Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Mention the topic education at a cocktail party, the water cooler or your child’s basketball game, and you’re likely to receive an earful. Everyone has an opinion, and while the US is divided on much, most agree we can, and need to, do better with children’s education. Perhaps divided on whether education is too expensive, too cumbersome or wholly ineffective, most are united in believing the purpose of education is to develop a world-class labor force and to act as a means of upward mobility. And for our children, we want to give them the best opportunity to succeed.

Let’s take a step back and consider how we got here and the consequences of our industrial revolution-aged education:

Not long ago (say, two hundred years), we humans numbered fewer than one billion. We were tied to the land and the seasons and, materially, we were poor. Short labor, we used imagination, creativity and natural resources created over millions of years to boost productivity.

Productive we’ve been, developing a “take-make-waste” economy for the benefit of humans, i.e. extract natural resources, produce "goods" and then throw them "away." Most of the nearly seven billion of us now live longer, more comfortable lives than could have been conceived of two centuries ago.

At the same time, every living system is in decline and more than 1B people are in search of work (and half the human population lives on less than $2 dollars per day). In the US, roughly 15% live in poverty. Our definition of progress has been more, faster, cheaper. For most of the past two hundred years, more, faster, cheaper meant an increase in our standard of living. But “more” no longer necessarily means “better.” The increase in the US GDP since 1970 is staggering, yet at about that year the quality of our lives and our “happiness” hit a plateau.

Most junior high students, given the opportunity, could tell you linear thinking on a finite planet is destined to fail. If the human species use resources faster than the replenishment rate, than we’re bound to run into limits. There are only so many trees to cut and burn, only so much soil to deplete. Only a limited amount of clean, fresh water and biological diversity, built up over millions of years, remain. And the vast majority of scientists agree, the once-in-a-billion-years fire sale on coal, oil and gas is altering the atmosphere, not to mention at the root cause of resource wars.

In the name of progress, we’ve ignored the laws of ecology and the laws of thermodynamics. In effect, we’re robbing Peter (natural capital) to pay Paul (humans). The air, water and soil end up as repositories for the worthless waste our system creates. The system works for a while, but if we need Peter to provide us services to live, soon Paul suffers along with Paul.

So, when it comes to education, the intentions of the large majority are good. Who doesn’t want the best for their children or the children they teach in the classroom? Yet, the current educational system largely ignores reality and the need for real curriculum reform. 1950’s style education doesn’t develop leaders of the 21st century. A new recycling program in the cafeteria and an Earth Day celebration once a year doesn’t cut it.

It begins with children learning where they live and how the world around them works, e.g. Where does drinking water come from? Our food? Energy? (Not the tap and not the grocery store.) At the same time, it’s foolish to think all of a sudden children don’t need to focus on reading, writing and arithmetic. But with a short school day and short school year, who has time to cover both the learning standards mandated by the states and teach environmental education?

How about using the environment as a teaching tool across the spectrum, i.e. studying nature through reading, writing, social studies, math, science and art. A growing number of educators understand children’s brains aren’t wired to sit in desks and memorize abstract information. Additionally, much of that information has little relevance to their real world and future success in it. Rather than separate subjects into silos, why not projects that 1.) cover multiple subjects at once, and 2.) study the “stuff” nearby. Why spend a year teaching the Jamestown settlement, multiplication, the water cycle, writing narratives, reading biographies and try to squeeze in a unit on the Amazon Rainforest when all the same subjects may be covered studying a few different aspects of the school community where the students live? Hands-on, place-based education leads to children who can think AND who perform well on tests.

Give students something to do, not learn; and when the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking, learning naturally results.” —John Dewey

“Using outdoor learning leads to increases in test scores.”
– Research Article: Closing the Achievement Gap: Using the Environment as an Integrating Context for Learning.

“Using the environment as an integrating context (EIC) in school curricula results in wide-ranging, positive effects on student learning.” – Lieberman and Hoody

I often joke when asked why I decided to write books for kids, “I want to make sure kids grow up smarter than us.” By that I mean, understanding how nature works. To start, children need to spend time in it so they can comprehend first-hand what John Muir meant when he wrote: “Tug on anything at all and you’ll find it connected to everything else in the universe.”

Things in the 21st century are changing fast, faster than ever before, but the status quo is still powerful, e.g. Ironically, Texas curriculum standards determine text book content nationwide. Yet, California, for all it’s sins, is in the midst of offering a comprehensive set of lessons:

The Stone Age didn’t end b/c we ran out of stones and fossil fuel age won’t end because we run out of ancient sun energy. There are better ways and nature show us the way. The opportunity of the 21st century will be transitioning to an economy that works. An economy modeled on the success of nature, namely:

• recycling all it’s nutrients
• running on current solar energy
• thriving on diversity
• demanding local expertise
• rewarding cooperation over competition

It’s time to focus on more than just test scores. Developing creative thinkers connected to the world around them, understanding that the 21st century is the greatest time in the history of mankind to be alive.

See you outside,

P.S. If you’d like something for late elementary aged children, check out the Teacher’s Guide for An Environmental Guide from A to Z on our website.

P.P.S. Focused on children and nature, David Sobel is a leader in place-based education. At the high school and university level, check out David Orr of Oberlin College. Paul Hawken’s University of Portland’s commencement speech of 2009 is a must-read: