Earth-centric education systems: School days in 2040

Earth-centric education systems: School days in 2040

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Erik Assadourian
What might education look like in 2040 if it were to be truly Earth-centric? That is to say, teaching a deep connection to—and obligation to care for—the planet that sustains us? Over the course of the summer, as I work on the upcoming State of the World 2017: EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet, I will post five visions of thriving EarthEd schools in the year 2040.
Keep in mind that with this diversity of examples comes a wide difference not just in geographies, student ages, cultures, and available resources, but also in the direct impacts that school systems suffer on a rapidly changing planet. In places where flooding, drought, and other climate disasters have become omnipresent challenges, these experiences and their response strategies naturally have become part of the core curriculum—even the school design. Where stability has endured, these topics remain more “academic,” with activity focused on how students can help prepare themselves and global society for thriving (or at least surviving) in a changing world. But in all cases, the shifting ecological realities of the 21st century have deeply affected how school is taught to these students of the future.While these case studies may sound utopian, nearly all of them exist already in some form or another in today’s world (although not actualized to this degree). While the stories and their specifics may be fiction, the models described are real. What is, perhaps, utopian is that even as ecological and social disruptions occur, at least in these scenarios, they have been met with increased innovation and equity, rather than with less-equitable distribution of resources and overall school decline (as is happening all too often today). But there are enough examples of dysfunctional schools out there today (in a world swimming with resources) to not dwell on how terrible schools could be in a resource-constrained future. Instead, these visions of EarthEd schools of the future are designed to inspire all of us to strive for schools like these in the years ahead.
A final note: I plan to keep working on these scenarios to include them in State of the World 2017. Any comments, suggestions, or ways to make them more accurate and compelling are very welcome.
Rima’s Day at the École Gardiens de la Forêt (Montreal, Canada)
It’s late spring. Rima has just finished breakfast and is gathering her things for her first day back at École Gardiens de la Forêt (The Guardians Forest School) after the spring holidays. Although Rima had a good time on vacation, she can’t wait to get back into the woods and play. The holidays are never as fun or as wild as stomping and romping in the fields and forests of Gardiens.
Quebec was one of the first provinces of Canada to resurrect the idea of micro-neighborhood community schools—what Americans once called “one-room schoolhouses,” although few of Quebec’s schools actually have rooms. Many of the province’s elementary schools are now micro-forest schools, where children spend a large portion or even all of their day outside and embedded in a specific place and ecosystem. Gardiens serves a small neighborhood at the edge of Montreal with a total of 16 students and 2 teachers, Marie-Claude and Loic.
All of the students live within two kilometers of the school and are picked up each morning by “pedibus”—literally a walking bus, but in reality just the group of students walking together to school and chaperoned by a teacher. Admittedly, the pedibus takes Rima longer to get to school than a car would, but not for the reason one might think. Her teacher, Loic, stops frequently to identify animal tracks, wild edible plants, a tree in bloom (and one that’s rotting), and even scat. “Whose poop is this?” he asks the students, repeating a question that he has asked so often that it’s become a running joke.
The pedibus, along with being an excellent teaching opportunity and another way to make sure kids are active, further reduces the environmental and financial costs of the school, even when compared with the solar-electric buses that are now common in other parts of Canada.
Gardiens, itself, is nothing fancy: just a one hectare plot of woods and fields where the students explore, play, and learn. Twenty years ago, this site was an abandoned strip mall with its vast stretch of parking lots, but now it is transitioning to a mature sugar-tapping forest (still another 10 years or so to production) and a community green burial ground, which has helped finance both the reforestation efforts and school operations. The school also receives community and state funds—although not as much as during the peak years of the consumer era—but selling burial plots and (eventually) maple syrup will help it generate enough supplemental income to remain open even in the event of further cuts in educational funding.
In the morning, before the sun is too high, Rima and her classmates spend a few hours in the quarter-hectare garden and adjacent hoop house, learning about growing food and agroecology, as well as harvesting the greens and vegetables that will flavor the students’ lunch, usually a stew cooked on the central fire that the students help to prepare, serve, and clean up. Today, Rima is particularly excited because she gets to help chop the veggies—a first now that she’s turned five.
