From the question, “How can we be solutionaries for a just, humane, and sustainable world for all people, other species, and the environment?” students could explore these questions:
• What are our deepest values and how do we live accordingly in a globalized world?
• What does it mean to be a solutionary __________? (Fill in blank with any profession or job.)
• How can we each best model our message and do the most good and least harm to ourselves and others, including nonhuman animals and the Earth?
While schools and teachers might offer some or all of these questions to students within units of study, equally important is eliciting students’ own questions, some of which might become a topic for the class, and others of which might become the students’ personal quests that they turn into projects, challenges, and their own solutionary work and accomplishments.
Further, allowing room in the curriculum for teachers to collaborate in an interdisciplinary manner in order to address current issues that affect students will make learning truly relevant. When the 9/11 attacks happened in 2001, how many teachers in secondary schools in the U.S. were given the support, guidance, and trust to pause and alter the curriculum so that students could confront, make sense of, and grapple with the gravity of what had befallen their country and fellow citizens? What about when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf States of the U.S. in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy struck the coast of the mid-Atlantic in 2012, or when riots broke out in several U.S. cities in 2014 and 2015 after unarmed black men were killed by police?
How might schools respond when a pressing global issue arises, whether a natural disaster, genocide, terrorist attack, democratic upwelling in an autocratic society, or disease outbreak? Learning how to create collaborative, meaningful, and responsive interdisciplinary curricula is essential for schooling that prepares students for the real world, and the process can be deeply creative and exciting for teachers, as long as they are given time, tools, resources, support, and trust.
I realize that some of these ideas require rethinking the current structure of typical school courses and curriculum, which isn’t easy to do within large public school systems, yet if we don’t assess and evaluate our current systems in light of a rapidly changing, opportunity-rich world, we will ultimately thwart children’s learning; diminish their engagement with their studies; and leave them poorly prepared for their future.
Let’s prepare students to be solutionaries through varied pedagogical approaches.
While curriculum is the body of knowledge, subjects, and skill sets that are presented to students, pedagogy is the method of that transmission. We are all familiar with the “sage on the stage” model of delivery in which the teacher stands at the head of the classroom, in front of a board or screen, and speaks to the students who are sitting — usually in rows — at desks. In fact, many of us probably consider this method the very definition of teaching. Sometimes this method is useful. When people have knowledge and information to share, it makes sense for them to share it. The extraordinary popularity of TED talks provides a testament to the value of the sage-on-the-stage pedagogical approach.
There are so many other ways, however, in which children can acquire information that leads to knowledge, and skills that lead to real-world solutionary accomplishments. Below are a few different pedagogical approaches offered as examples to serve a curricular unit around the question, “How can we ensure that everyone has access to clean water?” Let’s assume that the goals for this unit are that students will obtain skills in:
• Literacy, numeracy, and the scientific method
• Critical, creative, design, and systems thinking
• Problem finding and problem solving
• Empathy, communication, and collaboration
Further, let’s assume the goals also include gaining some content knowledge within the disciplines of ecology, chemistry, biology, physics, governance, ethics, social studies, history, math and statistics, and geography.
The teacher might utilize a mix of the following pedagogical approaches:
Use inquiry. Elicit students’ queries about water as well as pose and discuss such questions as: Who has a right to clean water? Why do approximately one billion people lack access to clean water? What happens when water sources are privatized? Given that we live in a closed ecological system, where has the fresh water gone? What causes desertification? What is causing the depletion of so many aquifers?
Offer opportunities for independent research and investigation. Invite students to identify an aspect of the topic that is of greatest interest to them (e.g., polluted local water, lack of access to fresh water in developing countries, deforestation and its relationship to desertification and water availability, water privatization, depleted local aquifers, etc.); do independent research; and critically assess the validity and reliability of the research.
Offer experiential opportunities for learning. Have students trace their own water supplies from source to final destination, visit both places, and learn from the people involved in the delivery of fresh water and treatment of sewage. Have some students take samples from local waterways and conduct a chemical analysis of them, while others conduct, analyze, and/or compare chemical tests from both tap and bottled water.
Invite speakers. Invite guests to talk to students by videoconference or in person, such as someone who has grown up without access to a personal well, plumbing, or easily obtainable sources of water; a representative from a corporation that is privatizing water or marketing bottled water; an individual who has invented an inexpensive water treatment device; a scientist who has documented the impact of water pollution or the depletion of aquifers; an expert in water policy, etc.
