Humane Education – educating solutionaries


When I think about how schools might truly prepare young people for a future with climate change, I return time and again to the realization that we must radically shift both what we teach and how we teach. If the goal of education is to support young people in becoming engaged, empowered, hopeful, purposeful solution-seeking participants in their communities and in the world, then asking students to spend long days sitting behind desks memorizing facts, many of which are not directly tied to current events, seems incredibly ill-suited to the task at hand.

What other pictures of education might better match the work of preparing young people for a world with climate change?

The work of Zoe Weil

About eight years ago, I stumbled across a TED talk that rocked my world. The talk was titled “The World Becomes What You Teach” and the speaker was a woman named Zoe Weil. She spoke eloquently and passionately about the need to reconfigure education with the goal of helping young people become what she called “solutionaries”. 

I started down a google rabbit hole and discovered that Weil is the cofounder and president of The Institute for Humane Education, an organization that trains teachers to be “humane educators” through both graduate and certificate programs, currently offered in collaboration with Antioch University New England.

After spending decades teaching young people about global ethical issues and working to inspire her students to become changemakers, Weil turned her attention to training other teachers. With cofounder Rae Sikora, she launched the Center for Compassionate Living in 1996 and the Humane Education Certificate Program in 1997. The Institute for Humane Education followed, with the mission to “educate people to create a world in which all humans, animals, and nature can thrive.”

Solutionaries for the “most good”

Humane Education is a unique, interdisciplinary approach to learning that focuses on the intersection of human rights, environmental sustainability and animal protection. In other words, humane education is focused on the wellbeing and rights of all living things. Humane Educators work in many different learning environments and guide students to become “solutionaries” – someone who is “able to identify inhumane and unsustainable systems, then develop solutions that are healthy and just for people, animals and the environment.”

Humane education is driven by the principle of “most good” or “MOGO”, asking how we can all do the most good and least harm through our daily choices and resulting actions, including at work, in our families and in our communities, and this definitely includes the nonhuman community. 

Humane educators help students hone four specific skills to support their work as solutionaries:

  • Knowledge acquisition through developing enthusiastic and effective research skills with the goal of obtaining accurate information about interconnected global challenges. Humane education places great emphasis on the importance of discernment, helping students develop the ability to discern fact from opinion or conjecture.
  • Deep thinking through critical-, creative-, strategic- and systems-thinking.
  • Compassionate and responsible choice-making through developing wonder and appreciation for the natural world; empathy for all living beings and commitment to doing the most good and least harm.
  • Solutions-focused through collaborative engagement in problem-solving; idea implementation and assessment and improvement of solutions. 

A meaningful and joyful model of education

Driven by a desire to learn more, I recently picked up Weil’s latest book, also titled The World Becomes What we Teach. Weil begins by questioning the purpose of education as currently stated by the U.S. Department of Education: to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access. Weil rightly questions if this mission is “sufficient and appropriate for students whose future is threatened by global problems they will be required to address? Might they be better served by a more meaningful and comprehensive mission that includes learning to solve the challenges they will face?”  (Weil, Z. (2016) The World Becomes What We Teach. Brooklyn, NY: Lantern Books. (15-16).)

I clearly could not agree more. If our goal is to prepare young people to solve the challenges of their future, then what should we be teaching and how should we teach it?

The answers to these questions fill the remainder of The World Becomes What We Teach and paint an inspiring picture of how we might make school meaningful and joyful by providing students with a sense of purpose and agency. As Weil writes, “Most of us learn best when we understand and embrace the meaning and purpose behind what we are studying. It is enjoyable and deeply engaging to solve problems we care about, to create, learn, and think. And it is joy-inducing to be of real service to others.” (Weil, Z. (2016) The World Becomes What We Teach. Brooklyn, NY: Lantern Books. (69-70).)

We must begin, Weil explains, by teaching students that a just, humane world is possible. After all, if they do not have hope and belief in the possible power of solutions, why would they engage in the work of solutionaries to begin with?

And we must provide them with the tools they need to become solutionaries. We must help them cultivate the ability to think critically, creatively and systemically. To do this work, Weil describes a system of schooling that is interdisciplinary, allowing students to draw the connections needed to seek solutions from a systems-thinking approach. She highlights the importance of drawing on diverse educational pedagogies, or teaching methods, branching far beyond the teacher in front of the classroom and the students behind desks to student-driven inquiry, independent research and investigation, experiential learning, guest speakers, multimedia sources, real-life case studies, mentoring and collaborative work. After all, as psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik has shown in her studies on how we learn, while the teacher-at-the-head of the classroom model is good for certain types of learning – mimicry and memorization – it shuts down creativity, innovation, critical thinking and collaboration.

Again and again, Weil emphasizes the importance of bringing real-life challenges into the classroom and allowing students the opportunity to engage with these challenges from a solutionary standpoint. Too often, we shut the classroom door on controversial, current challenges. When we do so, not only do we deny students the opportunity to learn how to positively engage with such challenges and seek meaningful solutions, we also miss out on an incredible opportunity, writes Weil. “Schools and teachers can provide one of the best venues for investigation, research, and analysis, with the goal of turning controversial issues into the clay from which students can mold new ideas and develop meaningful solutions to problems that are all too commonly perceived and presented in either/or terms.” (Weil, Z. (2016) The World Becomes What We Teach. Brooklyn, NY: Lantern Books. (27).)

In this picture of education, schools become a space where pressing global issues – like extreme weather events, migration, terrorist attacks, climate change, disease outbreak and more – are discussed thoughtfully (in an age-appropriate manner) and approached from a solutionary standpoint, rather than avoided. With an interdisciplinary, multi-pedagogical approach, teachers and students engage together to collaborate on solutions. The exploratory, innovative minds of young people collaborate with the knowledge and experience of their teachers. Schools become a mixture of a lab and a studio, and certainly a very exciting and meaningful place to be. 

Like Place-based Education, Humane Education can be applied to any place where learning occurs. Teachers can train in the methods involved and take them back to public schools, private schools, after-school programs and more.

Prioritizing education

Significant resources are clearly necessary to support Weil’s vision of humane education. Learning is more individualized, requiring more well-trained, well-supported teachers. Institutionalizing such a method of education would require that we prioritize education at a national level.

And yet, what could be more important in this moment of climate crisis? Yes, we must pour significant resources into developing technologies and systems that mitigate the climate crisis immediately. But, if the world is to have a hope for a lasting “solutionary” solution (one that does the most good and least harm and is sustainable), then we must also focus time, energy, talent and funding into ensuring that schools are a place where young people are truly prepared to walk into the world of their future ready to engage with the many challenges they will face and produce meaningful, lasting solutions. 

Categories: Education

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