I recently gave a keynote address at the Manitoba Association of School Superintendents conference on sustainability. There were 120 superintendents, principals and teachers at my talk, and I was so excited about the opportunity to speak to them. I speak often at teachers’ conferences, and because I usually have only about an hour to present, I share what I consider the quintessential humane education activity, True Price. True Price asks several questions about ubiquitous products, (e.g. food items, clothing and electronics, etc.):
1. Is this item a want or a need?
2. What are the effects of this item, both positive and negative, on you as a consumer, on other people, on animals, and on the environment?
3. What systems perpetuate this item?
4. What would be an alternative that does more good and less harm, and if no such alternatives exist, what systems would need to change to make alternatives commonplace?
The answers to these questions are complex and require the development of excellent research, investigation and critical and creative thinking capacities. During my presentations at teachers’ conferences, we simply scratch the surface, but do so in a way that engenders creative development of educational approaches for classrooms and schools. At the Manitoba conference, I put 20 items on the 20 tables in the room, and invited the audience members to analyze the item on their table, answering the questions above. The process evoked new thinking about how to integrate activities related to sustainability (the theme of the conference) into their schools and districts.
Almost every time I do this activity at U.S. teachers’ conferences, some audience members feel flummoxed by the challenge of bringing such an activity into their curricula. Forced to teach to seemingly endless standardized tests, many cannot see how such a multidisciplinary, critical and creative thinking activity could fit into the requirements they must fulfill, even though the exploration of these items and the process of answering these questions can fit beautifully and powerfully into language arts, science, math, health and social studies courses. Exploring such questions can also become an elective or add greater educational meaning and purpose to courses in economics, geography, psychology, environmental science, ethics and more.
In Manitoba, there were no such questions, no such quandaries. Prior to arriving at the conference, I had perused the ministry of education’s website, discovering this mission statement: “Our role is to ensure that all of Manitoba’s children and youth have access to engaging and high quality education that prepares them for lifelong learning and participation in a socially just, democratic and sustainable society.”
I was delighted to read this mission, and even more delighted when virtually everyone in the room knew that this was, indeed, their mission. Humane education, which explores the interconnected issues of human rights, environmental preservation and animal protection and seeks to prepare students to be solutionaries for a compassionate, just and peaceful world, fits right into Manitoba’s educational goals. True Price didn’t seem like a diversion from the core curriculum to these Canadians at all; rather, it seemed simply to be a new and exciting way to achieve their mission.
We need such a mission statement in the U.S. Currently, the U.S. Department of Education’s mission is this: “To promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.”
Is “global competitiveness” the best we can achieve? At the Manitoba Conference, author, teacher and U.S. educational leader, Stephanie Pace Marshall, pointed out during her plenary address that we need to be not the best in the world, but the best for the world. This is a profoundly important distinction. It’s time that the U.S., like Canada, embraces a big enough and an important enough educational mission for today’s world.
Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, and free resources. She is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education; and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, about middle school students who become activists. She has given several acclaimed TEDx talks, including “The World Becomes What You Teach” and “Solutionaries” and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.
Image courtesy of erasmusa via Creative Commons.