Elizabeth O. Crawford, Ph.D., is a compassionate, dedicated humane educator and Associate Professor of Elementary Education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington where she specializes in global, solution-focused curriculum design. Elizabeth was a 2017-2018 Global Teacher Education, Inc. Fellow, an organization whose aim is to internationalize US teacher preparation, and was awarded the 2018 International Assembly of the National Council for the Social Studies Excellence in Teaching Award. A HundrED Ambassador and collaborator with scholars and educators throughout the world, her work aims to support teachers and children as they address global challenges and solutions through the Sustainable Development Goals. She can be reached at crawforde@uncw.edu or on Twitter @TeachGlobalEd.

IHE: How did you come to embrace humane education so deeply in your work as a professor preparing the next generation of teachers?

Elizabeth: Since my first introduction to humane education nearly a decade ago via Zoe Weil’s TEDx Talk, The World Becomes What You Teach, I became passionate about teaching through a solutionary lens. While I have long cared about global ethical issues, reframing my approach to focus on the positive brought about transformative changes – from my personal mindset and choices to my work in teacher education. I joined IHE’s Board of Directors and enrolled in two humane education courses to deepen my understanding and practices as a teacher educator. Now I approach my life and work through a solutionary lens, as do my students. I live and teach by the MOGO principle: How can I make choices that do the most good and least harm to myself, other living beings, and the planet? Recognizing that human brains have a negativity bias, and that our thoughts shape our outlook, I actively pursue positive thinking and action in myself and others. After analyzing root causes and effects of human and environmental issues in my methods courses, for example, our focus shifts to solutions: the countless, uplifting examples of inspiring individuals and collective actions of people throughout the world who help to create more just, peaceful, and sustainable communities and healthy ecosystems. Today, I am grateful to be part of a global network of dedicated humane educators with whom to collaborate, learn, and grow, many of whom I met through IHE either in person or via social media. As future teachers, my students are also eager to grow their professional learning communities. It is important that they feel both supported and inspired; for this reason, I find humane educators to be the ideal mentors for my students entering the teaching profession. 

IHE: Can you tell us some stories about the impact of your solution-focused curriculum design on your students as well as on the people who attend your presentations and workshops across the globe?

Elizabeth: In my experience, both educators and students are drawn to a solution-focused approach to teaching and learning. The media can distort our perceptions as negative news dominates the headlines. We are psychologically hungry for hope. Positive examples of changemakers and solutionaries can foster positive thinking and actions, bringing out the best in people. This holds true for educators and citizens at large.

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For example, a recent course session in my Master of Arts in Teaching Instructional Design course centered on Sustainable Development Goal 4: Quality Education. Barriers to quality education can be validated via research and are also deeply personal for many of us, stored for decades in our memories. What can we do to change this pattern to ensure that all children experience nurturing, supportive, and equitable learning opportunities? I had recently corresponded via Twitter with Jacob Sule, Executive Director of the @iReadInitiative, a non-profit organization that strives to improve access to quality, equitable education in Nigeria, while I was attending and tweeting about an SDG 4 conference in Finland. Jacob embodies a solutionary mindset, and I knew he would be an inspiring guest speaker for my students, since we examine quality education in the course. As Jacob shared his experiences and advocacy work with my students via Zoom one evening, they were glued to his every word. Weeks later, students continue to reference Jacob’s work in Nigeria. One student expressed in a course reflection: “Your bringing Jacob into our course makes me want to do that again and again ten times over. It was like we were not thousands of miles away. It was so amazing to have that connection with someone. To make a friend, to learn from this person, to know we care about similar things in distinctly different places is incredible.” Indeed, connecting with solutionaries helps to feel less alone in our mission to create a better world for all.

IHE: What changes are you noticing in the teaching profession? How is the concept of preparing students to be solutionaries for a just and sustainable world taking hold? 

Elizabeth: Despite the challenges we face, I believe a positive shift is occurring. Educators are collaborating locally and globally to empower their students as changemakers, evidenced by 113 student teams producing solutionary projects this year in San Mateo County, CA and the Take Action Global community that has impacted more than 100,000 students in more than 75 countries! Humane educators are connecting at professional events and virtually. I truly believe the 2020s will be the Decade of the Solutionary.

When my preservice teachers bring a solution-focused lens to curriculum design in their field placements, and later into their classrooms when they become educators, this approach is embraced. For example, my preservice teachers were recently invited to share their curriculum design at the UNC World View K-12 Global Education Symposium with their network of global educators. An earlier curriculum pilot project on the world’s declining bee population between my preservice teachers and a former student, Stephanie Dean, led to a book chapter in the forthcoming Inquiry-Based Global Learning in the K-12 SS Classroom by Routledge Press, with Dean being recognized last year as the global educator of the year in her county. My students go on to do incredible work in schools.

When students join the teaching profession, they also become valued collaborators. For example, UNCW alumna Laura Montague and I remained in touch after she took my advanced social studies methods course online. We later piloted a concept-based inquiry on SDG 12: Responsible Consumerism in her classroom in UAE, resulting in an article, Conscientious Consumerism: A curriculum pilot to support the Sustainable Development Goals, published in Childhood Education. That year our work was selected as ACEI’s Distinguished Article Award. To me, all these examples illustrate that the profession values solution-focused curriculum design and seeks more of it. I am proud that my students spread this approach in their various contexts once they graduate from our teacher education program.

IHE: What are the most important changes in education that you think need to happen in the next five years?

Elizabeth: While enrolled in my first IHE online course years ago, I remember being asked to reflect upon this question: What is the purpose of schooling? I never forgot this simple, yet critical, question. If we are to create a more just, peaceful, and sustainable future, what competencies are most essential to foster in students? What learning experiences will support the development of those competencies? And how can teacher education and education leaders provide educators with the support and resources to design personalized, transformative curriculum and instruction?

Aside from obvious changes like increased teacher salaries, equitable school funding, and school safety (that includes both physical and psychological well-being), I believe the future of education demands that we trust teachers as leaders and innovators if we hope the same for our graduates. We are embarking on a new era characterized by increasing complexity, uncertainty, and interconnected, global challenges; consequently, it’s more important than ever that teachers are prepared to guide students as critical thinkers, problem-solvers, and compassionate, conscientious global citizens. Educators also need to be granted the freedom to do so. 

We can learn valuable lessons from countries where human creativity is nurtured and teachers experience high levels of job satisfaction like Finland. Most importantly, school leaders should trust their teachers as professionals and curriculum designers. When educators are given time and space to get to know their students as capable individuals with unique talents, passions, and aspirations, the possibilities for schooling are endless. I am uplifted by the work of organizations like Design for Change and Inspire Citizens that illustrate how a human-centered approach to curriculum design promotes agency, motivation, and action that contributes to solving the issues we all face. I believe we need to re-envision education to include less standardized testing (and a return of disciplines that reflect our shared humanity like social studies and the arts); teaching for deep understanding; greater teacher autonomy; and more diverse opportunities to demonstrate positive impact on individuals’ lives. To that end, I am currently writing a book for teachers with Carla Marschall, co-author of Concept-Based Inquiry in Action and Director of Teaching and Learning at UWC South East Asia, to provide tools and resources for addressing global challenges and solutions in K-8 classrooms. We trust teachers to identify the topics and issues that are most relevant and appropriate for their contexts; our work aims to support them by providing flexible, evidence-based methods for fostering systems-thinking, perspective-taking, and problem-solving in students.

In my view, educators, children, and adolescents want to have a greater voice in how learning experiences are designed and carried out; it is time that we listen to them.