humane education

Transforming Education and the World: An Interview with Steve Cochrane, IHE’s New Executive Director

Passionate about preparing young people to lead lives of joy and purpose, Steve Cochrane has had a remarkable journey through the field of education. It is a journey that has taken him from the campus of Princeton University where he served as an admissions officer and an assistant dean of students to the classroom of a public elementary school where he had the privilege of teaching – and learning from – his fourth and fifth grade students. Steve has been a dorm director and associate dean of admissions at Wheelock College in Boston. He has also been an elementary school principal, a middle school principal, an assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, and, most recently, the superintendent of the Princeton Public Schools in Princeton, New Jersey where he was honored with the County Superintendent of the Year award. In each of these roles, Steve has collaborated with others to prioritize innovations in learning, wellness for students, equity, and a belief that every child should be supported and inspired to achieve their highest potential. This month, Steve is stepping down from his role as a member of IHE’s Board of Directors in order to become IHE’s Executive Director. 

Zoe Weil: We are thrilled to have you step into the role of Executive Director at IHE and to bring your experience in education to advance our mission! With all of the many organizations you could have brought your expertise to, what makes you excited about serving IHE in this capacity?

Steve: I not only feel incredibly excited about serving IHE, I feel a strong sense of mission in the work ahead of us. We are at a pivotal point in the evolution of our country and, indeed, of our world. We are facing a climate crisis, a health crisis, a crisis of racial justice, a crisis in our treatment of animals, a crisis of media bias. The list goes on. And, sadly, perhaps our greatest crisis is our consistent struggle as a society to simply come together respectfully, intelligently, and ethically to solve our problems and save our planet. We need solutionaries. We need young people who have been educated not only to think critically, creatively, and systemically about real-world problems, but also to be passionate, persistent, and humane in their implementation of real-world solutions. And that is IHE’s mission: to support teachers and educational institutions in preparing young people to become solutionaries and the next caretakers of our planet.

IHE offers a healing vision and a tangible pathway forward for a struggling world.  By serving in the role of Executive Director, I hope to join with others to promote that vision and that pathway in ways that make our work foundational to systems of education throughout the world.  Who would not be excited, humbled, and deeply honored by that opportunity? 

Zoe: What are the ways that you think the educational system in the U.S. needs to change to best serve students and their futures?

Steve: IHE is founded on the premise that education is the one system that will change all other systems. Indeed, any lasting and systemic shift in our response to disease, hunger, mental health, environmental exploitation, racism, media bias, animal cruelty, and political division rests with the education of our children and the ways they will think and act in the decades ahead. For this reason, the education system needs to change.

For too long, schooling has adhered to an industrial, assembly-line model of instruction. We have artificially divided knowledge into discrete subjects; we have taught all students in the same way and measured them with the same tests; we have fostered competition and standardization, and all too often, suppressed collaboration, creativity, personalized learning, and complex problem-solving.  We have a system that supports the already-privileged and creates barriers for those with fewer resources and opportunities.

So how do we move forward? There are many ways our educational system needs to change, but I would start with simply this: Make all schools places of joy! Imagine a school that begins with that premise. Joy in relationships. Joy in learning. Joy in accomplishment.

Schools are fundamentally about relationships. Learning is a social process. When there is joy in those relationships, every child is known and cared about. Families – regardless of race, religion, or economic circumstances – feel welcomed and included. Staff plan together, learn together, laugh together, teach together. When relationships are prized and every child is known, teachers eagerly invest the time to tailor their instruction to students’ interests, abilities, learning preferences, and cultural backgrounds. Joyful relationships are the first step to equitable outcomes and high-level learning for every student.

And that high-level learning should be joyful as well. Students should experience wonder and awe in their exploration of everything from plants to poetry to the Pythagorean theorem. Their learning should be personally meaningful, appropriately challenging, and truly authentic. Their mistakes should be affirmed as opportunities to improve. And their assessments should provide feedback that leads less to letter grades and more to mastery of important skills and content.

And finally, there should be joy in accomplishment. We have all seen the joy our students experience in painting a picture, performing a play, scoring a touchdown, or solving a complex problem in math or science. But how much more joy is there in accomplishments that make a lasting difference in the world? Accomplishments that help to end hunger, stop the exploitation of animals, or transform systems of oppression among people?

Humane education fosters all the components of joy. In schools that nurture compassion, foster respect, and teach critical and systems thinking, students and teachers eagerly come together to learn about our amazing and complex world; identify problems within it; and implement meaningful solutions to make it better.

If all schools were to look at student learning through the solutionary lens of humane education while embracing joy every step of the way, our country would see advances in equity, emotional wellness, academic performance, and ultimately the creation of a just, healthy, and sustainable world.

Zoe: As you know, the mission of the U.S. Department of Education is “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” IHE considers this mission too small and outdated for today’s world in which grave problems threaten the future of both people and other species. IHE wants to transform the schooling system so that educating youth to be solutionaries becomes an essential goal of the educational mission. What do you think it will take to see such a shift?

