Humanity is experiencing a moment in history where converging circumstances are directing us toward a new path. The use of technology in education, an increase in the scientific understanding of how human activity is harming our environmental health, and the possibility of using public schools to attain an unprecedented level of environmental literacy are all coalescing to focus attention on how to best educate our students and prepare them for a successful future in the 21st century.
In early April, I (along with 2,500 others) attended the ASU+GSV Summit 2015 in Arizona, which has become the leading conference on education technology. In response to a tsunami of change in education pedagogy with technology at the crest, the number of entrepreneurs, teachers and administrators attending this annual conference skyrocketed this year as educators search for the best ways to educate students.
The conference focused on how technology and teaching can interact to improve student learning. This new wave of education innovation aligns with a recent shift away from decades of a “test and punish” approach in education to an “assess and improve” methodology centered on student learning. Learning can be customized as never before, thanks to technology that can help teachers provide far more accurate assessments of a student’s progress than a standardized, one-size-fits-all test. Educational games and technology-based learning management systems also allow each student to move at their own pace, and can be adapted to different styles of learning. Hundreds of companies are currently working on developing such games.
Imagine the power of coaching a student along his or her personal growth pattern in not only mastery of any given content, but also essential life skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and ability to work in groups This more holistic approach to assessment promises to prepare students with the skills needed for a productive future in the 21st century.
Even as education technology is evolving at a fast pace, the worsening health of our planet’s operating ecosystems picks up steam every day. All peer-reviewed scientific assessments predict a dire future for humanity (and all life here on earth) unless aggressive action is taken to change and combat climate-risky behavior.
Leaders across the world are gearing up to face the challenges of climate change. Just one week before the ASU+GSV Summit, the Obama administration announced plans to cut the United State’s greenhouse gases in the next 10 years to 28% below 2005 levels. Here in California, on April 29th Governor Brown issued an executive order to reduce the state’s greenhouse gases by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. Even Pope Francis plans to make history by using the first encyclical of his papacy this summer to address climate change, and is expected to issue a call for greater climate action.
While those initiatives are critical, their impact will not last without an environmentally informed citizenry to support them.
The intersection between technology, education, and climate change mitigation gives reason for hope. Ten Strands was established on the premise that public school education is the most effective way to foster an environmentally literate population. In fact, when you think about it, the public school system is one of the only means of reaching virtually all school age children of all ethnicities and income levels, as well as their parents, year after year.
Students living in California today are lucky; they have the Education and the Environment Initiative (EEI) which established a model curriculum that uses the environment as a context for teaching core subjects like science, history-social science, and English language arts. The public-private partnership between the state and Ten Strands supports the law’s implementation, and together we’ve made it possible for over 2,000,000 EEI lessons to be taught to students. Moreover, the environmental focus makes subjects more engaging; in a recent survey of 3,400 teachers, 95% reported that their students were “more” or “much more” engaged when their local environment was used to provide context for learning. The impacts of this California model have been written about extensively by Dr. Gerald Lieberman—a leader in environment-based education for decades and member of our Advisory Board—in his book, Education and the Environment: Creating Standards-Based Programs in Schools and Districts.
I witnessed an uptick in student engagement during the ten years at Gateway High School in San Francisco where I taught environmental science and civics. Without a doubt, the students’ interest increased as the relevance of a topic to their daily life increased. Using the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the food they eat to hook their interest produced better student outcomes in the given subject area while simultaneously advancing environmental literacy.
Ten Strands is building a future based on teaching with more engaging materials, more stimulating pedagogy, and highly personalized formative assessments that education technology makes possible. Combining technology and environment-based education in public schools holds the promise of developing deeply environmentally literate students who will join the workforce of the 21st century better equipped for all challenges—including those associated with keeping our planet habitable.