For the rest of the morning, the children are free to play on their own. Some stay close to the fire to read and to continue drawing a storybook that they’ve been working on. Others, including Rima, go off and finish the fort that they started building yesterday. And a few, under the watchful eye of Marie-Claude, practice their tree climbing skills. One child, Quinn, successfully hunts a squirrel with his throwing stick, which Loic, at the fire pit, helps him skin, gut, and add to the stew. “Tomorrow,” exclaims Loic, “we can invite the class to learn how to tan a hide!”
At lunch, all give thanks to the forest, to the fields, and to Earth for the meal, to Quinn for his success in the hunt, and to the squirrel for giving up its life to sustain their lives for another day.
After the dishes are washed, the students work on math and reading, with the older children helping the younger ones with basic problems. Studies have repeatedly found that there are few better ways to consolidate learning than when the student becomes teacher.
After the afternoon lesson block, Marie-Claude leads the class in what she calls their “Deep Dive” sessions. This week, she’s been focusing on the life of birds. On Monday, they observed birds on the school grounds and proposed hypotheses on various aspects of birds’ lives: what they eat, how they nest, and who hunts whom. Yesterday, they built their own wings out of cardboard and paper feathers and “flew” around the forest while discussing the mechanics of flight.
Today, Marie-Claude, with her infectious enthusiasm, declares that they’re going to make a nest. The first 20 minutes are spent brainstorming the best ways to build a nest and deconstructing an old nest that she found in a tree. The next hour is spent gathering twigs, branches, long grasses, and mud, and the class then constructs its own nest as a group. Rima overhears Marie-Claude whisper to Loic at one point: “Wait until tomorrow when a giant egg appears and we take turns sitting on it!”
Another day filled with adventure, thinks Rima, as she ends it with a relaxing walk home and dinner with her parents, during which she shares all her new experiences and life lessons learned at Gardiens.
Saikou’s Day Aboard the Tigerfish Floating School
What is unified across these stories is the schools’ commitment to put the Earth at the core of their curricula: teaching ecoliteracy and systems thinking, cultivating a direct relationship with a specific place or environment, and embracing global stewardship. Also at the heart of these stories is the teaching of moral education and the “art of living together” (conviviencia), as well as cultivating creativity and an ability to “learn how to learn” (what in the world of AI is called “deep learning”). Teaching life skills permeates every aspect of the school experience. And above all, these schools teach their students to be “Earth-centric leaders,” who will work both to heal the planet as well as to help humanity adapt to the inevitable changes that we are bestowing on coming generations. These curricular elements combine to form the Earth Education Core Principles (or EarthCore for short; see figure).
Today, Saikou arrived early at the dock where his school will pick him up for the day. Yes, instead of taking the bus, he’ll actually be picked up by his school, as the Tigerfish Floating School is a large boat. Over the course of the school day, Tigerfish meanders up and down a few kilometers of the Gambia River, just downstream of the city of Bansang, picking up the school’s 160 students.
Today, it’s Saikou’s turn—along with his other classmates who meet at this dock—to harvest the day’s catch from the school’s dockside fish farm. Lunch each day consists of a mix of vegetables, rice, and the fish that the school raises in a series of small tanks, located on each of the docks. This ensures that even the poorest of Tigerfish’s students get adequate protein each day. The fish farms also are an integral part of the curriculum: all students will graduate middle school with a comprehensive knowledge of fish farming—from growing the insects that the fish eat, to proper harvesting and management of the tanks, to even basic veterinary training.
After feeding the fish and harvesting today’s catch, Saikou and his classmates see their school approaching. The floating school is a large pyramid-shaped boat—designed not for speed but for stability, even in the worst weather. The school consists of several well-lit classrooms, a kitchen, even two science labs—as science is a priority at Tigerfish. Today, the first-year students (sixth graders) are learning about circuits and solar electricity. With a solar array covering the boat, the students have the chance not only to learn about photovoltaics in the abstract, but also to take part in maintaining the boat’s electrical system.
