Can participatory education save polar bears from extinction?

It is a question that runs through the minds of those of us old enough to realize that our generation bears a great degree of responsibility for the complete mess the world is in.

And the tragically bad puns. Bears?

On the good side, we tore the Berlin Wall down, got the lead out of gasoline, and broke Nelson Mandela out of Robben Island into the South African presidency.

But there’s still a lot of work to be done to ensure that Manhattan does not become the “Scuba Museum of Twenty-First Century Excess.”

A city sunk by its idling yellow cabs.

As Syria goes up in smoke and Soho slowly submerges, it can be refreshing or hopeful for us guilt-wracked geezers to get involved with the education of young people. Maybe we can make their cleanup job a little easier. Or should we just focus on getting out of their way?

But some of us are in positions of influence, and changing the educational curricula to incorporate self-knowledge systems such as Meyers-Briggs profiling could only help. Enshrining conflict resolution, good teamwork and communication skills into the heart of our primary schools would be wonderful place to start too.

But here is an incendiary idea that would really help change the world for the better.

Instead of talking down to children for 12 years, why don’t we give them a revolutionary and effective communication tool called participatory education? It even comes in a digital form, and you know they’ll like that.

History 101 of the Education that got us into this mess

Public education as we know it was introduced through the Elementary Education Act in 1870 to “help keep Britain competitive” by churning out a trained, docile population to be fed into the steam-powered factories of the Industrial Revolution.

Special Interest groups were concerned. The Church didn’t want to lose its grip on youth education. The poor didn’t want to be indoctrinated. The rich were worried that teaching the working classes how to think might be a bad idea.

No need to worry. Industrial education carried the day, and generations of children have been lined up in neat rows and spoonfed carefully chosen “information” through the “banking model” of education.

Ever since, progressive educators from John Stuart Mill and John Dewey to Paulo Freire have continued to advocate adopting an alternative pedagogy. Their educational systems were informed by a prophetic idea of 14th Century Italian “Father of Humanism” Petrarch, who suggested a radical notion completely at odds with traditional public education:

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”

Participatory education could be said to ask the question, “How do we create the best conditions to help people learn how to learn?”

It would seem a good tool to leave our children; a sturdy shovel they might be able to bury our outmoded ideas, and dig themselves out of the mess we are leaving behind.

Why Participatory Education works better

Participatory education, especially in our digital world, has two advantages.

1 Students are completely motivated to excel because they get to choose—or at least influence—the curricula. If a student, say, is studying the concept of marriage, and they happen to be gay, they can go dig up fun facts like “Same sex marriage was recorded as common and legal in Assyria by 1250 BC, but not legal nationwide in the United States until June 26th, 2015.” An elite educator does not set the “right” answer; it is the one the students find most useful to their personal transformations.

2 Students can use this power to define what knowledge is important to carry out “Public Interest Research,” a term coined by Ralph Nader in the 1960s while he tried to influence Universities to let students practice participatory education by choosing research topics for the public good.

For instance, a group of University students could “study” the 2015 Syrian War and European Migrant Crisis by actually bringing 50 Syrian refugees to another country and helping them establish a new life, far from the insanity of war.

The “Oliver Twist” model of education has failed to prepare each generation to solve complex problems like global warming. By evolving beyond the simple rote learning of standardized information, participatory education gives us hope, by teaching students how to learn.

Converging solutions to global problems

In our day and age, three great ideas are converging. They stand a serious chance of changing the world.

Participatory Education is one.

Participatory Democracy is another, which is gaining footholds everywhere, as military dictatorships are falling from South and Central America to Myanmar, and Arab Spring and the Orange Revolution are bringing the possibility of “setting our own agenda” to hundreds of millions world wide.

Even Canada is considering democracy. What is the world coming to?

That’s a joke, people—referring to the successful 2015 election platform plank of proportional representation. But it’s a joke with a point. Even so-called democratic societies struggle mightily against the influence of the military industrial complex, whose aerial bombing solution to the Syrian Civil War seems to be only fuelling the conflict while bankrupting our economy.

Both participatory education and democracy are riding high right now on the wave of the third great idea, free and easy digital communication, let loose by the Internet and the cell phone. While educators like Paulo Freire have always considered participatory education and democracy to be inseparable, it might be time to add digital communication to that duo.

How can digital communication help?

Nowhere have the cell phone and the Internet connected so well as in the concept of Free Web Conferencing. A web meeting is basically a conference call that takes advantage of the convenience and audio quality of the telephone call, and splices on the information transfer potential of Free Screen Sharing.

Information can be shared by all participants from the convenience of their own desktops. A Syrian refugee can dial a Toll Free Number and participate in an organizational meeting with sponsors in Canada with the free Mobile Conference Call App.

Web Meetings are the ultimate in digital participatory education and democracy.

Video Conferencing brings people face to face, though they may be on separate continents, or in different time zones. Call Scheduling, even of Recurring Calls, is a snap through Google Calendar Sync.

Convenient new Features are being designed almost every month to help people collaborate better around the globe. And best of all, conference calls and web meetings are free.

Christmas can still be saved

From home schooling to online Universities, participatory education in the digital world is sweeping the planet in a bloodless revolution.

In fact, this article is an example of the potential of participatory education.

It has different opinions and perspectives that would never be allowed into a university textbook, but it can be accessed and “taken or left” by anyone with a cellphone and a data plan.

Use it, lose it, or snooze it. Whatever. No problemo.

If even one rural home school association reads this, takes up web conferencing and saves a few polluting minivan rides, this article will have done its job.

If just one of those home-schooled children grows up to catalyze the reversal of global warming, then this article will have hit the jackpot, and the older person who wrote the article will feel slightly way less guilty. Way!

That’s another joke, people (an old one).

And speaking of old people stuff, did you know that Bing Crosby’s version of Irving Berlin’s “Dreaming of a White Christmas” has sold 100 million copies since 1942?

It is the best-selling single of all time. “Imagine” that.

If longing for a normal winter produces that deep of an emotional resonance in humans, there might just be a chance for us yet—whichever generation we are from.

It is never too late to learn old songs, or new tricks. Surely we can use the power of participatory education and digital communication to keep polar bears, and perhaps ourselves, from going extinct.