I volunteered to go with my daughter’s 5th grade class on a field trip to the Laguna Uplands Preserve. During this visit, the children had the opportunity to be in a natural outdoors classroom where they were able to collect samples and conduct scientific tests to learn about water quality and to identify macroinvertebrates.
Identifying microscopic life might have been the learning objective from a traditional academic perspective. However, the lessons learned went beyond. In addition to observing, presenting and recording their findings – all left brain activities—the children practiced collaboration, active listening, interpretation, meaning making. They discovered the interrelations between the health of the land and our human activities and lifestyle choices. They experienced that nature is fun even if it is cold and rainy, that playing in the mud is educational, and that the natural world is full of wonders waiting to be discovered.
As I witnessed and participated in this field trip, I reflected on how unusual this type of learning experience continues to be for most children. The mental model of the educational system in the United States – and in most countries around the world – is still machine age and not responsive to the challenges of today’s society, let alone of tomorrow’s.
Tomorrow we will be facing increased complexity and uncertainty. Food security, water shortages, natural disasters, health concerns. The tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan is a contemporary example of the challenges we will continue to face. They will require resilience and adaptability to the dynamics of the natural world and forward thinking and innovation to redesign organizations and communities in sustainable ways.
We are not preparing our children—or our ourselves—for these challenges. Instead, we keep repeating the same patterns.
Integral responses to the complexity of contemporary global and local challenges—personal, organizational, planetary—require an expanded perspective: a way of recognizing interconnections, of perceiving wholes and parts, of acknowledging processes and structures. But most important, they require the participation of each and every person in the creation of a new world. Individual solutions and breakthrough ideas are necessary but not sufficient. Real opportunity to affect change arises from the systemic synergies that we create together. It is our task to create systems of shared solutions that arise from the genius of every human being. To do so, we need to create an ecology of new ways of working, learning and living that embody social and environmental integrity.
The more we keep our children away from the ecology of the natural world, the less they’ll understand the interdependence of the earth—and the harder it will be for them to grasp the concepts we need to survive.
In a recent conversation with a colleague in Mexico, we were exploring ideas about new business models to address poverty. He pointed out that our ideas were about how to create income opportunities through access to larger markets of products and services of people in need—that is, a solution within the confines of the current economic system. He asked: why do they need income?
This question pushed us to think differently. Why are we trying to include them in an economic system that is at the root of many of the unsustainable patterns of today’s world? We need to think out of the box: What do we need to know to create local living economies? To live healthy and happy lives? To have peace and joy as part of our daily experience?
We need to get out in nature more often to foster this kind of thinking. After all, there are no boxes in nature.