In the other science lab, the eighth graders, including Saikou, have been spending the day dealing with a problem. The tilapia in one of the school’s fish farms have developed some sort of disease, with many of the fry dying and many of the adult fish developing skin lesions and rubbing themselves raw against the sides of the tanks. Over the course of the day, the students have dissected several fish to explore internal symptoms, examined fish cells under the microscope, and conducted online research—first on Googlepedia and then in academic journals—to assess the problem. Their hypothesis: the fish are suffering from Trichodina, caused by tiny parasites that attach to the gills, skin, and fins.
The teacher, who has been quietly nudging the process along—helping with the equipment, engaging those who get left out, settling down those who get too excited—now makes a video call to the local veterinarian and allows the students to present their case that the tilapia are suffering from Trichodina. The vet, seeing the evidence, supports their conclusion and agrees to come by the fish farm the next day to give the fish a potassium salt bath to kill the parasites. After the call, the teacher praises the excellent work of the class, although it is the success of correctly identifying and dealing with the problem that is most rewarding to Saikou and to many of the other students.
Not every day does such a “perfect” project manifest at Tigerfish, offering the students an opportunity to expand their vocational knowledge, research skills, critical thinking, and ability to work together. However, routinely integrating river life into the school curriculum tends to offer more opportunities than would otherwise exist. Biology, chemistry, climatology, ecology, and physics are all naturally a part of life on a river—a river that most of these students will live along their entire lives.
Having a deep knowledge of and connection to the Gambia River is perhaps the most valuable aspect of Tigerfish, although gaining an understanding of the many changes occurring in the ecosystem is also very valuable. As climate change and population pressures have reduced wild fish stocks to endangered levels, farmed fish have largely replaced wild fish. And after several serious floods made schooling impossible for tens of thousands of children living along the riverbank, the idea of floating schools became more celebrated—with a quarter of The Gambia’s students now spending at least some of their school years at a river school.
Recognizing the high risk for future climate-related changes—including the potential submersion of vast areas of the country—certain skills are an integral part of the curriculum: the ability to swim well, disaster education (how to respond effectively in a crisis), and, most importantly, multilingualism. Although English is the primary school language, all students also learn French and Mandinka. The hope is that knowing two global languages will increase students’ employment opportunities in good times, and, if a large share of the population eventually becomes climate refugees (a possibility that the government now openly acknowledges), knowing both English and French will help people better integrate into other countries.
While floating schools certainly aren’t solving the climate crisis in The Gambia and the many other coastal countries where they’ve emerged, they’ve proven to be an ingenious adaptation—one that Saikou feels lucky to be part of.
Lakshmi’s Day at Bunker Hill High
In this third story from the blog series School Days in 2040, Erik Assadourian explores a high school in India specializing in training future social entrepreneurs, farmers, and even midwives.
With lunch now concluded, Lakshmi excuses herself from the meal at her parents’ home, grabs her knapsack, and heads off to school. Unlike most schools, class at Bunker Hill doesn’t start in the morning but in the afternoon, continuing late into the evening. Here, in the southern Indian hill station of Ooty, much of the economy still revolves around agriculture, so mornings are reserved for helping parents or extended families with their farms. The high-elevation town is dominated by a mix of sufficiency gardens, tea plantations, and commercial plots of “English vegetables,” an export that, due to global population growth and the loss of agricultural land from climate change, is now as valuable as tea.
Today is a particularly important day at school. The entire student body—comprising 500 high school students—is gathering to hear four finalists present their project proposals for a new social enterprise that will be implemented when school gets out next month for the summer. Afterward, the entire school will discuss the projects and vote on how to distribute the $50,000 reserved for social enterprise investments each year.
The headmistress introduces the four project teams, and the presentations begin. Some students use high-tech video and slide presentations to help make their case, while others tell stories of what their enterprises could mean to Ooty. But all four teams present well-thought-out projects: a preventive health clinic; a permaculture design consultancy; a bicycle-sharing business with stations around Ooty; and finally a “Circular Café,” a teahouse that would sell local teas and vegetarian foods, procuring these from nearby farms and later returning the food waste to the farms to rebuild their soils.
