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Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

Real Education is Relevant

Real Education is Relevant
And Relevance Is All About the ContextIf we are going to talk about school reform designed to create meaningful education, we need to look at education within the context of the individual, her community, history, and the planet. And hopefully with as much sophistication as each context demands. 

Today’s education reform narrative is filled with buzz words that are meant to capture the majority of perceived issues we need to address in schools. Most are about making today’s learners competitive in tomorrow’s job market. None does this better than “21st century skills.” I actually have little issue with “21st century skills.” It’s the common context and application that is more worthy of critique. They fail to appreciate the largest possible context within which education needs to be understood to be relevant.

“21st century skills” are birthed from the perspective that the function of education is to create economically viable products. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills says that their purpose is “to successfully face rigorous higher education coursework, career challenges and a globally competitive workforce.”

It remains a factory system, where the economically viable products being created are workers. Perhaps the products are a little more sophisticated than they were a century ago, just like the iPhone is a little more sophisticated than the rotary phone. But they are still fundamentally things severed from a larger holistic view.

Just like manufacturing products like the iPhone have environmental impacts, or “externalities,” that are not reflected in the price of the product, the education system has effects on students and the world that are often seen as outside the scope of public education. Accounting for the whole child as a human being living in a complex world is not common practice in the public education system.

We have no time to continue choosing to wear blinders because its convenient. Let’s look at the real picture of what it means to live in the world today.

Humans have fundamentally altered the planet that is our one and only home. We are pushing the planet’s life systems to the brink of shutting down. We have not known a day of peace globally in…have we ever? Slavery continues. An obesity epidemic is spreading while more people than ever are starving. The modern economic system is collapsing. Families are falling apart and more and more children are at a disadvantage to develop healthily.

So while we are talking about evaluating teacher effectiveness based on common standards that are intentioned to embody 21st century skills, we’re just having the wrong conversation. It’s simply not the most relevant conversation we need to be having. It’s not relevant because we are defining success in the wrong context.

“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people,” writes David Orr in The Earth in Mind. “But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.”

So what would be relevant? Educational experiences designed with and around students to understand themselves, their communities, and the planet. In the end 21st Century Skills would be gained, but through personally and collectively meaningful experiences that allow students to develop these skills through projects based on their passions and interests and in collaboration with others in their community–store owners, social service agencies, scientists, artists, etc. Humane education and systems thinking would be intrinsic to this kind of learning as it is designed to address the largest issues we face today.

Perhaps most fundamentally, education that is relevant is led by mentors who have developed a quality of wholeness in their own perspectives and lives. As a mentor said to me “a fractured world cannot be healed by fractured people.” Wholeness is achieved through ecological thinking as a process and extension of character development.

And so when we are talking about real education–meaningful education–let’s be sure to be talking in the largest and most comprehensive context possible. The problem is not inventing the next iPhone. The problem is how to develop a sustainable, just, and peaceful world. We need to worry less about being competitive for the Ivy-league schools and more about graduating solutionaries as Zoe Weil calls them.

When our graduates resemble the TED Fellows we’ll know we’re on the right path.

About Adam Burk

Adam aims to serve the greater good; alleviate unnecessary suffering; and create beautiful, sane human communities in concert with the living planet. Recently, he has helped to rebuild local food systems in Maine in large part through school food services, organized the TEDxDirigo conference, and is a digital organizer with the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA).


24 thoughts on “Real Education is Relevant

  1. I wonder about your comment about how we don’t need more successful people. First, I’m pretty sure people aren’t ready to give up on the idea of being successful. Maybe we need to redefine what it is to be successful? Maybe the transitional step between success as measured by one’s output in the economy could be success as measured by one’s work in the community.

    It seems to me that we need a change of currency. Our current currency is based on productive output. The difficulty arises because productive output is at odds with what is sustainable on our planet. We measure our success based on how much we have, rather than how well we live within our means (both economic and environmental). We need to change the currency of success to that which facilitates a humane perspective on our world.

    To some degree we already do this. For example Dr. Martin Luther King, Mahātmā Gandhi, and Mother Theresa could be considered to have been rich by this currency I’ve described, whereas the Wall Street bankers who wrecked our economy (and continue to promote policies which are wrecking our communities and planet) would be considered very, very poor.

    Posted by dwees | November 3, 2011, 8:04 am
    • David,

      Your right, generally speaking people aren’t looking to let go of the current picture of successful. To me, the redefinition is something David Orr is pushing at in his passage.

      And yes we need a change of currency. Rather than economic system that is won through vice and greed, let’s develop a character-based currency system. Furthermore, let the development of good character be the new definition of success.


