Climate Change Staring us in the Face

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Photo from Globe and Mail. Photo by John Raedle.

Well, it happened. Following 70 years or so of scientists (I generally think of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring as a beginning point in this conversation in the West) telling us that human activity is inflicting catastrophic damage on all systems on this planet, mainstream media, whether consciously or unconsciously, has started to report regularly our relationship with our home.

On Friday June 17th and Saturday, June 18th, the Globe and Mail, perhaps because the earth is in revolt and stories of destruction are so prevalent and ubiquitous, seemed to devote most of its reporting to ecological issues. Here is a sampling:

Earthquakes Shake Alberta Town’s Faith in Fracking

Come Hell or High Water: The Disaster Scenario that is South Florida

Preparing Cities for Changing Climate – Before it’s too Late

There was also an interactive game included on the web version of the Globe and Mail on how to prevent a city from succumbing to the effects of climate change: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/can-you-future-proof-a-city-play-game/article25560486/?from=25552300

Crop Expert Norm Hall on how Drought is Hurting Prairie Farmers

Saskatchewan Wildfire Evacuees Anxious for All-clear to Return Home

All of these articles and associated catastrophes came at the same time that Canada’s Premiers, government leaders of our ten provinces, wrapped up meetings concerning energy and the environment. While there was some recognition that externalities, like greenhouse gases, need to be regulated, accounted, and diminished, most of the talk was about how to export Canada’s nonrenewable energy and generate revenue.

The House on CBC had extensive interviews with various premiers: http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thehouse/premiers-clash-leads-to-unprecedented-energy-agreement-1.3154480/rachel-notley-seeks-balance-between-economy-environment-1.3154493

And then a pipeline, owned by Chinese-owned Nexen, spilled 31, 500 barrels of bitumen essentially into a tributary of the Athabasca River on Treaty land: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/industry-news/energy-and-resources/nexen-says-crews-working-around-the-clock-at-spill-site/article25549619/


And yet the conversation we have at the school level, the school board level, and perhaps in wider educational circles, rarely reflects the need for ecologically literate citizens. in 2015, we are still confounded and confined by discussions advocating for 21st Century skills, better math skills to keep up with Singapore, and/or fictitious notions of “grit.”

Ecological literacy will become the new pedagogical push in the 21st century, it’s just a matter of when. It is comforting that both the University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg faculties of education offer courses in sustainability to future and current teachers, and it is further encouraging that more and more students are volunteering to take these courses. 

Despite this flicker of light, the conversations, literature, and practice in the classroom does not focus on sustaining and protecting the very thing that sustains all life — the biosphere. At what point to we, as educators, begin to shift our focus from outcomes of the past to outcomes of survival, justice, and equity? On what side of history do educators want to be on?

My hope is that this latest publication of the Globe and Mail will push public discussion, both within and outside of the realm of education. I hope it pushes us to understand that short-sighted mission statements, empty five-year plans, and our propensity to give lip-service to forces like ecological literacy are tiresome and destructive. Action is required, now. As teachers, let’s make ecological literacy the new imperative in 21st century learning and stand up to those who would roll their eyes or scoff. 

What is Experience?

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Pock-filled battlefields of Vimy Ridge at sunrise.

As I sit on a plane hurtling across western Europe with 40 students following an eight-day whirlwind Victory in Europe tour, I am forced to contemplate some critical questions from the perspective of an educator beyond the ecological trail of mayhem we leave behind in our jet stream.

Our group traveled to Western Netherlands and Normandy, primarily, in an effort to “experience” what it might have been like to be occupied by Nazis during the second world war, what it felt like to be liberated, and how a burgeoning country with a foreign policy in its infancy contributed to this emancipatory effort. (We also made a dip into France and Belgium to immerse ourselves in WWI.)

At Holten Commonwealth Cemetery on May 4th in the Netherlands

At Holten Commonwealth Cemetery on May 4th in the Netherlands

As an educator paranoid and most likely overly-obsessed with conceptualizations of learning, transformation, growth, and experience, I am confronted with the reality that the experience created for these learners might very well be reduced to simply an experience of traveling, versus an educative experience where the outcomes are met, where brain chemistry and physiology are changed, where the learner has grown, and where new questions and pathways for curiosity are established. Put simply, how do we distinguish between generic and educative experience?

