Peaceboat, the cruise with a conscience, recently devoted an entire month onboard to exploring the nuances of peace education on a global level. Comprised mainly of Japanese students aged 20-30, with a few staunch elder generational supporters, the workshops and dialogues featured onboard covered the parallel shortcomings in Japanese and American education, as well as the potential for change through a student-lead educational revolution.
The students revealed the complex impacts of formulaic education on self- esteem, attention span, (mis)behavior and career paths. But they were not just empty complainers: they also gave creative input for restructuring the framework of education so that all learners are nurtured and supported.
Moreover, they recognized that the entire foundation and purpose of education must undergo a transformation of ecological proportions.
In The Web of Life, author Fritjof Capra differentiates between a holistic and ecological worldview. Using his example of a bicycle, a holistic view would wee how the parts interact with each other, the bike chain with the pedals, the gears, the treads with the road and perhaps the whole apparatus with the rider.
An ecological approach would see all of those interactions plus the origins of the bike materials, the fabrication of the machine, the process of assembling it from mining the metal components to the individual welder, as well as the impact on the terrain.
This bike metaphor can also be a model for viewing the state of education in the world today. Judging by the crisis in the United States, education has unraveled to the point that teachers quit after their second year in the classroom, students despairingly drudge through the school day, many in under resourced districts lacking in both funding and morale. Pressure to perform on high-stakes testing has resulted in a catastrophic decline in true learning, sacrificed at the expense of teaching to the test. Learning for the sake of truth and knowledge is hard find.
If we view the components of education in disarray in a holistic manner, we may try to adjust this or that part of the system, i.e., more funding here, more support there. We can tweak and adjust the various parts of the educational system, hoping that each improvement will have some impact. The majority of educational problem-solvers are addressing the issue through a holistic perspective.
But what we really need is an ecological understanding of education.
This means examining the path that education took on this road toward more accountability and less compassion, and the path ahead for how communities will respond to the diverse needs of students in a time when education seems to be getting short shrift.
Is school meant to mirror factory life, with children neatly in rows, performing identical tasks at the same rate, reaching the same conclusions and the same ends? Is school meant to prepare students for a life of conformity, where repetitive motions propel them in the direction of advancement? Will standardized tests make students pass the final 'factory inspection'?
Or is this factory model outdated?
Based on student input, the answer seems to be yes. An ecological approach to education means that students are heard, and their suggestions taken seriously. It means that educational change begins from the ground up, in a grassroots student revolution.
On PeaceBoat, students of all ages participated in an Ideal Schools Workshop, an activity geared toward brainstorming the best conditions for an ideal learning environment. Not surprisingly, their ideas reflect principles of ecology and ecological thinking.
For example, they want cows, a tree house, an organic garden, big windows, field trips in nature and permission to walk barefoot, just to name a few suggestions. One young woman wanted a pottery class to make plates and bowls for the cafeteria, with the logic that students will care for things they themselves create.
Yet taking the students' suggestions further means entirely rethinking the fundamental nature and purpose of education. Rather than producing cookie- cutter patterned students, students want education to acknowledge and support the individual talents and aspirations of each learner.
An ecological view of education means moving from a compartmentalized to an integrated approach; from a factory to an agrarian framework; from an impersonal to an individual environment; from a fixed to a flexible system; from a pedagogy based on theory to one in step with experience and reality; and from a gray, boxed arena to a colorful, open space where all learners can walk in and know who is valued here.
Leah C. Wells is a freelance journalist and coordinator of PeaceEd.org, the hub of peace education information in the U.S. For more information, contact Ms. Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org.