There is danger in teaching young people about daunting global issues, without also  encouraging them to consider how they can be usefully involved in solutions.  Compassion-fatigue can set in - molding students with a defeatist, out-for-number-one mindset.  Environmental education is littered with casualties of scare tactics employed during guilt trip-style lessons.

However  simply propelling students into the world with directives to "change stuff", can be a lost opportunity at best - and counter-productive or harmful at worst. 

How one thinks about what needs changing, and the best way to go about it, is as important as the act itself. 

Zoe Weil, Co-Founder of the Institute for Humane Education (seen here in her wonderful TEDx talk) suggests that we help students to see problems not as "us vs. them"; "wrong vs. right" scenarios - a simplistic approach encouraged by much mainstream media - and instead analyze things in a more nuanced, holistic way. 

She gives the example of a teacher who asks his class to answer the question; "what is the connection between the Gulf of Mexico dead zone (an area the size of New Jersey than can no longer support life) and the fact that 22 % of American teenagers are reportedly overweight?"

This kind of enquiry leads students to consider issues such as farm subsidies; the chemical dependency of mega-farms; US tax law; the fast food industry; declining farm communities; cheap fossil energy and so on.

She writes: "To translate: the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico exists because the polluted Mississippi River flows into the Gulf, and the mix of agricultural runoff from industrial farms is deadly. This kind of industrial farming  is part of a system that produces unhealthy, high-calorie, highly advertised food."*

I have no idea whether the above conclusions are "right" or not. In some ways, it hardly matters.  Presumably students will have considered counter-arguments  supporting the status quo including economic drivers for cheap food - that not everyone can afford farmer's market, grass-fed beef or organic veg. 

If we are going to encourage students to change anything, it should be after significant and nuanced enquiry into problems and potential outcomes of our proposed solutions.  Great teachers are those who nurture students who are comfortable in the grey zone before drawing their conclusion.  

Not just embarking on change based on a gut response to a single strong argument (look at the disastrous Kony campaign for illustration for the dangers of that) or as a result of a simple cause and effect discussion.

My pick is, these will be the students who will meaningfully go on to change their world for the better.

* Excerpt from Z. Weil, Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life, (2009)

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