Use films and other multimedia sources. Have discussions about films such as Ryan’s Well, about a young boy who helps an African village obtain a well; Blue Gold: World Water Wars, about water privatization and its effects around the globe; Tapped, about the effects of bottled water, etc.
Use real-life case studies. Provide examples of challenges, successes, partial successes, and failures in addressing access to clean water so that students can develop their own ideas in a real-world context, understanding what efforts have been made and what obstacles have arisen. Explore personal stories of people impacted by water scarcity to both gain knowledge and deepen understanding and compassion.
Provide time and mentoring for solutionary work. Give students the time and space to develop their own solutionary approaches or pursue one of the following: ideas for the design or modification of existing water purification, collection, or dissemination devices; a probability diagram showing the expected changes in a body of fresh water if certain social, economic, and political issues are not addressed, and, conversely, if they are addressed successfully; a shareable presentation or video that analyzes water usage for various foods, products, and home and recreational use that offers suggested options to reduce water usage and protect aquifers and fresh water supplies, etc.
Offer opportunities for collaborative work.
Help students work in groups and teams to develop their solutions through collaboration. Here’s a scenario to serve as an example of the power of such collaborative work: Aisha is an advanced science student years ahead of her grade level. Justin is an excellent writer with a blog that many fellow students read regularly. Martina loves doing research and is a proficient critical and systems thinker. José is an artist and already very good at graphic design. Kyra is a quintessential diplomat who listens calmly and openly. Working together, they develop a solution to the problem of pollution in their local river and prepare a presentation, utilizing each of their talents, efforts, and knowledge, to share their solution with their community so that it gains widespread support for implementation. On their own, each has much to contribute; together they are a force.
There are so many pedagogical methods for exploring critical questions like “How can we ensure that everyone has access to clean water?” that lead to both solutionary and academic skills in ways that are deeply engaging, effective, and memorable.
Let’s adopt more meaningful assessments.
Grades and scores on standardized tests are our current measure of learning, yet it’s important to ask if these are truly the best ways to measure students’ understanding, mastery, and achievement, and whether they support solutionary thinking and accomplishments. What exactly do grades and standardized tests measure? How often does a poor grade or test score have more to do with a child being hungry, living in an unsafe situation, or experiencing sleep deprivation? Do grades and standardized tests motivate students to put in more effort, learn more effectively, retain their learning, and/or produce real-world contributions?
Grades are not simply assessments of learning: when placed on a curve, every test, quiz, exam, and graded assignment is a mini-competition, comparing students to their peers rather than measuring actual achievement and learning. Shouldn’t our goal be that 100% of students understand the subjects they’re studying and master the skills teachers are cultivating in them? Yet if every student got straight A’s some might accuse the school of grade inflation and say that grades no longer had meaning. If our goal is that every child gains proficiency in essential skills and competencies; has exposure to a variety of interconnected disciplines; increases knowledge about content we determine is essential for all; has the necessary capacities to make meaningful contributions to society; and is able to accurately and meaningfully assess their accomplishments, how do grades ensure that this happens? And how do standardized test results received months after students take the tests (often when they are done with the school year), and which do not even show students or teachers where errors occurred, help either students or teachers grow, learn, and improve?
As Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, has discussed in his widely viewed TED talk, if students get less than 100% on a test of their knowledge and skills (in math, for example) that may mean they didn’t fully understand the concepts, and they have gaps that will prevent ultimate mastery. The grading model has a tendency to penalize failure, rather than ensure that students practice until they gain proficiency, as well as to enable students to move to the next level before they are fully ready. Grades also potentially promote complacency because many students may be satisfied with a B even though such a grade means they haven’t mastered the content or skill. Grades can then become a ranking system rather than a mastery system. Without mastery of the building blocks, students have a weak foundation for the acquisition of higher-level knowledge, which can result in both diminished student engagement and failure to understand and advance. Further, by externalizing the reward for learning, children may lose the pleasure and excitement that is a normal response to learning something new, and for those children who do not get high marks, they may lose confidence, interest, and motivation in school.
What are some other ways we might assess and evaluate learning? Below are a few assessment strategies that are currently being explored and utilized, often outside traditional public school settings, and which might be integrated more regularly into all schools:
• Through daily formative assessments of writing, speaking, and calculating, students demonstrate their understanding and ability during class and get the necessary help as soon as a gap in understanding is observed by the teacher or the student.
