Education Trends

How Do We Educate Global Problem Solvers?

June 10, 2014         Updated June 4, 2014
Image credit: Thinkstock

What are the biggest problems in the world?

When I pose that question to students they mention war, poverty, climate change, and more. About a year ago, a group of Connecticut middle school students produced such a list. Then I asked them to raise their hands if they could imagine us solving these problems. Of the 45 students, only a handful could.

In my 25 years as a humane educator -- someone who teaches about pressing global challenges and offers students the tools to become "solutionaries" for a more just and sustainable world -- I had never encountered so much hopelessness in a middle school classroom, not even in the most underserved schools in the most disenfranchised communities.

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Fortunately, I was able to turn their hopelessness around by leading them through a visualization. I asked them to close their eyes and imagine themselves as very old and approaching the end of their lives. I described a very different world, one in which we'd solved our biggest problems. Then I asked them to imagine a child approaching them and asking what they had done to help bring about this better world, and I invited them to answer that child. With their eyes still closed, I again asked if they could imagine us solving our problems, and this time only a few did not raise their hands.

I felt relieved that it didn't take much to shift these students' sense of hope and efficacy, but the experience reinforced my belief that our education system needs to shift to ensure that we prepare our students to meet their future.

Given the enormous challenges we face, and the dire consequences of inaction, we educators owe it to our students to make certain they graduate knowledgeable, prepared, and empowered to participate in the necessary tasks of transforming destructive and unjust systems in production, agriculture, energy, transportation, and more into healthy systems through whatever careers they ultimately pursue.

What's ironic about the Connecticut children's initial lack of hope is that, despite the potential calamities we face, we're actually living in less violent, less discriminatory, and less cruel times than ever before in recorded human history. Add to that our capacity to communicate and collaborate with people across the globe and a vast, growing body of knowledge available on handheld computers, and there is every reason for our children to feel hopeful and enthusiastic. We've never been better positioned to solve our problems, and our students need to know that each one has an important role to play in bringing about a more just, sustainable, and humane world before it is too late. So it's up to us to provide an education that enables them to be the critical thinkers, creative innovators, and collegial collaborators.

How can we do this? Here are two ideas.

1. True Price

True Price is a humane education activity in which students analyze an everyday item, such as an article of clothing, an electronic device, a food, etc., and ask the following questions:

  1. What are its effects, both positive and negative, on you as an individual consumer, on other people, on animals, and on the environment?
  2. What systems support, promote, and perpetuate it?
  3. What alternatives do more good and less harm, and if no alternative exists, what systems would need to change to make alternatives ubiquitous?

True Price is flexible. It can fit into the core subjects of language arts, science, math, and social studies, as well as foreign language, art, economics, and more. It can be done in a single class, as a homework assignment, as a project, or through an elective. In the process of answering the questions above, students become better critical and creative thinkers, more conscientious choice makers, and more motivated change makers. The activity can also lead to projects that promote collaboration and problem solving, and it meets a number of Common Core Standards.

A few years ago, I spoke at a high school's National Honor Society induction. In my presentation, we did the True Price activity with a conventional cotton t-shirt made in China. While we couldn't know much about that specific t-shirt, there's a lot we do know about conventional cotton production: it uses large amounts of pesticides; child slaves work in cotton fields in Asia; sweatshop conditions are the norm in many factories; dyes, often dripped into the eyes of conscious rabbits in animal tests, are largely toxic; and a significant percentage of these toxins wind up in our waterways.

There are also positive effects. The production and distribution of a t-shirt employs many people, and its wearer is able to buy it at a reasonable price, but when I asked if there are alternatives that do more good and less harm, students realized that we could, and should, do better. After the talk, one of the inductees exclaimed, "We should have been learning this since kindergarten!" She understood that without knowledge about unhealthy and unjust systems, we cannot change them.

2. Solutionary Teams

Debate teams are commonplace in high schools, and students learn excellent critical thinking, speaking, and persuasion skills through them. In debate, students are typically assigned one side or the other of a fabricated either/or question. Imagine, instead, solutionary teams where students work together to come up with innovative and cost-effective solutions to actual problems, whether in their own school, their community, their nation, or the world.

We are excited to be hosting a Solutionary Congress where these teams will be able to present their solutions. The Congress will be attended by social entrepreneurs, investors, legislators, and more, and you can download a free starter kit if you would like to start a team in your school.

Youth yearn for meaningful education. I receive grateful letters after humane education presentations and courses. As one eighth grader wrote, "Spending that week with you was the most inspiring five days of my life so far. You made me realize how much just one person can do to help the world."

While this letter sounds positive, I find it depressing. A week-long course with a humane educator shouldn't be the most inspiring five days of any teenager's life. Her whole education should be inspiring. All of her teachers should be humane educators who infuse their curricula with relevance and meaning so that no child ever doubts his or her capacity and responsibility to contribute to a better world.

These ideas and tools are just samples. We need a greater conversation on how to help our students become more focused on solutions. How have you brought similar ideas into your classroom?