Transcript of the episode “The purpose of education: Educating for a solutionary future?”

[00:00:15] Jon M: Hi, I’m Jon Moscow. 

[00:00:17] Amy H-L: And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. And this is Ethical Schools. Today we speak with Zoe Weil, president and co-founder of the Institute for Humane Education, book author, columnist, speaker, and one of the most thoughtful, productive, and prolific humans I know. In her Psychology Today column last week, Zoe wrote about the purpose of education, what it is and what it should be. Welcome back, Zoe. 

[00:00:41] Zoe W: Thank you so much. It’s so nice to be back with you. 

[00:00:44] Jon M: You quote the purpose of education, according to the US Department of Education, is “to promote student achievement and prepare for global competitiveness.” How much influence does the Department of Education actually have on what goes on in classrooms across the country, and how much is determined by states and districts?

[00:01:06] Zoe W: That’s a great question, and I don’t actually know a nuanced answer to it. Certainly states have their own ability, as do schools and districts, to define their missions and their goals, but I think it’s really important to consider that the Department of Education for the United States offers us a mission that all of us should be embracing at some level because it is the Department of Education. And when I think back to how many times I have heard the phrase or variation on the phrase that we need students to be “prepared for the global economy” or to be able to “compete in the global economy” or to be “global competitors.” That is a phrase that most of us have heard echoed in the media, and we’ve heard it from politicians for such a long period of time, I thought, where is that coming from? And that’s what compelled me to look up the Department of Education mission statement, maybe 15 years ago at this point, and discover what it actually was. So it obviously has had a profound influence even if schools and districts and states have more nuance and are trying to educate for perhaps a more meaningful outcome for their students.

[00:02:42] Amy H-L: So in contrast to this all-pervasive competitiveness, you write that the purpose of education should be to create “a generation of solutionaries.” For those of our listeners who may not have heard our earlier conversations, just what is a solutionary generation? 

[00:03:01] Zoe W: So, well, let me start with what a solutionary is. So a solutionary is somebody who can identify unsustainable, unjust, and inhumane systems, and then transform them in ways that do the most good and the least harm for everyone. And by everyone I mean people, other species, and the environment. And whether or not we ultimately decide as a society that educating a solutionary generation or generations is our goal, or some variation of it, I use that, that goal and that phrase to educate a solutionary generation because I want to capture people’s attention and because solutionary is a word to unpack for people. But most people, when they hear that word solutionary, they have an immediate reaction to it. Most people have a positive reaction, from the people we polled, and they seem to understand intuitively what it means.

So we are facing right now, multiple crises. At the same time, we are also seeing profound improvements and achievements that have happened over time. You know, all of us can remember, because we were born before the Civil Rights Act was passed, and we were born when it was still illegal in many states for Black and white people to get married. We were born at a time when the air, with the exception of wildfires, was actually dirtier than the air today. The waterways, whether it’s rivers or it’s lakes, were actually more polluted than they are in our rivers and lakes today. We were born at a time when half of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty, and today that that percentage is under 10%. Still too high, but a profound improvement. We were born before the concept of gay marriage was something that anybody was talking about, and it did not take that many decades from the idea and the concept to turn into the reality. So we have seen profound achievements. 

At the same time, we are facing potentially existential crises, between climate change and the capacity of new weaponry and artificial intelligence to really disrupt and destroy much of the world. We really need to be good critical thinkers, systems thinkers, strategic thinkers, and creative thinkers, which, combined, is what solutionary thinking is. We need it desperately. We are seeing young people, and not just young people, but older people too, including teachers, feeling a lot of despair and anxiety. And that’s been going on pre-pandemic. 

