Tag Archives: education

School Break: Learning Strategies Fit for our Future, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 Jan

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It is not that I’m so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.  Albert Einstein

I am not a teacher, but an awakener.  Robert Frost

When the roots are deep, there’s no reason to fear the wind. African Proverb

Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.  Socrates

The holes in your life are permanent. You have to grow around them, like tree roots around concrete. Paula Hawkins

I’ve seen how you can’t learn anything when you’re trying to look like the smartest person in the room. Barbara Kingsolver

There is no school equal to a decent home and no teacher equal to a virtuous parent.  Gandhi

The UN had a relatively quiet week but not one without its disappointments.   A General Assembly preparatory meeting for the 2020 Oceans Conference exhibited little energy despite the urgency of ocean health in an age of melting ice caps and our self-inflicted “plastics Armageddon.”  In the Security Council a debate on the Middle East during which the US and Israel attempted to divert attention away from Palestine and towards Iran was accompanied by an Arria Formula discussion chaired by Russia and devoted to undermining the conclusions of investigators probing the use of chemical weapons in Douma, Syria.  As is so often the case, what could well have been an opportunity for “staying with the questions” of chemical weapons use became just one more political football as most members had made up their minds long before this Arria commenced and the Russians seemed determined (and largely failed) to use Douma report inconsistencies to call other chemical weapons allegations into question.

We have said this many times previously, and we say it again each semester to our new (and returning) cohort of interns – the UN represents an extraordinary learning opportunity but is not in any sense an extraordinary learning community.   We politicize questions and reporting with regularity. We rarely if ever ask the “next question” or stay with the questions on the table long enough to exhaust more than a portion of their significance. We generally fail to link the questions in one room with those taking place in others, nor do we ever examine the pedagogical limitations of the conference rooms in which our wilfull neglect of curiosity takes place, rooms that are much better suited to predictable political discourse than to kindling the flames we must light if our own and our children’s futures are to be secured.

Such pedagogical limitations within this UN space have implications for our efforts to promote SDG 5 and thus insure “inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” This goal is a particular priority for the current General Assembly President, HE Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, and he incarnated this priority in an all-day, High-Level, International Day of Education event this past Friday to promote SDG 5 implementation.  In his opening remarks, the PGA made reference to the gap between current levels of school enrollment (especially for girls) and the “skills” we will need to tap if we are to successfully pursue our sustainable development responsibilities.  Enrollment gaps matter, to be sure, and the PGA made a special plea to the international community to consider how to better serve (and finance) the educational needs of all children, particularly those “trapped” within zones of conflict.

In that same vein, Japan (speaking on behalf of the Group of Friends) noted that even improvements in “basic reading skills” can have positive implications for goals such as poverty reduction ane the promotion of “sustainable peace.”   And always-thoughtful Ireland highlighted the importance of “empowerment through learning,” and its “opportunity schools” that intentionally “break down cycles of disadvantage.”

Though I probably would never have said so when I was a teenager, classrooms clearly do have a role to play in securitng a more peaceful and sustainable future.  There are skills — including those related to “literacy” in all its forms — that classrooms are well suited to develop.  And in many parts of the world, classrooms represent a welcome escape for young people, escape from the problems in their communities but also an escape from the limitations endemic to those communities.   Classrooms managed by gifted teachers (of which there are thankfully millions around the world) can help young people work around “the holes in their lives” and kindle flames that will serve youth (and the rest of us) in ways that they can sustain for much of the rest of their lives.

But as much as we might value classrooms and advocate for more and better funded schools, there are also significant caveats, some of which were raised during the opening segments of this High Level event.  Deputy-Secretary General Amina Mohammed herself noted the prevalence of classrooms in which “children don’t learn much of anything.”  She called for a “transformation in the way we interpret and value knowledge,” noting specifically the importance of learning which addresses hate speech and extremism and that can do much to narrow technology gaps.  The DSG understood that alongside the need to place underserved children in classrooms is the larger responsibility of schools and communities together to “prepare children for the world they are set to inherit,” including those aspects of the world that they may not be so keen to embrace.

As many of Friday’s morning speakers intimated, this preparatory task is one much easier said than done.   Once we shift our focus from merely expanding school enrollment numbers to addressing those millions of other children in danger of being left behind in this “decade of action,” the complexities of our educational task become apparent.   Schooling has positive implications for literacy and poverty reduction and can help narrow some technology access gaps.  Moreover, classrooms can provide stability — a comforting routine — where it is safe for some to open their minds and even their dreams in the presence of skilled and trustworthy educators.

