“Give a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.” – Proverb
Independent schools around the country have been asking for years what the school of the future will or should look like. What routines or fixtures will become obsolete and what new tools, resources, or connections will enhance our work and the outcomes of our students. We have also been hearing that our outlook and programs should be increasingly global to coincide with the greater globalization brought by the 21st century.
I believe one shift in schools should be a greater focus on sustainability and environmental sciences. Along with preparing our students to succeed in pursing their dreams, we must educate them on their role in the bigger picture of taking care of our world, and thinking about and addressing world problems such as poverty and hunger.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 805 million people in the world do not have enough food for themselves or their families. The World Bank estimates that 2.2 billion people live on less than $2 each day—that’s almost 1 out of 3 people on our planet. It is the responsibility of every global citizen, especially those who have been blessed with abundant resources and opportunities, to understand the implications of these numbers, and commit to being part of the solution.
I recently came across an article in ScienceDaily written by four researchers from Wageningen University and Research Centre in Wageningen, Netherlands. The group posed the question: “How can you ensure that people do not only spend time thinking about important global issues like climate change or world food supplies, but also roll up their sleeves and do something about them?”
The key, the group suggests, is focusing on education, and how we approach the topics of environment, nature, and sustainability in our schools. The researchers believe that these practical science subjects should be taught in complement alongside core science. Only then will society begin to create minds capable of moving from contemplating theory to identifying and crafting solutions to real-world problems.
“It’s time these two schools converged,” says Arjen Wals, Professor of Social Learning and Sustainable Development at Wageningen University. “Without a firm link with the sciences, environmental education will never be able to find a responsible and realistic way of dealing with the contradictions and uncertainties that are raised in the scientific debate surrounding questions of sustainability.”
The article posed many important questions and reminded me of the work of an incredible organization with which I became familiar about a year ago: Heifer International.
At the core of what Heifer does so effectively is its commitment to educating individuals and building communities. The organization empowers individuals by giving them livestock and training them how to care for and profit from their animals. The group also encourages communities to work together and share resources with its “pass on the gift” concept. A family benefitting from two goats gives away their offspring to another family and teaches the same principles they learned.
The ripple effect of the program is inspiring. Disenfranchised women in India build a community among themselves, finding long-needed emotional and financial support. They gain strength and influence from their work and incomes, and carve out better lives. Eventually, they pass along resources to other women and teach them to do the same. A family in China benefits from goats they were given, which provide milk they can sell at market. With the extra money, they are able to send their daughter to school. A community destroyed by drought in Tanzania, Africa, rebuilds through the gift of camels and the knowledge of how to leverage those livestock for a better life. In each story, individuals and communities are changed, empowered, and taught to be self-sustaining. They are not given a handout, but a hand up.
Heifer provides educators with numerous resources, curriculum, and opportunities to pass along its lessons of giving and sustainability to students. It maintains destinations in the United States where students can experience what it feels like to be poor in a developing country. http://www.heifer.org/what-you-can-do/school/organize-a-field-trip.html ) Upon arriving for a stay at one of Heifer’s Global Villages, students are assigned to different countries such as Thailand, Guatemala, Uganda, or even a refugee camp. They are each given limited supplies based on their country and must barter with other countries to get everything they need for the night. The refugee students are given nothing and must beg for everything they need, and they cannot speak. Through the experience the students learn a range of skills from leadership, to communication and negotiation, to team building, to cooking and caring for animals. But more importantly they experience a hint of what it means to lack the basic necessities, live in poverty, or live hungry.
For schools who prefer to offer educational experiences in their own classroom, Heifer International offers a number of educational resources for teachers to use. Educators can download lesson plans and activities, plan fundraisers, and order free resources for students at www.readtofeed.org .
It is just these types of experiences that bridge the gap between theory and real world life lessons. Such programs help our students to develop cultural empathy and global competence. Their worldviews are challenged for the better. They learn the importance of “passing on the gift,” and see real ways they can impact and improve their world.
As 21st Century educators we must take the first steps to model collaboration and service to our communities. Partnering with organizations such as Heifer models the importance of collaboration between schools, charities, businesses, governments and more. In the coming era I am convinced that the organizations that will thrive are those that learn to work with others for the greater good. Building on the concept of Gestalt psychology where “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” collaboration allows schools to offer greater and more diverse education opportunities.
I encourage you to consider the value and potential of partnerships to create programs that teach sustainability, while providing a global perspective. I firmly believe that the most important work on earth happens every day in our schools. It is critical for us to help our students develop an understanding of world issues and an attitude of service for those in need so they can be instruments of change.