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Returning to School: Education for a Liveable Planet

The Root Question to Solve our Educational Challenges

Students and teachers are returning to school. I know few in either group who are genuinely excited at the prospect. This is a travesty and a tragedy.

Humans are, by nature, passionate about learning. It is truly extraordinary that in a few thousand years our species has learned to create elaborate shelters and to heat and cool them so that the temperature is always comfortable. We have turned minerals and ores into metals that we’ve shaped for every possible purpose, creating the bicycle, the toaster, and the airplane. We have made televisions and computers that the great majority of us cannot actually comprehend, but which we can use effortlessly nonetheless. We have done these things and so much more because our curiosity and imaginations, coupled with our desire and capacity to learn, continually spark creative problem-solving to increase our pleasure, comfort, and freedom. True, we create destructive and unhealthy things too, but the seeds of all creation, good and bad, emerge from our ability and desire to learn.

Almost all of us can easily recount times when we have experienced profound joy and excitement while learning something new. Learning is deeply pleasurable, a source of energy and enthusiasm and the foundation for virtually all growth, innovation, and invention. And this is why it is a travesty and tragedy that so many students and teachers lack enthusiasm each September.

Our students, when they are not stressed by school, are often bored. Imagine that. We require that our eager, curious children, who incessantly have asked “why?” from the youngest age, sit in chairs most of their days and instead of being captivated by brilliant, exciting, inspired and inspiring teachers, are captives, often glazing over with worksheets and textbooks and tests. Rather than follow their particular passions, they follow lock step a uniform curricula, regardless of their own interests, talents, or proclivities.

Aside from outright abuse, perhaps the worst thing we could do to our children is bore them. In a world that teems with the most astounding of mysteries to be understood, that begs to be explored and relished, we actually take the most curious among us – our children – and bore them.

When the school day is over we then inundate them with TV, videogames and commercial messages that insidiously prey on their labile emotions and feed their eyes with what we’ve failed to feed their souls or provide for their eager hands. They become addicted to the easy satisfaction these media offer, just as they become addicted to tasty but nutrionally lacking foods that make them fat, sluggish and unhealthy.

Meanwhile, the world they will inherit becomes ever more damaged by our myopia and lack of creative problem-solving. Real-life species become extinct faster than ever while the movie Avatar (about the attempted genocide of tree-dwelling beings) nets a billion dollars. Real wars persist and we come no closer to learning how to solve our conflicts peaceably while war movies are still blockbusters.

And instead of filling their days with the thrill of learning about and solving our problems, we deaden our children’s sense of wonder and their inate desire to solve puzzles. We squander too many of these precious days, and in so doing we pave the way for their apathy and perhaps despair.

At the risk of hyperbole, I would call this criminal.

The solutions to the entrenched, seemingly intractable and pervasive challenges within the system of schooling are within our reach. They are not all that difficult to implement. There are many great ideas, and there are many excellent models. But we will not see their wide implementation until we address the root cause of the educational problems we continue to perpetuate, which make so many of our students and teachers dread the return to school.

As Henry David Thoreau wrote, “There are thousands hacking at the branches of evil to one that is striking at the root.” As long as educational reform keeps hacking at the branches of schooling “problems” (poor test scores, overcrowding, unruliness, low teacher salaries, etc.), and fails to address the root cause of the problems, we will see little if any real improvement.

So what is the root cause? We continue to fail to address the one question that should lie at the core of educational reform and change: What is the purpose of schooling?

As long as we accept the long-standing assumption that the purpose of schooling is to ensure that our students are verbally, mathematically and scientifically literate enough to find jobs and, in the vernacular – "compete in the global economy" – we will perpetually face the relentless challenges of “failing” schools.

It is easy enough to become verbally and mathematically literate. Homeschooling parents can attest to this. Their children become literate in math and reading in a small fraction of the time that is normally spent in school. That schools have trouble ensuring this most basic and foundational goal demonstrates just how off the mark making this our ultimate purpose may be.

Schooling should be the place where skills like reading and arithmetic and the scientific method are utilized in the thrilling work of learning and doing, of discovering and contributing, of exploring and solving. And in today’s world, which faces unprecedented problems, from global warming to resource depletion to overpopulation and more, schooling should be a place where young people discover their role as global citizens responsible for the fate of other people with whom they are inextricably connected through a globalized economy as well as other species with whom we share this precious planet and which are disappearing because of our greed and insatiable appetites.

If we adopt such a goal for schooling, to graduate a generation of what I call solutionaries for a better world, we will finally be addressing the root solution to the educational problems we face. True, we will still face challenges in the implementation of strategies to achieve this new goal. We will wonder what sorts of curricula and approaches will work best: Democratic schools? Charter schools? Full vouchers for every child from age 3-23 to attend any school so that experimentation and innovation in schooling can flourish? Online learning through YouTube videos? Learning villages described by educator Arnold Greenberg? Waldorf schools? Montessori schools? High teacher pay for the most inspiring and successful teachers? Project-based learning? Big Picture schools? But if we embrace this larger and more important goal for schooling, and then strike at this root issue with our creativity and imaginations, we will inevitably find that multiple approaches and efforts steer us toward new successes.

And our children will no longer be bored when the eagerness to learn is fed by an education that is meaningful and relevant to their own lives and to the gorgeous, incredible world they will one day inherit. Their enthusiasm, nourished and nurtured by schooling that matters and excites, will lead inexorably to knowledge and skills that will help solve the global challenges we face and create a world where we can all survive and thrive.

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