A colleague recently challenged my intention to include environmental stewardship as a vital component of public education. She asked why it should take such a central role, more so than say, art or music.
I had a difficult time mounting a defense for my position, since cultivating and empowering planetary stewards is central to my life’s mission. A mission that is about nurturing children to see the power of their ideas flourish so they can solve the problems we face in our communities and at a global scale – the problems which we humans have knowingly or unknowingly created and continue to foster. This belief is just part of what makes me, me.
In the past 24 hours, I’ve experienced the emotional extremes of hope and despair that accompanies the climate change catastrophe and humans’ role in it.
First, the hope: I visited one of my favorite places in Washington, DC – the National Geographic building – for the inaugural Education Summit focused on Empowering the Next Generation of Planetary Stewards.
National Geographic launched its stunning educational resources for classroom and out-of-school time learning – including live video events when students engage with a remote explorer (who could be, say, on a submarine!). Each month, Explorer Classroom features a new theme and provides supporting resources for educators.
Nat Geo also offers a suite of educator professional development and certifications. At the Summit, offering remarks in a TedTalk style, amazing teachers shared stories of how students do care about being stewards when they are given the opportunity to investigate questions that are meaningful in their lives.
And such learning is not to the exclusion of art, music, or other subjects. In fact, done well, student-inquiry driven learning is what creates deep, meaningful educational experiences that tap students’ interests and talents to motivate them to continue learning. (My town is now featuring garbage trucks with art by elementary school students, which promote messages of stewardship!) Students have the courage and drive to clean up the mess that is their birthright.
This mess includes the saga of 70 years of plastic on planet Earth, which has profoundly changed our environment. A plastic bag has even been found in the deepest trench in the ocean, thousands of miles from any human inhabitants. We are kidding ourselves if we think this is not our problem. Plastic islands leech toxins into the ocean, while wildlife ingest plastics and die. Nat Geo asks us, “Planet or Plastic?” I choose Planet.
And then, the despair: tonight I saw this heartbreaking article: Two generations of humans have killed off more than half the world’s wildlife populations, report finds.
We humans must educate our children not only on the skills to technically address these crises, but with compassion and humility that will drive them to do so. In this approach, so, too, will students learn to work together, respect each other’s contributions, and so much more.
One more idea that I learned about is geographic competencies. No longer is geography an exercise in memorizing places on a map. Rather, it’s about instilling an understanding of how and why places and people are connected, and what that means for societies, economies, and resources. Nat Geo, of course, does this in a breathtaking way that leaves us hopeful that we can tackle this challenge.
So why should cultivating compassionate stewards be at the core of education?
Our very existence relies upon it.