• Students move ahead based not on time spent on a subject or skill, but rather mastery. Khan Academy operates on this method, and schools could do the same, especially with computer technologies that can automatically record progress and competency-attainments.
• Once a skill or understanding has been mastered, the student teaches another student, demonstrating both mastery and teaching (a common practice with young children in the successful Montessori approach).
• English, history, social studies, and other humanities classes become discussion- and concept-based, with achievement measured by the development of thinking and communication skills. Students’ writing is carefully evaluated and improved through one-on-one feedback with teachers and/or writing mentors. An essay, piece of fiction, poem, interview, article, presentation, and/or speech is perfected over time, so that mastery is accomplished and a student’s writing or presentation can become worthy of publication or sharing with an authentic audience.
• Students demonstrate learning by doing; they accomplish tasks and achieve goals that are otherwise impossible to attain without specific abilities, skills, and understandings, and which contribute to society (e.g., designing a sustainable and functional structure; identifying and calculating ways to conserve energy in their school; writing a cogent, thought-provoking op-ed piece on an issue in the news, etc.).
• Students’ artistic projects — whether visual, dramatic, or spoken word — provide expressive, creative, and innovative examples of conceptual understandings.
• Students form panels of teachers and mentors and invite community members to ask them questions about a topic they’ve been studying to demonstrate deep understanding and ability to articulate learning.
• Students learn to carefully, critically, and effectively assess themselves and their work. They learn to perceive their strengths, gaps, and weaknesses and to create personal plans — in collaboration with teachers, mentors, and parents — to address gaps and weaknesses while utilizing strengths.
Students assessed in these ways can build a meaningful digital portfolio of accomplishments that demonstrate the body of knowledge and competency acquisition they’ve obtained (including mastery of subjects from online technologies); showcase their solutionary achievements; and include evaluations of their work and thoughtful narratives from teachers, mentors, and supervisors.
Let’s offer students self-reflective practices to promote healthy states of mind as well as positive attitudes and behaviors.
There are schools that are teaching mindfulness meditation to their students, discovering that it improves attention and helps students to manage stress and cultivate self-control. Mindfulness is just one form of meditation during which students learn to observe their thoughts and feelings without reacting to them. In passage meditation, students choose and memorize values-rich, inspiring writing, repeating these memorized passages in their mind to cultivate and deepen qualities that represent wisdom, good character, and ethics.
Naikan, a Japanese form of self-reflection, is another introspective practice that often leads people toward the experience of gratitude and the desire to be kinder, more patient, and more responsible for their actions. Practitioners of Naikan ask and answer three questions:
1. What have I received from ____________?
2. What have I given ___________?
3. What troubles or difficulties have I caused ___________?
Filling in the blank with individuals (peers, family members, teachers, those far removed but connected through the global economy, etc.); aspects of nature (air, water, soil, forests, etc.); other species (companion animals, wildlife, farmed animals, animals in laboratories, animals used for entertainment, etc.), or simply filling in the blank with “today,” allows students (and teachers) to experience gratitude; reflect on their own generosity and the generosity of others; become cognizant of the myriad contributors to all that they may otherwise take for granted, as well as to become more aware of their impacts on others; introspect from an informed perspective; evaluate their choices; and hold themselves accountable.
These and other forms of self-reflection and meditation invite students to become more self-aware, peaceful, and composed; to develop equanimity; to cultivate positive character traits; and to practice self-assessment. With self-reflection also comes a greater capacity for healthy, positive, compassionate communication, which leads to better conflict resolution and the ability to collaborate more effectively to solve problems.
Let’s individualize the curriculum for each child.
There are some school models, such as Montessori, project-based, and democratic schools, that include individualized curriculum. Imagining differentiated curriculum within the entire public school system might seem overwhelming. With 30-plus children to teach in each class, standards to meet, and high-stakes tests to make sure students pass, how can teachers and schools be expected to personalize curricula?
Yet today’s world offers opportunities to do just this. Students can use online educational programs and resources (which often track student progress, making the process of differentiation much easier for teachers), meet with mentors, participate in internships, and more. Today’s generation of digital natives has the capacity to learn in ways unimagined prior to the 21st century. Through blended learning with online technologies and project-based experiences that allow students to pursue real-world accomplishments, schools can provide students with options that take advantage of today’s myriad opportunities. In addition to new technologies and online platforms for acquiring important reading and math skills, through MOOCs (massive open online courses) older students can choose from hundreds of courses offered by some of the greatest professors in the world, all free of charge.
We can allow students — in developmentally appropriate ways — to avail themselves of these many opportunities and incorporate what they learn into individualized plans that enable them to pursue their interests while still obtaining necessary knowledge and skills determined by both schools and society. If some children are having a hard time acquiring certain math skills, for example, the more mathematically advanced children can forge ahead to the next level. They can use an online program, coupled with mentoring oversight, while those needing more support can master the skills at their own pace.
We no longer need to decide between Spanish, French, Mandarin, or other language offerings; students and their families can choose among many world languages. Online language programs offer exciting opportunities for language acquisition, and these can be augmented by small-group work with a fluent teacher who can help students practice conversing, as well as provide lessons about the cultures where the language is spoken. For students in a region where no fluent teacher is available, free videoconferencing technologies now provide opportunities to engage teachers in other regions, which was impossible in previous generations.
Because solutionaries come with different passions and talents, an individualized curriculum is important. If a high school student finds herself interested in architecture or construction she might pursue an internship with a green building firm, while another student interested in the hospitality industry interns with an ecotourism company, and a budding civil engineer works with a mentor in the design of sustainable cities. We regularly hear about the need to ensure that high school graduates are “college- and career-ready.” I can think of few better ways to achieve this goal than to offer students opportunities for personalizing their education so that they acquire knowledge and skills relevant to the working world, while bringing a solutionary mindset that not only increases their value to an employer or college but also contributes to healthier and more sustainable societal systems.
We could go even further by developing and offering high school Solutionary Career Certification (SCC) tracks so that students who participate in internships and mentorships in solutionary-focused professions can obtain an SCC that demonstrates to future employers and colleges a high level of real-world preparedness. The goal isn’t to encourage students to choose a lifelong career as teenagers; rather, the purpose is to provide students with opportunities to explore and test out their interests and to develop them meaningfully.
To make school as relevant and meaningful as possible to young people who are on the verge of major personal decision-making, and to help them direct their learning toward their own goals, concerns, and dreams, imagine if teachers invited students to ask themselves and seek answers to the following four questions:
1. What challenges in the world most concern me?
2. What do I love to do?
3. What am I good at?
4. What do I need to learn?
When people discover the place where the answers to the first three questions meet and then seek out the answer to the fourth, they have opened the door to perhaps the greatest possibility for achieving a life of great purpose, meaning, and joy. Imagine if schools helped adolescents embark upon this journey of discovery by inviting students’ deepest questions; by helping them to explore a variety of issues, experiences, and opportunities to uncover their talents, concerns, and interests; and ultimately by enabling them to acquire the knowledge and capacities they need to achieve their goals while simultaneously making the world a better place.
Let’s make school meaningful and joyful.
Most of us learn best when we understand and embrace the meaning and purpose behind what we are studying. It is enjoyable and deeply engaging to solve problems we care about, to create, learn, and think. And it is joy-inducing to be of real service to others. When I was writing my book Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life, I conducted a survey, asking hundreds of people what brought them joy. Although I received plenty of expected responses (being with family and loved ones, being in nature, connecting with beloved animals, etc.), I also received repeated responses that doing good in the world, helping, and serving a purpose greater than oneself brought joy.
It is not uncommon for people to say that they hate (or, if they are adults, hated) school, or that school is boring. To me, boring children in school is a travesty. To take human beings at arguably the most curious and creative time of their lives and systematically dull and sometimes crush their curiosity and creativity is not only bad for children, it’s bad for our world. School simply should not be a stress-inducing, unfriendly, uninspiring place. It should not be an endurance test or a battleground. For too many children and too many dedicated teachers, however, it is all these things and worse. Given that learning is inherently enjoyable, it is shocking that we have turned school into a place that routinely lacks meaning and joy.
Imagine if every child and adolescent awoke eager to go to school to learn, innovate, participate in the arts, be kind, persevere, and discover how to become the best and brightest person they are meant to be — for their own sake and the sake of all those whom their lives affect. Our children spend such a large percentage of their lives in school. How could we want any less for them?
If you are a teacher or school administrator, ask yourself what role you can play in making your classes and school a place where students are eager to come each day, and where learning is a joyful process with great meaning. The following questions may help guide you:
1. Do your students understand and embrace the purpose behind their studies with you? How do you know? If not, how can you remedy this?
