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The Heart of Education…

In Education, Education advocacy, Humane Education on Saturday, 9 February 2013 at 08:52

The Heart of Education: A Discussion with Zoe Weil

By: Michael Tobias

Zoe Weil is a long-time leader in humane education in the U.S., and throughout the world. As president of the Institute for Humane Education, which she co-founded in 1996, and as author of numerous books, Ms. Weil has passionately championed a movement which, she says, has the “potential to solve every problem we face and create a restored, healthy, and humane world for all.”  Her TEDx talk, “The World Becomes What You Teach” eloquently conveys the essence of humane education and its importance to all living creatures.

Michael Tobias: Zoe, what is unique about the Institute of Humane Education? How broad is it, in terms of the environment, animals, humans themselves, and the future of our planet?

Zoe Weil: At the Institute for Humane Education (IHE) we offer the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, Summer Institutes, and a free, award-winning resource center. IHE believes that education is the fundamental root solution to injustice, exploitation, and destruction, and our programs are designed to help people become humane educators who can teach others within traditional and non-traditional educational venues. Humane education has four elements that are keys to its power and success, and these include: 1) providing accurate information about the pressing issues of our time so people have the knowledge they need to address global challenges; 2) fostering the 3 Cs of curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking so people have the skills they need to address challenges; 3) instilling the 3 Rs of reverence, respect, and responsibility, so people have the will to address challenges, and 4) providing positive choices and the tools for problem-solving, so people can solv echallenges.

Michael Tobias: And the scope of it?

Zoe Weil: In terms of breadth, humane education covers human rights, animal protection, environmental preservation, and cultural issues such as globalization and systemic change-making. This makes it perhaps the broadest educational movement to date, encompassing sustainability ed, character ed, social justice ed, global ethical ed, animal welfare ed, and media literacy.

Michael Tobias: In your opinion, why is humane education so important?

Zoe Weil: While there are many ways in which humanity is becoming less violent, less prejudiced, and less cruel, the reality of a warming planet with over 7 billion people and limited resources means we face potential economic, social, and environmental catastrophes. While every generation has faced its challenges, only in this century do we confront the possible loss of half of all species on earth, with the simultaneous breakdown of the ecosystems which sustain us all. At the same time, through the Internet, only in this century do we now have the capacity to work together across every border, and collaborate and innovate so quickly and powerfully. There is great and realistic hope that we can solve the challenges we face and transform dysfunctional, inhumane, and destructive systems, but we’ll be hard-pressed to succeed if children in school continue to be taught under centuries-old models, and if our grand purpose for schooling remains to “compete in the global economy,” which is the buzz phrase of our time regarding education reform.

Michael Tobias: But the basic proficiencies?

Zoe Weil: Of course our children need to become verbally, mathematically, and scientifically proficient, but these are foundational tools, not endpoints. At IHE, we believe that the goal of schooling in today’s world ought to be to provide all students with the knowledge, tools, and motivation to be conscientious choice makers and engaged change makers for a prosperous, healthy, just, and humane world for all people, animals, and the environment, or as we like to put it: we need to graduate a generation of solutionaries.

Michael Tobias: Solutionaries. I like that.

Zoe Weil: Evidence is growing that education that addresses pressing global issues and which fosters compassion, responsibility, and integrity results in graduates who know more, care more, and become more involved in creating positive change.

Michael Tobias: What are the typical impediments to introducing a humane “agenda” in public and/or private school curricula and in this country?

Zoe Weil: Public schools lack funds, freedom, and flexibility. They’re inclined to teach-to-test so as to ensure that they maintain funding, so anything that doesn’t immediately improve standardized, bubble test scores can’t easily gain a foothold. Meanwhile, our country is so politically polarized that anything that smacks of controversy is often automatically excluded, dumbing down the curriculum. A couple of years ago I spoke at a middle school assembly program, and I began by asking the kids what they thought were the biggest problems in the world. One boy said “war.” I agreed with him that war was a big problem. After the talk was over, the principal was very upset. We had a long talk, and he told me he was concerned that he’d get calls from angry parents who were veterans or who had a spouse serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. So I asked him to go into each classroom and ask the kids what they learned from my talk. I had spoken about the need to make connections between our choices and their effects on others; to model the message they hoped to convey in the world; to pursue joy in life by being of service, and to take responsibility for their actions.

Michael Tobias: So what happened?

Zoe Weil: After visiting each class, he was relieved that these points were, indeed, what the students took away from my presentation, but his fear had been so intense, and that’s worrisome. If a child can’t say war is a big problem and have a teacher agree; if we can’t speak about global warming, healthcare, factory farming, immigration, and a host of other “controversial” issues in our classrooms, where will discussions and problem-solving happen? School is exactly the place to grapple with global challenges and to explore multiple viewpoints and perspectives. We all have biases, of course, and teachers need to take care to “own” theirs because their role is to teach their students to be critical thinkers, not to disguise opinions as facts and indoctrinate them. This is why humane education is so important, because one of its core goals is to foster critical and creative thinking, without which our children are at the mercy of every sort of manipulation, group-think, and even simply mainstream norms and habits that may be destructive and inhumane.

Michael Tobias: What about in private or independent schools?

Zoe Weil: For independent schools the issues are different. Many parents send their children to private schools to give them a better chance at getting into elite colleges and to ensure they receive a strong “traditional” education. In meeting parents’ expectations, such schools may neglect innovative approaches like humane education because they’re new and not fully tested. While the reality is that humane education provides the most relevant and important skills for today’s world, parents who want their child to get into Harvard or Berkeley may feel more comfortable with traditional curricula. But there are many independent and charter schools that have adopted new approaches to and goals for education, and these may well be where humane education takes root and becomes replicable.