After the presentations are concluded, the students return to their homerooms and spend the next two hours discussing the merits of the projects and determining which they feel should be supported, and to what level. While some of the conversations get heated, all remain considerate. Lakshmi, who loves drinking tea, is a strong advocate for the Circular Café, and helps win over her classroom to the project. Once the homeroom group comes to a decision, they elect one student to be the spokesperson for the final discussion. The 20 representatives, including Lakshmi, then gather in the auditorium and discuss—in front of the whole student body—what their homerooms decided on.
While not all homerooms chose the same winner, through a process of open discussion and consensus-building the representatives end up awarding the Circular Café the lion’s share of the funding. They decide to allot $45,000 to the project, praising key components like the identification of a vacant building on a high-traffic street; the agreement of the property owner to rent out the space at an affordable rate; and the vision for how the café could serve as a “third space” for the community, providing a place for tutoring and community meetings and for sharing important civic information via a prominent bulletin board. The remaining funds are allocated to the permaculture consultant team, which had required only $5,000 to start their venture.
For the winning team, the work has just begun. This summer will be their first taste of independently leading a social enterprise, even though collectively, over the course of their school careers, they have been involved with at least half a dozen. Perhaps the biggest challenge will be determining whether they can balance the café and their upcoming college studies, or whether they’ll need to defer admission for a few years.
This certainly wasn’t a typical day at Bunker Hill, but rather the culmination of months of collaborative work determining what the local community most needs and how to implement these new services in ways that sustain both the workers and the venture.
The school’s more typical curriculum includes a significant focus on regional ecology, agricultural sciences (including geology, biology, chemistry, and climatology), languages, first aid, and household management. Through this, students learn not only the basics like budget management, cooking, home building, and repair, but also comprehensive sexuality education—from family planning to how to raise a healthy baby and child.
There is even a track for students interested in nursing, midwifery, and maternity care. Students who excel in this track typically help to deliver their first babies at age 16 (as a doula), and by graduation they can serve as an assistant midwife. Research has found that having knowledgeable peer-midwives in schools helps to disseminate information about sex, family planning, and pregnancy more effectively and, in the process, helps to lower teen pregnancy rates.
Lakshmi didn’t choose the midwife track, although her midwife friends have certainly shared lots of stories with her. Rather, she chose the social entrepreneur track, and is eager to pitch her idea for an intergenerational learning academy next year in front of the school. She’s already brought together a team, and over the summer they’ll set the foundation for how to bring the idea to fruition. Lakshmi knows that helping to ensure that the wisdom of elders gets transferred to the community’s young people (and that the elders don’t get left behind with all the changes happening these days) would be a win-win. Perhaps the academy can even be based out of the Circular Café. However it shapes up, Lakshmi can’t wait for the summer to begin.
I want to acknowledge the efforts of the Mechai Pattana School in Thailand and Barefoot College in India as inspiration for this scenario.
Arivan’s Day at the Garden City Eco-engineering Academy
In this fourth story from the blog series School Days in 2040, Erik Assadourian explores an eco-engineering high school in Singapore that is training highly moral scientific leaders to guide investigation of the world’s most controversial environmental technologies.
Arivan has just stepped off Singapore’s MRT train and is now walking his last few blocks to the Garden City Eco-engineering Academy along a pedestrian and bicycle-only street. This is his favorite part of the commute. Even though school starts later in Singapore to avoid the worst of the morning rush hour, the train ride is still chaotic. But these few last blocks along Agnes Avenue—with its lush tree canopy, birdsong, and verdant sidewalk cafes—is more park than street. Of course, not all roads in the city are so picturesque. But Arivan is proud that the students of Garden City Academy have played an important role over the years in helping to make Singapore one of the greenest cities on the planet.
Even as a second-year student, Arivan is still orienting himself to the possibilities—and responsibilities—that come with being a student at Garden City. Ever since he was little, Arivan’s education has been strongly centered on character education. Having a strong moral character, or more simply put, “being good,” has been deeply integrated into every aspect of Singapore’s educational system—from teaching empathy early on to exploring the moral complexities of modern life as children mature.
