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.

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.

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.

  • deserteacher

    With a heavy heart, I agree with you. The polarization of the country has created the post apocalyptic world students view obsequiously in media. Schools (students and teachers) must embrace higher level thinking with excitement for the future due to the empowerment and inclusion of all for achievement. How can that be? Digital learning, SEL, grassroots involvement with the power of family devotion, and the force of ‘love driving out hate,’ as Dr. King stated. Let’s dissipate the hate.

  • songnverse

    So, we need more God in school?? Agreed!

    “We need to pledge ourselves anew to the cause of Christ. We must capture the spirit of the early church. Wherever the early Christians went, they made a triumphant witness for Christ. Whether on the village streets or in the city jails, they daringly proclaimed the good news of the gospel.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

    • Hillary

      They killed people who wouldn’t convert. Keep your religion to yourself, and – for God’s sake – out of schools.

      • jemarcu

        We will put our religion wherever we feel like it, any time we feel like it. Its called freedom of speech, honey. its in the constitution. Look it up sometime.

    • Dennis De Gruijter

      If that is the conclusion you drew out of this piece, then the crumbling of the infrastructure of good thinking is not only a problem of the young…

  • David Potter

    I wouldn’t say “Let go of local.” Rather, “explore beyond local,” and then use your global connections to take action locally to create a more collaborative and open teaching and learning environment in your school and community. The local matters. Nurture it.

  • Ayub Kalema-Golooba

    I agree with your analysis. In an era where schools are ranked based students’ performance at national examinations, schools are reduced to factories churning out first grade candidates who are not adequately equipped to thrive in the globalised world. Students have become professional test takers, able to score high grades but with little development of character traits. As educators, we have to rise to challenge.

    Here is the problem though. Research shows that most teachers teach the way they were taught. And old habits die hard. Teachers must therefore be helped to transition from the traditional approach to teaching to the new, more collaborative, learner-centered, project based approach. Quality professional development for teachers seems to be the cornerstone of this equation.

  • jemarcu

    Beneath the sweeping generalizations and vague pronouncements, this article is advocating a very radical and dangerous notion, : that education should be controlled by a transnational elite, accountable to no one. “curriculum is subject to the constraints of nationality, religion, politics..” The author clearly thinks this is bad. He wants teachers to go beyond teaching content, and to take part in social transformation, to help children “transcend’ differences of religion, nation etc. In short, he wants teachers to actively advocate his own vision of an ideal society, unhampered by such trifles as elections, school boards, religious values, local customs, PTA’s etc. That’s left wing utopian nonsense, and its what’s destroying the public education system in our country right now.

  • I would prefer a commitment to one’s own growth. Children can grow into the loving human beings we all can be, when they are allowed to grow, not forced to grow and for that to happen we need to know when to get out of the way and when to say something which acts like nutrition. They are the ones that need to transform that to become who they can be.
    The only way that teachers can learn what that means is to understand themselves better so they can understand what others need. They also need to become better learners and that way they will better understand the learners’ needs

  • MikeSadofsky

    I might suggest that one might look carefully at what is being done at the Sudbury Valley School ( http://www.sudval.org ), where for now, nearly 50 years, much of what I thin Markham writes about is implicit in the model and the practice.

  • Regan Cooper

    Beautiful. The head follows the heart. At the core this is about having a full inner connection between the head, the heart and the foundation, the body. Anyone given the gift of working with children who is committed to their own inner connection is going to experience a quality of connection that is enjoyable to all of us.

    As far as schools are concerned , committing to becoming “local thought leaders” is not the missing ingredient. We need local emotion leaders:
    those who embody Empathy .As you say you cannot do no harm with out empathy. A happy, relaxed, cooperative,safe,and loved group will create students doing authentic work, intrinsically motivated. The “teacher” supports the “student” in her work.The teacher does not “think” about what the kids should be doing. The teacher supports the children in getting their own work done.

    When you support a child to do the work life cuts out for him, you really question the whole top down model we have of school.

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