Teaching the Really Big Stuff

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Teaching the Really Big Stuff

imgresChange is  measured by the passing of time.  Whether transformation is personal, organizational, social, regional, or global, change is always a measurement of “something different” on one axis, and “time” on the other.  I write almost exclusively about education; I try to know my readers and most of them don’t care much about my worldview outside of our shared interest in the importance of great education.  Once in a while the boundaries of “great education” stretch, and so must we. This blog is about the world, but at the end there is an easy challenge for educators to take on…now!

When I studied geology I was never very good at crystal structures, the physics of natural forces, or the detailed structure and chemistry of rocks.  But I can see (some things) in four dimensions. The fourth dimension is time, and when I look at a range of mountains, the Grand Canyon, or a scrubby desert vista, I can see how each got to its particular shape and set of relationships though a confluence of events that took place over time, more often than not, over millions of years.

imgresI have just finished reading The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert.  This is the kind of book that should be required reading by all educators as it deals with the single grand thematic challenge that is facing this, and every future generation, of humankind.  There have been five massive global-wide extinction events during the 4.5 billion year history of the earth. Four of the five were rather slow-moving in human terms; the fossil record suggest they actually took place over many thousands or hundreds of thousands of years. Even a multi-generational set of observers would not have noticed.  The fifth was the asteroid that hit the Yucatan Peninsula about 63 million years ago which caused global extinctions in a matter of years or decades at the most.

There should be no argument whatsoever that we are in the middle of the sixth global extinction event, and that the cause is human kind.  The evidence on three points is utterly overwhelming. First, it is being caused by human interactions with the environment, only one of which is global climate change. Second, the impacts are more intensive and happening faster than any of the other five extinctions except for the asteroid strike. Other than that bad day 63 million years ago when a rock the size of Manhattan hit the earth, what humans are doing to the planet is the only point in the entire 4.5 billion years of earth’s history that is happening on a time scale that will very much impact generations that are alive today. Third, the negative impacts will be enormous.  Over geologic time our planet will heal. But unless we change direction in serious ways, things are going to get very ugly for people and many, many other species over the next couple of centuries.

I won’t reprise all of the evidence. I will say that people who believe this evidence is inconclusive are just flat out wrong. Even if the evidence is imperfect, as all science is, not doing absolutely everything possible to reverse or slow these impacts is the most myopic, selfish act of one generation towards future generations imaginable.  And that is not what educators are about. We are about giving the next generation the tools they need to live better lives, not worse, than we have in the past. At the very least we can deeply embed these themes of biodiversity, climate impacts, rates of changes, and social and political economics into what our students learn. Most of  the impacts are not the result of evil intent; they are the result of ignorance.

This is not about left and right wing politics or political correctness. Former Vice President Richard Chaney, whose world view could not be more opposite from my own, once famously said that “if there is a 1% chance” that terrorists could get ahold of a nuclear or biological weapon of mass destruction, that anything we do to prevent it is legitimized.  I don’t agree with that, but I do agree with the philosophy: on some points you just have to err big time on the side of prudence.  If there is even a 1% chance (and virtually every objective scientist in the entire world believes that the chance is much, much greater) that reversible human actions are midway to causing the second fastest Armageddon in the history of the world, it seems like it ought to get a lot more of our attention as we try to prepare our next generations to deal with it.  I won’t be around to see it, at least not in this lifetime, but that is a pretty selfish excuse.

So, easy challenge: How might we embed apolitical themes of human global impacts and solutions into our P-12 learning experience across all subjects and grade levels? How might we better prepare our students to deal with the biggest challenges they will face, not the smallest?

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By | 2016-04-26T15:08:10+00:00 April 26th, 2016|Global Learning, Uncategorized, Vision and Strategy|4 Comments

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  1. Gordie Hess April 26, 2016 at 3:45 pm - Reply

    Our society, or at least that part that I observe on a regular basis, is dominated by a self centered philosophy of “If the world would just get out of my way I could be (first, richest, prettiest, smartest, and so on). I see it in all groups from the greatest generation to the millenials, I see it on the highway, in the store, on the athletic field, in any public place. A sense of entitlement (don’t like that word) that puts self above or ahead of others. A sense that ” I deserve this” or “Its owed to me.” Empathy seems to be a fading facet of peoples psyche. A group of high performance car owners this weekend in Minneapolis decided to convoy through normal weekend urban traffic at speeds in excess of 120 mph. Those caught seemed to be unbothered by there actions, “no harm no foul” and many have a long history of similar behavior in the past. These are successful people I assume, age range 20’s to 60’s, who else can afford $300K cars (maybe drug dealers)? who have no apparent awareness of the risk they pose to the public, least of all themselves. They really appear see nothing wrong or improper about their actions. After all, they have a car capable high speed and extraordinary performance. Maybe that is to be expected of a culture that seems to care more about the Kardashians than public health, education, environment, etc.

    I think geologist have the well developed ability to see a time dimension of the big picture, and perceive or interpret the history of what they observe. Not just at earth processes, but at their own experiences and those of others. An ability to see and interpret/apply “how we got here.”

    • Grant April 26, 2016 at 4:04 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Gordie. To some extent I think this is a core theme of The Sixth Extinction: humans are generally kind and compassionate as individuals and are generally thoughtless and stupid as a group. As an educator I think, though: we get young, malleable people for 8 hours a day for 15 years and don’t take this opportunity to prepare them to be other than thoughtless and stupid as a group. What do we expect?

  2. Ed Jones April 27, 2016 at 11:38 am - Reply

    When I was in school, the major worry of scientists was nuclear winter. A consensus said that we were certain to do to ourselves what Krakatoa did in 536: plunge the world into extended winter.

    Scientists are not immune to groupthink, especially when their funding comes from sources with monopoly like characteristics.

    If we want to prepare young people to think about the big issues, we need to think beyond today’s fad. We need to radically deepen and broaden their learning to include far more frameworks of analysis than they get today.

    Mine was a rare education that saw most of the analytical frameworks at our disposal. Maybe 1 in 10,000 Americans have stumbled into similar breadth?

    But it took me 25 years of learning to span these!!

    Can we change learning enough to improve these odds?

    • Grant April 27, 2016 at 1:53 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Ed. There is no doubt that scientists are subject to some degree of group think, but one of my favorite sayings is “data are data”. Non-scientists are even more likely to fall into group think if they don’t bother to look at the data. Nuclear winter is not a fallacy just because we have not loosed a few hundred nukes since you/we were in school. While I boil at calling things like these data-driven conclusions a “fad”, I completely agree that educating our kids to analyze and synthesize on their own is the most important skill we can pass along.

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