But classrooms have several downsides which those committed to sustainable development must interrogate.   They can be places of competition rather than collaboration where the “winners” are able to escape the confines of their communities and build their own brands in far-away places.   Moreover, classrooms are only one of the places where children can learn what those on Friday agreed are worthy pedagogical objectives. Indeed, some of the most engaging educational encounters I have experienced — in most cases through the sheer brilliance of friends and colleagues — took place not in classrooms but in prisons, around campfires, in church basements, in art museums and cultural sites, around family breakfast tables.  Indeed, if we want children to build their base of knowledge and curiosity, we have to engage more of the places (and the “teachers” who occupy them) where children seeking to learn can learn best.

As we pursue the goals and targets of SDG 4, we need to ask more questions and sit longer with the questions we pose.  Are our classrooms well-suited, for instance, to teach empathy for those in need or those with less?  Are they places that can properly promote “place-based” learning — deeping the familiarity of young people with home environments and cultures — and then encourage youth to make local changes?  Can they help young people develop “deep roots” such that they no longer need to fear the winds which they will surely encounter over what we hope are long and fruitful lives? Are they places where young people can successfully overcome their limitations and practice the curiosity that will keep them learning long after their time in classrooms has ended?

Perhaps they can, but this is unclear.  Whhat is clearer, to us at least, is that education for sustainable development requires more from each of us and will likely require even more going forward. Indeeed much of what it requires is in our hearts and minds beyond our policy matrices and spread sheets.  We  must find a way to inspire caring in an increasingly indifferent world; to promote civic engagement and conflict resolution at a time when our politics seem so degraded; to encourage doing the right thing even when no one is watching; to help others to learn and succeed rather than incessantly calling attention to our own “accomplishments;” to see more clearly the links between how and what we consume and the fate of persons escaping flood waters from our denuded forests and melting icecaps or from the toxic remnants of our polluted waterways; to prepare people for the community responsibilities and employment opportunities to come and not simply those of the present.

The “future” that we ask schools, families and other educational influences to help prepare young people for is uncertain at best and, at the very least, such uncertainty is not to be laid at their doorstep.  If it is to be truly transformational, part of this “preparation” must involve a deeper commitment to modeling by the rest of us: modeling the civic and environmental engagement that we seek to inspire in the young; modeling mindfulness regarding the implications of how we live and what we share with others; modeling an “awakening” in ourselves of empathy and solidarity that we hope to arouse in our students; modeling a commitment to solving the problems on our watch rather than running out the clock and shuffling the game along to the next generation.

If truth be told, we’re not doing particularly well in this regard.  Friday’s sesssion embraced some elements of the “transformation” called for by DSG Mohammed, but largely without an examination of the “educators” in homes and communities that have been marginalized amidst our school-focused policy obsessions as well as the diverse contexts for successful learning that we have yet to fully embrace. Such contexts can change what young people know and how young people learn, making space for those who will never be able to grasp in classrooms more than a portion of what they will need to know and experience, feel and share, if their contributions to a more inclusive, just and sustainable world are to be fully experienced and duly recorded.

A flame not a bucket.  This is the educational agenda that the SDGs call for and that will take more than classrooms and their teachers to achieve.  If indeed we are committed to providing “inclusive and equitable” education for youth (as we must), then we need also to promote the duty of older folks beyond school walls (including at the UN) to help awaken youths’ best selves.

Youth and the Limits of Inspiration, Soren Hixon

7 Jun

Editor’s Note: Soren recently completed an internship with Global Action and shared with us this reflection (lightly edited) on some of the frustration he (and others passing through our office) have experienced in their interaction with youth-focused events at the UN.   Like many of his peers, Soren is a serious young person seeking to participate in serious policy discussions.

On May 30, the UN held an event to discuss the importance of youth involvement and empowerment. The meeting had great potential to be a driving force for youth-oriented policymaking worldwide, but some of the potential was squandered due to how the event organizers chose to run it.

The meeting opened with a statement that gave me great hope that the next few hours would be a whirlwind of discussion on better policies and laws concerning globally accessible education that meets predetermined standards of quality as well as ensuring availability of jobs that build off of skills taught in school.

But the meeting veered away from policymaking as Pita Taufatofua took the stage. He spoke passionately about his work with youth in Australia and shared some inspirational words about “becoming your own superhero.” Any talk of policies and reform was absent from his speech. The next speaker to take the stage was a young singer from Iraq named Emmanuel Kenny who had been orphaned and eventually sung his way to the X-Factor, becoming a YouTube celebrity along the way. He sang inspirational songs and spoke about his journey from “zero to hero.”