With Arivan having passed both his character education and science exams at the top of his class, he has earned a coveted spot at Garden City (although, naturally, he accepted it with humility). Students here gain access to some of the most controversial environmental technologies on the planet—from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and nanotechnology, to geoengineering and carbon capture and storage (CCS). They are expected to graduate not only with in-depth knowledge of these technologies, but also having helped advance humanity’s understanding of them, and of how to use them responsibly, if at all.
Garden City’s philosophy is that as the planet’s ecological crises have accelerated, the need for eco-engineering has too. Not only are governments working diligently to make their cities and industries more sustainable, but widespread ecological disruptions are requiring us to make our key systems—water, electricity, transportation, agriculture, coastal infrastructure—more resilient. As the climate heats up even further in the second half of the century, there will be greater pressure to try more controversial technologies in an attempt to dig humanity’s way out of crisis.
Rather than ignoring or banning these technologies outright, the Singapore government feels that it’s better to train the next generation of scientists to be morally evolved leaders that can analyze rationally whether the sacrifices that come with using the technologies merit the benefits. As an added bonus, many of the eco-engineers that have graduated from Garden City have become a valuable asset to Singapore, bringing significant global leadership in patent development and generating abundant journal citations, royalties, and remittances.
When Arivan started at Garden City, he was invited to participate in a longitudinal study on the health and environmental implications of saltwater-tolerant perennial rice. This GMO crop was designed back in 2025 and has been undergoing long-term testing to ensure that, along with being safe, it is productive, palatable, and profitable. During the early years of the study, students were involved in growing and harvesting the rice, and feeding rice meal to rats. When the field tests found no adverse health effects, students moved on to feeding the rice to chickens, then dogs and cats.
Two years ago, the students (under the close supervision of faculty scientists at the school) declared the rice safe for human testing. The rice is now served in the school cafeteria. After all, one of the mottos of Garden City is, “What we expect of others, we must expect of ourselves.” Arivan now plays an important role in collecting and analyzing health data. As a student in the school’s GMO track, he is routinely reading the latest journal studies and has even joined his team to present at the prestigious International Congress of Agricultural Biotechnologies. He and others in his track also regularly present updates of their own work and broader “field briefs” to students in the other three tracks at Garden City: Geoengineering & CCS, Nanotechnology & Biomimicry, and Urban & Civil Design.
This morning, the day is starting with a presentation from a Civil Design team working on “growing” Singapore’s first living house. Planted nine years ago, the trees and grasses that make up the house have now fused to a point where the interior will now be built. As the lead presenter explains, “If all goes well, we’ll have our first resident by the end of the school year.” When not at full school presentations, most students are either taking core courses or participating in their teams’ studies.
Of course, it’s not all science and moral education at Garden City. Languages—particularly English and Mandarin (the top two scientific languages), along with Malay—are a required part of the curriculum. The Arts and other means to cultivate creativity and critical thinking also are encouraged, as are opportunities to get outdoors in Singapore’s many managed natural spaces. Arivan is part of the wilderness skills club and is currently learning how to make fire using a bow drill. As Garden City administrators often state, “Connecting students to the eco-social-technical organism that the city has become reveals the mysteries of our living planet and their duty as stewards.” While that might sound like jargon to the outsider, it’s music to the students of the Garden City Eco-engineering Academy.
Beatriz’s Day at the Freire School of Activism
In this fifth story from the blog series School Days in 2040, Erik Assadourian explores an activist high school in São Paulo, Brazil. At this school students are activists first, students second. They’re learning by doing and, in the process, bringing about positive social change in their city, their country, and their world.
It’s hard to even see the Freire School of Activism in São Paulo, Brazil as a school. The 200 students spend far more of their time engaged directly in activist campaigns than in anything resembling traditional academic work. Of course there are classes—two days a week—where all the basics are covered. Portuguese and English, math, history, systems thinking, sustainability sciences, persuasive speech, advocacy, law, and ethics. But unlike other high schools in São Paulo, all coursework is regularly oriented toward how students can use this knowledge to make their communities, their city, their country, and their world better.
