By Ali Berman
During our many years of teaching kids about social justice issues like poverty, sweatshops, large-scale animal suffering, climate change and pollution, we have learned that, as educators, we can’t only share bad news. We have to show the positive too, the possibility that the problem can improve, or kids won’t be inspired to become changemakers.
When kids or adults learn about a problem – let’s take pollution as an example – we need them to know that every problem has a solution. If we just entered a classroom and talked about how much trash is generated every single day, or how many animals die from pollution, or any of the horrendous statistics that show just how widespread pollution is, students would feel overwhelmed. They would see a piece of trash on the street, look at it, shake their heads, and walk on by, internally lamenting how much humans have damaged the planet. When a problem seems insurmountable, we are less motivated to roll up our sleeves. Instead, we want students to see a plastic bottle on the ground, pick it up and put it in the recycling bin, or grab a whole bag and go out searching for trash. We want kids to believe that they can change the world for the better.
Based on research in the field of positive psychology, what we have found in the classroom is also true in the greater world. People don’t respond well to purely negative news.
A study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School found that, over a three day time span, the most emailed articles published in the New York Times were positive rather than negative, suggesting that people wanted to share good news rather than burden others with more bad news.
Michelle Gielan, a former journalist at CBS News and author of the the book, “Broadcasting Happiness”, found in her research that focusing on solutions when reporting the news “is important in activating people.” Gielan said, “You’re talking about…not necessarily only reporting on feel-good stories but reporting on even sad stories in a way that doesn’t convey the message that the world is broken and you can’t do anything about it.”
A few months ago, on our Facebook page, we shared the story of a man who noticed that the river bank he passed on his way to work was heavily polluted. Thirty minutes of picking up trash wasn’t going to get the job done. So, every day on his commute he grabbed a bag and picked up the trash. His actions inspired others in his community and they pitched in too. Soon, the river bank was clear and a Eurasian Coot (a type of bird) made her nest where the trash used to be.
When we talk to kids about pollution, while we do tell them about the realities and the consequences of garbage in our environment, we also tell them stories like these. Stories that show that one person’s actions make a difference.
If kids don’t believe a better world is possible, they will have no incentive to try and create one. With that in mind, next time you tackle a difficult topic with your students, consider emphasizing solutions as much as the problem. Rather than feeling deflated and sad, students will feel empowered. And a generation of empowered compassionate citizens is exactly what this planet needs.