Creating “Solutionaries” with Zoe Weil

PUBLISHED: Apr 12, 2021

In This Episode.

We’re excited to welcome Zoe Weil from the Institute for Humane Education. Zoe is the author of The World Becomes What We Teach and is a notable TedX contributor.  Zoe focuses her work on helping educators build “solutionaries” who tackle real world problems.  Join us as we discuss the overlays between her work and ours, and critical thinking in general.


  • Institute for Humane Education —
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  • “The World Becomes What We Teach: Educating a Generation of Solutionaries” by Zoe Weil
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  • Zoe Weil’s TEDx Talks —

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Podcast Transcript

Voiceover: Welcome to the Critical Thinking Initiative podcast, we bring you research driven solutions to critical thinking education. Why? Because as Bertrand Russell said, most people would sooner die than think. In fact, they do so. And now your hosts Steve Pearlman and Dave Carillo.

Steve Pearlman: Everyone. Today, we’re excited to welcome to the Critical Thinking Initiative podcast Zoe Weil. She is the co-founder for the Institute for Humane Education, which you can find at Humane Education. Org. She is the author of a number of books including The World Becomes What We Teach, Educating a Generation of Solution Areas, which is a Nautilus Silver Medal winner. Also, the author, among other things of most good least harm a simple principle for a better world and meaningful life. She’s also given a number of TED talks, including The World Becomes What You Teach and other TED talks, including solution areas, educating for freedom, how to become a solution, Arie extending our circle of compassion, and how will you answer this question? We see a great deal of overlap between our mission here at the Critical Thinking Initiative, which we consider a highly humane endeavor and those work out in the world. And so without further ado, here’s zo we’ll soso welcome to the podcast. Maybe you could begin by letting everyone know a little bit more about the Institute for Humane Education.

Zoe Weil: Sure, and it’s great to be here. I co-founded the Institute for Humane Education because I believed that if we could transform what is taught in school and we could have teachers preparing students to understand the interconnected global ethical issues of our time and have the knowledge and the tools and the the motivation to solve the challenges, then we would have the capacity to prepare a generation that really can transform the world for the better, for everyone, for all people, for all species and for the environment.

Steve Pearlman: So one of the things that immediately comes to mind and draws me to what you’re up to is that seems to be an implication in naming the institute as the Institute for Humane Education that education is otherwise not necessarily humane, and this is something that Dave and I are always talking about because we really don’t think that education often is humane, and we look at the neuroscience behind what’s happening to the brains and so forth. And we look at some of the frustration that students experience and so many different levels. We think that not that educators aren’t compassionate and humane people. Certainly they are. But structurally, the paradigm of education in this country is one that we’ve taken issue with a lot of times on the podcast. I wondering what is your vision or your understanding of how humane education is? And is there an implication there relative to the name of your institute?

Zoe Weil: Well, there wasn’t initially. So initially, the term humane education referred to a field of study that connected the intersectional issues of human rights, environmental preservation and animal protection. So as a humane educator, I was teaching about very specific things, and for a period of time, there were people who sometimes bristled at the term humane education. Because just what you said, they thought that it implied that education was inhumane in some ways. And I’m so glad you distinguish between the system of education and educators, because if COVID has taught us nothing at all, it’s that teachers are heroes. And you point that out really well in your book, too, Steve, that we have to be careful not to conflate criticism of the education system with criticism of teachers. And I think that the beauty of the term humane education is that it actually covers both a field of study and an approach to education that is more humane. And that really invites the agency and passions and dedication of young people so that their learning can be in service to what’s best for them, what’s best for the world and what they most care about.

Steve Pearlman: So for those of our listeners who certainly probably aren’t familiar with what you’re up to, but I think many of them, if they’re listening to our podcast, are probably already intrigued by the concept of humane education or more humane education. What is it? What are what are you doing with the kids? That’s different, and how can they start to implement it? What’s it like?