The 200 students spend far more of their time engaged directly in activist campaigns than in anything resembling traditional academic work.
To keep costs to a minimum, class days take place at a few local churches, and tutorials and campaign meetings, which dominate the week, typically rotate between students’ homes, public libraries, and cafés. Most meetings consist of updates and strategic planning for the dozen or so campaigns that the students have chosen to initiate and participate in—from efforts to establish new health clinics and bike paths, to campaigns to reduce air pollution and clean up abandoned brownfields. There is even an ongoing campaign to persuade city officials to pass a law requiring green roofs and rainwater catchment systems on all new or rehabilitated buildings—essential infrastructure as climate change has made access to fresh water a dire challenge in the city.
What’s been most powerful about this educational model is that the students learn to reach out to a broad range of constituencies.
Beatriz, now a teacher at the school, graduated from the very first class of Freire in 2024. One of the earliest campaign successes of the school was an effort to expand the Clean City Law—which banned billboard advertising across the city—to the entire state. The removal of billboards from the city had significant impacts on revealing social inequities and also reducing materialism and unhealthful consumption patterns. Although the campaign succeeded a few years after Beatriz graduated, her role in organizing nonviolent civil disobedience actions—including a relentless “ad-jamming” campaign to replace billboard ads with public service announcements and artwork—had a major impact in exhausting the opposition and persuading the populace and the state to pass the new law. Today, 15 years later, the state of São Paulo continues to be the largest ad-free area in the world.
Now Beatriz teaches Portuguese, persuasive speech, and civil disobedience, and serves as a mentor and advisor for students as they run their campaigns. It is part of the philosophy of the school that the students always lead the campaigns (with them organizing the spokespersons, community liaisons, lobbyists, and other leadership) and that teachers only take an advisory role. A recent survey of the school’s first ten years of graduates found that the majority have continued to be socially and politically active, and many have gone on to be leaders in local and state government, in education, and in socially responsible business.
It is part of the philosophy of the school that the students always lead the campaigns.
Beyond activism, complementary skills such as conflict mediation, debate, and management are deeply integrated into the curriculum at the Freire School. And everyone is encouraged to participate in physical activities—particularly aikido, a martial art that encourages exploration of both how to de-escalate conflict and, when that fails, how to use the attacker’s energy against himself, a skill regularly put into service in the students’ activism. While there are many more campaigns to wage, the Freire School has been instrumental in making the city and state of São Paulo into healthier, more sustainable, and more livable places to reside.
What do you think? Would you want your children to go to any of these schools? To the Forest School? The River School? The Social Entrepreneur or Activist School? Or the Eco-engineering Academy?
Teachers: Would you want to teach at these schools? Do you know any schools that approach this level of “Earth-centric-ness”? Is there any chance that education will ever reach this level of potential? Or will the stresses of dealing with and paying for climate disasters in the coming decades simply deplete state coffers to the extent that education becomes poorly funded and we should count ourselves lucky when our children graduate literate? Your reactions, comments, and insights are welcome!
Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at Worldwatch and the Project Director for EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet (State of the World).
(Author’s note: While these case studies may sound utopian, nearly all of them exist already in some form or another in today’s world (although not actualized to this degree). While the stories and their specifics may be fiction, the models described are real. What is, perhaps, utopian is that even as ecological and social disruptions occur, at least in these scenarios, they have been met with increased innovation and equity, rather than with less-equitable distribution of resources and overall school decline (as is happening all too often today). But there are enough examples of dysfunctional schools out there today (in a world swimming with resources) to not dwell on how terrible schools could be in a resource-constrained future. Instead, these visions of EarthEd schools of the future are designed to inspire all of us to strive for schools like these in the years ahead.
I plan to keep working on these scenarios to include them in State of the World 2017. Any comments, suggestions, or ways to make them more accurate and compelling are very welcome.) Source: Worldwatch Institute

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