American education and climate change


How do we want today’s young people to spend their time in school, in light of the future they face? What are our educational priorities in a time of climate crisis?

Do we want young people to memorize lists of facts and dates? Or do we want to teach them how to learn and search for answers, collaborate, connect to nature and be creative and innovative? 

When we look at today’s public school system – and keep in mind, I write this as a citizen of the United States – is it structured to cultivate the qualities most needed to face climate change with creativity and hope while staying mentally sound? Does it empower youth and provide them with the most-needed tools?

I don’t think so. And many agree. The voices arguing that the American school system is outdated grow louder and multiply every year. These arguments are often unrelated to climate change. We are funding and perpetuating a school system that is outdated for the world today as a whole, not only when it comes to the greatest crisis humanity may ever face. 

In the posts in this section, I explore alternatives to our current education system. Those posts point to possibilities that generate self-aware, empowered, solution-seeking young people who are great collaborators and innovative thinkers. Before getting into those posts, however, it behooves us to take a quick look at the current education system. Let’s examine where we are and hold it up against where we’d like to be. 

American education today

While there is certainly variation from one school to the next, the predominant form of education in American public schools today still follows a model in which the teacher transmits knowledge vertically to students through lectures given from the front of the classroom to pupils seated behind tables or desks. In this model of education, knowledge is aligned with power, with the teacher in a position of power over their students, often supported by the view that students should not question that power held by their educators. Instead, students are rewarded for performing in a way that meets their teachers’ expectations. Teachers, in return, are rewarded for meeting superintendent expectations and superintendents are following state and national policies in a perpetual chain where compliance is rewarded and questioning expectations is discouraged.

Achievement and competency are assessed through standardized, one-size-fits-all tests. And students are allowed to progress from one level of subjects to the next even if they do not score an A on examinations, essentially meaning that students are allowed to progress even if they have not demonstrated full understanding of the topics involved.

Furthermore, the focus of learning is still on the content being learned and the ability to memorize that content and regurgitate the information in examinations. In other words, education is focused on facts vs. qualities and skills like emotional intelligence, the ability to collaborate and problem-solve or the capacity to navigate disagreements. This focus on memorizing facts is also a bit odd when one considers that most citizens of the world today possess a handheld device on which they can look up any fact at any time of day or night. 

School culture is inherently competitive. Students are often graded on a curve, against their peers. Learning often still happens in a solitary fashion, with student attention focused on improving their individual GPA (often in competition with their peers, fighting for spaces in AP classes and for limited spaces in other school-related activities that will enhance their chance for the secondary education of their choice). In this manner, school is also highly performative and students are encouraged to decide what to attempt based on their ability to maximize top grades, as opposed to being encouraged to take risks and learn from failures. 

Subjects are also still approached in a highly disciplinary fashion, with students spending one period on math, the next on history and the next on science, for example. This model is at odds with how the world functions, in which everything is interrelated. The disciplinary model is also at odds with most modern professions, in which the capacity to recognize interrelationships and make connections across traditional disciplines is necessary. And the model is certainly at odds with the skills needed to live in a world with climate change, an inherently interdisciplinary problem, the solutions to which require similarly interdisciplinary, systems-focused thinking. 

Learning is a passive activity in the current model of education. Students are rewarded for sitting back and consuming, often without question. “Sit back and consume” is the exact opposite of the attitude that is needed to drive positive change in the world today. Furthermore, the incentives for learning are mostly extrinsic. It is a rare and wonderful thing when schools focus on recognizing and encouraging their students’ passions, and even rarer when learning is driven by those passions, with students turned into explorers guided by interest, an approach much more likely to help young people identify a sense of purpose. 

Finally, in the American public school system, learning mostly happens in a void separate from the community-at-large. The walls of the school might as well be a fortress. This is an incredibly odd approach when one considers that the purpose of education is to prepare students to be successful members of their communities. Yet very few classes venture into the community for experiences in which students can both learn from and positively contribute to the community.

Models from around the world

Not all countries approach education in this fashion. For example, in Estonia, which was ranked number 8 out of the world’s best primary education systems in 2016 in an annual report compiled by the World Economic Forum, the curriculum includes learning to learn, communications, and entrepreneurship. One of the top goals of the Estonian education system is to teach students the values of citizenship. Consider this goal for a moment and how it might transform education systems globally. If our time spent in school was oriented towards learning the values involved in being a citizen of the world we inhabit today (and yes, I am aware that Estonian schools are focused on Estonian citizenship), surely priorities would better align with the type of education most needed to prepare young people for a future with climate change. Instead of focusing on memorizing historical dates, we would spend more time on building regenerative systems for energy and food production, study of nature and work assisting natural systems in regrowth and repair and study of and solution-seeking around the intersection of the many systems of oppression in the world today and the climate crisis

Another example is provided by Finland, which consistently comes in as one of the world’s top education system in many annual surveys. Interestingly, the Finnish education system was not always such a gold standard. However, when the post-Soviet Finnish parliament was considering how best to foster economic recovery, the decision was made in 1963 to focus on education. This is particularly interesting when you consider that what we are currently called upon to recognize the importance of education in fostering planetary recovery. 

In Finland, commitment to education starts with teachers. All teachers must hold a masters degree (paid for by the state), a recognition that teaching requires high skill and knowledge. All administrators and all government officials affiliated with the school system are educators – not business people or career politicians. While educational goals are set at the national level, individual schools have a great deal of leeway in implementation. The national curriculum, devised by teachers from across the country, is held as a set of guidelines, not prescriptions. Teachers are encouraged to cater the educational experience to individual student needs. Classes are small, also allowing for this attention to the individual learner. Teachers spend less time in the classroom than American teachers and use the additional hours to plan and cater curriculums and asses individual students needs.

Finland recognizes that it is essential, first and foremost, to teach students to learn and to focus on the whole child. Compulsory education does not begin until age 7, and in the early years, great emphasis is placed on play, especially play outdoors.

Aides and special education teachers in Finland are paid slightly more than classroom teachers and are required to complete an additional year of schooling to obtain certification – a recognition of the additional knowledge and skills needed for these positions. And educational resources are distributed evenly across the country, with the goal of equal education for all. 

Where might we go?

Great successes in education are not confined to other countries, however. There are some incredible, innovative approaches to teaching and learning occurring in the United States (see list of just a few below). These programs need support to extend beyond private and/or isolated examples and into the public conversation with increased accessibility. Hopefully, as more parents, educators and community members in general realize the necessity of re-evaluating education to insure that it actually best prepares today’s young people to be engaged in the world both in the present and in the future, we will see the public education system shift towards some of these approaches.

And, of course, we must insure that students are learning about climate change. And here, once again, the how of the learning is just as essential as the what


A few great examples: place-based education, humane education, the RULER program for teaching emotional intelligence and social skills, flipped classrooms and design-thinking process in the classroom.

Categories: Education

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