Zoe Weil: So Humane Education has, at its root this idea that we can educate young people to be. That’s a term that we use to describe not just a problem solver, but somebody who can address the root and systemic causes of challenges that we face and actually work together, reach out to other stakeholders, all the stakeholders and solve problems in ways that are good for everybody. Now how do you go about doing that? It’s easy to say become a solution, and it’s much harder to actually do that oneself or educate other people to do it. So at the Institute for Humane Education, we have produced a process for educating young people to be solutions. It’s a 14 step process, but we’ve also produced a free guidebook exclusionary guidebook for educators that teachers can download and that really describes how do you educate with this in mind? And I’d like to get into what solution free thinking means. It has it at its foundation critical thinking because without critical thinking, as you talk about so much, you can’t move forward with solutions, at least not solutions that are going to come with unintended negative consequences. You really need to be able to understand what’s accurate, what’s true, distinguish fact from opinion and conjecture. And then when you have cultivated those critical thinking skills, the next step would then be becoming a systems thinker, understanding all of the interconnected systems that come into play that perpetuate problems and then becoming a strategic thinker, being able to identify the leverage points where you’re going to have the biggest impact with your solution and ultimately to be a creative thinker so that you can come up with solutions or find other people’s solutions and come up with ideas of how to make those solutions take root. So while that isn’t a linear process, it’s not as if you think critically and then you think this in systems and then you think strategically and then you think creatively, it’s that you have to have critical thinking at the foundation for the others to work.

Dave Carillo: So I’m really kind of interested in in something that you said about critical thinking being the foundation. Steve and I often talk about how humans evolved to be critical thinkers, and that’s a foundational element of how we go about working with students and faculty and educators in terms of teaching critical thinking. And so we would never walk into a classroom or in a school and say, Well, you know, we’re starting from absolute scratch because we all have that capacity. But classrooms aren’t necessarily set up for strong, critical thinking. So how do you go about starting the solution process in a classroom where critical thinking might not have been present in the capacity that we might all want? How do you get the solution process going?

Zoe Weil: That’s a great question, and I do think that our solution, every guidebook answers it to some degree because it is a process and we invite teachers to do the process step by step. So if a teacher isn’t embedding critical thinking in their instruction, they wouldn’t really be able to do the solution process. They would have to start there. And I think you guys have done that really beautifully and we’re learning from you as well and going to be embedding some of what I’ve learned from you more deeply. But I can tell you a few ways that we go about training educators in this, and I have to go back to when I originally was doing this work, it was as a visiting teacher. I would go to schools and do a presentation or an assembly program. And what I what I was thinking was teaching them critical thinking was simply raising the concept of critical thinking, which is that I would start off my presentations by telling them not to believe a word I said. And I learned from your book, Steve, that that’s not the same as teaching critical thinking.

Zoe Weil: It is a first step by saying, don’t trust any source until you can validate it until you have the skills to research and investigate and distinguish whether something is actually accurate. But it’s not the same as teaching how to do that, which, as you point out, is so essential. So we have a graduate program that’s an online graduate program with Antioch University, and critical thinking is embedded in the first course that our students take, which is an introduction to humane education. We have students go through a rigorous process, well, two different processes. One is identifying something that they think is true, something that they believe strongly in and then requiring that they investigate that fully and discover whether or not what they believe is actually true. And then we do that when they come for their. Week long residency, and we do a role play to demonstrate this, and then we have them really push each other to identify whether or not what they believe, whether or not they can actually justify it with evidence. So that’s a sort of meandering and long answer to your question, Dave.

Dave Carillo: So I’m looking at the exclusionary handbook for educators and one of the important distinctions you have to make in terms of this idea of a solution. There’s a difference between that kind of work and the kind of otherwise traditional or everyday good deeds that we might otherwise value highly. And, you know, I think often about donating to food pantries or or those kinds of things that we need people to do in this day and age. But it seems like that’s not the kind of solutions you’re really talking about.

Zoe Weil: So we distinguish between solutions, three acts and humanitarian acts. And I don’t see them in attention with each other. I see this as a both and rather than an either or. Now the humanitarian approach is generally the go to approach for most of us and certainly in schools, and we even have a name for it called community service. And we encourage young people to do community service. We encourage young people to do food drives for food pantries. Now these are really important and good acts, and we should always encourage humanitarianism. There is. There’s never going to be a time when we are not going to need humanitarians. With that said, if we don’t strive to be solution areas, then so much of the humanitarian effort that we have to make because we have unjust, inhumane, inequitable and destructive systems, we will perpetually need humanitarian access. So food pantries are a perfect example of this. It’s really wonderful and really important that we help to ensure that people who don’t have enough food to eat get food. And I think that it is the responsibility of those who have more privilege and have enough food to eat to help. But if we don’t address the causes of hunger, if we don’t address poverty and inequity, then we’re just going to be supplying food pantries for eternity.

