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Today I'm joined by Nick Covington and Zoe Weil, where we're exploring the work of the Institute of Humane Education, which is led by Zoe. Zoe has been teaching "humane education" for over thirty years, and is an established author, speaker, and workshop leader on the topic.
The Institute of Humane Education is an accredited program offering robust graduate and doctoral coursework in "humane education", which centers on promoting social good and minimizing harm to people, animals, and the environment. The Institute offers incredible resources on its website, including the in-depth "Solutionary Guidebook" - which is part humane education overview, part PBL guidebook, and part student activity booklet. I highly recommend checking it out, it's free!
In our discussion, Zoe, Nick, and I talk about the purpose of humane education, how it can be incorporated into schools, and its relationship to the growing Sustainable Development Goals movement.
Zoe Weil, the co-founder and president of IHE, who has led the humane education movement over the last thirty years; an accomplished author, speaker, and presenter.
Chris McNutt: Hello, before we get started, I wanted to let you know that this podcast is brought to you by Human Restoration Project's fantastic patrons. All of our work, which includes free resources, materials, and this podcast are available for free due to our Patreon supporters, three of whom are Dylan Wince, Nadine Lay, and Paul Kim. Thank you for your ongoing support. You can learn more about the Human Restoration Project on our website, humanrestorationproject.org, or find us on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Hello, and welcome to Season 3, Episode 24 of Things Fall Apart, our podcast of the Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris, and I'm a high school digital media instructor from Ohio. Today, I am joined by Nick Covington and Zoe Weil, where we're exploring the work of the Institute of Humane Education, which is led by Zoe. Zoe has been teaching humane education for over 30 years and is an established author, speaker, and workshop leader on the topic. The Institute of Humane Education is an accredited program offering robust graduate and doctoral coursework in humane education, which centers on promoting social good and minimizing harm to people, animals, and the environment. The Institute offers incredible resources on its website, including the in-depth Solutionary Guidebook, which is part humane education overview, part PBL guidebook, and part student activity booklet. I highly recommend that you check that out. It's free. In our discussion, Zoe, Nick, and I talk about the purpose of humane education, how it can be incorporated into schools, and its relationship to the growing sustainable development goals movement.
Zoe Weil: Sometimes the world's problems can feel overwhelming, and it often seems like we can't agree on anything. But we know how to look at problems and solve them, don't we, Poppy? Take a look through these solutionary lenses. Solutionaries see how problems connect to one another. They do research. They map out the systems that perpetuate problems, learn about who is harmed and who benefits, and engage in some serious critical thinking. Then, they come up with solutions that do the most good and least harm to people, animals, and the environment. They also look for ways that they can personally make a difference. I've got great news. There are solutionaries all over the world. But imagine if there were more. Imagine if we educated a generation of solutionaries. By making schools and communities solutionary-focused, we can set everyone on a path toward effectively and enthusiastically solving challenges wherever they find them. I co-founded the Institute for Humane Education in 1996. The goal was to help other people to become humane educators. So I've been a humane educator teaching about the interconnected issues of human rights and animal protection and environmental preservation, going into schools, doing after-school clubs, and assembly programs, and classroom presentations. We were reaching, my program, which was in the Philadelphia area, was reaching about 10,000 students a year. That sounds like a lot, but it was always a one-off. Even an after-school club, there's only so much time that you can reach people. I thought we really needed for humane education to be embedded in the curriculum. I co-founded the Institute with a couple of goals. One was to train people to be humane educators and to have teachers infuse their curriculum with these real-world issues. Another was to advance the movement in the public eye. Then finally, I also hoped that we would deliver humane education directly to students. What ended up happening is we really focused mostly on those first two things, because we're a small organization. We created the first graduate programs in humane education in the United States. They're offered online through an affiliation with Antioch University, New England. We created workshops and then online courses and a resource center. We have hundreds of free downloadable resources for not just educators, but also activists who want to teach about issues. That's what we've been doing for all these years. Now we're focusing more on making our work really accessible to students, even though we are not going in directly. We are producing materials that are enabling more and more students to really do our work in a very cohesive fashion.
CM: The level of detail across all of your work is really impressive. Do you want to briefly talk about what it means to be a humane educator? What all goes into that?
