An Inconvenient Truth About Education: Rethinking the Way Things Are

What climate change and school change share.

April 19, 2007

Watching the Oscar-winning global-warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth, I was struck by the similarities between climate change and education change. These seemingly unrelated crises on our planet and in our schools are, in fact, connected.

Both have taken many decades to develop and, at least in the United States, both originated in an industrial economy built on manufacturing. The effects of global warming and school decline are difficult to detect year to year, but over several generations, their impacts accumulate -- and are now converging to limit the future health of our economy and our society.

To reverse these declines, similar fundamental shifts in thinking and behavior will be required at the individual, institutional, and societal levels. Consuming less, recycling more, and the ethic of caring for the environment should begin with our youngest children, as modeled by their parents, teachers, and caregivers. It's the same with literacy, curiosity, and a love of learning. Just as green technologies can make energy consumption more efficient, learning technologies can play a key role in modernizing the learning process.

Many nations are moving to combat global climate change and toward changing their own educational climate. Though we don't have the educational equivalent of the Kyoto Protocol, the need to redesign educational systems is reaching a consensus among ministers of education around the world.

Odd, but perhaps familiar, is our own government's lack of urgency to effect fundamental changes despite widespread recognition that we are mortgaging our future. John Gage, director of the science office at Sun Microsystems and a former member of GLEF's National Advisory Board, has spoken with education leaders from many nations. "Other nations view spending on education as an investment," he says. "We view it as a cost."

Our complacency about the scale of the problem could prove costly indeed. Last week, I had a chance to hear Al Gore speak in San Francisco with John McCosker, the eminent marine biologist at the California Academy of Sciences. McCosker asked Gore how long we have to make the fundamental changes needed to reverse carbon emissions. Gore quoted some scientists' estimates of about ten years. We may be facing the same time frame to make radical changes in our school systems. Can we afford to let today's eight-year-olds go through ten more years of schooling without giving them the skills they need to make a life and a living in the twenty-first century?

In the same talk, Gore called for a new educational model that recognizes the unique digital era our children are growing up in and, especially, the potential of the Internet for their learning. He worried, though, that our nation seems distracted from the serious issues of our time, as citizens spend an average of four and a half hours each day watching television and being more obsessed with, as Gore puts it, "the embalming of Anna Nicole Smith."

Gore framed our inability to base our thinking and decision making on reason and evidence, rather than power, as a key issue. When a sixth grader submitted the question "What can we do?" Gore responded that students like that child "should learn as much as you can" about environmental issues and not be deterred by adults who may be in denial.

Sir Ken Robinson, the noted arts educator and the author of Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative, has also connected Gore's ideas to the future of schools. Gore and Robinson both spoke at the 2005 TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) Conference, in Monterey, California, and in a marvelous presentation on valuing the arts as ways of knowing and learning, Robinson said, "Al Gore spoke the other night about ecology and the revolution that was triggered by Rachel Carson. I believe our only hope for the future is to adopt a new conception of human ecology, one in which we start to reconstitute our conception of the richness of human capacity.

"Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the Earth for a particular commodity and for the future," he added. "It won't serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we are educating our children."

In order to save the planet, we first need to save our children's minds. That truth is more than inconvenient. It's incontrovertible.

Please share your comments.

Milton Chen is executive director of The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

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