      Posted by Adam Burk | November 3, 2011, 8:51 am
    • title:—–

      The government continued to view rural education as an agenda that could be relatively free from bureaucratic backlog and general stagnation.[70] However, in some cases lack of financing balanced the gains made by rural education institutes of India.[71] Some ideas failed to find acceptability among India’s poor and investments made by the government sometimes yielded little results.[71] Today, government rural schools remain poorly funded and understaffed. Several foundations, such as the Rural Development Foundation (Hyderabad), actively build high-quality rural schools, but the number of students served is small.


      animation notes

      Posted by sanjay kushwaha | November 3, 2011, 3:31 pm
  2. Adam, I’m provoked most by this passage:

    Perhaps most fundamentally, education that is relevant is led by mentors who have developed a quality of wholeness in their own perspectives and lives. As a mentor said to me “a fractured world cannot be healed by fractured people.”

    I’m not sure exactly how to frame this next bit, but here goes: I feel pretty fractured by competing imperatives in my work, but I also feel like the fractures and disjuncts with which I struggle drive my work for change.

    Is there another necessary process apart from healing of which I can take part, or do I have some healing to do? I don’t mean this to sound glib; rather, I’m asking: are there positive roles for fractured people to play in an unhealed world?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | November 3, 2011, 1:37 pm
    • Chad,

      That’s an interesting tension that I don’t think I can resolve for you! But I do think that you will resolve it and be stronger for it.

      Perhaps I should have worded it “mentors who are orientated towards wholeness.” I think that would be more accurate.


      Posted by Adam Burk | November 3, 2011, 1:58 pm
  3. Funny, Chad–that’s the line that struck me, too…and maybe it’s because we’re in a similar, yet at the same time, not-so-similar place. I like your correction, Adam–I think it better describes some of us who are struggling against forces that could so easily beat us down.

    I’m going for the transformative role of education for my post. 🙂

    Posted by Paula White | November 3, 2011, 8:05 pm
  4. hello Adam, I am commenting from NYC, after being on an IDEA tour all day, so forgive the fractured attention space.

    My question, for those cognitively weary and in need to real-time examples: how would you describe your “qualities of wholeness” in your perspectives, as a potential or actual mentor? What does this look like and feel like? Say more…Who are these models, to pick up on Chad and Paula’s points?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | November 3, 2011, 9:04 pm
    • Kirsten,

      Qualities of wholeness: habits (in space and thought) that demonstrate an understanding of the unified field of relationships that is life and the cosmos.

      Examples of potential mentors/models: Nature, Gola Wolf Richards, David Suzuki, David Orr, Permaculturalists, Bill McKibben, Rachel Armstrong, Mitchell Joachim, Jae Rhim Lee, The Wilderness Awareness School and Satellite Programs, The Northwest Passage School Faculty, Ridge and Valley Charter School, Roger Milliken Jr., Mike Tetrault, Habib Dagher, the College of the Atlantic, Unity College, Sterling College (VT), Aldo Leopold, Fritjof Capra, The Center for Ecoliteracy, Occidental Center for Art and Ecology, Zoe Weil/Institute for Humane Education, Russell Libby of MOFGA, and others!

      Posted by Adam Burk | November 4, 2011, 9:42 am
  5. Hi Adam,
    I must to say since I came upon this site a few days ago via a very good friend, Im very impressed by some of the articles Ive read so far, This is a very impressive piece, and I hope to see more of this.

    .” Wholeness is achieved through ecological thinking as a process and extension of character development.”

    I absolutely feel that our kids are not receiving the emotional compassionate social skills which will help them integrate and build together a more cooperativ­e mutually beneficial caring society. And seeing as their main environmen­t of influence is from kinder garden till end of grade school this must be the place where they can be nourished like a beautiful garden of plants and flowers and insects (like another kind of eco system) where each part contribute­s its own specialtie­s to keep the garden homogenize­d and flourishin­g. Unfortunat­ely to date the type of education that many of us are striving for has still not been attained but Im pretty sure through more articles about this topic of childs human education and our present global crisis issues, public awareness will broaden and more concerned adults will unite together to act and strive for positive change.

    quoting a few lines from an interesting site I came upon I believe goes along with your brilliant article

    “When looking at what education could be, we need to look beyond seeing education as a tool to train the mind or prepare for a job. Education can teach us how to use our mind, how to respond peacefully, how to find and follow our passions. This type of education comes not just from learning about these things but from experiencing them in the classroom. Simply teaching a new set of ideas is not enough unless the emotional, behavioral and spiritual aspects of these ideas are addressed in the student’s life. Classrooms could be a place of caring, understanding and creativity rather than a place filled with fear and conformity.”

    All the best,

    Posted by ruth avraham | November 4, 2011, 6:22 am
    • Ruth,

      First of all, I am very happy you found the co-op. We’re a dedicated bunch of people passionate about education with capacity to make change locally and nationally. And luckily we’re not the only such group!

      Please keep joining the conversations and we can refine our ideas and practices together to achieve the kind of learning experiences we all want for our kids today and tomorrow.

