Top 10 Questions with Tim Magner

10. Why do you do what you do?

I tell nearly every class, “kids are more fun than adults” and it’s true. Each child is different, but there’s one common trait they share: curiosity. Keeping that fire alive, stoking that flame, their passion for exploring and discovering, drives me. The 21st century is the most exciting time in the history of the world to be alive. I want to be part of the transition; as we redefine our relationship with nature and design a world that takes us past the Industrial Revolution.

9. What are your favorite childhood memories?

Catching frogs at my grandparents, playing pick-up ice hockey and swimming in golf course creeks and ponds. We ran around outdoors, unsupervised. I used to think Mom and Dad were cruel for not allowing us to watch TV. We also ate well- dinner plates full of color. We had gardens and Mom would say, “go pick salad, beans and berries for dinner.” I’m not saying I didn’t love pancakes, but we burned calories and ate plenty of nutrient dense foods.

8. Did you always want to work with kids?

When I began doing community service in high school two things became clear: a lot of people are born with the odds stacked way against them. Secondly, I discovered a love for teaching kids. Yes, even as I got busy with a career at a big tech company, I paid attention to what was going on in the world. And I kept asking questions, e.g. Why is it that when we flip on a light switch or gas up our car, we have no idea the consequences? Why do businesses profits go up when they skirt the responsibility for the damage they do? So, with only one life to live, I decided I’d work with kids and try be a part of the solution.

7. Why is it important to connect kids to nature?

Rich Louv argues: for healthy childhood development, nature is not a nice-to-have, but a necessity. Outdoor play is in our genes and part of who we are. Spending all our time inside, wired to electronics, is an entirely new phenomenon. No matter how cool electronics are, they’ll never stimulate the senses like the wild. For the last 200,000 years, our brains and bodies developed as we explored and investigated, wondered and wandered. There’s plenty of data that says, if you want healthy, happy, resilient kids, make time for unstructured outdoor time. As a bonus, vigorous exercise makes our brains work better.

Just as important as fighting obesity and doing better on tests, is developing a relationship with nature. Rachel Carson wrote about it being more important to feel than to know. If seeds are facts that later produce knowledge and wisdom, emotions are the fertile soil where the seeds grow. If we don’t spend time in nature, nature will always be out there. It’s critical to understand we’re participants in nature.

6. What do you think of schools today?

No two schools are alike and I respect a lot of the creative teachers, so it’s not fair to paint with a broad stroke. That said, I heard a good line recently: “If Ben Franklin came back to Philadelphia today, the only thing he’d recognize are the schools.”
Whatever you think of the history of turning farmers into factory workers, the existing education model is ill suited for the 21st century. Ken Robinson, in the most watched TED talk of all time, makes the case that schools kill creativity: Sir Ken Robinson) The efforts to improve or to make the current model more efficient to be a little better doesn’t get to the root of the issue, i.e. the model is the problem. Consider:

a. Nearly 30% of US kids don’t graduate from high school. It shoots to well over 50% if we look at minorities in big cities.

b. Many of the most brilliant minds of the last 150 years either failed at school, had little use for it, or succeeded in spite of it, e.g. Einstein, Horace Greeley, the Wright Brothers, Churchill, Frank Lloyd Wright, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates.

c. Companies that do the most damage to the air, water, soil, forests and who create the most toxic pollutants are led by our most ‘educated’ people. In fact, the only civilizations that lived sustainably couldn’t read or write, e.g. indigenous cultures of the Americas.

Even students that do everything asked of them often graduate from college and say, “Now what?” Limited definitions of ‘intelligence’ means narrower curricula and rewarding rote memorization with high stakes testing. This happens at the expense of finding passions and talents and developing creativity. How many business leaders would choose an applicant for a high paying job that tests well over someone that can solve problems or excels at communication? At a time when we need innovation more than ever, creativity scores creativity scores have dropped steadily for decades.

5. So, what’s the answer? Environmental Education?

Rather than asking, ‘How do we raise SAT scores and increase graduation rates?’, why not start with,‘How do we prepare kids to thrive in the 21st century when we have no idea what’s going to happen?’ Remember, kids are born to learn. All we have to do is support that. That means instead of us filling up their brains with information, have the kids continue to seek out answers. Rather than ‘push,’ it’s a ‘pull.’ Practically, that means teachers beginning with prompts, not lectures. It means giving up some control. Messy classrooms, where teachers aren’t doing much of talking, can be the most effective.

