In an Era of Conflict, Healing the World One Classroom at a Time

Flickr/Judy van der Velden
Flickr/Judy van der Velden

By Thom Markham

It’s not hyperbole to say that we’re in danger of losing a generation of children to a world that, at the moment, cannot find its way forward without violence, conflict, and despair. It’s not just war and violence that threaten, but a crumbling of the infrastructure of good thinking. That sounds vague, but we witness its impact daily. What we see around us is an increasing inability to collectively define and outline a satisfying vision of the future. Fear is rapidly replacing hope—and that’s not a good formula for growing up whole.

The news is particularly poignant as we transition into a new year, when much of the world aims to turn love and good will from slogans into reality. So here's a question for educators to consider: How do teachers help heal the world in 2015 and beyond?

First, education can aim higher. Implementing better standards or more STEM programs, increasing college enrollments or improving teacher evaluation, privatizing schools or flipping classrooms, or similar programmatic solutions are built on the premise that what we do now, but doing it better, will suffice for the future. That's doubtful. The crisis is deeper, rooted in habits of mind and heart inaccessible to traditional content-driven education.

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That means teachers need to go deeper as well to help students rise above current religious, political, and social divides, and to nourish the collegial, broad-minded, and self-sustaining qualities we desire in citizens of the future. To begin addressing some of these issues, consider infusing instruction with a set of ‘first’ principles imagined as a kind of Hippocratic Oath or similar touchstone that unites teachers in service to youth everywhere, based on four commitments:

Commit to character

To borrow a metaphor, attempting to improve education without addressing the critical role of personal strengths and resilient behaviors is like Starbucks changing the design of their coffee cup rather than the quality of their coffee. The real question is this: How do we change the quality of our coffee to meet the needs of today’s customers in schools?

Here's one suggestion: Invent a new Bloom’s taxonomy that makes character the foundation for learning. Amidst the chaotic turbulence of a divided world, you cannot navigate and do no harm without empathy, persistence, and—most crucial—an attitude of appreciation and gratitude. How else can you deal with income inequality or immigration or violence except through empathy? How else can you encourage communication and tolerance except through nurturing a collaborative spirit in children?

Commit to being a global teacher

Most teachers express deep care for children, but their concern is largely local, focused on their own students, classrooms, and schools. Plus, their curriculum is subject to the constraints of nationality, religion, politics, and—more recently—the incessant mantra of global competition.

But teachers should become familiar with an underreported fact: Teachers from the U.S., U.K., Turkey, Iran, and Vietnam—or any combination of any countries, anywhere—are engaged in a common conversation about common problems in teaching and learning. Globally, children are disengaged, motivated more by fear than love of learning, and comply with demands but lack a vision of the future. Worldwide, teachers know and agree that something is wrong.

This creates an opening for educators to participate in a global mindshift: Let go of local and commit to taking responsibility for all children and working against a future run by ideologues focused on division rather than cooperation. Help all children move from the dominant win-lose mentality to cooperation—to sustain from compete. In every child, foster curiosity, questioning, and innovative thinking by encouraging appreciation for multiple points of view. The key to learning is openness. That’s a shared global goal for every teacher.

Commit to educational innovation

Whether learning takes place in a regimented classroom in a Chinese province, a madrassa in an Islamic country, a makeshift building in Africa, or a sparkling new high school in a highly-developed country, children suffer equally from the lack of a new cognitive map to guide education into the latter 21st century. Obviously, issues of equity, access, funding, and so forth create enormous disparities in opportunity. But in every corner of the globe, old methods of instruction prevail, driven chiefly by the notion that information can be planted in a child’s head.

Just as with student issues, surprising unanimity exists among teachers that the old model does not serve children well. Thought leaders in education usually cite better standards or improved testing as markers for the future, but that’s not true in my experience. Worldwide, teachers sense that a more relevant, problem-based, inquiry-oriented, student-empowered form of education is necessary.

The outline of the new model is apparent. The present emphasis on inquiry, projects, deeper learning, personalization, and qualities such as grit, resilience, and empathy are not fads. They’re a genuine response to the desire to impact students more deeply, to bring forth the essential goodness that most teacher sense in their students.

Commit to a personal mission

The power of purpose is well known. It fosters resilience, perseverance, and creativity. More important, it liberates the energy necessary to do important work. But industrial education, which too often settles for small outcomes, relies on top-down reform, or treats teachers as cogs rather than innovators, can mute the power of purpose in individuals.

It’s time to reclaim the power. It’s way past time for teachers to see educational transformation as the sole province of consultants, superintendents, or state and federal officials. Plus, it’s time to reveal a well-kept secret: They don’t have the answers either. In this peer driven, collaborative world, the real answer is for every teacher to make a personal commitment to becoming local thought leaders of schools and communities, to be innovators at all levels, and to join with colleagues and students in reimagining the future. That’s one important way to honor an unmistakable fact of the global world: We’re all in this together.

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Thom Markham is a psychologist, school redesign consultant, and the author of the Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert tools for inquiry and innovation for K-12 educators. Find many more resources on his website, www.thommarkham.com.

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