It has been much too long! I have been working for the last year on a revision of my book. The new edition, titled Trust Children, is now ready to find a publisher. In preparation for that step, I will print the introduction in this post and look forward to receiving your comments, if you are inclined to respond. I was excited to come upon the work of Sitra, a Finnish foundation which has sponsored a book titled Sustainability, Well-Being and the Future of Education. Excited isn't the best word. I was deeply moved by what I read from 18 Finnish and American educators. The revolution I have longed to see is beginning to take form and substance. And at last, I had a context for what I had learned from and about children and how they learn. Enough. The introduction will speak for itself. I look forward to your responses.
Technology, globalized networks and planetary environmental crises are entirely redefining relationships between peoples, between people and the planet and their respective futures. Our newsfeeds are brimming with the indicators of transformation. Our task now is to define what kind of transformation education should undergo, how and to what end.[i] (Justin W. Cook, Sustainability, Human Well-Being and the Future of Education.)
At last! I found it – a scholarly work that provides a framework, a raison d’etre, and a context for my book about children and how they learn. Sustainability, Human Well-Being and the Future of Education, a project of Sitra, The Finnish Innovation Fund, is available through Open Access.[ii] Eighteen educators from Finland and the United States have responded collaboratively to an urgent question posed by Sitra. How must our established education system be repurposed and transformed to create the kind of society capable of meeting the exponential environmental and social challenges that are facing the 21st Century world.
What do the authors envision? Although they come from different perspectives, they agree that humanity must find ways to live sustainably within the systems that support planetary life. They also agree that economic structures need to be transformed so that they foster the well-being of all people without relying on increased consumption of natural resources. Justin Cook, editor and contributor, calls for ”learning at the edge of history” in schools that are designed to develop the capacities and competencies that children will need to be capable of bringing this new world into being. To accomplish this unprecedented challenge they (and we) must question all fundamental assumptions, including how knowledge is organized.
The authors agree that our dated age-based system that divides students into “tracks” and knowledge into “subjects” that are transmitted and tested by teachers is failing to meet the needs of 21st Century children. Suggestions for system change weave throughout the presentations and the following vision emerges. Curricular change must involve moving away from siloed subjects to systemic learning that explores and strengthens understanding of the connections between humans, nature, culture and economy. Schools need to be restructured as cross-generational collaborative communities of inquiry and action in which young people’s experiences and concerns will be the primary texts, driving transdisciplinary study and real world engagement. In addition to developing new skills, students will learn that they are capable of making a difference. These living/learning communities will be committed to ongoing transformation of self, school and the dominant systems of society. Students will become global citizens who, as lifelong learners, are capable of creating and maintaining a sustainable, resilient, socially just world that values the well-being of all humans.
The good news is that progressive forces are mobilizing and organizing to meet these challenges. The Green New Deal, recently introduced in Congress by Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Ed Markey, offers a blueprint for transforming our fossil fuel-based, profit-driven economy into a more just and sustainable system based on renewable resources and greater social equity. Microbiologists and some brave members of the agricultural community have demonstrated that we can pull excess carbon out of the atmosphere by regenerating soil, planting trees and changing the way we farm. Finding the personal and political will to make the necessary changes to our habits, norms, and expectations presents perhaps the steepest challenge of all, given the way that we have been educated and the stories we have been taught to believe. Sitra is calling on educators to create new stories that will give our children and young people shared direction and purpose, the knowledge that they are capable of making necessary changes, and the skills that will make this transformation a reality. The most hopeful news of all is that many Finnish schools and some schools in the United States are already firmly on the path to realizing this goal.
I have a perspective to add to the collaborative vision that Sitra is developing. This book reminds everyone that children are born knowing how to learn; their survival depends on it. They are prodigious learners who persevere with great determination as they master how to move their bodies, how to communicate with their families and how to understand and function in the world around them They respond enthusiastically in school to learning opportunities that respect this innate capacity.
Trust Children describes activities and structures that support children’s natural capacities for learning. I developed this understanding through many years in classrooms, observing and teaching children of all ages. This book is my back story, unpacking the mentors, the hands-on experiences, and the stories that illustrate my transformation as a teacher.. If, as Justin Cook expresses in his introduction, one of the primary objectives of education is to restore human agency - the understanding that we can participate in shaping the future rather than being helpless victims of events – then teachers must start by not taking this agency away from children when they come to school.
In answer to Lehtonen’s question - “What kind of pedagogical approaches do we need for the construction of hope and of a sustainable future? - I can confidently answer: Trust children. Respect the natural ways that children have learned throughout human history. Allow them plentiful play time, up and down the grades. Create stories for and with them. Utilize and inspire their curiosity by focusing on what is not known rather than what has already been discovered.. Allow them to learn through hands-on experience with tolerance and appreciation for mistakes. Immerse them in the arts as primary ways to collaborate, to build community and to make sense of our shared experience. Most important, surround them with love and long-term deeply attached relationships with peers and adults they can trust.
Teachers, educators, parents and grandparents, we have a stark choice.to make. We can continue to support methods that limit students’ critical thinking and creative capacities, that teach them that life is a competitive struggle between winners and losers and that, too often, turn them into functionaries or victims of an economic system that sees the living earth only as a resource to be exploited for personal gain. Or we can dedicate ourselves to empowering children to become whole human beings who will be capable of understanding, restoring and protecting the intricate and interconnected systems that support life. In the process, we have an opportunity to transform ourselves. Let us demand the impossible, activist, visionary and educator emeritus, Bill Ayres, advises, “We’re reminded that it is only the urgency of youth that can set the pace and the tone of what is to come – of what is to be done- and still, in the grace and fullness of age we might learn to flow along, to enter at least the kindergarten of the new. Because I have hopes for my students and my young friends. Because I have ambitions for my children and my grandchildren, I also have hopes for myself.”[iii]
[i] Cook J.W. Learning at the Edge of History. In: Cook J. (eds) Sustainability, Human Well-Being, and the Future of Education. (Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2019)
[iii] Ayers, Bill, Demand the Impossible. (Haymarket Books, 2016) p. 169