We can talk about merit pay, accountability and tenure. We can debate (endlessly it seems) students first, testing, failing schools, poverty and unions. We can go toe to toe over the value of choice, charters and vouchers. PISA, Finland, Arne and Rhee. Ravitch, Race to the Top and common core. All worthwhile conversations. And necessary.
And perhaps moot.
The elephant in the room of education reform: Sustainability.
While we haggle over evolution and intelligent design, revisionist history texts and the best way to grade and fire teachers, there is a larger beast afoot: The increasing global instability caused by (and/or exacerbated by) climate change.
Were we hunter gatherers, this might not be much of an issue. We could simply gather up camp and follow the mouth watering scent of big, tasty mammals. A bit warmer here? A bit cooler there? No big deal. Heck, we might even appreciate a few more roasty-toasty days. “It’s only the spring equinox and it’s already time to break out my summer loin cloth, dear. And look, the ocean is closer than it was yesterday! Let’s go nab some fish.”
But we aren’t hunter gatherers. (Unless hunting for sales and gathering coupons counts. Which may explain why we are only peripherally aware of warning signs so large we almost can’t see them.)
Black swan events have almost become routine. We practically don’t even notice them anymore. “Another one hundred year flood of the Mississippi? Ho hum. Monster hurricane? Yawn. Obscenely enormous tornado devastates entire city? Been there, done that.”
And that is just here in the states.
Take a peek beyond our borders and the trend continues: droughts, heat waves, blizzards, monsoons — all breaking records at an alarming rate. When athletes annihilate records at a break neck pace we suspect The Juice, and congressional meetings ensue. When the planet breaks meteorological records at the same rate, we implement standardized tests and line up to buy Priuses.
Unfortunately, the Purchase-A-Bunch-of-”Green”-Stuff Solution will not suffice. We can’t buy our way to a more sustainable planet. We may have to go so far as to — eek, eek — educate our youth; and not just in how live more sustainably, but in how to assess and adapt in a rapidly changing environment.
Or, more simply, how to: Learn. Apply. Repeat.
In a recent article in the New York Times, “A Warming Planet Struggles to Feed Itself,” Justin Gillis unpacks some of the myriad factors currently affecting the global food supply and hints at potential calamities coming to a destabilized ecosystem near you. It is not a pretty picture. In fact, for people in developing countries, it is absolutely bleak.
With over 900 million people (NEARLY 1 BILLION!) already lacking access to clean water and adequate food, and the population set to hit 10 billion well before the end of the century, and more fantastically gigantic natural disasters sure to come, we must ready “ourselves.”
Let’s pause here for a quick reality check:
[Cue soothing, background music]
We may recycle more. We may bring our own bags to the grocery store. We may even toss our food trash into a compost bucket. However, for the most part, we are not going to see much behavioral change from Americans (and other similarly comfortable nations) any time soon. Its not going to happen. And that’s (not) okay! But we need to look for other options.
[Camera pans from adult sitting on couch watching flat screen TV to toddler on floor chewing on a stick while sorting seeds in an empty egg carton. The words: "The Future of the Planet" scroll underneath.]
So, we must ready “ourselves,” or at least our students, our children, our future. Our education system.
Scholarship and the Environment
I’m a fan of reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic. All are important. As is STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics). I’m also a fan of standards. I like knowing what students should be able to do.
However, more so than the skill achievements quantifiable by a company’s question bank and bubble sheets, I’m a fan of doing, engaging and tackling. I want to see my students wrestling with issues beyond them and larger than life. When the Gulf Oil spill happened, we teamed with an FSU marine biologist to help conduct baseline mole crab surveys in the event the oil made it this far. We couldn’t stop the spewing gas, but dag-nab-it, we could take the learning opportunity and squeeze it for all its worth.
Did we meet standards? You betcha. Did we read, ‘rite and do ‘rithemetic? You betcha. Did we apply the scientific method in a relevant context, analyze data and investigate systems? You betcha.
More important than all of that, in my humble opinion, is that students made connections between scholarship and the environment. They investigated a local ecosystem and increased their knowledge of the many dynamics at play while also sensing the unquantifiable value of an unspoiled stretch of nature. We need more of that. Students must become experts in the land we have and architects of the Earth they want.
This won’t happen through test prep and bubble sheets, text books and number 2′s (pencils, not the other kind), or sentence diagrams and grammar worksheets. Students need to get their hands dirty. They need to experience where their food comes from, poop goes and what it actually means to live on a cup of rice for a day. They need to feel and learn about the profound connection between dirt and life.
We need an education system that gives students transformative and empowering experiences that bring them face to face with the delicate balance between the environment and humanity. If climate change predictions are correct (and I’m believe they are), oceans and temperatures will rise; droughts, floods and storms will increase; and lives will be disrupted. People will suffer. People will die.
One of them could be one of my girls. One of them could be one of yours.
Our children must learn how to live on this planet sustainably, with everyone, peacefully. Everything else is just blissful white noise.