In the 500 years since Columbus’s Big Misunderstanding in the “West Indies”, our education system has come a long way. After manhandling the country away from the natives (who’s “schools” probably consisted of ridiculously worthless lessons like feeding your family, shelters that last, and building fires without zippos, anyway) we’ve managed to construct an institution that has become the envy of most of the world. Or at least the portion of the world that hasn’t yet realized that nearly 20 developed countries routinely score better than us on international assessments. (Okay, so we’re probably the only ones envious of us. It could even be that our education rhetoric is better than the education itself. But I digress.)
The point is this: We’re at least better than we were.
Education is free for all, except for those who pay for it, which is all of us, so it’s not really that free. Slaves, which don’t technically exist, no longer need to steal away to Pit Schools to learn basic numbers and letters. Inner city schools are receiving enough attention to illustrate that Race to the Top (or Diving for Dollars) was probably not really designed to help those most in need. And across the nation, kids routinely demonstrate that they are more adept at filling in bubbles on scan-tron sheets than ever before.
Everything is coming up roses.
Next on the horizon, advocates are tackling such difficult questions as, “How do we make teaching more difficult and less attractive as a profession?”, “Can we eliminate the teacher altogether by adding more PCs with test prep software and hiring babysitters?” and “How can we get kids to shut-up and eat during lunch?”
While such important issues will surely clog up the policy bandwidth for a spell, perhaps there are more pressing lessons we should be insisting on. Perhaps there is even school, district, and state-wide content we should standardize? Lessons that may be necessary to our very survival (if I may hyperbolize).
What’s more important for the health of individuals, our communities and future generations?
- Clean Air for breathing
- Availability of resources for ensuring and maintaining health
- The esteem of peers
If you chose #4, you are absolutely out of your mind (or already seeking to fill the void left by the end of the football season). However, for most of us, the first two have the greater consequence when off balance.
Yet very few of our schools stress the import of environmental understanding as central to the health of a community, or even a nation.
Perhaps the trouble is, we’ve become too comfortable with how comfortable we are.
As Katrina taught us in New Orleans (how ’bout them Saints!) when mother nature chews us up and spits us out the other side, everything is disrupted. Everything — schooling, learning, drinking, partying.
In thinking about what is most essential to the current and future stability of our communities, regions, and nations, I can’t help but think that the systems that provide us sustenance have greater strategic importance than those that churn out updates of Brad and Angelina, or that test us on when the Civil War began.
As a people we must have an ecological knowledge base, or at least a common understanding of us as fauna, subject to our environment, and the systems that meet our basic needs.
As we look to the future, we know enough to know two things:
- We don’t know squat.
- Except that things change.
Despite some outlying naysayers and deniers, most people recognize that climate changes and fluctuates; not just that it has in the past, but that it will in the future, and that it is even as we speak. Some suggest this may be an opportunity to move beyond the static nature of standardized curricula in order to maximize differentiation and individualization.
My question for you is this: Is there a silver bullet (besides whatever the latest and greatest i-Gadget is) that can supplement all subjects and add a layer of authentic engagement and relevant application to most concepts? (Hint: Not Google.)
How do we give students a baseline of experience with nature to help them appreciate the value (and necessity) of it?
How can we strengthen students’ insights into how nature solves problems in order to create and cultivate sustainable innovations?
How can we provide authentic opportunities for students to strengthen their engineering skills while broadening their understanding of natural materials?
How can we keep students active in authentic ways while also providing a relevant context for numerous academic concepts?
Damn. Maybe those natives were on to something. Perhaps being outside with (or without) a teacher, immersed in some novel experience and lost in a bit of inquiry and exploration can lead to a more robust education system. Perhaps even a system that provides the background necessary to ensure that our kids’ kids enjoy something of the natural world. Such a layer to our education system may serve us well. And, as suggested in this NY Times Magazine article, it may just be more important than we thought.