Below is a text message from a fellow teacher and former coworker, Rebecca Stein, who recently shared a conversation that she had with a sixth grade group of students:
6th grade today:
Good question! The above interaction demonstrates three beliefs about the world that many people hold as true, but which on closer inspection are simply inaccurate or downright incorrect.
The really challenging part with young people, and all people more generally, is to have enough mental bandwidth to recognize the above three truths, hold them all in mind together at the same time, and realize how the three interact with each other to form a whole.
It goes something like this:
People are both selfish and altruistic at different times and for different reasons. Altruism is what has made humans the most successful species on the planet in terms of adaptability and cooperation to overcome obstacles to survival. Because of this ability to imagine future realities and work together, we can specialize and trade to create more wealth together than we could working independently. In order to continue innovating further without falling victim to tunnel vision from increased specialization and lack of knowledge outside our own fields of expertise, we need to be constantly introduced to other ways of thinking and seeing the world, which expands possibilities and future avenues of specialization and is best done through the introduction of new peoples, cultures, and experiences into our own worlds.
None of the above is to say that potential harms can’t and won’t happen. The benefits from specialization, trade, and innovation make the total wealth in a community larger with no guarantee of increased median incomes and shared increases in living standards. The wealth can be entirely captured by small groups, leaving the majority no better off or possibly even worse off than before.
This is why caring about each other is so important and why I argued in The Future of Work and The Education Algorithm that schools must focus much more heavily on preparing students to be socially and emotionally competent adults who have enough empathy and compassion to share those increased benefits and have the desire to make the world better in the first place.
The same society above that benefits from increased wealth by dividing into farmers and artisans, also benefits from adding other people who wish to join the said civilization as engineers, doctors, bankers, teachers, and scientists. Everyone is potentially better off than before, even the original farmers and artisans. They just have to be aware enough to let everyone have a piece of the increased overall size of the economic pie.
These alternate ways of seeing the world compared to the views expressed by the sixth graders were recently captured quite beautifully and eloquently by two twelfth grade students at my school during an assembly attended by roughly 500 people. The following statements are what they shared with the school and illustrate just the type of students I hope all those sixth graders above become as a result of their next six years of schooling before they graduate as twelfth graders and begin acting as adult citizens independently in the world.
The first student shared the following after walking around Singapore with former UN Goodwill Ambassador and doctor of environmental science who specializes in research on sustainability, John Francis:
Through the two day planet walk, the biggest finding was the impact that Singapore’s development had on its humans and creatures and how they adapt to their environments within the development and change through human actions.
The above student clearly understands the links between the well-being of human and sentient life, sustainability, and the interdependence of all on everyone. The reason that “How we treat the environment, is a reflection of how we treat each other,” is true is because our happiness directly relies on the natural environment - as the student above points out. Environmentalism is not about caring for a tree, mountain, or ocean; it’s about caring for humans whose well-being depends on those trees, mountains, and oceans.
If we destroy the environment, we destroy the future happiness and well-being of the humans and other sentient life who rely on it. That destruction clearly demonstrates a lack of care for others, both in the present and in the future, and so is a very simple reflection of how we view and treat each other on a wider scale.
The statement that stood out to me from Francis’ words the most was that he started walking instead of using any motorized vehicles after witnessing an oil spill because he didn’t know what else to do and it was the only action he knew was possible for him. To a large extent, that saddens me.
It says that even if we do become successful in engendering the desire in students and young people to act out of compassion as socio-emotionally competent adults, we aren’t giving them the tools needed to take effective action. This is a sentiment that I very strongly relate to. As I become more and more aware of issues both globally and locally, I realize more and more that my 18 years of schooling in no way prepared me to act. I’ve become an excellent test taker, an excellent reader, and an excellent problem solver - so long as those problems were rehearsed ahead of time with the answers in the back of the book just in case.
So, the recipe should be simple. Step one, inspire and motivate students to act responsibly - scientifically, morally, and sustainably. Step two, teach them how.
In closing, the second student at the assembly shared a poem, her first one ever written in English. I very much hope that all students will take this journey and that we as teachers and educators are doing everything possible to make sure it happens.
Take a day to walk around,
Look, feel and hear every sound.
Stop for a while at a spot,
Try to take in a lot.
Feel the wind on your skin,
Connect it to places you have been.
No matter whether it is day or night,
To see the beauty you don’t need light.
Look at the sky and ask above,
No matter whether times are hard or tough,
Someone listens anytime,
To her worries, yours and mine.
To communicate with others there is no need for words,
Misunderstanding is something that always hurts,
But always remember to treat others well,
Try not to hide inside your shell.
Water so blue no one will know,
What lingers underneath,
Or where it will go.
Just don’t forget to breathe,
When you take your step.
Follow your heart, not a map!