Joseph A. Henderson grew up in a working-class family in a one-road town located in the middle of an oil drilling field. With no television (not until he was 16), he spent his days playing outside and building an informal, earnest relationship with the natural world around him. At the time, though, he didn’t realize the damaging effect these oil pits had on the environment, wildlife, and human health—not until he took a geology class as an undergrad.
Years later, as an eighth-grade public school science teacher, he struggled with having to emphasize broad principles about the earth for standardized exams while confined to a classroom. After five years, he left his job to return to Warner, where he’d earned his master’s degree in teaching and curriculum, to pursue a doctorate in the same area, with a focus on sustainability.
“With the magnitude of things we’re facing in terms of climate change, extinction of species, and the environment’s ability to absorb our waste, we’ve got to start rethinking ways to live that put us more in balance—and education has a role to play here,” he explains. “Right now we’re teaching a lot of disconnected, abstract things that have limited utility. But there are a lot of tangible skills people are going to need to go forward.”
Current, traditional school structures are not set up to engage students in an interdisciplinary way, says Henderson, citing as an example climate change, which has economic, social, and other implications. Hoping to make those structures less rigid, he has been researching an integrated program at a suburban school where children in kindergarten through 12th grade are growing their own food, studying alternative energy, and learning how to manage resources.
Henderson embraces a back-to-basics approach at home, where he and his wife buy their meat and most of their vegetables from local sources and have maintained a backyard garden. His personal experiences illuminate the gap he sees in the mainstream educational system between what is currently being taught and what it will take to cultivate stronger ties with the environment.
With his doctorate complete, Henderson assumes a new role at the University of Delaware as a learning sciences researcher in a multi-state, multi-disciplinary National Science Foundation-funded project titled "Made Clear" (Maryland-Delaware Climate Change Education, Assessment, and Research).
Ultimately, Henderson anticipates using his professional observations either to open his own school or continue to do research. Either way, he knows he fundamentally believes in public schools and their ability to do a better job preparing students to survive in the 21st century.
“We need an educational model that is more relevant and capable of teaching people about their relationship between nature and the communities that sustain them,” he says. “These are both local and global issues. By no means do I have all the answers, but we have to really reassess what it means to be intelligent.”
(Updated February 2015)