I think it was about five or six years ago, when I was doing a professional development workshop for teachers and school leaders and curriculum developers, and I used this prompt ask the audience to fill in the blank .The statement was this: In 50 years, “I want the world to be,” and then there’s the blank. And the first teacher to respond said, “still here,” which was a reflection of their despair about the world, their anxiety and fear. And so I asked the group, “How many of you feel that way?” And almost every hand went up. So this feeling that we have of anxiety and despair is real. And solutionary learning is the answer. It’s the answer for kids. Because as soon as you start to go through a solutionary framework and a process and identify problems that you want to solve and actually collaborate and solve them, as soon as you do that and you embark on that path, you feel empowered. You see the capacity for change.

It’s so important for young people and teachers and all of us to gain these skills, and you cannot gain these skills without simultaneously developing academic skills, developing literacy skills, numeracy skills, scientific skills. They go hand in hand, which is why this is such a win for young people, a win for schools, a win for the world.

[00:07:41] Jon M: Can you go into more detail about some of what you were just saying? What sorts of teaching and learning go on in a solutionary classroom? So, as you know, many, probably most, of our audience are teachers. So if someone’s saying, “Okay, I like this idea. What do I do about it?” What would it look like in their classroom?

[00:08:02] Zoe W: Great question. So it’s going to look different in every classroom. You know, if you are a fourth grade teacher, it’s going to look different than if you are a sixth grade language arts teacher, or if you are a 10th grade science teacher. We’ve developed a solutionary framework. It’s a 14-step process that’s broken down into four chunks, and any teacher can use this framework and integrate it within their existing curriculum. So it doesn’t have to be an add-on. It doesn’t have to be a separate course, although it could be. It could be an elective course. It could be an afterschool program. But it can infuse the existing curricula.

The way that we are helping teachers to do this is we, well, a number of ways. We have a solutionary guidebook that’s free and downloadable on our website, And then we have a micro-credential program. It’s a professional development online program for teachers. It’s about 30 hours, divided into three modules, and it gives teachers an opportunity to understand this solutionary concept deeply, to practice the solutionary process themselves. And then in the third module, they take what they have learned and they use that module with coaching to develop some sort of unit or implementation plan for their own classroom. And this confers CEUs for those teachers who want it. So that is a not very long program. It’s 30 hours and it can be done over several months, and we are encouraging groups of teachers and schools to do this together so that then their whole school or maybe their department or you know, maybe just them and another teacher who they could partner with can bring this deeply into their classroom. So it’s not cookie cutter. It’s really individualized. And we are providing coaching for teachers so that they can do this. And for schools and administrators. 

[00:10:13] Jon M: Once somebody’s finished the course and they’re practicing solutionary education, take any class, any grade, what might the classroom actually look like? What might actually be happening in the classroom? 

[00:10:24] Zoe W: So again, it might be different. You know, some teacher might do it as a four to six week unit. They’re just going to set aside and focus their attention on solutionary learning. To the degree that they are able, they might give their students a lot of flexibility in choosing a problem to identify and solve. It’s always ideal when that can happen because then students’ own passions and interests are driving the work. Now, not every teacher can do that, so we’ve had science teachers who don’t have the flexibility to say, “okay, my students want to address issues of, let’s say, poverty or racism,” because it doesn’t fit into the science curriculum. But perhaps they can find ways where the science curriculum could be looking at the effects of climate change in areas where there are examples of environmental racism so that the students could then combine that interest that they might have with the scientific focus. So again, it’s going to depend on the teacher. We’ve had a number of teachers being able to integrate this very easily into social studies and into language arts, and we’re in the process of looking toward creating a unit for language arts that will really enable all language arts teachers to just embrace this and use this. And over time, we’re developing and we’re seeing number of sample units that are being created that we’re going to be sharing. And already people can go to our website and they can link to some of these sample units, many of which were produced in San Mateo County, California, because in that county, the Office of Education has embraced our solutionary approach as the philosophy and framework for professional development for the whole county. So hundreds of teachers in San Mateo County have created solutionary units and example units are available. So if somebody goes to our website and they go to the page about implementing the solutionary framework, they will find links to those and then they can use them themselves.

And then the other thing that I’ll say is that many teachers who are able to devote substantial time to this, you know, as a unit or infusing their curricula for a while, are hosting solutionary fairs and solutionary summits where the students get to share their solutions to problems that they have addressed. That’s really exciting.

