Imagine a school where kids are asked to solve the world’s problems.
Well, Zoe Weil has. And she’s on a mission – with her friends, colleagues, and supporters – to make it a reality.
Zoe is one of the foremost leaders in the field of humane education, which promotes the humane treatment of people, animals, and the environment and offers students of all ages the knowledge, skills, and inspiration to transform unsustainable, unjust, and inhumane systems into ones that are peaceful and restorative for all.
As a child, Zoe went to one of the best private girls schools in New York City. Initially she loved learning. She was an avid reader by the age of five. But school soon became increasingly frightening and stressful for Zoe. She still remembers the pressure to memorize and regurgitate everything she learned. She immediately forgot what she learned after an exam. Even today, she can recall the feeling of becoming physically ill before an exam she took when she was ten years old.
Zoe not only wants to be part of creating a better world, she wants something very different for other children – which is exactly what led her to establish the Institute for Humane Education and eventually the Solutionary School.
After dabbling in the idea of pursuing a career in medicine and a brief stint in law school Zoe became interested in humane education as a graduate student at the Harvard Divinity School in the 1980s. She was looking for a summer job when she heard about a summer program at the University of Pennsylvania offering week-long courses to middle school students. She pitched several including one on animal issues, environmental issues, world religions, creative writing, and even critical television watching. Animal issues was the second most popular of the 60 courses the program offered that summer, second only to robotics. Since Zoe is a die-hard science fiction fan, she was okay with that.
Zoe watched in amazement as her students were transformed over the course of the week; in one case, overnight. A boy in her animal issues course went home after class and made his own handwritten leaflets about product testing on animals (in 1987 before kids had personal computers). The next morning he asked if he could hand them out, and Zoe said sure. During lunch, he stood on a Philadelphia street corner handing out his homemade leaflets to educate passersby about cruel animal tests.
Overnight, Zoe helped empower a young activist. Zoe immediately realized how powerful humane education could be.
After 8 years as a full-time humane educator in Philadelphia, where she reached about 10,000 children per year, she moved to Maine and co-founded the Institute for Humane Education (IHE). IHE aims to create a just, humane, and sustainable world through education. IHE offers online graduate programs and courses, workshops, and an award-winning free resource center at its website www.HumaneEducation.org.
Last summer at the residency week required for IHE graduate students, a group of IHE staff and students embarked on the most exciting and ambitious project to date: the creation of the world’s first K-12 Solutionary School. They assembled a team, applied for a grant to conduct a feasibility study, and got started. Market research to determine the demand for such a school, conducted by an independent marketing firm, was so overwhelmingly positive it even surprised the marketing firm.
The goal for the Solutionary School is to create the most innovative and exciting age-appropriate curriculum, driven by the principles of humane education. The team is aiming for a balance between student-directed learning and what educators, who know what is happening in the world, feel is important for students to learn. At the end of each 6-week learning module within a school year, students will be asked to showcase their ideas and solutions at the school’s community Solutionary Center.
Zoe and the other cofounders of the school aim to create this curriculum, implement and assess it, and improve upon it. When it is ready, they will make the curriculum available open source and help other schools become solutionary schools. Zoe is also very interested in flexibility – so, if school were in session today, students would learn about the Ebola outbreak and be asked to come up with creative solutions to respond in humane ways.
It might seem like someone like Zoe has the weight of the world on her shoulders and that she would be daunted by the task ahead of her. But Zoe carries the spirit of a teacher awed by the potential and promise of her students. When I asked her what drives her, she told me it is a “passionate love of this beautiful planet and all the life that resides here, and a hatred of cruelty and injustice…I chose education as the vehicle – it is fundamentally the root system underlying every other system. If we do it well, then we’ll see the problems being solved – if we don’t, we will continue to put out fires.”
Simply put, Zoe wants to create more “solutionaries.”
Zoe finds inspiration in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” She is emphatic that she has seen the arc bend toward justice in her short lifetime. Truth be told, she’s done a lot of the heavy lifting to help bend the arc.
She told me: “I hope I’m out of a job by the time I die but education will always be necessary. We will always have challenges and problems to solve.”