2. Do your students have the opportunity to utilize the knowledge, skills and capacities they are gaining for real-world impact? If not, how might you provide such opportunities?
3. Do your students have the chance to pursue accomplishments that make a difference? If not what tasks and goals might you help them pursue?
It may seem that these questions place an undue amount of responsibility on teachers, and this may seem unfair if the system in which teachers work does not provide the support, trust, time, or professional development opportunities to make the necessary changes. Yet no harm can come — and great good will certainly follow for both teachers and students — from endeavoring to ensure that school is as meaningful, inspiring, purposeful, and intellectually enriching as possible. Below I offer some thoughts about supporting teachers in this effort.
Let’s invest fully in teachers so that they can become solutionary educators.
Teachers have the profound and enormous responsibility to educate, mentor, motivate, hold accountable, love, and support their students. It is teachers’ responsibility to ensure that students are learning and mastering content while simultaneously assuring that they are also developing powerful thinking, communication, and collaboration abilities. It is also teachers’ obligation to cultivate and foster among their students values such as kindness, integrity, honesty, and responsibility. And to fulfill all these expectations, teachers must model these qualities and skills themselves. Included in this quite extraordinary job description is the necessity that teachers work from early morning until very late many nights and during part of almost every weekend, all for a modest salary and minimal status.
There’s more. If teachers work within the current public school system in the U.S., they may have little autonomy as professionals. They will often be required to teach uninspiring classes specifically to make sure that their students do well on largely irrelevant standardized tests. If teachers bring real-world, potentially controversial issues into classrooms for exploration and solutionary thinking by students, they may be reprimanded. They may regularly feel compelled to spend their own money to purchase supplies, books, and even food for the children they are charged to educate in order to effectively succeed at their jobs.
Given all these factors, is it any wonder that many teachers are demoralized and frustrated, and that such a large percentage of new teachers leave the profession after only a few years? It’s not like this everywhere. In Finland, teaching is a coveted career. Teachers there have similar status to physicians, and gaining entry into the teaching profession is highly competitive. Finnish teachers collaborate regularly, yet are autonomous in making decisions for their classrooms and in conducting student assessments. And schools across Finland — whether in rural, urban, suburban, wealthy, or working class communities — are equally successful at educating students. In Japan, teachers are paid significantly more than in the U.S., yet the country spends much less on education in general. Japanese teachers are expected not only to ensure that their students have learned the core disciplines and skills, but also to have built character and be model citizens. Teachers receive support, mentorship, and plenty of time for interaction and collaboration. And in both Finland and Japan, students score at or near the top of international PISA tests, which, unlike U.S. standardized tests, focus on critical thinking and problem solving.
It is essential that we truly invest in and support the educational profession, thereby attracting and welcoming bright, creative people to bring their knowledge and skills to classrooms where they will be coached and mentored by our finest teachers until they are masterful educators themselves. And it is vital that we treat the teaching profession with the respect it deserves and give teachers the autonomy to make decisions for their classrooms and students; the space and time for collaboration with fellow educators; frequent, high-quality professional development; and equitable compensation. Without achieving all these factors, it is unrealistic to expect to attract and retain excellent teachers who will be able to successfully meet the extraordinary job description described above and to educate a generation of solutionaries..
Let’s showcase students’ solutions.
If schools adopt these ideas, students will be working to solve real-world problems, and it behooves us to share and showcase their good ideas. Business leaders, social entrepreneurs, and investors can help turn students’ ideas into meaningful, socially helpful, and potentially lucrative products and services. Legislators can sponsor new bills suggested by students that lead to healthy, positive changes for all. Media can share students’ solutions with a wider audience.
At the Institute for Humane Education where I work we have developed a Solutionary Congress Program in which young solutionaries research real-world problems they care about; develop viable solutions to those problems; implement and evaluate their solutions; and present their work at a Solutionary Congress. Through their efforts these students have the opportunity — whether integrated within the curriculum or in afterschool programs specifically designed to prepare for Solutionary Congresses — to:
1. Grapple with an issue that personally concerns them.
2. Learn to work in concert with others to achieve a positive goal.
3. Develop meaningful and useful solutions to actual problems.
4. Implement their solutions and assess them.
5. Share their solutions with others, including audience members comprised of media, social entrepreneurs, investors, and legislators.