      All my best,

      Posted by Adam Burk | November 4, 2011, 9:54 am
  6. I take issue with the statement that “21st century skills” are birthed from the perspective that the function of education is to create economically viable products.” The left delights in saying that education reform is being pushed by businesses to make better workers. If that’s the case, they are trying to prepare workers for the wrong century. If schools do actually sift to teach skills for the information ages such as open-ended problem solving, critical thinking, modern communication skills, collaboration with a diverse population, and others, businesses will be well served as will the individuals who gain these skills. Think win-win. With our current standardized test oriented reforms, neither businesses or individuals win.

    Posted by Douglas Green (@drdouggreen) | November 4, 2011, 9:25 am
    • Doug,

      Yes, please, take issue!

      I agree there are win-win possibilities here, and like I said my issue is not with the actual 21st-Century Skills, but the context within which they are commonly conceived. For example, 21st century skills can be developed and applied within limited contexts that do no account for human rights, animal welfare, ecological impact, or personal/community health. I have no interest in that way forward and I do not see in the partnership for 21st century skills information anything that leads me to see that they are not operating within that limited context. Show me examples to prove me wrong! Help me to develop a conversation with the Partnership or other such voices so that 21st century skills or other such frameworks can develop to their utmost potential!

      Doug, thanks again for taking issue and having the conversation here. It’s deeply appreciated.


      Posted by Adam Burk | November 4, 2011, 9:36 am
  7. Wow. This is such a great article that I am pinching myself to be sure I am awake. 😉

    Context is truly a vital component missing in most of the educational systems today, which are still operating from century old models of sitting in classroom boxes, cramming dislodged facts and figures into our children’s heads so they can be regurgitated for a test and quickly forgotten. Ugg, how boring. With this disconnected, repetitive methodology and the cookie cutter format of teaching that ignores each child’s special contributive uniqueness, it is no wonder that school dropout rates are so high, and that our world continues to decline in expanding crises.

    When context for relevance is infused into any subject matter, real knowledge is transferred and absorbed in foundational ways. This, in turn, allows for this knowledge to be integrated so intimately into the social fabric of our society, that it naturally flourishes, connects, and spreads to everyone, encouraging and building further creative consensus growth and positive global change and evolution.

    The critique of present educational models that you pointed to, “Accounting for the whole child as a human being living in a complex world is not common practice in the public education system,” is a root issue to be examined as a catalyst for core change. Regarding this, I would like to point to your simple diagram, for I feel it illustrates perfectly well, as you said, how “to appreciate the largest possible context within which education needs to be understood to be relevant,” since currently, “we are defining success in the wrong context.”

    The outer, all encompassing circle that you have labeled as “context,” I would like to further define and label it as “Nature: Our All-Encompassing Universe,” (actually, just between us, I would label it Love) for it is within this relevance that wholeness and completeness exists, integrally composed of each and every part, both singularly and collectively. It is within this context of unity—and the systems of unity that move in agreement through mutual reciprocity—that the globalization of our world, and all of its interconnected interdependence, has now been strikingly revealed.

    If our children are guided to learn and to teach—which is itself a mutually cooperative and reciprocal system—and to personally and collectively own this interconnected, interdependent, wholeness, Love, then from this foundational relevance, success can finally be properly redefined. It is then that the other two circles of your diagram, content and users, can be combined in all kinds of new and exciting ways, to effectively engage and enrich our children and our global human family, and to bring them up as compassionate, empathetic, socially intelligent human beings that care for and are concerned to each and everyone and everything.

    Thank you also for introducing me to Zoe Weil and the concept of “solutionaries.” It is also important to recognize that in order to speed this restructuring of education, that we also include the re-education of the adult population as much as possible, so that our solutionaries have environments in which solutions are welcomed and can be immediately implemented, instead of being blocked by the miseducated generations they will flow into, that wields its power mercilessly from antiquated mindsets. If we do this well, our interconnectedness will naturally take care of this re-education of previous generations, yet as many as can be focused to the proper context as possible, is greatly desired!

    Posted by CLuview | November 4, 2011, 3:29 pm
  8. love these Adam:

    …we’re just having the wrong conversation.
    It’s not relevant because we are defining success in the wrong context.

    you go man.

    Posted by monika hardy | November 5, 2011, 1:22 am
  9. Adam, You and I have discussed education on TED and am glad to read and comment on this site. There are obsticles that prevent much of what you are addressing, in my opinion. First and foremost the education book publishers are dictating what is taught. Secondly testing is important but who writes those tests is more important. Next the federal government and state governments are imposing Core Curriculum items that may or may not be included by the book publishers and test writers. The latest issue for educators is that their evaluations are to be based on students grades. This is dangerous as it empowers the student, may lead to teaching the test, cheating, a change in weighting to ensure student success and therefore presenting a picture that the student is ready for college when in reality they are not. I would love to address the higher more noble aspects but in truth there are so many problems with the foundation that if not addressed and corrected the United States will continue to fall in international comparisions such as we have witnessed in the latest PISA exams. Always a pleasure to converse with you.

    All the best


    Posted by Robert Winner | February 27, 2012, 12:53 pm


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