WHERE'S NATURE? If you liked No Child Left Behind, you'll love what's coming next — without national debate

About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of nine books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" and "The Nature Principle." His newest book, "Vitamin N," offers 500 ways to build a nature-rich life. In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal.

“The next wave of school reform is about to break,” according to The Washington Monthly’s special report, “The Next Big Test.” Reform will emanate from the “first-ever set of national high-stakes tests — totally computerized, tougher than anything most American students have ever experienced, and coming to the nation’s classrooms in 2014.”

Environmental literacy will play a role, but in what context?

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Thanks to artificial intelligence, according to Monthly’s reporters, the need for standardized testing will fade away, replaced by what proponents call “stealth assessment” — nonstop electronic monitoring of students, employing systems similar to ones grocery chain stores now use to track inventory.

Most learning will occur through cutting-edge software “often in the form of video games.” Grand Test Auto, as the Monthly’s headline writer calls it. Or at least that’s the goal.

Anyone see those red flags go up?

The reshaping of standards is overdue. No Child Left Behind’s testing regime left a lot to be desired, particularly in its implementation. But the devil is alwaysin the implementation.

The report’s most important point: This reform movement is coming in under the radar, without a vigorous national debate. We need that debate. Now.

So here’s a call to action — for parents, teachers, environmental educators and other concerned citizens to get involved in the process of determining the future direction of our schools. Let’s start with a few questions.

• Will the new Common Core Standards include opportunities for outdoor learning or are they primarily focused on video and technology learning, as suggested in the Washington Monthly articles?

• Does the newly released draft of the science standards, available now for public comment, include sufficient focus on environmental education and learning in nature — or is it mainly focused on engineering and technology?

• Will the standards allow enough flexibility and support for teachers to take students outside for authentic, experiential learning opportunities? What role will natural habitats as learning environments play? What role will play play (beyond the use of video games)?

• If the new wave is as dependent on electronic learning technology as the Monthly suggests, are we convinced it will work? Last year, the New York Times reported that schools were spending billions on technology “even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.”

• As schools become more high-tech, will the outdoors classroom be considered a balancing agent, one that will build learning capacity but also to protect the psychological and physical health of students?

• Is enough high-quality research being done to support nature-based and experiential learning, or will high-tech have the first and final word?

• The one teaching tool we can surely agree on is the extraordinary teacher with a mind and heart that no computer can match. What role will the effective, independent-thinking teacher play? How much leeway will that teacher really have? Or choose to have?

Undoubtedly, there’s more to the next wave of school reform than the Monthly reporters could fit into a few articles, but I recommend you read the report, which seems largely favorable to the new wave, as well as other articles. A skeptic might conclude: If you liked Leave No Child Behind’s reductionist thinking, you’ll love the next wave, brought to us largely by technology companies. That could be one outcome.

Here’s another: A new set of standards, wisely implemented, will prepare young people for a whole life, not just one devoted to technology. No doubt about it, education will pursue and promote the benefits of technology, but it should also maximize the learning advantages of time spent in the real world, including the rest of nature. Is that going to happen?

Tell us what you know and what you think.

Here’s the series:  The Next Big Test, a special report in the May/June issue of The Washington Monthly.   


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Richard Louv is the author of THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting with Life in a Digital Age and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. He is Chairman Emeritus of The Children and Nature Network.


More reading:

Grading the Digital School: In Classroom of the Future, Stagnant Scores, The New York Times, Sept. 3, 2011

C&NN Report: Children’s Contact with the Outdoors and Nature: A Focus On Educators and Educational Settings, adapted from C&NN Annotated Bibliographies of Research and Studies by Cheryl Charles, Ph.D., President, Children & Nature Network, and Alicia Senauer, Yale University.

New Research Reveals Alarming Lack of Play for Pre-School Children_

Invisible Ink: Is nature disappearing from children’s books and education?

The More High-Tech Schools Become, the More They Need Nature 

Excerpt in Outside magazine from a chapter in “The Nature Principle” about the Hybrid Mind

What Your Kids to Get into Harvard? Tell ’em to Go Outside!

Everyone Ought to Have a Ditch – David Sobel

Learn more about C&NN’s Natural Teachers Network.



  1. Love this post. I think it is no coincidence that in a meeting with my state Department of Ed last week, I doodled public education floating down the drain. The ever-increasing focus on test scores, devices, and “workplace readiness” have robbed students of developing a love of learning in all its forms, have diminished human relationships as an integral part of child development, and continue to alienate children from the natural world.