Schools might also have solutionary centers and/or solutionary weeks to share students’ viable answers to problems they’ve tackled in their schoolwork. The auditorium or gym can be the center for solutionary performances; the walls can display solutionary visual arts; the computer room can showcase the programming, videos, and public service announcements students produce to solve challenges and educate others; and an area in the school can be set aside as a store where students sell the solutionary products and services they’ve designed to the greater community.
Imagine how profoundly worthwhile children’s education will become when their deep thinking, dedicated effort, and innovative ideas result in solutions worthy of a public audience, monetary support, and community implementation. Imagine how fully engaged and enlivened the entire school community — students, teachers, administrators, and parents — will be. And finally, imagine the vast numbers of enthusiastic solutionaries who will graduate well on their way to contributing to a better world.
The consequences of continuing to pursue our current educational path include more disengaged children, more demoralized teachers, and the likely escalation of grave global challenges because young people will graduate ill prepared to meet and address these challenges successfully.
In the beginning of this essay I shared my belief that we can solve the challenges we face in the world. As we all know, however, we might fail to solve our problems and instead bequeath to future generations a bleak future in a less and less habitable world. Tragically, it is indeed possible that we will avoid addressing climate change effectively, or in time to reverse its worst effects, and that half of all species on Earth will become extinct by the end of this century. It is possible that coral reefs, rainforests, and glaciers will continue to disappear, and that more and more environmental refugees will be forced to flee flooded or desertified countries. It is possible that the unrest caused by a growing human population, coupled with inequity, suffering, and lack of access to essential but scarce resources, will increase violence and warfare. Should such a darker future be realized, the reason will be because we failed to transform how and what we teach children.
I leave you with a final thought experiment:
Imagine what our world will look like if schools shift from their current approaches and embrace a very different vision of schooling in which:
• Each child’s interests and talents are fostered and celebrated.
• Students become excellent researchers, and critical, creative, strategic, systems, scientific, and design thinking and collaboration are taught and practiced diligently.
• Values such as kindness, integrity, perseverance, responsibility, and honesty are cultivated and modeled every day.
• Real-world, viable solutions to problems provide an important and respected measure of learning, along with a true sense of meaningful accomplishment.
• Self-reflective practices lead to better self-management and more positive communication, ethical choicemaking, deeper empathy, and more effective collaboration.
• The arts are offered regularly and lead to greater creativity, innovation, and joy.
• Physical education is a daily practice leading to better health and well being.
• The goal of schooling is to graduate solutionaries who have learned to put their skills, knowledge, and talents in service of a more just, humane, and regenerative world through whatever careers and life choices they pursue.
When I imagine a generation of solutionaries, I can see the grave problems in the world being solved. I can see our broken political systems, our imperfect economic systems, our unsustainable energy systems, our inhumane and destructive agricultural systems, our unjust and unhealthy production systems, our dysfunctional criminal justice systems, our costly health-care systems, and so many other unsustainable and unhealthy systems made more equitable, sustainable, and compassionate. Further, I can see vibrant, joyful young people not only well prepared and positioned for the challenges they face in the present, but ready for whatever emerges in the future.
To be successful at changing our educational system and overcoming resistance, we must:
• Empower and support teachers as they transition to becoming the transformational, solutionary leaders in society they are meant to be.
• Develop and provide respectful, useful, and appropriate professional development for teachers and administrators and venues for sharing experiences to collaboratively and creatively learn from one another.
• Launch a Solutionary School movement in which schools are designed around pedagogy, curricula, and practices that foster real-world accomplishments, interdisciplinary subject matter, differentiated learning, and solutionary thinking and action.
• Demonstrate and document that students are capable of far more than the current system expects, and that children succeed best in highly experiential, cooperative, creative, purposeful learning environments.
• Engage all constituencies in this endeavor — not just teachers, school administrators, parents and students. Schools exist in widely divergent communities and yet are often isolated from those communities. How children are educated will have lasting effects on the future of all on Earth, and therefore we are all stakeholders. We must participate in the system of schooling and transform it into a solutionary system by paying attention to what happens in the field of education; speaking out; contacting our elected officials and electing those legislators who will work for meaningful shifts in education; drafting and sharing policy ideas; writing op-ed pieces, letters to the editor, blogs posts, and articles; offering and/or attending presentations; and showing up for change.
