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Crisis? What crisis?

Dire environmental circumstances proof that outdated educational system is failing students, failing the future

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The iPhone 5's launch on Sept. 19 grabbed headlines, but I'm not sure we should call it a major event.

On the same day, another event didn't grab headlines, and yet it was definitely a major event -- whether most people realized it or not.

Data from America's National Snow and Ice Center confirmed the lowest amount of Arctic ice coverage since 1979, when scientists started keeping records.

NASA scientist James Hansen said two important things. The first: "We have a planetary emergency." The second: "There's a huge gap between what is understood by the scientific community and what is known by the public... unfortunately, the gap is not being closed."

A planetary emergency. This declaration and Hansen's response struck a deep chord in me as a teacher and made me wonder if the gap he identified is exacerbated by our culture's approach to education.

I have noticed a disconnect between the global ecological emergency and our inability to teach and assess critical thinking as it relates to our common human fate. Now more than ever, I believe the purpose of education should be to create a better world and stimulate solutions for the impending ecological crisis, as opposed to promote consumption, as it does now.

I wonder if anyone even read about the loss of Arctic ice coverage on their new iPhone5.

One of the greatest barriers to closing the gap between the crisis and the public's ability to recognize it has to do with how we have framed education. Despite great creative gains in pedagogy, we still treat the learning process as a tool to prepare people for jobs and to pay taxes.

Many educators equate education with preparation for an individual's future.

Similarly, did teachers ever tell you they were preparing you for the next grade? What a depressing thought. We should certainly be framing education as process, but one that instead allows students to solve problems, think critically and act autonomously in the present.

When we start placing education in the context of a future envisioned within the context of mistakes made today, we cannot possibly make a better society.

As I tell my students, you need to act now. Look what the adults have done.

Another simple but highly effective roadblock to educational and societal transformation is an organizational one. We still teach subjects and think in silos.

On a day-to-day basis, we send students from classroom to classroom, where topics, concepts and systems do not relate to one another. How unnatural is this process? We may never be able to close the gap between the truth and our ability to accept it if we continue to deny the interplay of broad systems, whether they be historic, economic or scientific.

When we create learning environments, we cannot ignore our connectivity to all species and ecosystems that we come into contact with. Given the current structure, how are learners going to further knowledge and amass the skills required to solve the fundamental and life-threatening problems we are facing today?

Leaving it up to our technological prowess simply will not suffice; we need to teach students to be creative in their responses to our current state. This cannot happen when we deliberately break the flow of knowledge into segmented one-hour periods divided by drywall.

This brings us to the final key to why we cherish news of iPhones and ignore warnings from respected scientists: We are not teaching students how to think critically.

I confess that on most days, I find it difficult to define this concept, let alone design tools to properly assess it. But until teachers like me do the heavy lifting required to help learners apply critical thinking to identify fundamental problems and then offer solutions autonomously, we will be trapped in a paradigm whereby we keep teaching concepts that are unsustainable.

Opening a textbook and memorizing the definition of GDP may help students pass economics tests, but it will not inspire students to see clearly or respond to the more pressing needs presented by the current economy.

Now, the eyes of many readers begin to roll at the poor teacher who is trapped in the body of an environmentalist (or vice versa). Isn't he quaint? Idealistic? Out of touch with the real world?

Perhaps all are valid questions -- and my students might agree -- but it is worth questioning how we arrived at this ecological crossroads. If revered scientists are suggesting that we have reached the point of a planetary crisis and we refuse to accept this, the old educational methods have failed. We need to conceptualize education as a means for societal revitalization, revolution and rebuilding before the Earth decides our time is up and has a revolution of its own.

Matt Henderson is a graduate student in the faculty of education at the University of Manitoba and teaches high school social studies at St. John's-Ravenscourt School.

The Learning Curve is an occasional column written by local academics who are experts in their fields. It is open to any educator from Winnipeg's post-secondary institutions. Send 600-word submissions and a mini bio to .

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 20, 2012 J12

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