Zoe Weil: And so our approach is to say we need to educate young people to be solutions who can identify the inhumane and destructive and unjust systems and transform them at the causal level. And so if we can make systems just in humane and sustainable, we can then obviate the need for endless humanitarian effort. You can’t eliminate the need, but we can make it much less part of our daily life. Now, this is a really hard concept I have discovered to convey to schools over and over and over. We see teachers and students coming up with the equivalent of a beach cleanup as opposed to how do we stop the pollution at its source, the trash at its source. And interestingly, so we have just launched a solution or a micro credential program for teachers. It’s a 30 hour program, and the 30 hours are divided into three modules. The first module is the solution concept where we drive home. This very question that you’ve asked Dave, what is the difference between a solution and a humanitarian?

Steve Pearlman: So in your book, The World Becomes What We Teach. You also speak very specifically to some things that are the institutional structures that we’re facing now that you say we need to change and we certainly would agree with you, I’m not going to go through all of them. You gave a great list, but dividing things into subjects and separating them is something that we are also always railing against. Divide into class periods, testing with standardized tests and so forth. And you mention a lot of these structures. And I guess I’m curious, how do you find ways to work around those and inspire change for those things? And I’m also really curious as to where are the biggest points of resistance that you encounter when it comes to bringing solutions free thinking to schools? Where do educators push back? Where do administrations push back or institutions? I know there must be a lot of people who are eager to adopt what you’re doing, but I know there must also be points of resistance, and I’m really curious about what those are.

Zoe Weil: I think the biggest points of resistance for teachers are, where’s the time? It’s not. The teachers don’t want this, but where’s the time for them to get the training to do this? Where’s the support from? There administrators to actually infuse their curriculum with this kind of approach. Where’s the time and the space for them to collaborate with other teachers because doing this in a multidisciplinary way really makes the most sense and where we’ve seen it be the most successful? I haven’t yet had anybody push back and say, Well, this is a terrible idea. We should not educate young people to be solutions. It’s that in every part of the system, everybody is constrained, and maybe I should talk about where it’s taking root. So San Mateo County, California, has adopted this same approach as the philosophy and framework for their entire county. So what does that mean? That means that in the Office of Education, they’ve been using my book The World Becomes What We Teach to Train Teachers, so the teachers can then take these ideas and integrate them into their own curricula. Now, how do teachers have the ability to do this? San Mateo County, California, actually pays teachers to do this, so they don’t expect teachers to just do this on their own time with no remuneration. They support their teachers as fellows who learn these issues, then create their solution free units, then implement their solution units, and on May 20, second, they’re going to have their first annual solution very fair. And this year it’s going to be virtual because of the pandemic. Anybody can tune in, by the way, and the information is on our website and our upcoming events and see what these students are doing and when teachers do this. It is so enriching for their students and so empowering for them in enlivening of their classroom and all the reasons that somebody goes into teaching. This is where it shines, and so getting the support they need is really critical.

Dave Carillo: So, so let’s go to a school or a classroom or a curriculum where this is fully embraced. Talk to us a little bit about the kind of work that those students are doing. Can you give us a sense of where they’re facing the largest intellectual challenges? What kind of hurdles are you seeing them overcome? Are there any significant turning points for students who are in this kind of curriculum that you feel are important and that you would like to share with our listeners as milestones to know when this is starting to work and students are starting to turn corners and so on.

Zoe Weil: I think one of the challenges is when students take on too big a problem instead of taking on a manifestation of climate change that they can address in their own school, for example, like what served in their cafeteria should be a really powerful way for students to say, We are going to address climate change right here, starting with our cafeteria. It’s still hard work, but it’s doable and the stakeholders are within easy reach of those students and one could conceive of how you can make change by doing that. If a student group says we’re going to tackle climate change, full stop unless you have a classroom of Greta Thunberg, that’s going to be hard to do same with poverty. So there is one sixth grade classroom that decided they were going to address poverty in Africa. You know, that’s a noble goal to address poverty in a continent where there are many countries where there’s more poverty than, let’s say, in the United States. But there’s plenty of poverty in the United States, and there’s poverty in the county next to these students. So these students were in a fairly wealthy county, but right next door, there are plenty of people living in poverty. If I had been their teacher, I might have tried to steer them toward addressing poverty in their own county. Now, contrast that with a high school group in Portland, Maine, in a school that had a very diverse student body. Even though Maine is the whitest state in the country, southern Maine, where Portland is, is more diverse and there have been many refugees from other countries.

