The Future of Education

Children looking at zoo exhibit

October 27, 2021 • Taylor Clark • ECHO Digital, ECHO Digital, Education, Uncategorized, Zoos + Aquariums

It's in our missions, our budgets, and AZA-accreditation standards. Education is integral to the ethos of Zoos and Aquariums, and effectively connecting with audiences is essential to saving wild animals and wild places. For this reason, Zoos and Aquariums must strive for more significant impact and efficacy. In parallel, formal education is experiencing significant change in response to societal issues and a movement to nurture healthier, more passionate, and adaptive lifelong learners.

Thank you to Dyane Smokorowski & Joe Fatheree, two leading progressives in formal education, for engaging in this conversation.

Key Points: 

Social-Emotional Learning & Mental Health of Children Should Be Everyone’s Priority 

The traditional focus of schools has been on academics, but social and relational development is an inherent part of schooling that cannot be forgotten.  Joe shared that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, CDC data revealed that teen suicides have increased by 70% over the past ten years. This increase has been linked to the overuse of social media and cell phones, and COVID-19 has made relationship building even more difficult.  Joe stressed that “the problem goes beyond the boundaries of a traditional school, and it’s going to take the whole community to work together to solve the needs of the whole child.”  How can Zoos & Aquariums use their unique resources to create experiences and spaces that promote mental health and social-emotional learning? 


The Role of Technology is Evolving 

Without question, technology will be integral to the future of education.  While teachers wrestle with how to foster skills of innovation and creativity to prepare students for a future of work defined by AI and automation, more immediate questions abound as TikTok challenges ripple across the country, forcing a conversation around respect and care for the community.  The COVID-19 pandemic made it critical to create digital equity and access for all children learning remotely.  This goal has largely been met, and schools must now find balance, strategically integrating technology into the classroom while putting parameters in place to protect social and relational development. 

Zoos & Aquariums are faced with the same questions.  The rise of virtual programming during the COVID-19 pandemic has exponentially expanded their reach; Dyane shared the example of a partnership with the Sedgwick County Zoo to develop a day-long series of virtual programs that reached 18,000 students.  If made personal, amplified by narrative and powerful stories, these programs allow Zoos & Aquariums to develop relationships with their audiences, drawing them into the Zoo/Aquarium family.  

That said, resources are extremely limited, and Zoos & Aquariums are uniquely positioned to provide direct, immersive experiences with nature and animals.  Aaron Marshall, COO of Santa Barbara Zoo, asked Joe & Dyane for their perspective on how Zoos & Aquariums should be thinking about the experience they provide and the benefits of leaning in vs. pulling back to provide a sanctuary from technology.  Joe noted that technology is not going away, and audiences expect its integration into the Zoo/Aquarium experience.  He shared that in a conversation with one of the nation’s leading puppeteers about technology and the impact it’s going to have on kids, she said the “best toy is 10% toy & 90% kid” and that “too many kids have forgotten how to play because toys do it for them.”  Zoos & Aquariums can be a place for play, helping kids refine their senses and challenging them to wrestle with questions around building a better world for animals and nature.  What would a Zoo/Aquarium experience look like that was 10% tech and 90% play?    


Building Relationships & Community is Key 

As family demographics have changed over time, classrooms, schools, teachers, and community members have become an essential part of the family-building experience.  Even so, with so many competing demands, it cannot be assumed that parents will take the initiative to engage beyond their family unit.  It is necessary for schools and community organizations to actively pursue relationships, and success depends on making experiences relevant and inclusive.  Dyane shared that The Art of Relevance by Nina Simon has resonated with her in its approach to being OF, BY, and FOR your community.  (Nina Simon was a speaker at ECHO19.  You can read more about her talk here.)    

Relatedly, in Joe’s classroom, he intentionally fosters a family dynamic, knowing that families celebrate the good but can also take responsibility for and tackle the bad.  Would this strategy help Zoos & Aquariums to rally their “family” around tough conservation challenges?   


Transparency Can Lead to Future Careers 

As teachers strive to prepare students for a variable future, Zoos & Aquariums have an opportunity to empower and inspire youth through transparent practice & mentorship.  Dyane shared the story of a recent behind-the-scenes visit to the veterinary hospital at Sedgwick County Zoo, where a flamingo was receiving foot care.  The students’ reaction was, “Wow! I didn’t even know that was a job!”.  Transparency doesn’t only show that Zoos & Aquariums provide exceptional care for animals; it exposes career opportunities.  As Joe said, “[Transparency is] so important for the future of the world.  You live this every day.  You are the gateway for these kids and for these teachers.  I can’t think of something much more important than actually showing these people in the workforce.”   


Curious Questions from Joe & Dyane: 

. Does your audience feel like a member of your family?  If not, why not? 

. What if Zoos & Aquariums partnered with schools to have kids create conservation messages using the Zoo/Aquarium’s animals as ambassadors and staff as experts? 

. How can Zoo and Aquarium animal webcams be used to bring comfort and calm to children in classrooms around the world? 

. What strategies can teachers learn from Zoos & Aquariums for using outdoor learning at their schools? 

. Could Zoos & Aquariums offer more virtual programming at times when the entire family can participate? 

. How can Zoos/Aquariums partner with schools to build relationships with families? 


Practical Application: 

Reach out to a teacher in your local community to initiate a conversation around the most significant challenges they see for education in your community.  Take it a step further and form a focus group of educators, principals, and parents to host a roundtable. 


Dyane Smokorowski is a 2019 National Teacher Hall of Fame Inductee, 2013 Kansas Teacher of the Year, and is currently serving as the Coordinator of Digital Literacy in the Wichita Public Schools.  Mrs. Smoke, as she’s known to her students, believes in a project-based, student-centered classroom that helps students build skills in communication, planning, research, and project implementation. Additionally, Dyane thrives on the mission to create active and engaging teacher professional learning opportunities.  She wants her students and teachers to develop a love for innovation, communication, and technology, but also to understand how to use that love and passion to advance their own futures, as well as that of the global community.   


Joe Fatheree is an award-winning author, educator, and filmmaker. He has received numerous educational awards, including Illinois Teacher of the Year and the NEA’s National Award for Teaching Excellence. He was recently named one of the Top 10 Teachers in the World by the Varkey Foundation. He served as the Director of Strategic Projects for the National Network of State Teachers of the Year in Washington, D.C., and is the Instructor of Creativity and Innovation at Effingham High School in Illinois. He also served on an advisory board for the Institute for Ethical AI in Education in the United Kingdom.   

Fatheree’s television work has aired nationally on PBS, The Documentary Channel, Hulu, and the MLB Network. He is the recipient of 3 Mid America Emmy Awards and a Telly.