My first assumption that I will offer is that everything is an experience. Having your wisdom teeth removed, learning to smoke, writing a multiple choice test, and sitting in a white-walled room with no furniture and with no stimulation are all experiences. I would also suggest that an experience is not dependant on place, and could arguably be metaphysical and as we are ever more aware, digital.

But educative experiences are those which produce moments of cognitive dissonance, or disequilibrium, and which are bridged by scaffolding and dialogue with peers and elders. This is what I presume to be educative experiences, where neurons are stimulated, where neural connections become more complex, and as my wife tells me (who is a brain-based learning expert, for sure), where dendrites, or the sheath around the neurons, become thicker and more robust.

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Given this understanding of experience and those which might lead to positive growth and transformation, how can I be sure that the outcomes of this past experience in Europe have been educative without being able to look into the brains of the learners? The day of the pocket MRI I suspect are well in the distant future.

For me, the answer rests in the dialogic relationship that is fostered within a learning community. The conversations between individual learners, between learner and elder, and as a community become the barometer for transformative and educative experiences. 

It was fascinating to compare the experiences of the students through our informal chats in buses, at lunch, and on beaches. They remarked how our visit to the Netherlands, with various diplomatic events and crowded activities, had little impact in terms of their understanding of the occupation. They expressed frustration of being shuffled from one place to another, with little time to breath let alone reflect. On my watch, the students experienced the Groesbeek Liberation Museum in twelve minutes. For letting this type of experience occur, I am truly ashamed and should have my teaching certificate torn up in front of me.

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Inspecting a German mini-sub at the Liberation Museum.

On the other hand they had powerful questions about WWI after our deliberate and slow visits to Ypres and Vimy. The pock-filled battlefields left them in awe of the destructive power of humans and the futility of war. As we descended into the depths of the Wellington Quarries, learners asked questions as to the war aims of the Central Powers and the Triple Entente. What was WWI all about? Was it about liberation from fascists or something else? The table was set for incredible conversations and debate.

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Standing at Vimy beside my great uncle’s name, Private M.J. Parsons, April 9th, 1917.

Similarly, our visit to Normandy allowed the learners to take what knowledge we had front loaded in our year of lunchtime meetings and actually make sense of it by stepping onto the beaches, seeing the mulberries, and pulling out maps on the boardwalks when we had questions about time and space.

The educative experiences were not universal as well. Individual learners, including adults, often shared contrasting stories about how they changed or what they learned. But the lesson for me is that transformation and growth are fundamentally based on curiosity, confusion, meaningful dialogue and reflection, and the physical and chemical change of the brain. While many of us can make sense of an idea or event, this can only be equated to thinking. Making meaning and applying this information is learning. The latter process is deliberate, purposeful, rigorous, and often long and frustrating.

Back home in Winnipeg in my generic classroom, and to extend this idea past field trips, how can I foster educative experiences designed to change attitudes and behaviour? In a world that is in crisis, due to attacks on the planet itself and given the current geo-political realities, how can I make time and space for students to ask meaningful questions which affect their relationships with other humans, species, and systems? How do we create educative experiences whereby the learner is awakened to the idea that every human deserves the basic necessities for a decent life?

These questions speak to the purpose of education and move beyond discussions of common assessment, common report cards, standardized tests, and new and baseless conceptualizations of 21st century learning, whatever that might be. These questions challenge me, knock me down, and spur me on my futile quest to come within a lightyear of excellence in teaching.

Learning in the 21st Century: Everyone is an Expert

I must agree with Margaret Wente in some respects this week. On Saturday, the Globe and Mail published her column where she had questions about the notion of 21st Century Learning. I agree with her in the sense that we need to be leery of what this means and if the learning which many claim happens, really occurs.