[00:13:04] Amy H-L: As much as we may wish for and strive for a solutionary future, today’s students will graduate into a competitive corporate capitalist world. Will the solutionary framework give them the skills to thrive, however we define that in a capitalist country?

[00:13:26] Zoe W: I think it will give them, that that isn’t my goal personally, but I think it will give them actually greater skills because one of the things that we often hear from businesses is that they need people who are imaginative, creative, able to collaborate, work together, ideate, innovate. And the solutionary framework provides all of that. Students who go through this framework, there, there’s steps that they have to take. First of all, they have to become very skilled researchers and investigators and develop their critical thinking skills so that they can distinguish between opinion and actual fact, between fake news and real news, between biased information and peer reviewed sources. They have to develop those skills. 

They also learn how to learn from many different people. So one of the steps in the solutionary process is to engage with all stakeholders around whatever problem that it is that they are addressing, and to discover who is harmed by the problem. And the systems that perpetuate it and who benefits from the problem and the systems that perpetuate it. There are always beneficiaries no matter what the problem, right? So we’re facing climate change, but you better believe there are beneficiaries to continuing the fossil fuel economy, right? Many of them, maybe even us, right? Like if we have a 401K plan that’s invested in energy sources we could be benefiting. There are so many ways in which there are beneficiaries. And in order to come up with solutions that will be adopted, we need to get buy in from at least some of those beneficiaries. Hopefully all, because we want to come up with solutions that have the fewest unintended negative consequences.

And there are always going to be conflicts. I like to go back to an old conflict that many people remember, which is when the northern spotted owl was put on the threatened list under the Endangered Species Act. What that meant was that we could no longer log the old growth forest in the Pacific Northwest. Well, this turned into a huge polarized conflict between loggers and environmentalists because so many loggers were going to lose their jobs. Thousands of them were going to lose their jobs if we stopped logging. Well, that’s a real problem for those people, as is the threatening of a species and all the species who live in the old growth forest. But instead of looking at how we solve these challenges in ways that had the fewest, unintended negative consequences and did the most good least harm, we just created a conflict. We just created a battle, whether it was politicians doing that or it was the media doing that, or it was individuals who put lawn signs out in front of their houses saying which side they were on. And here’s the irony. So the northern spotted owl’s habitat was protected to a large degree, and the northern spotted owl is actually doing worse right now than it was before that protection.

Why? The reason is because another species of owl, the barred owl, has moved into this habitat and is competing with the northern spotted owl. And so now, there are calls for killing the barred owls. Now you wonder if you were on the side of the owls before, where are you now? Do you want the barred owls to be killed?

See, these are complicated systems that we are part of. So this is a very long way of answering your question, Amy. But the reality is there is so much complexity and nuance, and if you are a student who learns to think this way, you are so much better prepared to go out into the world and have a job within whatever system, whether it’s a capitalist or a socialist or whatever system, because you understand nuance. You are going to be disinclined to accept either/ors and to just fight for one side or the other as opposed to trying to build a future where everyone can thrive. And that kind of thinking and that disposition is what we most need in the world, and it’s what companies need. Even in a capitalist society, it’s not as if companies are just –the CEOs and, and the C suite of companies are just sitting there thinking, “hmm, how can I destroy the world today?” That isn’t how we think. We tend to focus on short term. We tend to focus on profits at the expense of others. 

Young people aren’t just going to go into the corporate world. They’re also potentially going to go into the legal system, Going into the political system, going to the healthcare system, the food system, the architectural and construction and production systems. All of these systems desperately need solutionary thinking. We raise this generation of solutionaries, we educate them in this way, and there’s real hope for a future where everyone can thrive.