Steve: In many ways that shift has already begun. The disruption to the educational system caused by the pandemic, as well as by the national awakening to systemic racism precipitated by the murder of George Floyd, has forced schools to think differently, act differently, and reorder priorities. As students return this fall from a year of remote learning, there will be less emphasis on simply preparing students for standardized tests and an increased emphasis on preparing them for life. Schools will be looking to re-establish relationships with students and families whom they haven’t seen for a year. They will be supporting student well-being in the face of rising rates of depression, which occurred during the pandemic. They will be striving for student engagement in ways that overcome the barrier of a computer screen as well as the barrier of bias. And they will be placing an increased emphasis on student agency, in other words, providing opportunities for students to express their voices and implement meaningful action in response to problems they have identified.

And that action will be healing and empowering for our young people. Keep in mind, our students have experienced multiple traumas in the past year. They have seen a world shut down by disease. They have witnessed – and many have long experienced – the impact of racism and inequity. They are seeing and feeling the effects of climate change. And they have experienced a dysfunctional democracy as political leaders have become mired in the inertia of polarizing views and stances. Our students want and need to take action themselves, and it is the responsibility of our schools to teach them how to do that in thoughtful, collaborative, and effective ways.  

And this is where IHE shines! Through its solutionary framework, the Institute for Humane Education elegantly and powerfully brings together the instructional approaches we already know produce the highest levels of understanding, engagement, and agency for students. Those approaches, often viewed under the umbrella of Problem-Based Learning, include personal choice, interdisciplinary instruction, authentic assessment, collaboration, and critical thinking. But the solutionary model goes much further. As students identify actual problems in their local communities, nation, and around the world, the solutionary framework guides them to use critical and systems thinking to explore how multiple systems interact with and impact one another. And it guides them to use ethical thinking as well. The principle of “most good, least harm” provides students with an ethical lens that extends their decision-making beyond themselves to include the impact of any solution on all people, on nonhuman animals, and on the complex ecosystems of our planet. It guides them to ask the most essential equity-based questions: Who benefits from this solution, and who or what is harmed? Finally, the solutionary approach is education in action.  Students actually implement their solutions and then continue to refine their approach based on the results.

The solutionary framework is a more complete, more ethically-mindful, and more action-oriented version of Problem-Based Learning, but is not a fundamentally new approach. Great teachers and great schools have long recognized the benefits of PBL and have incorporated it into their instruction for years. I am hopeful that at this particular point in time, with all that is going on in our nation and the world, great teachers and great schools will once again step forward, take advantage of the remarkable resources available through IHE, and make the solutionary framework foundational to their teaching.

The shift is happening. The time to create a generation of solutionaries is now, and I am hopeful that not only will teachers and schools answer the call, but that state and federal departments of education will also raise their sights and expand their missions.

Zoe: It’s 2026, and you’ve been IHE’s Executive Director for five years. What will IHE have achieved under your leadership?

Steve: I would preface my response by saying that nothing great is ever accomplished alone. I know that I am incredibly lucky as a new Executive Director to have you, Zoe, as a mentor; to have a thoughtful and visionary Board; to have brilliant and dedicated colleagues as part of the IHE team; to have active and committed alumni and donors; and to have partners in the field of humane education with amazing ideas and resources. My hope is that together we can achieve five bold goals over the next five years.

  1. We’ll make the solutionary framework foundational to an increasing number and diversity of schools throughout the nation and around the world. We currently have many individual – and I might add, amazing – teachers using the solutionary approach with their students. There is no reason, however, that the approach could not be used school- or even district-wide. I can even envision working with our institutional partners to connect students and classrooms across the country or around the world to learn from one another and perhaps collaborate on solving global problems.
  1. We’ll significantly expand the leadership of the humane education movement by increasing the number and diversity of students enrolling in our graduate programs and Solutionary Micro-credential Program (SMP). We offer truly life-changing graduate programs through our partner Antioch University (M.Ed., M.A. Ed.D., and Graduate Certificate), and the response to our newly-launched SMP has been incredibly positive. As the solutionary approach becomes more foundational in schools, I anticipate a rise in the number of teachers who want to deepen their knowledge of human rights, animal protection, and environmental ethics, and learn how to teach their students to understand the nature of systems, culture, and the process of change. I also anticipate that schools of education will see the value of at least one course in humane education for their prospective teachers and would look to IHE and Antioch.
  1. We’ll become a beacon in the promotion of racial justice. Structural racism is real, and educators are desperate for resources to talk about it, teach about it, and eliminate it. IHE, with its solutionary framework, is ideally positioned to help educators and their students look at the issues objectively, systemically, and with an appreciation of divergent points of view. Through collaboration with our partners, IHE could be an incredibly valuable resource for those who want to foster racial justice and to do so in ways that bring people together rather than create further division.
  1. We’ll gain widespread understanding and discussion of our solutionary approach by educators and the media. Ideally, The World Becomes What We Teach will be a bestseller, and you, Zoe, will be interviewed by Oprah! Beyond that, I would love to see our work and that of our student solutionaries celebrated by the media and supported by educational organizations with a national or global profile. I can also envision an electronic forum on our website where teachers from around the world, who are using or looking to use the solutionary model, can share questions, ideas, or exemplary lessons.
  1. Finally, in support of goals 1-4, I see IHE significantly expanding its staffing and its funding. IHE’s mission is profound. It calls on us to inspire and support educators in preparing our young people to be the next caretakers of our planet and to contribute to the creation of a just, healthy, and sustainable world where all living beings can thrive. Never before have we needed such a strong moral vision for our children, for ourselves, or for this Earth we call home. I am excited and honored to join with IHE and our many partners to help make that vision a reality.