ZW: Sure. Then maybe I'll talk about what it means to be a solutionary, which ultimately the goal of humane educators is to prepare their students to be solutionaries. That requires that they both get defined. A humane educator is somebody who is going to teach about real world issues. Whether they're a humane educator who only does humane education, which is rare because teachers aren't usually hired to be their school's humane educator. I haven't even heard of that happening once yet, although I think it's a great goal for schools to hire humane educators in the same number that they hire math teachers. But really it's somebody who is going to bring real world issues, global ethical issues, issues related to social justice and the environment and protecting other species into the curriculum in whatever ways that it fits with this goal of their students becoming solutionaries. So that's a made up word. What does it mean? So a solutionary isn't just a problem solver. So you can be an engineer who solves problems, but that doesn't necessarily make you a solutionary. So a solutionary is somebody who is addressing real world issues again, and they're looking for the systemic and root causes of problems. They're becoming systems thinkers and critical thinkers and strategic thinkers and ultimately creative thinkers who can devise solutions that do the most good and the least harm to people, animals and the environment. And so that's unusual. When we think about solving problems, usually we think in terms of one category. So I'm going to solve this problem of hunger, which is hard enough to solve, but how can I solve it in a way that is also doing the most good and the least harm to the ecosystems that support all life and to the other species with whom we share the planet? Then it's harder.
CM: That's a really interesting note because I feel like a big push in the last five or six years amongst educators when it comes to PBL, where I feel like this work fits really well into just being able to work through a problem and solve it, is the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. And I feel like there's a natural connection between the work that you're doing and those U.N. goals.
ZW: Absolutely, which is why there's so many people who are teaching the SDGs and who gravitate towards humane education. And I would say that the one thing that the SDGs leave out in a very specific way are animals. So not the environment. There's a difference between species, thinking about how we need to protect diversity on planet Earth and thinking about individual animals who suffer and die at human hands, often because of really cruel conditions. So the SDGs never look at that. So I would say that that is one thing that if I were going to write one more SDG, it would be to protect the well-being of other animals with whom we share this planet beyond just the species level.
CM: And when teachers enroll within your programs, whether that be coming to a presentation of yours or enrolling through Antioch or any other means, how are they inspired to get there? Like, what makes them find your organization? Do you do professional development? Do they just see something online? How do they come in contact with you?
ZW: That's a good question. We try and find that out. It's often really hard to find that answer out. Sometimes people will see one of my TEDx talks, or they will have heard me speak, or they will have Googled humane education, or that's what they'll tell us, that they did a web search on humane education. So how did they find the term humane education prior? I don't know. It's a question that would be really useful to answer because then we would be able to reach out more effectively to reach more people. But one thing that consistently happens when people find us is they say, I have been waiting all my life to find you. This is exactly what I believe. And that's so gratifying. We just want more people to be able to find us. So we are an international organization, but our home base is in rural Maine. So we're sort of literally and metaphorically like a cabin in the woods, if you know what I mean. It's hard to find.
CM: Yeah. I mean, seriously, it was like a breath of fresh air seeing everything that's on there. Nick, I know you had a few things. I'll let you jump in.
Nick Covington: Yeah. Just to kind of build off of that, though, because I think what's crazy is that I kind of came across you and your work through Julia Fliss and that mutual kind of connection that we have. And it's interesting since she was kind of my into those, the teach SDG circles. And that's something that this year I've been really learning more about working to implement in my classroom as well. But then I started to see that hashtag solutionary on the SDG posts. And it's interesting that from my understanding now, kind of understanding your work in that solutionary phrase is that preceded the SDGs. And it's interesting now how people kind of fall into those things in reverse order, is that now finding the solutionaries through the teach SDG movement to get that Institute of Humane Education. And what I think is just so crazy is that when I was watching the TED Talk, I was watching the TED Talk and I was like, oh, this is so spot on because this involves all those SDGs and this connects perfectly. And then I looked down at the date on it and it is like 2011 and all the comments on it are from like nine years ago. And it was just, I wondered what do you think in that time? One thing Chris and I talk about a lot is this move towards college and career readiness, I think is what the current phrase would be. And I think the phrase you use in the TED Talk is global competitiveness, preparing students to be global competitors. And I kind of see the college and career readiness and the global competitors as two sides of the same coin. So I wonder in the time that has passed since those TED Talks in the last decade or so, do you see any progress? Or what do you see as being the avenues in mainstream schooling towards that solutionary focus or pushing back against those narratives of competitiveness and readiness for some kind of mythical competitive future?
