boy with butterfly on fingers

by Zoe Weil

Transforming our educational system won’t be easy, but I believe that it is the most important and strategic path toward creating more just, peaceful, and sustainable societies populated by healthy, happy, successful people.

Because the world inevitably becomes what we teach, it’s up to each of us – whether we are teachers, school administrators, parents, grandparents, legislators, entrepreneurs and business leaders, or any number of other professionals – to commit to transforming schooling so that it is truly worthy of children and genuinely worthwhile for the world they will both inherit and shape.

Here are four scenarios illustrating what solutionary-focused learning can look like:

Annabelle

Twelve-year-old Anabelle is very excited to get to school. She and her classmates have been exploring the answer to this question: How is it possible that a fast-food burger and an organic apple cost the same amount of money?

Anabelle has found it fascinating to learn about the various agricultural, political, governmental, corporate, and economic systems involved in the answer to this question and has been researching the many factors that impact costs of food, gaining skills in critical and systems thinking, reading comprehension, math, civic engagement, and research methods. In the process, she has also become more media literate and aware of the psychology of advertising.

Anabelle and her classmates are developing proposed legislation to address government subsidies of unhealthy, unsustainably-produced foods, and they have secured upcoming appointments with their congressional representative and senators. Anabelle has been preparing her presentation to her legislators and is eager to share her knowledge, perspectives, and ideas with them.

***

Keisha

At twenty-eight years old, Keisha has just received her Ph.D. in chemistry and has been hired by an innovative company that develops materials for use in the electronics industry. Her research focuses on the elimination of toxins in electronic components and the development of recyclable and biodegradable materials when the individual units are no longer functional.

Keisha traces her interest in chemistry to eighth grade when her class examined a week’s worth of school trash.

Her teacher had asked how each item in the trash could be avoided by making different purchasing choices; or reused, composted, or recycled. Keisha realized that if she drank tap water instead of juice, or didn’t buy anything that was wrapped in plastic or Styrofoam, she would produce less waste; but the truth was that she really liked drinking juice and wanted plenty of things that were over-packaged.

As her class discussed how they could reduce their trash, Keisha mused that it would be nice if containers and packaging could be composted like food waste and turned into soil. Her teacher said this was a great idea, and told her that there were companies working to achieve this goal.

Keisha contacted an inventor developing environmentally-healthy packaging, expressing her interest in learning more. Through her dialogue with the inventor, her conversations with her teacher, and her own research, Keisha developed her strong interest in chemistry, which she pursued through subjects she studied both in school and through an internship with the inventor.

The seeds planted in middle school and nourished throughout high school and college have now turned into a meaningful and highly valuable career.

***

Elijah

Seven-year-old Elijah is lying on his belly with his chin propped up by his hands on a bed of soft pine needles in a park near his school. He’s so quiet and still that he’s able to hear and observe woodland animals all around him.

A squirrel is chewing on a mushroom only a few yards away. He watches, mesmerized, until the sound of a woodpecker distracts him. He rolls on his back to watch the bird pound his beak into a tree. A few minutes later his face breaks into a huge smile when he notices a small screech owl sleeping in a previously hollowed woodpecker hole.

When he began spending time in the woods, Elijah didn’t notice these things. In fact, he squirmed and complained to his teacher when she first brought his class to the park. Over time, however, he’s become very observant, and visiting the park is one of his favorite things to do. When he and his classmates return to school, they share their observations and their questions.

On this particular day, Elijah is wondering:

  • How can the squirrel eat a mushroom that might be poisonous to people?
  • How come the woodpecker’s brain doesn’t get scrambled by hitting the wood so hard?
  • Why is the screech owl sleeping in the middle of the day?

The children have a growing question list on the wall, and they learn to answer these questions through books, Internet searches, and during conversations with their teacher and the naturalist who works at the park.

Sometimes students with the same questions work together to find the answers. Usually, the answers lead to more questions, and every outing strengthens their knowledge, heightens their curiosity, and deepens their reverence and appreciation for the natural world. Elijah and his classmates are also learning how to make choices that help protect the park and the animals who reside there.

***

Ramon

Eighteen-year-old Ramon is a high school senior, passionate about issues of justice. He’s been dedicated to learning about human rights issues in school.

Over the years he has done research and conducted projects on modern-day slavery, child labor, migrant farm work, and the disenfranchisement and oppression of girls and women in many parts of the world. Every time he learns about these issues he becomes involved in educating others. A poet, he has performed his social-justice poetry for audiences in and out of school, and several of his YouTube videos have been viewed tens of thousands of times.

At the end of his junior year, Ramon became especially interested in an issue closer to home. He learned that the U.S. incarceration rate is the highest in the world, with U.S. jails housing more than twenty percent of the world’s prisoners. Ramon now spends ten hours each week interning with a mentor in restorative justice, which helps offenders repair the harm they have caused rather than simply serve time in prison.

As part of his internship he has had the opportunity to tutor Daryl, a high school dropout his own age, in prison for selling marijuana, to prepare Daryl to take the GED  around the same time that Ramon will be graduating from high school. In the process of tutoring Daryl, Ramon has gained teaching and listening skills, and his perspectives on troubling and thorny societal issues have become more nuanced and wise.

Ramon plans to go to law school after college. When asked about a future career, he says he would like to be a judge. He wants to have a positive impact on the criminal justice system, to shift it away from incarceration and punishment toward restitution and the healthy re-entry of former prisoners into educational programs and productive work that enables them to break out of the cycle of poverty. He also wants to help make the criminal justice system truly fair, effective, and humane so that it protects society and individuals alike.

***

Anabelle, Keisha, Elijah, Ramon, and young people like them are the key to creating a more equitable, restorative, and humane world. To solve the challenges we face, we need caring, curious, motivated people with experiences in solving real problems. Where will they come from? They will come from schools that are prepared and committed to educating a generation of solutionaries.

Find out more in my forthcoming book (from which the above is excerpted), coming out March 2016, from Lantern Books.

Sunflower with quote and info about Zoe Weil book, The World Becomes What We Teach