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From Good Works to Good Ideas: Educating the #SolutionaryGeneration

Boyan Slat, 21, founded a project to clean up plastic from the world's oceans and has worked on it for years. (Photo: Facebook/The Ocean Cleanup)

Kids are doing all sorts of good works these days. More often than not their efforts are focused on:

1) Raising money for charities
2) Collecting and providing food and essentials to the poor, and/or
3) Participating in local clean-up efforts to protect neighborhood environments.

Such efforts are positive and should be encouraged. Yet because these good works rarely address the systems that cause injustice, suffering, and destruction, they are mostly band-aids, neither preventions nor cures.

"Requiring real-world solutions to problems makes learning meaningful, empowering, and truly preparatory for young people’s future."

Preventing injustice, destruction, and cruelty to people and other species is much more challenging than raising money for a food pantry, animal shelter, or conservation organization. Developing viable, cost-effective solutions to complex, systemic problems takes more than a couple of hours a week in a school’s extracurricular community service program. Truly impactful solutions require an entirely different approach to education.

Which is why we should be preparing young people to not only be generous and civic-minded, but also to be solutionaries for a just, healthy, and sustainable future. If that sounds pie in the sky, consider Boyan Slat, who as a teenager developed an idea and created a cost-effective plan to clean up the plastic in the Pacific garbage patch and beyond. His idea is now in early testing stages; you can read about in this past week’s Sydney Morning Herald and Portland Press Herald.

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Not every teen is going to be the next Boyan Slat, but every teen can be educated about real-world issues and be given the tools to be a proficient critical, creative, and systems thinker and collaborator in order to effectively identify and solve real-world challenges. If given such tools, many will go beyond Slat’s tremendous work by addressing and transforming the systems that result in so much plastic in the ocean.

Some might argue that it shouldn’t be the job of middle and high school students to solve problems that governments and NGOs have yet to address successfully. But that argument misses the great opportunity to educate differently in today’s world. It also ignores the responsibility we have as adults to prepare young people for the enormous challenges they will face so that they can thrive in a healthy future of their own devising.

Using real-world issues and challenges as the cornerstone of education makes learning relevant. Requiring real-world solutions to problems makes learning meaningful, empowering, and truly preparatory for young people’s future. Such an approach also makes “community service” not a siloed extracurricular activity, but an integral aspect of education.

This spring, young people in nine schools (seven in the U.S. and two in Doha, Qatar), will be participating in a pilot Solutionary Congress Program identifying real-world problems; developing feasible systemic solutions; implementing and evaluating those solutions; and presenting their successes to audiences comprised not only of their school communities, but also social investors, media, and legislators who can further spread and manifest their ideas.

While encouraging our children’s generosity and empathy is essential, and while helping them to aid those less fortunate and to do good works in their communities is important, we must make sure that young people have the knowledge, skills, and motivation to root out injustice and destruction and create healthy, just, and peaceful systems that are good for all.

Zoe Weil

Zoe Weil is the co-founder and president of the Institute for Humane Education (IHE), where she created the first graduate programs in comprehensive Humane Education linking human rights, environmental preservation and animal protection, offered online through an affiliation with Antioch University. IHE also offers a free Solutionary GuidebookSolutionary Workshops, and an award-winning resource center through its Center for Solutionary Change to help educators and changemakers bring solutionary practices to students and communities so that together we can effectively solve local and global challenges. Zoe is a frequent keynote speaker at education and other conferences and has given six TEDx talks including her acclaimed TEDx, “The World Becomes What You Teach.” She is the author of seven books including The World Becomes What We Teach: Educating a Generation of Solutionaries; Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm, Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, and Above All, Be Kind: Raising a Humane Child in Challenging Times. Zoe was named one of Maine Magazine’s 50 independent leaders transforming their communities and the state, and is the recipient of the Unity College Women in Environmental Leadership award. She was also a subject of the Americans Who Tell the Truth portrait series. She holds master’s degrees from Harvard Divinity School and the University of Pennsylvania and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Valparaiso University.

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