ZW: Great questions. And I would say that in terms of schools in general, we have a really long way to go. I had hoped it wouldn't take this long. The mission of the United States Department of Education is still to prepare students for global competitiveness, still. So we have a long way to go. However, at the same time, I'm seeing all of these shifts and exciting things happening like teaching SDGs. That is a huge movement. And I'm hoping solutionary will take off in that way as well. And I sort of can kick myself for not being on Twitter actively until two weeks ago, because I can see where everything is happening. It has not been happening on Facebook. That's where I've been, wrong place. But I can tell you a couple of things that are really exciting that are happening right now. So San Mateo County, California, which is the county between San Francisco and Palo Alto, which serves about 113,000 students in 23 school districts, they have adopted our solutionary approach as the philosophy and framework for their office of education. So their professional development is oriented toward preparing their teachers to teach their students to be solutionary. So last summer, they had five summer institutes. They trained 130 teachers who all developed solutionary units for their classrooms. And on March 15th, they're going to have their first solutionary expo. And so the students who've been working on their solutionary work are going to be sharing and showcasing it. And this is a pilot, but the goal is that this becomes huge, spreads throughout California. Of course, I'd like to see it spread throughout the world, but that's really exciting. They have been using my book, The World Becomes What We Teach, as their textbook for this. And now they have the solutionary guidebook that we've just produced, which is free. And anybody can download it from our website, which is humaneeducation.org, or they can just go to solutionary.org and download it directly. So that's happening. And Oceanside School District on Long Island in New York, the head of social studies there is bringing this solutionary approach to the middle school and high school social studies curriculum so that students from fifth grade on are going to, year after year, be learning how to be solutionaries and learn more each year. So next Tuesday, I'm actually going to be speaking at their first World We Want Fair that the fifth graders are going to be attending. And each group is going to go through the SDGs, they're going to go through stations, and they're going to decide what they're passionate about. They're going to have a 10th grade mentor who has already learned how to be a solutionary. And this will now follow them into high school, this whole social studies approach in solutionary learning. So these are some exciting things that are happening. And I know that they're, you know, I'm talking about one county and one school district, but it seems to be happening everywhere. I mean, just finding out that there's teachers in Denver now who have immediately brought this into their classrooms. And I zoomed into Julia Fliss's and Donna Guirin's classes last week, it was so fun. And I'm going to be out there in two months, and we're going to meet and have, you know, a brainstorming session, I'm going to talk in their schools, and you know, the next thing you know, Colorado is going to be the next solutionary state, like California is going to be. And, you know, we've got you in Iowa, and we've got Chris in Ohio, and you're going to bring this to your states. So I see the potential. I just want it to happen really fast.
NC: Yeah. And I mean, I can't even imagine, it's surprising that Julia hasn't just taken over Colorado just with her energy and everything else. I wish I could be like a fly on the wall of a meeting between you and Julia, because it would just be, it would be like, I want to bottle it up, and then just bring it back to Iowa with me, honestly.
ZW: We'll come out to Colorado on April 17th, and we'll all meet together.
NC: I'll just drive out, it's only a couple hours, I mean, it's not so bad. The other thing too, and maybe this is getting down into kind of the, because Chris and I, we like to brainstorm with teachers a lot, like the barriers to getting to that. So like thinking, okay, if this is a vision of education that we think is going to make a more humane world, and honestly, I've written too just about how the approaches that we've tried in the past through traditional ed reform have really just failed, not just the education systems, but have failed just in all other outcomes, right? We look at stress and anxiety in kids, suicide rates are as high as I think they've been. And you look at rates of poverty or inequities and those kinds of things, the traditional reforms haven't done it. And so Chris and I are always trying to find different ways of trying to mainstream those ideas and overcome the barriers to getting to a more humane education. And another thing that I was thinking about while I was watching the TED Talk was, what do you see as being some of those barriers to, like, because I could imagine putting together a presentation to my school board or my department and saying, here's why we should teach SDGs, here's why all of our kids should train to be solutionaries. And I know that their heart would all be 100% into it. And then at the end of it, they'd say, okay, so what about standards-based grading? What about all these other things? So are there any practical barriers that you see teachers needing to overcome? Or what do you see as being just systemic barriers to those kinds of things?