[00:19:10] Jon M: I think your example of the spotted owl is really interesting, especially because you followed it with, okay, here was an unanticipated consequence, and so how do you deal with this? But as you were speaking, I was also thinking, for example, about the issues with climate change and what Congress is currently doing where you seem to have a very direct conflict between wanting to get off of fossil fuels and fossil fuel companies, which have ben lying all along about how they’ve supposedly been doing good things, but they really haven’t been. And how Senator Manchin is demanding a whole bunch of goodies for the corporate profits, which according to advocacy groups, would really undermine a lot of the movement towards climate change. I understand the idea of students trying to find solutions that work as well as possible for everybody because obviously that’s how a lot of things can actually get done. But what should students be doing if they come to a point where there seems to be one side or the other? Do you encourage them to take what they’ve learned and then to become advocates ? I’m a little unclear on what happens when you really run into what seem to be actual monetary conflicts of interest, where somebody simply wants to make more money and may not be consciously thinking, “how do I destroy the world,” but fundamentally doesn’t seem to really care?

[00:20:46] Zoe W: That’s a great question. I’m so glad you asked it too, because I don’t want the idea of being disinclined to accept either/ors and side-taking and polarization to suggest that I’m saying that we should never take sides in situations because that will be its own [inaudible], and there are obviously times to take sides and to advocate. I think it was Elie Wiesel who said we must always take sides, because. I can’t remember the exact quote. Perhaps you could find that quote and add it here. 

[00:21:27] Amy H-L: Because neutrality favors the exploiter. 

[00:21:30] Zoe W: Yeah. Yes, exactly. And so one doesn’t have to turn this into an either or. I would say that the norm in our society is side-taking. We’ve created a political system that has two sides. We can rarely elect any legislators who are not Democrats or Republicans. We’ve created this two party system that is so entrenched. The media will often get on the side-taking bandwagon because it gets attention. Nuanced thinking doesn’t get a lot of attention and it’s a lot harder. I think that it is exceedingly difficult to find perfect solutions to problems. In the solutionary approach, we actually have a scale that we have developed, from emerging to developing to solutionary to most solutionary, to evaluate how solutionary a solution to a problem really is. It’s extremely hard to get to most solutionary. Most solutionary would mean that no one is harmed by a solution. No people, no animals, the environment, nothing. It would mean that the solution really addresses the root or the systemic causes of the problem. Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we don’t strive for it. And just because it’s hard or we have that as the goal doesn’t mean that along the way we don’t take incremental approaches or we don’t compromise when we have to.

You know that other quote, “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good.” I think it’s something like that. It’s really important in developing a solutionary mindset and a solutionary lens not to get trapped into rejecting compromises. And you know, I say this as somebody who’s exceedingly passionate. I mean, anybody listening to this can tell by my voice and what I’m saying that I’m really passionate about these issues. And at the same time, I make a very concerted effort to talk to a range of stakeholders, including those who disagree with me politically and in terms of many other arenas. Because if I don’t truly understand other perspectives and accept the humanity of other people who differ from me, if I turn them into others and I see them as them instead of us, the way I see me and the people who think like me, then I have closed the door to getting to the point where we can get to solutionary and most solutionary answers.

[00:24:33] Amy H-L: How can we expect students to be solutionaries when their schools do the opposite, buying food and supplies that thrive from the exploitation of humans and animals? 

[00:24:45] Zoe W: Ooh. I think that one of the best ways for solutionaries in training to start is addressing problems in their own school. And again, this is not because the school board or the, the superintendent or the principal is thinking, “Wow, I want to really cause harm today.” That isn’t the motivation going into systems that are in place in so many schools. And so one of the things that we created at the Institute for Humane Education is a short 10 minute video demonstrating the solutionary process, and this is on our website as well. It’s called Becoming a Solutionary, and it demonstrates this process by addressing what’s served in the school cafeteria, because that’s where it all happens for kids. You know, It happens in their curriculum, It happens with the energy systems in their school, like you were saying in the supplies. But they’re going to be eating in that school cafeteria every day. And what’s being served, what’s it being served on. Are there vending machines with single use plastic or single use cans that are just being disposed of? Even if they’re being recycled, they’re still incurring so much intensive energy for a single use.