  2. Great article, and posed questions. Basically I am frightened by the ‘new wave’. Once again it seems we focus on ‘technology’ to address core systemic problems. While I like the concept of consistency and Core Standards to address such, I think this limits what is potentially possible between students and educators. In addition, why would we encourage and support ‘disconnection’ from social interaction within students?Social interaction is an integral component of the learning process and supports those pieces that were presented — e.g., critical thinking and problem solving — as well as communication, conflict resolution, leadership, etc. Based on current societal trends I would think we would work on increasing opportunity to address social and emotional needs within the learning environment. If we decrease exposure to these important aspects of developing the whole child I have no doubt that this will lead to an increase in deficiencies across the board, resulting in at-risk behavior and thus poor academic achievement. In short, it doesn’t seem like at present this has been well thought out and is a stop-gap measure to address big business needs not our children’s education and well being.

  3. John Thielbahr

    I agree with Dennison 100%. Rich has set the table for responses from educators. His blog shows how dependent our children are on creative teachers who use all the tools to inspire learning, including using nature as a classroom. There are many such teachers out there, but not nearly enough, and they need to work in an educational setting that gives them flexibility to teach and inspire using all the tools. Will more teachers respond to the challenge that Rich has given?

  4. My husband and I have been implementing standards based instruction (using state standards at first and now Common Core) in our one room schoolhouse (K-8) for the past 4 years with tremendous success. The kids spend many hours outside per week meeting their standards. When we arrived the kids were years behind academically but now are on grade level. What had happened was that the teachers were not held accountable to any curriculum standards and the kids were suffering. What I hope is a happening with this movement is that through continued assessment, teachers and students are not only aware of their strengths and weaknesses, but that it is monitored so that the closed door policy of old (don’t ask what I’m teaching and I won’t tell) will vanish. That aside, to get to the nature aspects, I find that it has much less to do with the standards themselves but the structure of the school and the individual teachers. We have the freedom to go outside whenever we want. This is rarely the case in classrooms across America. With all the fear mongering litigiousness that we are faced with as educators, it makes the effort and risk involved with jumping outside the confines of the classroom that much more difficult for many educators, even those who would like to make those options available to their students. We have it easy out here…a signed note from parents saying that the island is our classroom. We take advantage of that daily for art, reading, writing, math, science… It’s extremely easy to be outside to meet a majority of the standards in all our content areas. The kids are so much better for it. We have proved that kids can make huge leaps in academic achievement using just such a structure. Since so much more science is coming out about the detrimental effects of being cut off from nature, maybe it will take this crisis to move towards change. Thankfully Richard is paving the way.

    • Richard Louv

      Hopeful, clear and eloquent. Thanks, Michelle.

  5. I think there’s a lot of merit in finding hybrid learning experiences, combining physical interaction with the real world – in a stream or puddle on school grounds or Thoreau’s “swamp at the edge of town” or a field trip – with digital sharing. Humans have a profound interest in sharing their experiences (Facebook shows this), and there have never been more options for turning visceral experience into globe-spanning one-planet conversations. This video of heron babies in a mangrove patch, shot by my then 9-year-old son, is a case in point:

  6. Thanks for posting this. It became quite apparent last fall when discussing school reform here in Michigan with local politicians attempting to get into our school board that much of public education here in Michigan is under attack for the wrong reasons. Privatization and profit is the end game here with big money being made by selling computers to public school systems. It is very sad!

    Teachers feel pushed to conform to save their jobs and students are suffering as recess in reduced and computer time is increased. I dont want my children to endure yet another failed educational experiment!

    My kids were just catching frogs outside and chasing snakes. They came in exhilerated and stimulated. This interaction with nature is the true antidote to all of the stress our society faces. I would hate to see their enthusiasm squashed by the innundation of screentime in our schools.

    Unfortunately the new standards have nothing to do with education or childrens well being and everything to do with profit!

  7. Unschool your kids – problem solved :-]

  8. What can you and I do to make the future a better and more hopeful place than the present. Like Danielle, let’s find solutions, no matter how seemingly small, and do what we can. Rich, thanks for keeping us on task.

  9. I have read the 400 page draft document “The Framework” on the new standards. All of the changes are based on studies of how children learn best and include many types of learning, especially hands-on activities. If you take the time to look into the draft, I think you will be happily surprised. “The Framework” is the change that is needed to not only teach children basic knowledge, but to instill in them an inquisitiveness to keep them craving more knowledge. It also helps them build the skills to solve problems in any area of interest and to study in a concise manner. Being a young scientist myself, it took me many years in college and beyond to really figure out how to use the knowledge I had been taught in public school. It would have been great to have activities based around real life issues going on in the world around us and how we all work together whether we realize it or not. The whole change in standards is about getting our kids ready to be engaged as citizens and in their careers to make a better society. I feel this change has been greatly needed for a long time.



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