Zoe Weil: And this was a school where there are many languages taught in the school, and the school had a very outdated disciplinary policy where let’s say you don’t show up for school, your punishment is being suspended from school. How that is a good idea. I don’t know how that was ever a good idea. I don’t know. But a group of seniors who one could argue would be better equipped than sixth graders to address a bigger issue decided, Nope, we’re going to address this problem right in our own school and in the process of researching, they discovered schools in Oakland that were creating restorative justice practices and support. Students where there were various infractions, and they then came up with a plan for their own school and that was adopted. Now just think about the power of the difference here between researching some big global problem and sort of coming up with vague ideas about how to solve it, but really not being able to solve it versus diving deep into a very narrow problem when you start off solving it. Seeing the effects of that and then taking on a bigger problem next time, to the degree that teachers can encourage students to narrow down a passionate concern into an actionable problem that they can solve is the degree to which we are really preparing young people to be solutions.

Steve Pearlman: It’s so important Dave and I are talking about this all the time about how critical it is that students find some way to feel meaningful in their education. That so much to what we habituate them to is that they’re irrelevant, that they’re learning information that other people have developed and they’re being tested on whether or not they know it, but not they’re not engaging, that they’re not creating ideas, they’re not changing anything in the world, they’re not making a difference in any way. And then we’re surprised that they’re not engaged by that when in fact, we’re not allowing them to become engaged, creating that forum. And that’s one of the things that for us with respect to critical thinking is so important that what we find is that even if it’s not about something that’s immediate, but nevertheless just by getting students to really engage an idea through critical thinking where they’re able to develop an idea of their own and look at something in a way that’s unique to them and have an insight that’s unique to them, at least they feel as though they’re engaging something and creating knowledge and creating information in a way that’s important. I have to imagine that that’s amplified when they are applying that to something that’s in their immediate world.

Zoe Weil: Yeah. To get back to your question about challenges, another high school in Maine, the students learned about sex trafficking a huge problem in the world. How could they address that in their community in Maine? Well, their sex trafficking here in Maine, just like there is everywhere in this country. And what they learned was that those girls and young women who have been rescued from sex trafficking don’t have the support they need to be able to then be integrated into education and work. And so what they decided to do was to draft legislation for the Maine Legislature to support the girls and young women who had been sex trafficked to have a halfway house where they were educated and supported in transitioning to basically being able to be full members of their communities. And that was an incredible learning experience for them to draft legislation. The problem becomes what happens when you graduate, and that legislation hasn’t yet been embraced and adopted or put forward by legislators, because that’s a long process. So one of the things that’s really important about this illusionary process becoming embedded in schools is that it doesn’t just end at the end of the school year when one teacher who’s done this work with students then moves them on to the next class. Because some kinds of change making particularly legislation, they take a long time. Some kinds of evolutionary work are just ongoing, and we have to support it, which gets back to one of the challenges that teachers and students face in this process.

Dave Carillo: So, so what’s on the horizon for this? What are you looking to do as we, you know, hopefully come out of this quarantine and you can start going into classrooms. Where do you see the next big step for turning students into solution?

Zoe Weil: Well, we’re so excited to have just launched this illusionary micro credential program. Our work has largely been online from its inception. Our graduate programs have always been online, and we sometimes feel like we can be really helpful to teachers now who are trying to figure out how to teach online because we’ve been doing it for so long successfully, and the macroprudential program allows teachers anywhere in the world to dive into this. I already mentioned the first module is the solution concept. The next module is solution free practice, where teachers actually practice this by going through the solution guidebook and choosing a problem they want to solve and experiencing what they will be teaching their students to do. And then the last module exclusionary application where they put together a plan to bring this work into their classrooms, no matter what subject that they teach and no matter what age they teach. Although this is really for a middle through high school, this particular program just works better at those age levels. Humane education takes root a little bit differently in the early years, but we’re. So excited about this, because it’s bite sized, but enough to help teachers really do this work and to integrate it into their classrooms. And my hope is that this becomes the hottest thing that teachers want to do because it’s going to be great for their classrooms, great for their schools, great for the world and great for them.

Steve Pearlman: Well, we’re excited to be able to give you a little publicity ahead of that, and we hope it really does catch on. It’s been such a pleasure having you on, so we really appreciate it and just huge fans of the work that you’re doing.

Zoe Weil: Well, thank you. It’s a pleasure to talk to you and I love the work that you do and we’re promoting you guys as well.

Dave Carillo: Thanks so much so.


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