While these two speakers were both uniquely passionate and inspirational, the fact that they were chosen to be the focus of this youth dialogue highlights a problem with the mindset of the United Nations when it comes to engaging youth. The belief that applying inspiration like a Band-Aid to a gaping wound believing it will resolve the issues facing young people is a bit short-sided. It does not matter how inspired today’s youth might be if policies are not in place to allow youth together with their elders to modify their circumstances positively. Youth cannot do it on their own. They need the assistance of policy leaders who realize what a severe problem the lack of education is and then do what is needed (with the participation of youth) to rectify the problem sustainably and permanently.

This meeting was an opportunity to present a convergence of minds and power with potent ideas and strategies for policies to resolve global issues impacting youth. Instead it was largely wasted by providing youth only with what seemed like misplaced and superfluous inspiration. The problems facing youth will only continue to escalate as the population mounts. The number of young people is going up, not down. Next time the UN has the chance to hold meeting like this, hopefully, they will make it less about inspiration and more about policy change.

School Daze:  The UN Struggles to Identify Education that Matters, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 Aug

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It’s mid-August in New York, and I and many other have struggled this weekend with indoor “sleeping” temperatures hovering around 90 degrees.   I’m also dealing with massive amounts of dust, willingly blown in all directions by my strategically placed fans, complements of a construction project next door.

For many young people, August heat portends the immanent start of another school year.  For some of these youth (including me decades ago) school is a place of boredom and even conflict. For other young people (and virtually all of their parents) the return to school is a return to normalcy – the prospects both of intellectual challenge and a re-emerging, viable, family routine.

Tragically, for many around the world, school remains mostly a distant vision.  For Syrian refugee children, for earthquake survivors in remote regions of Nepal, for children dodging bombs in Yemen or insurgents in the DRC, school represents the faint hope of stability and possibility; the yet unfulfilled promise of inclusive and peaceful societies in which their contributions —including their engagement with civic responsibilities — are valued and encouraged.

Last Monday, the UN held a discussion on Indigenous People’s Right to Education in recognition of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.   There was much of value in this session, including an admonition by ASG Thomas Gass to decouple indigenous education from any “backhanded” assimilation narratives. Also noteworthy was the UNPFII Chair Álvaro Pop’s reminder that indigenous education must maintain as its core objectives the dismantling of remaining colonial vestiges in order to create “better local democracies.”

But for the three of us in the room from Global Action, the “star” presenter was Ms. Karla Jessen Williamson, an Inuit from Greenland now teaching in Canada.  It was Williamson who most clearly defined the challenge with “schooling” from the standpoint of indigenous culture – that the higher up the educational chain indigenous youth go, the further they tend to get from indigenous linguistic and thought forms.  Others on the panels lamented the linguistic and other local losses that are absorbed when indigenous youth travel long distances to educational institutions, only to struggle at times with both the training methods themselves and the values embodied in those institutions.

Williamson additionally highlighted educational benefits including skills for “self-governance” of Arctic peoples and the respect they should rightly demand from “down south” governments, but these were raised with softer edges.   As with other speakers, she honored the “suffering” of those ancestors who made it possible for her (and others) to speak in a place like the UN.  She also expressed her educational preference for “inner imagination,” a preference which she did not have the opportunity explain at length but one which clearly sees education at its best as the full and dynamic expression of a whole culture more than a specialized, highly-cognitive pursuit within a distinct social institution.  It suggests an education that is about the contexts through which we can grow and change, that upholds the values of honoring and appreciating, and is not only about the worldly tasks that define our budding careers.

In indigenous cultures and beyond, school and learning are not synonymous and it is unhelpful to see them as such.  Many personal and institutional roles carry an educational responsibility, albeit one not tied so tightly to career and employment options.  People “learn” about the world through diverse sources, many persons, institutions and agents of culture.  When a comprehensive social pedagogy is undermined, when “school” becomes the sole arbiter of what a culture transmits to the young, when adults abdicate responsibility for education to specialized (and increasingly expensive) institutions,  more than “inner imagination” is in jeopardy.

As the primary institution of global governance, the UN has its own “teaching” responsibility, sadly much of which takes the form of campaigning and branding, trying to “sell” political agendas rather than helping people understand more about the current state of the world and their responsibilities in it.   We throw around words like “empowerment” as though we have any clarity about its criteria – how we know it when we see it, how that generic (and overused) term can possibly have any relevance outside of the specific political and social contexts in which people find themselves.

Moreover, we too often address young people as though they are our “saviors” more than our successors, leading them to believe, in the name of (rightly) encouraging youth participation, that they are already perfectly formed, already prepared to take us places the rest of us ostensibly can’t take ourselves, already able to confront grave planetary challenges on their own merits, already “sufficient” to life in all its (increasingly) virtual and non-virtual elements.

