Department: Teacher Education
Institution: Cleveland State University
Instructor: Dr. Karl Wheatley
Number & Level of Students Enrolled: Undergraduates and Graduate students
Digital Tools/Technologies Used:
Author Bio: I am an Associate Professor of Early Childhood Teacher Education and Coordinator of the Early Childhood Education Program (PK-3). My career has focused on studying and promoting developmentally appropriate, “big-picture” education, that is, education that is effective in the long run for achieving our most cherished goals for the whole child, while strengthening democracy and improving the world.
We face multiple threats to the future of life on Earth and solving them will require a transformation of society in which P-16 education focuses on resolving those threats. Thus, the P-5 faculty at Cleveland State University agreed to make their new P-5 teacher education program focus on better preparing teachers to develop in their students the values and competencies needed to better care for people and the planet. But how do we educate children to become better guardians of life and how should we prepare teachers to provide that kind of life-oriented education? This brief case report of my teaching outlines a few of my early struggles and successes in providing such life-oriented teacher education. The struggles include my students’ lack of background knowledge, getting them to take the crises seriously, and moving beyond recycling. The successes involved amazing children’s books and some inspiring teaching plans.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… a researcher was pacing and mumbling to himself in confusion. He had traveled to a planet of breathtaking beauty to study a great but struggling civilization, and what he found there baffled him:
- Most of the foods they ate promoted chronic diseases.
- Their farming methods were steadily destroying the topsoil that they would need to grow their food in the future.
- Democracy was in decline globally, corrupted by the wealthy, corporations, and extremist ideologies.
- Even that planet’s richest nation was plagued by declining physical health, dysfunctional governments, epidemics of anxiety and depression, and daily mass shootings. Fueling those problems, its economy was rigged to make the rich richer and leave everyone else struggling to make ends meet.
- Truth and wisdom had been eclipsed by propaganda, myopic science, conspiracy theories, and assaults on science and the media.
The unhealthy trends for that planet’s civilization were mirrored by dangerous trends for the health of the planet itself:
- Consumption-heavy lifestyles and systems were polluting and warming that planet, putting it on a path toward collapse of the ecosystems upon which all life depended.
- That planet’s scientists warned that they were in a race against time to avoid triggering ecological and societal collapse.
Of course, that researcher is me, that distant paradise is the Earth, that nation is the United States, and that teenager is my daughter Katherine. I spent tens of thousands of hours over the last 18 years researching and writing about three questions:
Unfortunately, when confronted with all these threats, most “people” on that planet just kept doing all the same things that were harming other people and the planet. Seeing the many existential threats they faced and the lack of wise leadership in resolving them, one teenager summed up the gloomy outlook of many on that planet by simply saying, “We’re screwed.”
- Why is the health of society and Earth’s ecosystems unraveling?
- What must we do to heal them and secure a brighter future for everyone?
- How must we transform P-16 education to help heal society and ecosystems?
Because other faculty at Cleveland State University were also worried about what is happening, we designed our new P-5 teacher education programs to better prepare teachers to develop in students the qualities needed to help heal society and the Earth. These are some of my early struggles and successes in teaching prospective and practicing teachers about the crises we face and how to resolve them.
My Struggles in Teaching Teachers About Solving These Crises
Lack of Background Knowledge in the Sciences and Economics
Like most citizens, most prospective teachers don’t know many of the scientific facts that are essential for understanding the crises we face or how to fix them. For example, most don’t know how our carbon dioxide emissions warm the planet (hint: CO2 levels also affect water vapor levels) or that they cause hundreds of ripple effects—most of which are harmful to the web of life. They were never taught that the world has four economies and growing the private sector economy larger often damages the other three. Most have heard that cow burps are a problem for global warming, but don’t know that Americans eat so much beef or that raising cattle is so land-intensive that if everyone on Earth tried to eat the way we do, that alone would wipe out all the ecosystems on earth’s habitable lands. Similarly, most prospective and practicing teachers don’t know that research shows that the levels of inequality common in America inevitably cause a wide array of social and political dysfunctions.
In a nutshell, there are too many prospective and practicing teachers who were never taught the fundamentals of how life on Earth works—or falls apart. Thus, to fill in big gaps in their knowledge of psychology, sociology, climate science, life sciences, and economics, I found myself doing what teachers always do, creating lots of new activities, readings, mini-lectures, and PowerPoints. But it’s overwhelming to cover such a breadth of content.
I confess that some days, taking responsibility for teaching such serious and scary content made me feel like a funeral director—always talking with people about bad news. There’s a 3-to-1 rule in psychology: Try to share 3 pieces of good news or solutions for every piece of bad news you share. When I stuck to that advice, I felt better, and so did my students. However, given that the health of democracies and ecosystems is in decline all over the world, it’s hard to keep up that ratio and I don’t want to sugarcoat what is happening. Despite how tough sharing some of this content has been, the good news is that by the end of each semester, my students seemed to know a lot more about these crises and how we can fix them.