ZW: Yeah, they're real barriers. And they're psychological barriers as much as anything else. Because we know that you can gain literacy and numeracy skills from doing this work. It requires perhaps a little more creativity from the teacher's perspective, particularly if they've never been trained to think this way at all. And teachers are under the gun. I mean, there's so much on your laps. I mean, I think of teachers as the real heroes of our world. And I sometimes can get teary just talking about it as a little story. But when I was in college, I was dating a medical student. And I'd gone to college pre-med and then sort of dropped that path. And one day he said to me that he thought that being a physician was the most noble profession. And I remember getting really irritated by the comment. I mean, first of all, it seems sort of silly to rate professions based on their nobility and who does that. But then I also felt a little defensive probably because I'd gone to college pre-med and now I wasn't going to do that. I didn't know what I was going to do with my life. And it stuck with me all these years. And I found myself about 15 years ago remembering this comment and reflecting upon it and thinking, I still think it's silly to rate professions based on their nobility. But if pressed, I would say that teaching is the most noble profession because there is no other profession that holds the future in its hands. I mean, are we going to solve the crises that we face globally or not? The answer to that question lies more with teachers than anybody else. So one of the things that's so sad to me is that the profession and the way that the sort of monolith of teaching has gone down in the last 10 or 15 years has so crushed the spirit of so many teachers that that's why I say it's a big psychological barrier. Because I think that when you feel just so oppressed by the system, it can be hard to maintain that energy and creativity. So I'll tell you one example of what we're hoping to do to help teachers in this way. So I just applied for a grant last month. And so fingers crossed we'll get it. And it would be a partnership with Maine ASCD and the Maine Curriculum Leaders Association to create a micro-credentialing path using the Solutionary Guidebook so that teachers could get micro-credentialed and really understand this process. And we would have teachers become coaches to other teachers. So teachers can do this micro-credentialing, coaches can do it, and then those coaches are then paired with other teachers to really help this process. So for teachers who feel like it's just too overwhelming, where do I start? They will have a process. So hopefully we'll get that grant and we'll produce that. And then that will be something that can be replicated in other states. This is to do this in Maine first, but there's no reason somebody couldn't do a micro-credential from Maine ASCD. And hopefully that'll happen and that will remove one of those barriers.
NC: Yeah, that'd be fantastic. And I think your comment is spot on. We lose sight of the bigger picture so often because we just become focused on raising a test score or moving some kind of standard rubric or like the tools of teaching have somehow displaced the overall purpose, which is exactly what you said. And it's so disheartening sometimes to think that we have to, if we're going to get kids to make that change, then we have to get into those curriculum conversations where all those things get started and it really changed things from the ground up.
ZW: Yes. And having just zoomed into Julia and Donna's classes last week, these kids, when they are enlivened by education like this, it's almost like they're a different species. It was so exciting and energizing to see those children so enthused, so dedicated to being solutionaries themselves. About five years ago, I was invited to speak in a school, a middle school, and I asked the fifth and sixth graders to raise their hand, well, first to tell me what they thought were the biggest problems in the world. And we filled up a whiteboard. One 10-year-old boy said sex trafficking. You know that they're not learning this in school. This is what these children know. I mean, what you were just talking about, these kids know so much. And when I asked them to raise their hands, if they thought we could solve these problems, only five out of 45 kids raised their hands. They just didn't believe that they could solve them. So the next year, I was speaking to a group of fifth graders in Guadalajara, Mexico, in an international school. And when I got there, I didn't know I was going to be speaking to the fifth graders. So they invited me and I thought, oh, I'm just going to ask them to raise their hands if they thought we could solve the problems in the world, and every hand flew up. And what was different was that they were being taught in age-appropriate ways about problems in the world, and they were solving them. So they already had solar panels on their school. They built a compost system. They were making all these changes. They knew problems could be solved because they were solving them. So if we are not giving young people the opportunity to make a difference, and they are exposed day after day to terrible news in the world, it's no wonder they feel so despairing. And the reality is, things in the world, with the exception of climate change, things in the world have gotten so much better. I'm 58 years old. When I was born, segregation was legal. The Civil Rights Act was passed when I was three years old. When I was born, more than half of the people in the world lived in extreme poverty. And that number is now around 11%. So it's still too high, but that's a huge change. When I was born, the very thought that gays and lesbians could get married, it wasn't even something you would ever think was possible. And it happened almost in the blink of an eye. When you think about that change from when it was introduced as a concept to when it passed and was upheld by the Supreme Court, that was a blink of the eye. So I think it's really important that young people understand that things have gotten so much better, again, with the exception of climate change, and there is no reason that they can't continue to get better. You won't know that if you're just going to be exposed to the media, because the media is not going to tell us about the good things that have happened. And we have more and more exposure to the really terrifying things that are happening. And we just have to let young people be part of the solution, or they will feel hopeless.
