Teaching thoughtprints?

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June 18, 2011 by sgoobie

Photography by Peter Griffin

Why does the role of schooling matter to the fate of the Planet?

Schools do what they claim to do.  They teach reading, writing and arithmetic to young people.

But schools teach something else.  Schools teach children culture.  Culture is the dominant knowledge of a particular society, ideas acquired through particular ways of thinking about the world.  In teaching curricular content, schools help children learn to think in culturally specific ways.

Often this knowledge – say, of geography or physics – is presented as universal, as unbound to any particular time in history, place in the world or group of people.  Lessons about Newton’s Laws of Motion, for instance, are delivered as established truths; the expectation of being able to complete an articulately written essay by graduation is assumed to be a necessary element of becoming  a competent adult.  But no knowledge is unrooted.  All knowledge comes from a very specific origin — a time, place and context often very different from its eventual form as a curricular outcome.  Newton’s Second Law may seem to be an innocent and culturally neutral description of the world, but like all knowledge, when we examine its implicit assumptions we find hidden cultural baggage tagging along, perpetuating itself often unbeknownst to its newest generation of learners.

Granted, schools aren’t alone in teaching culture or ways of thinking.   People learn cultural assumptions in all areas of life – from their elders, from the media, from significant relationships, and from their physical surroundings.  However, certainly for human beings who are required by law and through social expectation to spend many hours each day, many days each year, and many formative years of life in a classroom with a licensed teacher, schooling can only have a profound effect on the mind.

What then does this have to do with the State of the Planet?

As we have seen, it is how we think about our place in Nature that influences how we justify our actions in the world, and ultimately, what we “choose” to do as individuals, in institutions and as societies.  If schools play such a significant, if not central, role in moulding the minds of young people, and if our ways of thinking are indeed important to our ecological behaviours, then schools and schooling have everything to do with the State of the Planet.

The CEOs of resource-extraction companies, the political decision makers, the insatiably conspicuous consumers and the leaders of our growth-oriented financial systems are – presumably – all products of many years of formal schooling.  Granted, so too are environmental advocates in nonprofit organizations, government officials involved in environmental protection, and ecological justice activists the graduates of our primary, secondary and even post-secondary institutions.  Whether they realize it or not, the ways of thinking reproduced in schools have assisted to steer these “educated” alumni into their particular set of ecological behaviours.

We must not overlook the complicity of schools in how we have arrived at present-day realities as daunting as global climate change.  Nor can we afford to dismiss schools – at even the earliest levels – as irrelevant to overcoming these planetary crises.

Schools are a critical player in shaping our ecological thoughtprints.  If we aim to overcome the extreme imbalances facing our relationship with the natural world and the resultant environmental consequences, we need to muster all concentration to the questions:  What is the ecological thoughtprint of a school – and if need be, how can we orient schools toward more diverse thoughtprints? 

We all bear a responsibility, as educators or as other actors in the collective school system, to reflect on the deep impact of schooling on our mother, the Earth.

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