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Education Needs a Radical Change

After watching a film about the life of Jane Goodall, and then reading a recent interview with her, I was struck by her stark observations regarding the state of our planet in terms of climate change, the disappearance of species, the destruction of forests, the melting glaciers, the pollution of the oceans, the desperate plight of refugees – and the fundamental question about us as humans that all these developments raise. 

Jane Goodall said, “The crazy thing is the biggest difference between us, chimps and other creatures is the explosive development of the intellect. So how come the most intellectual creature ever to walk the planet is destroying its only home?” She goes on to say, "We’re putting economic development ahead of protection of the environment. We're forgetting we are part of the natural world. We depend on it. And we're in the middle of the sixth great extinction, because of all the pollution and harm that we've done, and we don't seem to realize that if we go carrying on as though we can have unlimited economic development on a planet with finite natural resources, it's going to be us extinct as well.” 

As a life-long educator and founder of Oneness-Family Montessori School, watching Jane’s life story and listening to her current assessment of the state of our planet made it clearer to me than ever that our current educational systems are not evolving fast enough to teach students the skills they will need to begin to reverse the damage we have caused.  Our educational approaches are not empowering young people to be able to respond and adapt to the unprecedented rate of change we as a species are experiencing.

I am NOT saying that exceptional work isn’t being in programs at many schools and universities across America. Indeed I know so many institutions, departments, and initiatives that are trying  hard to address our global challenges by getting young people informed and engaged. What I AM saying is that based upon observable facts that we read about and watch on the news every day, from the fires in the Amazon and Australia to the melting glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica, we are not succeeding in fostering the kind of leaders – and enough of them – to harness all the good ideas and channel them in productive directions for positive change.

What is missing? For a while this was an elusive question for me. However, based upon recent conversations with colleagues who are collaborating with me to create a new Responsive Leadership and Global Studies Program, I have begun to get more clues about the answer – or answers.  And these answers begin to take shape first by looking back at the wisdom of indigenous peoples past and present, specifically their holistic perspective of looking at ourselves and our natural world as one interconnected and integrated whole. 

This is a perspective that scientists across the globe everywhere share, and it is one central to the philosophy of many progressive churches and temples. However it is not a perspective that is generally taught as a primary focus in schools – except in Montessori schools.  Generally, school is still very much a place that is seen as preparation for career and job, rather than a foundation for life as a citizen. As a result, the energy is around testing, standards and extrinsic measures such as scores and placement etc. There is much less energy around the process of learning, the individual needs and passions of the learner and intrinsic indicators such as relationship and well-being.  

Rarely is the “machinery” of the educational system challenged because rarely is the purpose of learning questioned. If the purpose of learning is ultimately to bring us into healthier and more balanced relationship with ourselves, with others, and with our fellow creatures on the planet, then we are not succeeding - at least not succeeding fast enough.  In Montessori schools children are taught from the youngest ages about the big picture, the integrated whole we are all a part of, and the interrelationships that exist throughout nature and indeed across the cosmos. Maria Montessori called this the Cosmic Curriculum.

Montessori’s Cosmic Curriculum is much less airy-fairy and much more practical than it might sound. Maria Montessori herself was a scientist, and her voluminous notes documenting her daily observations of children would have made Jane Goodall proud. Montessori developed a way of teaching the holistic approach, called the Five Great Lessons, which encapsulated the Origin of the Universe, the Coming of Life on Earth, the Development of Humans and the Stories of Language and Math. These overarching stories created a paradigm for teaching our human story, reminding students that we are pieces of a much bigger puzzle.

The results of Montessori’s half-century of research led her to many seminal realizations, including this one: “Here is an essential principle of education: to teach details is to bring confusion; to establish the relationships between things it to bring knowledge.” Two recent student stories from Oneness-Family Montessori High School, which I founded three years ago, gave me insight about the profound value of teaching about our relationships with the natural world.

Recently 11th grader Aya Reeves made a five-minute film about the 500+ species of frogs and salamanders that are at risk of extinction due to the spread of a mysterious fungus worldwide. Encouraged by her teacher Blake Hocker, Aya’s film is both an information piece about the global plight of amphibians as well as a call to action. However the film’s effectiveness is in its expression of Aya’s heart-felt love of these unique and beautiful creatures and her sadness at the prospect of losing them. The depth of her feeling about the frogs and salamanders shines through.

Meanwhile, 9th grader Allie Bluestein is participating in Project FeederWatch from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, observing and documenting the birds she sees on a daily basis. Inspired by her teacher Alex Koch, Allie and her classmates built bird houses and installed them, along with bird feeders and a bird bath, in the woods outside their classroom, creating a haven for a wide variety of birds. Recently Allie joined bird watchers around the world for the Great Backyard Bird Count – a one day project where watchers could see in real time the number and types of birds observed on every continent.

In both of these cases the students have learned scientific / mathematical concepts and skills that would be integral to any career in science later on. Just as importantly, they have been building a deeper relationship with the natural world, based upon their growing love for the animals and birds they are learning about. And whether it be the crisis facing the frogs and salamanders, or the dramatic decline in bird populations worldwide over the past 20 years, Aya and Allie are both addressing global problems in hands-on, practical, and responsive (not just theoretical) ways.

These anecdotes, which I observed firsthand, leave me hopeful for our future. I saw the passion and exuberance in the eyes of Aya and Allie as they worked on their projects and I felt buoyed, like we are on the right track. I saw and felt hope. I know that Montessori schools across the country and indeed the globe are fostering this deeper sense of kinship with our fellow citizens and creatures on this planet Earth. It is not as if Montessori education has all the answers - that would be silly - but Montessori provides a clear pathway forward founded on a perspective that we are each integral members of the human family and that our primary mission is to be conscious stewards of the world we have inherited.

It is clear that students like Aya and Allie, and so many more in Montessori schools everywhere, will follow in the footsteps of Jane Goodall. Indeed, they already are!

-Andrew Kutt

February 2020