If that’s happening, then how can they address it? And so, with any problem that a student wants to address, we really encourage students, particularly in the beginning of this process, and teachers who are teaching them, for them to address local manifestations of that problem. You know, lots of people are concerned about climate change, but not every student is going to be the next Greta Thunberg. But they can address what’s being served in their school cafeteria that is contributing to climate change. And if their school cafeteria can change, so can the next school’s cafeteria. So can the district’s cafeteria. So can the state’s cafeteria. So there’s so much to be said for looking at what’s close to home.

[00:26:59] Jon M: Obviously, right now the schools and school boards and school districts have an epicenter of conflict in a lot of kind of ways. And there have been a lot of efforts — book banning, banning what’s taught in the curriculum and so on. Have you been running into walls in places and have you been able to break down some of those walls in some of these districts where some of this is happening?

[00:27:28] Zoe W: We have not yet encountered walls. And the reason why is because I think that people are realizing that the solutionary framework is the corrective to what’s happening on the school boards and these conflicts over these issues in schools, because the solutionary framework is a corrective to polarization. It’s saying, Okay, let’s look. Let’s find out what is the fundamental problem instead of just arguing about this book, or arguing about whether we’re going to teach about racism. What is the fundamental issue? And if we can find places of agreement around a fundamental issue, then what’s a solutionary answer?

And so we haven’t been encountering pushback because I think people are realizing that this may be the very answer that they have been searching for. I would invite teachers who are listening to attend. We’re going to have a free webinar on November 14th about remediating structural racism, and it’s taught by Ayo Magwood, who is the founder of Uprooting Inequity, and she has produced this brilliant framework for teaching about structural racism that looks at evidence and which steers away from bias and individual prejudice and looks at underlying systemic structures from a historical viewpoint and discusses how we solve this problem. And you know, we are finding that people who learn from Ayo’s work, and Ayo and I just co-wrote a blogpost “Five Ways to Teach about Structural Racism.” It was before the blog that you invited me here today to speak about, and people are responding extremely well to this, and they’re responding from different perspectives. So I think we’ve hit upon a way to turn what has become such polarized conflict, such fighting, into how do we solve this. Just how do we solve this? 

[00:29:58] Jon M: So I have a very different question, which has to do with something else that’s controversial, which is the assessment mechanisms, especially standardized tests. How does solutionary learning fit with these, and do you think that it would be helpful to have alternative means of assessment rather than the standardized tests as the primary means?

[00:30:24] Zoe W: Yeah, for sure. We need alternatives to the standardized tests for assessment. Interesting that you should ask this right now because just this morning, Julie Meltzer, who is our director of K-12 and teacher education at the Institute for Humane Education, began conversations with some people who she’s worked with before, one at the University of Chicago, about how we can do really good assessment studies of the solutionary framework itself, with a goal of demonstrating the effectiveness of this kind of learning. So, you know, there are lots of ways to do assessments. They are usually more complex than doing standardized tests. And so therefore, they are a little more complicated to implement and to look at across schools and across states. But we have to, because the way we are assessing right now means that we then teach to these tests and teaching to these tests is the, I don’t want to say it’s the opposite of solutionary thinking, but it’s certainly not aligned with working on developing critical and systems and strategic and creative thinking and building a real world repertoire of addressing and solving problems that matter to students. They just don’t go hand in hand. So we are working on that as well. 

[00:31:58] Jon M: Thank you, Zoe Weil of the Institute for Humane Education. 

[00:32:02] Zoe W: Thank you so much, you guys.

[00:32:06] Amy H-L: And thank you, listeners. If you liked this episode, please consider subscribing and giving us a rating or review. This helps others to find the show. Check out our website,, for more episodes and articles and to subscribe to our monthly emails. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in workshops and classes. We work with consultants to offer customized SEL programs, with a focus on ethics, for schools and youth programs in the New York City and San Francisco Bay areas. Contact us at We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at Ethical Schools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Until next week.

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