Funnels and dipsticks. That is how Roger Briggs, long-time public school educator and Planet Project Co-Founder, describes our current approach to education in the United States. Our school systems are designed to pour facts into the passive minds of their students. Then, just like checking the oil level in an internal combustion engine, we plunge in a dipstick, in the form of a standardized test, to measure if their mind is somehow full enough of the facts the test measures. Schools and school districts are assessed and funding is allocated based on aggregate dipstick scores. What the dipstick measures shapes the curricula. In other words, the facts we test for become the facts we pour in the funnels. It is also important to note that each subject has its own funnel and its own dipstick as each subject is taught and tested in its own silo.
But the problem is far larger and goes far deeper than some arcane methodological debate about our approach to education. This blog offers reasons why the importance of education has perhaps never been greater, and identifies critical shifts that are called for in the manner, content, context, and success-measures of our educational process. It closes by highlighting a particular local project, ALL Careers, that exemplifies many of these critical shifts and that offers pragmatic and immediate actions we can take to make a difference.
Much of the content of this blog was inspired by essays and videos resulting from the collaboration of two organizations that hold pre-eminent positions in our curated database of aligned change agents: The Consilience Project and Perspectiva. In particular, Jonathan Rowson (founder of Perspectiva) wrote the foreword to two essays authored by Dr. Zachary Stein (a co-founder of The Consilience Project): Education Must Make History Again and Education is the Metacrisis – and he interviewed Dr. Stein in a two-part video (part 1 | part 2) focused on the first of those essays.
Accelerating the Cultural Shift
A central thesis of the Planet Project is that our many global crises are, fundamentally, symptoms of the breakdown of a Material Culture, a worldview that traces its roots back 5,000 years. We are in the midst of a great cultural transformation – a macro-shift from Material to Planetary culture.
Just as our bodies require continuous regeneration at a cellular level, our culture renews itself with every generation. In Education Must Make History Again, Dr. Zachary Stein argues that our definition of the word education should be broadened to encompass the entire process of intergenerational transmission through which this societal regeneration happens – all the ways we “pass on” culture. Note that under this definition, education is obviously much more than just schooling.
If the essential challenge of the Planet Movement is to accelerate the shift from Material Culture to Planetary Culture, then where better to intervene than in the very process by which culture is re-generated in every generation?
This is also the essence of Zak Stein’s Education is the Metacrisis.
Re-Imagining Education In a Time Between Worlds
We live in a time between worlds – when the old ways of being (and our old approaches to education) no longer serve (Material Culture), but the new ways (Planetary Culture) have not yet been established.
Stein asserts that effective education during a time of rapid cultural transformation requires deep collaboration across the generations. In many respects, the younger generation may actually have a clearer sense of the new ways the world works than the older generation.
Just funneling the old ways of thinking and being into our children’s minds is not the way to go. Joint inquiry is vital so that the older generation can gain an understanding of the novel realities of the world experienced by their children. The evolutionary wisdom of preceding generations can then be re-examined and re-framed to fit this emerging reality. Failure to do so can leave the younger generation adrift and likely to repeat (although in different form) many mistakes of the past. We perhaps witnessed the ramifications of the lack of this intergenerational collaboration in what transpired after the cultural upheaval sparked by the 60’s generation.
If education is defined as intergenerational transmission, we need to look at all of the means of cultural transmission: family systems, communities, schools and increasingly, digital media. In fact, in many ways, the exponentially growing power, reach and sophistication of digital media, amplified by the injection of AI and motivated by the incentives of the attention-economy is emerging as perhaps the most powerful shaper of global culture the world has ever seen.
Substantive shifts are required in both how we do education and what is transmitted through the educational process.
Our school system is fully entrenched in one of the defining characteristics of Material Cultural – the meme of separation – the idea that people are separate and in competition with each other, people are separate from nature, and that educational subjects are separate from each other.
On the other hand, Planetary Culture is deeply grounded in the interrelated and interdependent nature of reality. We are part of and entwined with nature, interconnected and interdependent in a co-evolutionary dance. In many respects, our planetary crises are a product of the interconnected nature of our cultural systems. The subjects we teach in our schools should, likewise, be interconnected and interdependent.
The interconnection between our environment and our economy is particularly important to emphasize. Virtually every environmental overshoot (as discussed, for example, in Doughnut Economics) has its roots in our economic system – a system that is predicated upon unending growth and that treats nature as an inexhaustible source of resources with an unbounded capacity to absorb waste and pollution. And yet, this fundamental link between the deeply held assumptions on which our economic system is based and their manifestations in environmental degradation, species extinction, climate change, etc. plays very little role in our current educational standards. Environmental Studies and Environmental Science are relegated to their own silos (see Addressing the Relationship Economics and Climate Change: A Discussion of Principles).
Bridging the gap between education, the environment and the economy is exactly the focus of Martin Ogle’s ALL Careers initiative.
While today’s students are increasingly aware (through digital technologies, if not school curricula) of the impending consequences of global climate change, they receive very little guidance on how they can play an active role in averting its catastrophic outcomes. High school is the period when many students begin thinking seriously about their career direction. But, too often they are told that, outside of a narrow slice of so-called green jobs, there is little they can do about it, career-wise. Not only is this a profoundly disempowering and discouraging message for them, it deprives society of a key untapped resource – their collective creativity and energy – at precisely the time when we need it most.
Martin and others are conveying a completely different message via an innovative ALL Careers Contest – a local (Boulder Valley School District), on-the-ground, results-oriented contest that the Planet Project is proud to co-sponsor. The contest challenges high school students, administrators, environmental educators, and schools to submit projects that “connect environmental knowledge and concerns with careers and jobs in the green economy. How can environmental principles be applied to just about any career, job, or field? How can young people be empowered to create a sustainable world by applying environmental principles to just about any career, job or task?”
The ALL Careers Contest empowers students (and schools, administrators and environmental educators) to think about practical ways they can transform their concerns about the environment into meaningful action within any career. The contest exhibits many of the key shifts highlighted earlier. It is rooted in the Planetary meme of interdependence, interconnection, and interrelatedness. It is collaborative, learner-directed, and environment-centric. It encourages participants to use multiple intelligences and emphasizes both the empowered capacity of the individual and the collaborative power of the collective.
As a local project, the ALL Careers Contest exemplifies the Planet Project’s intention to augment its virtual calls-to-action with local, face-to-face, initiatives. Such projects allow us to get away from our electronic screens and enjoy the satisfaction of making a difference in our own community. By shining a light on these efforts and sharing both their struggles and their successes, we hope to inspire those of you in other communities to consider similar projects. The impact of successful local initiatives can then be amplified by replicating and adapting them elsewhere.
Throughout the upcoming month, we will be sharing more information about the ALL Careers Contest and concrete steps you can take to help inspire and empower students, whether you live in Boulder Valley or not. The deadline for contest submissions is March 23, 2023, with results announced approximately one month later. We will continue to report on the progress and results of the ALL Careers Contest.