CM: I love that statement that you're making. That's spot on. And the only thing that I can think about is it seems like in order for this process to truly work and to have humane educators and to have students that are inspired, the teachers have to be inspired as well. And I know that whenever I work through experiential ed and I'm doing things out in the community, that's when I'm most excited. That's when I feel like I'm really with it. As you said before, there's a lot of stress put on teachers to perform, to meet certain protocols. PD tends to be more of a grueling experience than it tends to be an inspiring experience.
ZW: Oh, come to my PD, you'll love it.
CM: Sure. I think so. I think that's the case. How do you bring teachers into the fold to inspire them to seek you out or to believe that change is possible, so therefore they then in turn inspire their own students? I don't know how to do it really, because when I think about how few teachers in the scheme of things we've actually reached in my career, I'm clearly not doing that part well. So I'm really grateful that you wanted to have me on your podcast because this will introduce more teachers to our work. When I had the opportunity to keynote at Big Teachers Conference, that brings a lot more teachers into our website and learning about us, but teachers often don't have time. Just hearing you say what you just said about PD, I mean, whenever I lead a workshop, I always hand out evaluation forms afterwards and not to toot my own horn, but it is not uncommon to hear something like, this was the best PD experience I've ever had. I mean, if I'm going to take a teacher’s Saturday, it better be inspiring and great. I mean, they're going to have to work Sunday to prepare for Monday, so it ought to be really inspiring and fun and interesting. Teachers go into teaching because they're generally curious lifelong learners, so you want PD to be like that. So I guess I'm just doing a plug right now because the answer is I don't know how to reach more teachers. And if you have the answer for how I should do it, please let me know.
NC: We'll help you out.
ZW: Thank you.
NC: We're trying our best to do whatever we can.
ZW: You know, we have just for the first time hired a digital marketing company for four months to help us to let people know about our Solutionary Guidebook. So the Solutionary Guidebook, we just produced it, came out at the very end of November. And it's already been downloaded about 500 times and without really marketing it. And so, you know, it's a free download. My hope is just if we can really spread the word and people get excited about this, then maybe all that it took was just hiring a good digital marketing company.
CM: As kind of a final question here, where can people learn more? How can they get involved? What would you suggest that they do first in order to learn about the Institute for Humane Education?
ZW: So they can come to our website, humaneeducation.org. And the first thing they can do is click on the 90-second video right on the homepage. And it really provides the concept of what is a solutionary? What would it look like if we could educate the solutionary generation? And then, you know, we have loads of resources in our Center for Solutionary Change. We have a free resource center. We have a solutionary unit that is for target of ninth grade. And we have the solutionary guidebook. All of our resources are free. And my books aren't free, but all the other resources are free. And there's so much information there. So I hope people will go and visit. And you know, for those people who are looking for a graduate program and they want to get an MEd degree or an MA degree, or now in May we're launching an EdD degree with Antioch, I can pretty much say that everybody, virtually everybody who's in our grad program, you know, what they say about it is amazing. That it's utterly life-changing, the community's incredible, and it's online. So you can do it from anywhere.
CM: Thank you again for listening to Things Fall Apart from the Human Restoration Project. I hope that this conversation leaves you inspired and ready to push the progressive envelope of education. You can learn more about progressive education, support our cause, and stay tuned to this podcast and other updates on our website at humanrestorationproject.org.