Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Transforming Education

Education reform is a phrase that is virtually ubiquitous in American political circles. Any outsider would assume—correctly, I’m afraid—that we never get education right. To give a couple of recent metrics, a 2007 study found that only one-third of US students could read and do math up to current grade level standards, and that one in four students does not graduate from high school.

While in New York City recently, I had the opportunity to listen to US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan present his reform vision to an audience of well over a thousand teachers. Duncan is a thoughtful, intelligent man, as well as a polished speaker, and I enjoyed hearing him speak about replacing the Bush Administration’s “No Child Left Behind” with a new alternative, “Race to the Top” [1-4]. “The Race,” as its nicknamed, is a $4.3 billion incentive program (read “competition”) designed by the US Department of Education to overhaul the education system. Key elements include performance pay for teachers (together with a system for firing teachers deemed “inadequate”) and a major boost in the number of public charter schools. States compete for large sums of money by demonstrating that they are aligning their education system with the new criteria.

I applaud the renewed emphasis on teaching performance. To my mind, we should go much further, transforming teaching into a high-status, well paid profession akin to medicine. With greatly increased salaries paired to much higher standards, we could recruit the very best teachers and offer them appropriate kinds of training both before and after receipt of their education certificates.

Why is teaching so important? Not, as is generally argued, because American kids need to keep up with youth in other countries so that the US can maintain its position in the global economy. No, teaching is critical because education reform—or, more accurately, transformation—may just be the key to saving civilization. As argued previously in this blog, techno-fixes alone simply aren’t going to cut it. Sustainability will depend on raising future generations of citizens possessing a different perspective on the human-nature connection. Specifically, we must counter the prevalent and erroneous notion of viewing ourselves as external conquerors of nature, and begin to understand that we are fully embedded within nature.

What most disturbs me about the ongoing debate over education reform, including the Race, is the virtual lack of conversation, let alone debate, about curriculum content. The unspoken assumption is that a shift in the delivery mechanism is all that is needed to “fix” education. Yet in addition to how we are teaching our children, we should be equally concerned with what we are teaching them.

Today, as for most of the 20th Century, education is about careerism, preparing students to successfully enter consumer society—that is, to be “upwardly mobile.” Although we are well aware of the environmental calamity facing us today, and the fundamental role of that “consumers” play in accelerating our pace toward disaster, education (K-16) is still organized as if no such specter is sitting out there on the horizon.

Education for the 21st Century should be education for sustainability, a system of teaching and learning that helps our youth understand how to live well in the world. At its root, sustainability depends on two factors: 1) human justice; and 2) an harmonious relationship between the human and nonhuman world (i.e., justice for nonhuman nature). One of the greatest problems with our present day education system is that it fragments the world into artificial chunks (biology, history, geography, math, etc.) and prevents us from seeing larger patterns and unified wholes [5]. A partial remedy to this curricular myopia, and certainly a fundamental element that deserves residence at the curriculum core, is ecological literacy, or “ecoliteracy” [6,7]: the interweaving of Earth’s natural systems, and the human role is those systems. Some remarkable progress is being made is the ecoliteracy arena [8], but we urgently need to find ways to scale up these successes so that they are applied more broadly.

Another key content element is what I have termed “evolutionary literacy,” or “evoliteracy” [9]. Whereas ecoliteracy focuses on connections and energy flow within the temporal snapshots of ecological systems, evoliteracy inserts the vertical dimension of deep time. The Epic of Evolution, from the beginnings of the universe to the present day, is our amazing origin story delivered by science [10-12]. As argued in recent posts, this grand, unifying saga, also called the “Great Story,” is capable of offering a critical dose of meaning and purpose to our lives. Far from the random, meaningless place so often portrayed in textbooks and the popular media, our universe is a stunningly creative place that birthed us through a long series of transformations, beginning with simple hydrogen atoms. Seeing ourselves as players in this 14 billion year old drama, and recognizing that our decisions will impact that next 14 billion years, may just be an essential element in achieving anything worthy of the title “sustainable.” Yet, at present, the Great Story is virtually absent from all levels of education, communicated, if at all, only as a series of fragments rather than a unified whole.

Rapid education transformation (as opposed to mere “reform”) is critical to the future of humans and millions of other species on this planet. We need a major mindshift, one that may only come through empowering future generations. So get informed. If you’re an educator, think about the underlying messages of your teaching, and how you might alter these in the direction of sustainability. If you’re a parent, find out what your children are learning in school, and make efforts to shift the content (as well as the delivery) in ways that will enable our youth to live well in the world. Earth’s future depends on our mobilization efforts.

Notes and References
1) Obama Offers “Race to the Top” Contest for Schools. Guardian News, London, UK, July 24, 2009.
2) Dillon, S. and T. Lewin. 2010. Education chief vies to expand U.S. role as partner on local schools. New York Times.
3) Brill, S. 2010. The Teachers’ Unions’ Last Stand. New York Times Magazine, May 17, 2010.
4) Race to the Top, Wikipedia entry:
5) Orr, D. W. 1994. Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Island Press, Washington, D.C.
6) Orr, D. W. 1992. Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World. State University of New York Press, Albany, 210 pp.
7) Stone, M. K. and Z. Barlow (eds.). 2005. Ecological Literacy: Educating our Children for a Sustainable World. University of California Press, Berkeley, 275 pp.
8) Stone, M. K. 2009. Smart By Nature. University of California Press, Berkeley.
9) Sampson, S. D. 2009. Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life. University of California Press, Berkeley.
10) Berry, T. 1999. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. Bell Tower, New York.
11) Swimme, B. and T. Berry. 1992. The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to Ecozoic Era. Harper Collins, New York.
12) I strongly encourage readers to check out a brand new website, Journey of the Universe, supporting an upcoming documentary by Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker. This project promises to provide some excellent tools for educators interested in communicating the Great Story. Check out:

All images courtesy of National Geographic:


  1. Hear, hear!! As a former elementary school teacher (and current parent to young children), I appreciate what you have to say about teachers, teacher education, continued training, and compensation. I agree that an emphasis on professionalizing careers in education to an equal status as medicine and law is a key element in the transformation you describe. Integrating curriculum was always (and continues to be) a very exciting topic to me in my teaching career and I love the idea of ecoliteracy and evoliteracy being a framework for integration. I think you have hit on something very powerful, indeed.

  2. Sustainability can certainly be taught within the curriculum structure as it exists: energy physics is the basis of biology in terms of photosynthesis and productivity carried to ecology in terms of what eats what and food webs, then on to decomposition. Which allows discussion of fossil fuels. Linking water and inorganic nutrients back to plant growth, etc.
    An on to the strong linkages of math and chemistry to the biological and ecological topics. Finally, focus upon diverse human values as they play into the application of scientific principles...etc.

  3. I agree and want to extend your point to other disciplines outside of biology in order to make the argument that educators must enable pupils to 1) experience their subject and to 2) understand the function or purpose of what's behind the thing they are learning. I recall many of my history lessons being compilations of dates and random people - I was memorizing out of context and without an ability to relate to my subject matter. I think the reason why I gravitated towards biology was because I innately connect with that subject through my experiences hiking and exploring. Also, oftentimes in math, I never understood the function or relevancy of what I was learning given my practice sets. As soon as I realized the function of statistics, however, learning became 'second nature' (whereas before it was a topic I avoided entirely).

    Once we can experience our subject, we can engage with it and are compelled to learn.
    Visual representations of our subjects can help us experience our subject matter, and we are fortunate to enter an age where graphic design is advanced enough to reenact many topics that were originally only able to be described schematically. Take animations of the living cell, for example, or reenactments of famous battle scenes or dinosaur interactions (like the ones seen on the Discovery channel) - by bringing to life what otherwise could not be visualized, students become engaged and learning occurs automatically.

    Also, if only educators could teach topics from a functional perspective, I feel that students would be able to look at challenges and problem-solve more efficiently. Teaching organismal biology, for example, from a functional perspective helps people understand why biodiversity exists (as opposed to organizing life via complexity). Likewise, if math could be taught to include relevant examples, students could understand the function of why one would need math in everyday challenges. For example, the purpose of quadratic equations could be explained showing an example where non-linear regression was needed to determine statistical significance of a particular data set (so important in real life).

    Ecoliteracy and evoliteracy are HUGE topics that need more attention. By getting students to experience nature and the process of evolution as well as to put ecology and evolution into a functional perspective (ie ecosystem services and natural selection), educators will enable young people to connect their textbook knowledge with conservation and sustainability (merge knowledge/memorized facts with relevancy).

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  5. Thanks for the effort you took to expand upon this topic so thoroughly. I look forward to future post.
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