Urgency and Opportunity: Preparing a Generation of Solutionaries 

(A Call to Action by Steve Cochrane, Executive Director of the Institute for Humane Education)

Over the past two years, life as we know it has changed. We have seen the entire world impacted by disease. We are watching the atrocities of war through our daily news feeds. We are facing a climate crisis, a crisis of racial justice, a crisis in our treatment of animals, a crisis of media bias, and a crisis of political polarization. The list goes on. And, tragically, perhaps our greatest crisis is our consistent struggle as a society to simply come together respectfully, intelligently, and ethically to solve our problems and create a more just, healthy, and humane world.  

We need solutionaries. We need young people who have been educated not only to think critically and creatively about real-world problems, but also to be compassionate and committed in their implementation of real-world solutions. We need young people who practice the principles of humane education, and we need those principles to be central to the work of schools across our country.

And what are the principles of humane education? They are simply this: Caring about the problems affecting people, animals, and the natural world; thinking critically about the root and systemic causes of those problems and their impacts; and collaborating with others to find solutions that do the greatest good for people, other species, and the ecosystems that sustain life. 

Where it has been implemented, humane education has largely been an “add-on” to what is seen as the “real” curriculum. Lessons in animal protection, environmental sustainability, and human rights are typically presented as short, stand-alone units or occasional presentations. Many teachers want to devote more time to these issues, and to real-world problem-solving, but humane education is often crowded out by other perceived priorities.

But there can be no greater priority than the preservation of our planet and all that strives to live, breathe, and blossom on it. We need a vision for learning that transcends the current Department of Education goals of preparing students to be “college and career ready”  and“globally competitive.” We need a vision for learning that calls us to prepare our children, yes, for college and career, but also to contribute to the creation of a just, healthy, and sustainable world where all living beings can thrive.

We need a wholesale shift in the mission of our schools, and I believe the time for that shift is now. The disruptions to the educational system caused by the pandemic; the documented impact of climate change; the rise in anxiety and depression among young people; and the national awakening to systemic racism can and should be inspiring schools to think differently, act differently, and reorder priorities. There is no return to normal, and we do our students a disservice if we avoid helping them grapple with the complexities of America’s past, the challenges of its present, and the potentially catastrophic problems we will all be facing in the future if we don’t learn how to collaboratively address existential, but eminently solvable, threats.  

The teachers in our schools today are ready for the shift. They want to put less emphasis on simply preparing students for standardized tests and more emphasis on preparing them for life. They want to deepen relationships with students and families they haven’t seen consistently for over two years. They want to support student well-being in the face of rising incidents of depression and trauma. They want to strive for student engagement in ways that overcome the barrier of a computer screen and the barrier of bias. And they want to place an increased emphasis on student agency, in other words, providing opportunities for students to express their voices and implement meaningful action in response to the problems they are seeing in their world.

This disruption – this reordering of priorities – offers a powerful moment for the entire movement of humane education. We have the opportunity to become foundational to schools by increasing engagement, compassion, meaningful action, and high-level learning. The key, I believe, lies in helping schools see our work as a deepening of what they are already doing, rather than a deviation from it. At the Institute for Humane Education (IHE), we present our Solutionary Framework as a way of bringing together the instructional approaches educators already know produce the highest levels of understanding and engagement for students. These approaches, often grouped under the umbrella of Problem-Based Learning (PBL), include personal choice, interdisciplinary instruction, authentic assessment, collaboration, and critical thinking. 

But the solutionary model goes further. As students identify real problems in their local communities and around the world, the Solutionary Framework guides them to use systems thinking to explore how multiple social, economic, and environmental systems may impact one another. In addition, the Solutionary Framework fosters students’ ethical thinking. The principle of “most good, least harm” provides students with an ethical lens that extends their decision-making beyond themselves and helps them see the impact of any solution on all people, on animals, and on the complex systems of our planet. It guides them to ask the most essential equity-based question: 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 happening in our nation and the world, great teachers and great schools will recognize the value of the Solutionary Framework and make it foundational to their work.

We are at a pivotal point in the evolution of our world. In the face of multiple crises, humane education offers healing, hope, and a practical pathway forward. It offers schools the opportunity to build student engagement and high-level competency across multiple literacies. And it offers emotionally-exhausted educators an opportunity to reconnect with the fundamental reason they entered the profession – to make the world a better place. 

As we embrace this time of both urgency and opportunity, I am grateful for the work of all the teachers and educational leaders who may be reading these words. I look forward to fostering collaborations that will make the mission of humane education central to the work of schools, and I am inspired by our common goal of preparing young people to be the next caretakers of our planet.