Even in the august Security Council, security policies are sometimes promoted as though it could not possibly be otherwise, policies that are willfully detached from the consequences of their precursors– successful and often not — and that try to equate the political interests of one or more states with resolutions to address the interests of those suffering a wide variety of conflict-related abuses.  Here as well the point seems too often to be how to “convince,” not how to enlighten or reflect. Neither teaching nor leading, it seems.

The UN is primarily political culture, and so it isn’t surprising when discernment yields to political considerations.   But when such discernment devolves into outright hyperbole, into a denial of complex realities we should well be clever enough to grasp, few will get what they need to flourish in learning; our inner lives will suffer; general levels of trust in the veracity of our foremost institutions will shrink.  People will listen less often, in part because of our collective authenticity deficit.

During a UN youth event on Friday devoted to “sustainable consumption” and poverty reduction, ASG Thomas Gass in his own modest manner attempted to get the audience to be more mindful of the “ethical” compromises and sacrifices represented by the clothing we purchase, the food we waste, the phones we clutch as though our very lives depended on them. However, in the back of the conference room where I was seated, young people were busy on those very same phones, snapping pictures for their Instagram accounts, planning their weekends, texting like the world was about to come to an end, doing only what many kids now routinely do.

Their energy and confidence can both be infectious, but there is still so much for them to learn – about the world and its current challenges, about gadgets and their limitations, about the deep and sometimes scary wonders of their “inner imagination.”   This is education by diverse stakeholders and cultures that the UN would do well to assume a larger role in ensuring.  This is education the potential of which schools themselves can only partially fulfill.

Literacy Beyond Literacy: A Civil Society Engagement, Dr. Robert Zuber

25 Apr

Editor’s Note:  These remarks were given at the Leonard Tourne Gallery in New York City, run by longtime friends of our office, which recently featured the art of Christel Ibsen who graciously arranged for this discussion. 

Global Action is pleased to follow Faye Lippitt, director of the organization Literacy is for Everyone (LIFE). As noted on the LIFE website (http://www.life.org.ky/) “Literacy goes beyond an individual’s ability to read, write and communicate well – it encompasses an individual’s capacity to use these essential skills to shape the course of his or her own life.”

This sentiment was echoed by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, also quoted on the LIFE site, who I was privileged to meet on two occasions. Freire maintained that literacy involves both “reading the word and reading the world.”  Faye helps people to read the word.  Global Action encourages people to read the world, helping them connect effectively with others across lines of religion and ethnicity, protect their own rights while cherishing the rights of others, and find the most appropriate resources and other support as they face life’s emergencies, including grave illness, unemployment, drought and violent abuse.

The configuration of this “other” literacy changes from place to place. In Central America, literacy means in part learning how to petition the government for a voice in national development priorities.  In Central Africa it means in part learning how to develop civil society that can communicate effectively with funding sources and engage global policy advocates.   In Central Europe it means in part learning how to open the hearts of neighbors to the many migrants who risked their lives in the hope of saving themselves from numbing poverty and terrorist violence.

Global Action assists with these and many other “literacies.” We recognize that all of our tasks in the world have a primary vocabulary to master as well as skills to practice.  For us, the focus of literacy must remain relevant to what people are trying to accomplish for themselves, their families, their communities.  Literacy even has a special relevance as we (with others) try to get governments to open themselves to different ways of solving some very difficult and complex political and social problems, including problems related to the proliferation of illicit weapons.

The world is indeed becoming much more complex and stressful.  There is more for us to do and we seem to have less and less control over the economic, political and environmental factors that both threaten and shape our choices and actions.  In trying to cope and make meaningful change, all of us have so much more to learn, so much we need to practice, so many vocabularies of which we need to gain some working knowledge.  The burdens of literacy are ever-greater.

Sometimes we have to return to basic principles. I spent this morning, as I spend many mornings, in the Security Council.  Today the Crown Prince of Jordan joined with many Foreign Ministers to discuss how to keep young people from being recruited into extremist groups. Some of diplomats talked about how vulnerable young people need to read more about human rights to appreciate better their own advantages and responsibilities but also to understand and highlight the twisted values and priorities of the terrorists.  For others, a different kind of light went on.  Why would suchy a young person want to read about human rights if they have limited skill in reading or any real hope for having their own rights respected?

There is indeed a basic literacy, LIFE’s literacy, which forms the basis for the many other “literacies” that allow us to appreciate art and beauty, participate fully in our political systems, bring abusers and other criminals to justice, even cope with the frustrations of airlines and cell phone companies.   All of these literacies help to create a world of greater competence and trust, a world that our young people can better believe in.

As Faye helped me to understand, Global Action is also in the literacy business, a literacy pointing towards a robust engagement with social and political life based on a prior literacy of the word.