Curiosity and Courage in the Classroom
by Eileen Wedegartner, Blended Learning Specialist
WGBH, one of our Boston NPR stations, recently ran a three-part series titled, “Teaching the Future: Climate Change Education on Cape Cod.” The series explores the challenges for teachers who are trying to teach about climate change when they have not had deep training on the subject.
It’s an interesting look at how teachers are tackling the issue, from the challenge of bringing the science down to the cognitive level of the students to the issues of funding real-life exploration around solving real-world issues.
While listening to the broadcast I thought back to JFK’s speech on September 12, 1962, at Rice University which contained one of his most famous quotes: “William Bradford, speaking in 1630 of the founding of the Plymouth Bay Colony, said that all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.” This speech kicked off the investment in science education that would see its fruition on July 20, 1969, when the United States completed its first mission to the moon.
When leaders take the reins and seize the opportunity to ensure that the United States is leading the way in the world, we are capable of incredible feats. Sadly, that is not always the case.
Climate change is real. Some may quibble whether human activity has caused the rapid changes, but I would rather follow the lead that urges we stop arguing about causation and start acting on what we can do for mitigation.
Public K-12 systems are not always where leaders focus their efforts to solve imminent crises. Fortunately, in a group of schools noted on the program, there are teachers who are driven by something greater than fame or funding: they are driven by curiosity. This reminded me of Hobbes’s remark in Leviathan that “Anxiety for the future time disposeth men to enquire into the causes of things: because the knowledge of them maketh men the better able to order the present to their best advantage.” If only we had more anxiety.
The reality is that climate change is happening. We need to engage students in the search for solutions. The GBH program suggests that this sort of problem-solving should not be left exclusively to the science classes. Issues of this global magnitude require the collaboration of all the core subjects, because it will take all the expertise of all our experts in training to confront the challenges of the next generation.
As an educator, I can’t think of a better way to make school relevant for students than to identify a real issue in their lives. As problem-solvers, students need to be able to look at the scientific facts, the mathematical realities, the social and historical causes, and then evaluate the arguments for and against taking action. And what form that action might take.
Climate change is not the only issue on which this sort of approach would work. There are any number of real-life concerns that encompass all core subjects to encourage our future leaders to solve: energy resources, pollution, health care, disease control, food management, water resources and social justice, to name just a few.
In the moon speech, Kennedy said “If this capsule history of our progress teaches us anything, it is that man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred. The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space.”
The program notes that “A 2016 study from the National Center for Science Education found that about 75 percent of science teachers do teach about climate change in their classes, but most of them spend only a few hours on it a year.”
It is inspiring to learn about communities that are modeling the sort of determination we need to head off this approaching crisis. This is the curiosity that can foster inquiry-based education that bridges all subject areas and readies today’s students to be the leaders of tomorrow.
As a nation, we need to encourage students be problem solvers. The teachers mentioned in the WGBH program demonstrate the kind of inquisitive courage we, as a nation, need to nurture in order to confront the issues of our time. The program is worth listening to for anyone interested in innovation and relevance in education.