Help them be in awe before asking them to care

Schools, and particularly PYP schools, are forever telling kids to care about and be responsible for everything. “Save water”, “save endangered species”, “reduce, reuse, recycle”, “save electricity”, “stop child labour” and so on…

However, it is becoming more and more apparent that we are going about things in a back-to-front way. Recent conversations with my wife, Kelli, and my Director of Academic Studies, Adrian Watts, have uncovered – at least for us – a real problem. We seem to be expecting students to care about things that they don’t actually have that much respect for, interest in, curiosity about or knowledge of. As a result, much of the action that emerges from learning is quite tokenistic, shallow and fleeting.

Asking them to care about the natural world before they fall in love with the natural world probably isn’t going to work. Telling them to conserve water before they see and understand how magical it is probably isn’t going to work. Expecting them to consider the habitats of endangered species before they are blown away by their uniqueness and beauty probably isn’t going to work. Encouraging them to take action to protect the interests of other people before they have truly connected with them probably isn’t going to work. Hoping they will strive for peace before they have been surrounded by it probably isn’t going to work.

Much of this thinking comes from the work of Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, and is based on the idea that you can’t truly care about something until you admire it, experience it and understand it.

The problem, of course, is that our students are increasingly living in bubbles, increasingly becoming separated not only from the natural world, but also from people. Our schools are trying to counteract all of this, trying to do our best to encourage them to care in the hope that they can reverse these trends we seem powerless to reverse. But, I think we need to change our focus.

Let’s remove the doom and gloom from our curriculum as it only makes students feel powerless. Let’s remove the preachiness from our curriculum as it will always feel like what it is, preachiness.

Let’s deliberately set out to breathe life back into our curriculum, to bring beauty back into our curriculum. To bring curiosity back into our curriculum. To bring admiration back into our curriculum. To bring wonder back into our curriculum.

Let’s try to design curriculum that makes students want to go out into the world and look at it, smell it, taste it, touch it, listen to it… experience and be a part of it.

Then, perhaps we can start to expect them to take an interest in it, or to respect it, or to care for it.



  1. whatedsaid

    You read my mind again. Year 5 have just begun a unit about biodiversity and kicked off with some great connections to the big ideas… and a perhaps a slightly doom and gloom approach, with kids already taking on responsibility for the planet. After the (wonderful!) session described in this post, Rubi and I discussed the fact that they need to explore the wonder of the world before going any further…

    • sherrattsam

      My wife laughed at that! I guess I may be a bit doomy and gloomy at home sometimes… however, this is something we were doing a lot of thinking about at NIST and I am happy to say we are starting to do it again at ISHCMC. First step – inspecting the POI for doom, gloom and preachiness!!!

  2. @dwyerteacher

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently as well, and it is becoming increasingly clear that this idea needs to be front and center in my classroom. Not sure how I will go about that yet……

    I worked with a kindergarten teacher said, “I don’t want them to feel responsible for the planet, but rather to fall in love with it.”

    Thanks for the book. Will check it out.

    Also, take a look at The Centre for Ecoliteracy. They do good work.

    • sherrattsam

      I love that KG teacher’s quote… after all, we protect what we love, right?

      The idea of eco-literacy and ecological intelligence looks really interesting, thanks for the link.

  3. Chad Hyatt

    Yes! Yes! Yes! Inquire, experience, reflect, inquire, experience, reflect, inquire…until they hit that OMG moment. Then action will happen and not be forced. Help them see within their sphere of influence (self, family, playground, etc.) where their actions can make a difference. Great thinking in this post. Thanks for inspiring me.

    • sherrattsam

      Glad to have touched that nerve, Chad! Your use of the word “experience” is crucial. Our students must experience things in order to understand them and, of course, to care about them. As teachers, we need to provide powerful experiences. But, we also have to remember that they have had many experiences already, they were alive before they came to our class! It is our job to help them recollect those experiences, piece them together and start considering how they are shaping who they are becoming.

  4. Claire Gescheit

    So true Sam. We teach children to “Save the World” but they really need to explore it first.
    When we watched David Attenbourough’s ” What a Wonderful World” the students were intrigued and wanted to watch it over and over again. They loved the images. With inspiration comes action.

    • pyp8j

      Hi Sam,

      Great post. This has also been on my mind a lot. I had a discussion with Kenny Peavey (a former MYP science teacher and now a consultant to schools) about action/kids caring/the outdoors/environment. He said almost exactly what you just mentioned. You can’t get the kids to invest in the environment from the classroom(the bubble as you mention). You need to get them outside, so that they learn to love the outdoors. Only then will they become invested.

      That conversation as well as the hack schooling Tedx video are the two reasons I went to my principal and asked for a day with no specialists last April. We now spend every Thursday outside, somewhere on Phuket. We learn in the outdoors, but learning about the outdoors always creeps into the planned happenings on those Thursday excursions somehow.

