Speaking from my own experience as a K-12 student in the 60’s and 70’s, I can testify to the power of transformative learning in the service of preparing young people to thrive in the 21st Century:
I entered the 6th grade at Skiles Junior High School, in Evanston, Illinois in 1968 at the age of 11. My parents sent me to the “experimental program in global education” —called SKIP. I don’t remember what the acronym stood for. I do remember, however, the first days of school and every lesson I learned after that. Our interdisciplinary team of teachers had the same collective message:
"From now on, you will have to take responsibility for your own learning."
We have been studying current and future trends that will continue into the 21st Century-- you will be adults in positions of influence and power in the 21st Century— We are learning that your lives and your future will be characterized more and more by global dynamics--by rapid change, complexity and interdependence; more instances of working with diverse perspectives; increased ecological destruction that will inevitably lead to great challenges and the need for new “out of the box” ways of thinking.
A global perspective will be required. Whole new disciplines will be required, and whole new careers will emerge that we don’t know how to prepare you for because they don’t even exist yet. In addition, your future will be characterized by the potential for unprecedented forms of conflict, which could be so technologically sophisticated, that you will need to know how to be proactive by minimizing the conditions for them in the first place, while, at the same time, learning how to resolve them non-violently thus avoiding global disaster.
We realize that the best thing we can do for you is to teach you how to learn to learn, and to think about your thinking—because you will need to learn something new every day for the rest of your lives (thus the name life-long learning)—to keep up and to thrive in the 21st Century. In addition, we will teach you how to think critically and ask better questions than the ones you are asking and even better than the ones we are asking. The reason for that is that you won’t know what you don’t know—and the future will not always resemble the past. Therefore, past knowledge and understanding will not always suffice, and the answers will not be as important as the questions (despite the fact that you will still need to know the answers to pass the tests we are still required to give you—but never mind about that…) This will require excellent questioning ability, and the ability to learn and to work with others who are not like you in order to create the new knowledge and understanding required, and to construct and reflect on the meaning of it all as you go.
In addition (as if that was not enough), we will also teach you how to assess your own progress—because we won’t be there with you telling you how you are doing—you will have to learn how to do that yourselves so you can monitor your own development and make adjustments along the way.
Having been traditionally educated since kindergarten, my first response was to think, “Hm. That sounds like a lot of work. Why don’t you just tell me what you want me to do and I will do it." It had taken me six years to learn to play the game of school. Don’t get me wrong; I learned how to read and to write in elementary school. I also learned how to add, subtract, multiply and divide—all very useful to me—and yet I had been what I now understand to be a passive recipient of knowledge and skills. I was good at pleasing my elementary school teachers and now these middle school teachers were changing the rules of the game. I had come to know and rely on the certainty and predictability of the other game. My brain was in the habit of it. This new game seemed open ended—full of unknowns—and uncertainty…kind of intriguing, on the other hand….and they seemed really excited about it which was contagious to all of us. It took me three long weeks (I was eleven, remember) to stop expecting people to tell me what they wanted me to learn and to start thinking, questioning, learning and wondering about the meaning of things. I never looked back. I never stop learning.
The middle school experiment fed into the high school experiment. I spent 7 years being educated that way before college. I believe the experiment was a success, though it didn’t last at the school for various reasons. It was unsustainable, I guess.
It is then, no surprise that I grew up to become a Global Educator, and, eventually, evolved into being a founder of the work of Educating for Sustainability. School, to me, was a transformative learning experience that prepared me to invent a better future. To leave the world a better place than I found it—instead of simply trying to minimize the bleeding, or to make the best out of a situation in decline. I knew it had the potential to become that for many others who would spend thirteen years of their formative years there, and it was obvious that everyone did not have the same experience in school that I had.
The core concepts of the Global Education I experienced included change, interdependence, perspective consciousness, appreciation for diversity, state of the planet awareness and awareness of human choices. I was educated to understand, work and thrive with those concepts. It was not until the word “sustainability” arrived on the radar screen nineteen years later in 1987 that I questioned whether Global Education was indeed still the best idea that could lead us to our greatest potential.
By that time in 1987 I was working with teachers and administrators as the director of “New York and the World”, a global education program designed to serve schools in their effort to meet the then new Global Studies Regents Exams in New York City. “Going around the world” in our minds with the help of the Asia Society, The U.N., Title 6 Outreach Centers at the Colleges and Universities in NYC among so many others, it was obvious to me and to everyone that for all we were gaining as humans in terms of “progress”, we were losing more of what was fundamental to our ability to thrive: Community, cultural diversity, bio-diversity, trust, security…I had read about it and now I was seeing it everywhere I looked. I knew what needed to happen, and in 1995 I founded the Sustainability Education Center which was re-branded in 2002 as The Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education.