Margaret Wente, Globe & Mail

Margaret Wente, Globe & Mail

Like her, I am often skeptical of people who make a buck off of books, conference appearances, media outlets, and personal branding when it comes to this idea of 21st century learning. We are continually besieged by nonsensical statements or infographics concerning radical new ways of learning on Twitter and other social media venues – and these are rarely backed by academic research or at least are formed upon pedagogical foundations or philosophies of education. Today, for instance, I plunked in a search for #ISTE2014 and discovered a myriad of statements on Twitter that made absolutely no sense and/or stated the obvious (There have also been some amazing things I have learned from following this conference!). 21st century thinking in education often celebrates mediocrity and has promoted a real industry of snake oil edupreneurs.

But this is where the agreement begins to become problematic. Wente proceeds to tear a strip off of every educator in the land interested in a debate about what it means to learn and teach in the 21st century. Like many of her articles, she uses one or two sources which seem to fit with her logic and she rests her entire polemic argument on them. This is where things fall a part for her argument on 21st century learning.

Within Wente’s manifesto, there is a sense of “things were better when I was a kid” — in the 20th century. Granted, she might be right, but I might argue that her 20th century education has had her accused of plagiarism, where she has defended these allegations by suggesting she only seeks out one source and shares the same ideas and logic of other columnists. Huh? So you have no original ideas? Many educators these days are focusing greatly on the need for self-examination, critical research, and  complex argumentation which offer new knowledge — certainly aspects of learning when Socrates was around. Perhaps inquiry and having learning environments that are student-centered are not terrible bad notions after all.

Secondly, if Wente is so against this debate as to why and how we learn and that perhaps things were better in the old days, how does she explain the fact that we are experiencing an ecological crisis created by industrialized education for the purposes of greed and the exploitation of resources — including people. She cannot argue that changing the model as to how we teach and learn is unreasonable when the alternative is fundamentally destructive. It is clear by the attack on our biosphere that current practices have failed. This might be difficult to believe as we idle our SUVs outside of Starbucks, but we have surpassed three of the nine planetary boundaries as outlined by Rockstrom et al. Not pushing a new model of learning will lead to our demise.

What does she suggest? Education worked out for her, but at what and whose expense? And industrialized education does not work out for each student. Trust me, I actually am in classrooms.

Lastly, Wente gives us a perfect example of 20th century learning, as she does most weeks. She is quick to poo-poo any discussion of student inquiry or autonomy, but then offers nothing new. She does not push the debate or our collective body of knowledge concerning learning any further. All she has done is launched a grenade into an already negative environment. What do you suggest, Margaret? Simply stating that there is no evidence that some new models of education don’t work is not enough (take for example the idea of hope theory. There is a great deal of research in this area which suggests hopeis a key indicator for success).

I would argue that 21st century learning, and here I offer something from my own heart, is based on two very old ideas: global citizenship and ecological literacy. As Martha Nussbaum (1997) suggests, global citizenship is about the self-examined life, knowing a tremendous amount about the world, and having empathy for all people, and arguably all species and systems, on this earth. Ecological literacy suggests that learners understand that nature sustains all life, that we must account for the consequences of human activity, and that we are connected to a massive web of other precious systems. If we continue to leave these skills and attitudes out of the classroom, the 22nd century might be rather bleak.

Kwame Anthony Appiah eloquently speaks to this idea of global citizenship here in this video based on the notion of Cosmopolitanism:

These are critical skills required in any century if we are to survive and produce sustainable societies. I would hope that Wente and her readers might offer greater input into the debate as to how and why we educate and how we go about creating a better world. Our quota in education and in most fields for negativity has been met.

 

Database of Experiences

Henderson & Powell want to suck your brain!!

Henderson & Powell want to suck your brain!!

Here’s to a bit of crowd sourcing, so to speak! My colleague, Rebecca Powell, and I are on a journey to seek out what you and your schools are doing by way of experiential education, ecological literacy, and or 21st century learning (cringe).

Our plan is to compile a database of sorts based on criteria we are putting together for our school in terms of how people frame the notion of experience. Our school is really interested in this idea of experience.

So, we would love your input and expertise. Please share what you do or what your learning community does to use the experience of your learners to create educative experiences. Please include your name, your school’s name, and a short blurb below in the comment section. We are planning to produce this database in late 2014 and we will most definitely share it with you.