      Thursday’s are my kids favourite day of the week. It is truly profound and heart warming. It has given me a new spirit as a teacher. For those that want more of what Sam is talking about, get outside, spend one day every week in Nature. That is the starting point. I know as we’re doing it.

      james @pyp8j or @jforsythe08

      • sherrattsam

        James – I love your day outside idea. I remember the first time I met you actually… you had just been sailing with your class! Can you do all of us a HUGE favour and document those Thursdays? It would be very powerful for people to see what you’re doing, how you’re doing it and, ultimately, why it is worth doing.

    • sherrattsam

      Claire – I love the fact that you have been showing them such high-quality television. We must never underestimate the power of doing that, or assume that they are getting it outside of school. Just because we have become so bombarded by media doesn’t mean change the fact that there is some media out there that will have a profound effect on our students. Watching it… more than once even, is time well-spent.

    • sherrattsam

      It is a brilliant book… so thought-provoking. We certainly need to always be considering ways to get kids out of the classroom, even if it is just to do things in other parts of the school. I had some wonderful conversations with art teachers today about them doing exactly that, and helping students learn to look at and experience the world around them.

      • Saigon_Eldred

        I’m getting through a chapter or two a night and am quite enjoying it. I talked about it to some colleagues ion a planning meting today. How do you feel about inviting interested teachers to a book club for discussion. This could be the first book & then others suggested afterwards. I’m looking forward to reading ‘ Making thinking Visible’ next

        Let’s catch up for beer to discuss.

        We’re going out to dinner tomorrow night if u 2 can get a sitter & r interested in joining

    • sherrattsam

      I like your posting about curiosity a lot. Recently, I have helped to plan two units of inquiry that were based completely on the idea of curiosity itself. both of them were scientific units, with curiosity at the very centre. In the absence of curiosity… really… what do we have?

  5. partridgeism

    Your argument can be extended to people. We expect PYP students to care about/empathise with others but this is challenging when they know little about/have no connnection with people from different cultures/social milieu. When I was Primary Head at St. George’s College in Argentina, we discussed this and set up a project whereby we established contact and built up a relationship with a ‘drop-in’ for centre for children from a local area with a very high level of social deprivation. Our students were largely Argentinian and came generally from the highest social echelons. They had previously had little or no contact with children from poor backgrounds. Over time, non-patronising, child-like relationships were built up between both groups of children: they laughed, joked and played together. Once these relationships had been established it brought a completely different perspective to inquiry work that explored concepts of poverty etc. Suddenly our students were making authentic empathetic connections which did not draw on stereotypes and a genuine type of caring that had not existed previously was generated.

    • sherrattsam

      The kind of connection you set up in Argentine is incredibly powerful. Once those students learned how to interact with and relate to the children at the drop-in centre, they can take those skills and attitudes and apply them to all sorts of different contexts. Thanks for the inspiration, I will try my best to set up something similar here.

  6. Joanna Johami

    How true Sam! So insightful. Never fail to get me thinking about how I can bring this back into my teaching practices. Spreading the thought. Great read!
    PS: Been wanting to say how I also really liked the Cauliflower Principle post.

  7. kathmurdoch

    Great Post Sam. For many years (waaaay back in the 80’s and on) I was heavily involved in the Environmental Education movement. The central tenet of that movement was (is) that environmental education needed to be “in, about and for” the environment. We always argued that deep understanding (‘about’) and action (‘for’) were intimately connected to experiences IN the environment. This is born out by the stories of many who have become advocates for the environment (e.g. Attenborough) – their childhood often involved significant, regular, unstructured experience of the outdoors. Many years ago, The Earth Education movement (Steve Van Matre) really championed this and remains the best example I have ever seen of providing students with awe-inspiring, magical, connected experiences of nature. I’m not sure to be delighted or dismayed to read the same call for this kind of connection continuing in 2013! I’ll choose delighted. One of the challenges I see is how to practically provide these experiences in places (Like HCMC) where getting out into nature may not be as straightforward for teachers and students. Thanks for bringing this important issue back into my thinking….

    • sherrattsam

      Thanks Kath. I will look for more information about the Earth Education Movement to find ideas about how to provide the kind of experiences you’re talking about – it can be complex in places like this, but that means it is even more important to do it!!!

    • sherrattsam

      We are starting to by trying to phase out the doom and gloom from our curriculum and phase in more open-endedness by scrutinizing our programme of inquiry for prescribed negativity!

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  9. TS Bray

    Wow! You are exactly correct about that problem — kids need to understand a situation/problem before than can be expected to care about it or want to change it. Thanks for sharing this idea with the world.

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  11. Janet Key

    I love this article! How can we bring this joy, love, awesomeness, and wonder back into our schools? Can it exist side by side with non-stop standardized testing? This article caught the essence of action, which is caring so deeply about something that you can’t help but do something!

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