Michael Tobias: It seems that this whole realm of compassion and humaneness in educational curricula, not to mention, as core values, is still lacking in large measure, no?

Zoe Weil: Comprehensive humane education is still relatively unknown, and there aren’t yet enough assessments to demonstrate either its effectiveness at achieving its own goals (graduating knowledgeable and wise solutionaries), or its ability to increase academic achievement on standardized tests, which is all that we generally measure. IHE is working to remedy this by raising awareness of the field and its importance as well as through a longitudinal study of the effectiveness of humane education which we’re launching this year.

Michael Tobias: What’s the situation with humane education in other countries?

Zoe Weil: While I’m not an expert on the educational systems in other countries, I can say that some are much more open to humane education and some much less. Humane education is far more popular in the U.S. than Asia, while Canadians seem generally more receptive than Americans. It will be interesting to see whether humane education takes root in Finland which has arguably the most advanced, successful approach to schooling of any nation.

Michael Tobias: Finland. I’m not surprised. That nation’s tenth president, Martti Oiva Kalevi Ahtisaari won the Nobel Peace Prize as you know in 2008 for thirty years working in the trenches of humane conflict resolution throughout the world.

Zoe Weil: Finland has rejected standardized testing, competition in classrooms, long school days and school years, grading before middle school, even teaching reading before the age of 7, yet they consistently outperform other nations in reading and math by age 15. Given Finland’s success and willingness to embrace new approaches, it could be where humane education is embraced wholeheartedly, too, although I hope the U.S. takes on this opportunity because the impact of a generation of U.S. citizens who have received humane education could have a profound global impact as our graduates become solutionaries through the various fields they pursue and within the various industries in which they work.

Michael Tobias: At your school, can students/teachers get accredited?

Zoe Weil: Our online graduate programs are fully accredited through an affiliation with Valparaiso University. We also have online courses for teachers, parents, and the general public. For those who learn best in person, we bring our workshops to communities throughout the U.S. and Canada and sometimes overseas, and we offer a residency component to our graduate programs and a Summer Institute for teachers at our beautiful facility in coastal Maine. We have students in our programs from across the globe learning how to be humane educators and bringing humane education into their classrooms, universities, religious institutions, and communities through traditional classroom teaching as well as through the arts, as filmmakers, writers, actors and playwrights, designers, and singer/songwriters.

Michael Tobias: Do you see unique job niches for this next generation of so-called solutionaries, who have had humane training?

Zoe Weil: Some of our graduates are entrepreneurs who are creating humane education-oriented businesses. We’re still building the market for the field, but there are more and more opportunities for humane educators all the time.

Michael Tobias: Share with us some success stories?

Zoe Weil: Michael, after the very first week-long humane education class I taught in the summer of 1987, two students started a Philadelphia area-wide group and won awards for their activism. A few years ago I was giving a talk inNew York, and one of them attended. He was working for the mayor of New York City in public health. After the talk, I introduced him to some friends as having taken the first humane education course I ever taught. Before I could finish my sentence he interjected, “That course changed my life!”

Michael Tobias: That’s wonderful!

Zoe Weil: More recently, I received a packet of thank you letters from 8th graders whom I taught each morning over the course of a week. One wrote, “Spending that week with you was the most inspiring 5 days of my life so far. You made me realize how much just one person can do to help the world and how much more we can do by educating others….” The letter went on about what she planned to do with her new knowledge. I felt so great when I first read her letter, but later I came to see it as pretty depressing. Spending a week with me, or any humane educator, shouldn’t be the most inspiring 5 days of a teenager’s life. Her education should always have been inspiring, relevant, and meaningful. Another girl, who heard me speak at her National Honor’s Society induction, exclaimed after the talk, “We should have been learning this since Kindergarten!” This is exactly right.

Michael Tobias: That’s an interesting wake-up call for educators, isn’t it!

Zoe Weil: It was obvious to me from the very beginning of my career as a humane educator that this work had the potential to create profound and lasting change if we could just embrace it fully as an educational goal. I could tell you so many success stories about the impact our graduates are having in their classrooms and communities, but my hope is that soon we won’t need to talk about success stories because humane education will be the norm, infusing all curricula, taught in every school, and ushering in a solutionary generation.

Michael Tobias: This definitely puts any future education debates, let alone any legislation, into a whole new realm of compelling possibility, and plausibility.

Zoe Weil: Just imagine what would happen if every child learned about relevant global issues and examined the underlying production, agricultural, defense, transportation, energy, economic, political, and other ubiquitous systems so that they could use their great minds and big hearts to explore innovative approaches that maximize  justice, sustainability, and peaceful coexistence.

Michael Tobias: Indeed. Yes.

Zoe Weil: Imagine our students participating not just in debate teams, but also in solutionary teams that demand that they come up with practical, cost-effective, and viable ideas for solving problems instead of just arguing about who’s right and wrong. When humane education is integrated into our schools, every child will graduate ready and able to ensure that the systems within their chosen professions are healthy and humane, and when that happens we will witness a profound transformation as we solve the challenges we face and build a more humane and sustainable world.

Michael Tobias: Zoe, many thanks for your outstanding work!

Copyright 2012 by Michael Charles Tobias/Jane Gray Morrison/Dancing Star Foundation. Special Thanks to Ms. Jane Delson.

Retrieved from: http://www.forbes.com/sites/michaeltobias/2012/04/25/the-heart-of-education-a-discussion-with-zoe-weil/

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  1. Great outlook: optimistic and raelistic at the same time.

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