The United States and many other countries mandate a free, appropriate, and accessible education for every child. This mandate is a great privilege and responsibility. It is something that many people in other countries still dream of. Let’s not squander this opportunity; rather, let’s embrace it with vigor and commitment so that we truly educate young people in ways that are most meaningful and relevant to their lives and futures.
For the sake of our children and our world, please become involved in this critical endeavor. After all, the world becomes what we teach.
 There are some parents who are happy about the shift toward more academics and less art, recess, and physical education, believing that their children need more math and reading instruction to succeed in life after school, even if this comes at the expense of other subjects and school experiences.
 See the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report: http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/publications_and_data_reports.shtml.
 See this LiveScience report: http://www.livescience.com/45964-extinction-rates-1000-times-normal.html.
 See the Global Issues Facts and Stats: http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats.
 See the Humane Society of the United States website: http://www.humanesociety.org/news/resources/research/stats_slaughter_totals.html.
 See FishCount.org statistics: http://fishcount.org.uk/fish-count-estimates#wildestimate.
 See Harvard professor Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking Press, 2011.
 For more information about critical thinking, see: http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/defining-critical-thinking/410.
 Watch John Hunter’s top-rated TED talk “Teaching with the World Peace Game” https://www.ted.com/talks/john_hunter_on_the_world_peace_game?language=en.
 See one of the most popular TED talks of all time, Sir Ken Robinson’s “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity?language=en.
 The list generated by these children was quite similar to lists generated by older students and adults, so while I believe it’s important to protect young children from the ills of the world, the reality is that even ten-year-olds know about grave global problems without having been taught about them in school.
 I could understand this hopeless response more if these children lived in poverty-stricken neighborhoods with high crime and limited opportunities, but these were children in a private school in an affluent community.
 I’ve modified this visualization from one originated by deep ecologist, activist, and educator, Joanna Macy.
 An ideal solutionary solution is good for people, animals, and the environment; however, because solutions do not always address all three groups, to be solutionary a solution must not harm others.
 In October 2015, President Obama disseminated a video that admitted that current standardized testing protocols were not working to achieve their goals. The outcry against frequent high-stakes testing, and the activism that has led families to opt out of them and some states to limit them, is being heard: http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/obamas-change-of-heart-on-testing?intcid=mod-latest.
 As a teenager, I felt relieved when our math teacher graded on a curve after a difficult test. Motivated by grades, I was happy to get a high grade in comparison with my classmates, even if I didn’t understand the concepts well enough to master the material and do well without the curve. Only in retrospect did I realize the weakness of this grading model.
 See articles at the Mindfulness in Schools Project: http://mindfulnessinschools.org/research/research-evidence-mindfulness-young-people-general/.
 Passage meditation was brought to the U.S. by India-born teacher Eknath Easwaran, a professor of literature at the University of California at Berkeley: http://www.easwaran.org/learn-how-to-meditate.html.
 For more information about Naikan practice see Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Art of Self Reflection by Gregg Krech, Stone Bridge Press, 2001.
 The term “digital natives” was coined by Marc Prensky, in his book by the same title, to describe children who have grown up with digital technology. Read his newest thinking on education here: http://marcprensky.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/+Prensky-PlanB_education.pdf.
 TED prize winner, Sugata Mitra’s TED talk “Build a School in the Cloud” offers a glimpse into the power of today’s technologies to enable powerful learning even in places where otherwise disenfranchised, poverty-stricken children live without opportunities to attend school.
 The book Moonshots in Education by Esther Wojcicki and Lance Izumi offers many resources and ideas for doing this.
 See Center on International Education Benchmarking: http://www.ncee.org/programs-affiliates/center-on-international-education-benchmarking/top-performing-countries/finland-overview/finland-teacher-and-principal-quality/.
 See this New York Times article, “The Place Where Ranking Schools Proves They’re Actually Equal”: http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/11/ranking-high-schools-in-finland/417333/.
 Watch this short CBS news piece on Japanese teaching http://www.cbsnews.com/news/respect-for-japanese-teachers-means-top-results/.
 PISA even considers and rates student happiness in school. Read the 2012 PISA report comparing 34 countries here: http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/pisa-2012-results-overview.pdf.
 The Institute for Humane Education offers online graduate programs, short online professional development courses, workshops, and free downloadable resources. Find out more at www.HumaneEducation.org. In the book, Moonshots in Education, there are also many suggestions for professional development opportunities specifically in blended learning.