On environmental ed: Ideally, we don’t need it, especially as it’s taught now, largely as a one-off, or separate class in yet another silo. Why not begin with Where do we live? Who lives with us? How does the world around us work? and develop projects where students read, write, study history, do science, perform math and create works of art around these themes. Use the school playground, the neighborhood, the watershed, the food shed, etc.. It’s more engaging, gets students out of the classroom and it’s what happens in the real world where nothing happens in isolation. Everything’s connected. Not only does the real world demand thinkers able to express themselves and work on a team, but ‘web-type’ thinking helps us comprehend nature’s genius. I love seeing David Sobel and place-based education gain traction. David Orr, who claims we have a problem “of” education, not “in” education, is a pioneer at the high school and college level.

I also advocate for judging student, teacher and schools more broadly. Start with understanding that each child is unique and talents and intelligence are diverse (so reading and math are but two of the criteria measured). Then we recruit, train and retain teachers as guides that educate (Latin root: to lead out or bring forth) and help kids discover their place in the world around them.

Lastly, measure schools based on criteria like: How well do they teach the whole child? Is the school a lab for innovation? How well does the school cycle nutrients and leverage the power of the sun? Do they engage the community?Are their graduates working to restore the earth and redesign the built environment?

4. What do you mean when you refer to ‘changing our relationship with nature.’ 

Fundamentally, sustainability efforts, like adding insulation or growing food for the community are responses to gaining perspective, or viewing everything through wider lenses.

I understand why the whole Genesis thing (“the earth is your domain”) has so much appeal. It puts humans at the center, and on top. Newton, Descartes, Galileo, etc. had their appeal, and influence too, arguing that everything could be broken down into parts, like a mechanical clock. Reality is different. We’re not the center of the universe and nature is more than the sum of its parts. The subsequent linear ‘take-make-waste’ system that exploits resources (on a finite planet) is flawed design. Conventional economics says a forest is more valuable cut down than standing. For starters, we’re better off choosing awe and humility over uninformed arrogance.

Humans are rookies on earth, and that’s OK. We have millions of other species around us to look to as mentors; to help us adapt, evolve and fit in. Nature’s solved everything we’re trying to do, i.e. nature has full employment, runs on current solar energy, cycles all it’s nutrients (waste=food), favors cooperation over competition, is diverse. And beautiful.

With nature as teacher and model, instead of a resource to use, we re-imagine and redesign everything. From how we learn and feed ourselves, to how we make things and get around, it all changes.

3. A few suggestions for parents?

Loads of parents, mine included, don’t like hearing that even what we consider to be good schools aren’t the answer. As Einstein said, “We’re not going to solve today’s problems with the thinking that created them.”

Educating and loving kids means different things today than when we were kids. Our kids are going to experience more change. The pace is unprecedented and it continues to accelerate. Consider: a 1st grader will retire in about 2070. We don’t know what the world will be like in five years, let alone fifty or sixty.

I like Ester Selsdon’s line: “If you want your children to turn out well, spend twice as much time with them as you think you should and half the amount of money.” Kids don’t need iPads, they need fresh air (as they move!). David Sobel quotes Thoreau referring to the need for kids to experience nature first-hand before abstraction begins, “the more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think the same is true for human beings.”

As long as I’m quoting smart people, here’s another one from Einstein worth remembering: “Imagination is more important than intelligence.” Imagination is our species’ differentiator, so if we’re to create the future, we must imagine it first.

Other thoughts: unplug the TV, engage in conversations, assign responsibility, teach kids to speak and write critically and to assimilate what they learn, i.e. everything’s connected (despite what our media sound bytes would have us believe). Lastly, ensure the home and school are places where it’s safe to make mistakes. An absence of the fear of failure is critical to innovation.

2. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

For me, nobody answers that question better than Paul Hawken: “Every living system in the world is in decline, and that decline is accelerating…If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore the earth and the lives of the poor and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t a pulse.”

I love hearing from those devoted to working on behalf of others and I choose to be optimistic. When I witness kids’ eyes light up during outdoor adventures, my heart smiles. When I observe parents fight for recess and real food, I get fired up. As Biomimicry and the idea of nature’s genius as model go from fringe towards mainstream, I’m absolutely giddy.

1. What are the most exciting things going on?

Besides me eating more different types of plants and getting faster with age? For starters, there’s a growing number of people not satisfied with the status quo; mainstream capitalism is losing it’s credibility. As the majority become less comfortable, e.g. 50% of U.S. families in poverty or on the edge, with their needs unfulfilled, they seek alternatives. And there are loads of people working on alternatives, on creating something different. The media, the elite ignore, mischaracterize or marginalize this group, but that’s the case throughout history.

So, if you look at it from an outsider, it’s chaos. With chaos comes opportunity. We go from protest to solutions, considering everything and doing everything at once. Think big. Remember, all the answers are all around us, i.e. biomimicry.

What do you think?