Not Taking the Crises Seriously (or Freaking Out)
Some of my students are truly freaked out about what’s happening to society and the planet, while others don’t seem that concerned and aren’t willing to treat these problems as the crises they are. This is a problem because people who aren’t alarmed are very unlikely to make the rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in every aspect of society that the world’s scientists say we must make. Getting students to see these crises as crises is challenging because although some of the unraveling is happening very quickly by historical standards, the changes are often too small and slow to alarm us. For example, humans are warming the planet 10-20 times faster than it usually warms when coming out of an ice age, and this rapid warming is part of what makes it so lethal, but the total difference in temperature we have caused (~2 degrees Fahrenheit) is so small most of us can barely discern it. Also, how do we get people to take seriously extinctions of species they’ve never seen or the unraveling of ecosystems whose importance they don’t understand, especially when life outside their windows looks basically the same as it did 30 years ago? Finally, how do we get students to grasp the dangers of our current actions—or change their actions—when the harms they cause now may not unfold for 30-300 years? In my classes, the most successful techniques have overwhelmingly been short video-visuals that vividly but accurately portray what these changes mean for people and ecosystems. I was trained to write pages of text, but moving images of a baby orangutan whose home was chopped down communicate have reached my students in a way that my paragraphs don’t.
Moving Beyond Recycling
Every semester I ask my students to write inquiry-based project plans that focus on helping their pupils research some ecological threat we face and learn how we can help solve it. And every semester, a suspicious number of students choose recycling, and several problems pop up. First, their plans don’t spend any time exploring with children the reasons why trash is a problem for people and the planet; they just jump ahead to teaching kids about recycling. Perhaps this is because they themselves never learned about the ways that trash harms life, so they can’t teach about it yet. Second, others skip teaching about the problems trash causes because they don’t want to teach such sad content. I then point out that children’s clothes rarely catch on fire yet we teach kids “stop, drop, and roll,” so surely we can teach kids about environmental crises that will affect everyone on Earth. Third, my students often plan some “re-use” activities such as making artwork out of junk, not recognizing that this artwork eventually winds up in the trash—so that doesn’t really solve anything. Fourth, even though reducing consumption is far and away the most potent and essential solution for this ecological problem, most won’t bring it up until I tell them they must include it. The conceptual leap we need citizens and teachers to make is to realize that stabilizing the climate and healing ecosystems requires a true metamorphosis of our economies and lifestyles in which we achieve massive reductions in human consumption and wastes.
Successes in Preparing Teachers for Life-Based Education
Amazing Children’s Books
Our P-5 teacher education faculty has a large storage room full of materials for teaching children, and in the last year alone, I spent over $800 adding to my collection of children’s books. I focused on books related to learning about the crises we face and how to heal society and ecosystems. Happily, there is a mountain of amazing children’s literature on a wide range of the issues that are critical for healing society and ecosystems—from worms to plastic bags to climate change and from empathy to diverse cultures and meeting everyone’s basic needs.
Fortunately, most children’s books do a wonderful job of presenting key information and/or inspiring role models in very engaging and non-scary ways. In fact, one of my most successful teaching activities from last year was taking time for free voluntary reading in most class sessions: I would spread out a huge collection of these beautiful and amazingly-crafted children’s books, let students read them, then let them share—what would kids learn from the book, what did they like or not like about the book, etc. My students loved this activity, and they were learning key content they often didn’t know while discovering great teaching materials they can use in their classrooms to help their pupils learn how to heal society and the Earth.
Inspiring Teaching Plans
While some students struggle to get past recycling, that problem is usually confined to students in early stages of our teacher licensure program. In contrast, students who had completed our program and were taking the 4th-5th endorsement classes crafted some amazing curriculum plans: Content-rich unit plans with engaging activities that provided in-depth exploration of a specific ecological problem. This helped pupils learn about it, then teach others about the solutions. Truly inspiring stuff, but I couldn’t figure out why these plans were better than many plans from my other masters’ students. I finally figured out what the secret sauce was—but I only figured it out by writing this case study. I had scaffolded students’ final unit plans by making them do two prior assignments on their ecosystem, examining the characteristics and needs of a specific living thing in their ecosystem, interdependencies in that ecosystem, factors that were harming that ecosystem, consequences of that ecosystem breaking down, solutions, and perhaps most important of all, how they would meet their pupils’ basic psychological needs while teaching about all of this. Making them learn all that content and take all those different factors into account really paid off in terrific teaching plans.
In conclusion, if we prepare teachers well to teach their students about these crises and how we can fix them, the next generation of high school graduates will enter adulthood—and perhaps teacher education—already well-equipped to be guardians of human and planetary life.