Success story – Dr. William Samuels

What is profound and lasting is education. Teaching children is profound.’

Meet Dr. Bill Samuels: an assistant professor at New York’s Hunter College whose field-based research explores and promotes children’s resilience and social-emotional development by means of animal- and nature-based education. Bill is a pioneer of humane education research in Asia. 

Bill began working with ACTAsia over ten years ago, studying the success of ACTAsia’s Caring for Life (CFL) education programme in fostering humane attitudes and prosocial behaviours – behaviours benefiting others or society as a whole – amongst students in eastern China. 

‘There has long been a faith that we can successfully and powerfully change, nurture the development of [executive functions and social-emotional] skills in children through animals and nature.’

However, Bill explains, humane education has been historically under-researched in education studies and the social sciences in general, leaving gaps between theory and practice. ‘The power of education research tends to be greatly limited both by the number of people we can work with and the types of things we can measure.’ As such, when ACTAsia founder and CEO Pei approached Bill to design and conduct a large-scale evaluation study of our CFL education curriculum at several ACTAsia schools in eastern China, he was eager to collaborate: ‘[Pei] is not afraid of doing something big, daring and bold. We pushed each other to go bigger, to expand.’ 

‘The opportunity to conduct a rigorous study in the field was very exciting, [as was] the opportunity to put some wind into the efforts of humane education, to move it along the path that we all believe it can be moved.’ 

Caring for Life 

A six-year programme, the CFL education curriculum ‘addresses animals, the environment, interpersonal behaviour, one’s own emotional regulation,’ Bill tells us. Its lessons are structured by and flow from five thematic strands that ACTAsia developed in connection to UNESCO’s Four Pillars of Learning: Learning to Know, Learning to Do, Learning to Live Together, Learning to Be. The CFL themes are: 

  1. The Web of Life
  2. Sentient Beings
  3. Care and Respect
  4. Interacting with Others
  5. Emotional Intelligence

Bill emphasises the collaborative, dynamic nature of the CFL programme and its multiple links. ‘The curriculum is devised in an interconnected, woven nature … Themes are central to content, used to tie content together, and are revisited in flexible ways that relate to other themes.’ The CFL curriculum integrates ‘animal, nature and social content with other areas like math, social sciences, etcetera.’ This intertwined, relational education-style with cross-content connections ‘is helpful for children to learn, and apply what they learn.’ 

Bill’s Study: A World of Good

Bill designed and conducted an evaluation (available to read here) of ACTAsia’s CFL programme at six ACTAsia pioneer schools in eastern China that spanned across four cities, 23 classes and 631 children in early primary school. ‘A group that big is unusual in education research,’ he notes. 

Using the Children’s Environmental Attitude and Knowledge Scale (CHEAKS) to measure the subjective impact of the curriculum on students over one academic year, the study focused on four outcomes central to the CFL curriculum: kindness and compassion (what Bill describes as ‘prosocial behaviours’), human-directed and emotional empathy, active concern for the environment, and attitudes toward animals. 

The evaluation presented ‘strong, rigorous, replicable findings that strongly support that the Caring for Life curriculum meets its objectives,’ Bill shares. At the end of the academic year, both children and their teachers at participating ACTAsia pioneer schools described significant growth in all four outcomes: teachers reported their students demonstrated more kindness both in the classroom and in informal school-settings; by means of simple questionnaire, the children revealed deeper emotional intelligence and consideration; they reported stronger commitments to environmentally conscious behaviours such as conserving water and electricity; and more concern for the welfare of animals. 

‘Animals and nature matter. Animals and nature are ways to reach children,’ says Bill, ‘[they are] ways to help build a better society. We as humans can change the earth and do better.’ 

Humane education research allows us to better understand the many influences of positive social-emotional development upon other aspects of our lives. Learning collaboratively, learning with and through the environment and its inhabitants, equips children with tools to better care for others and issues of global concern. 

It is particularly important to study these topics in Asia and China more specifically, because the majority of youth development and education research takes place in ‘Western Educated Industrialised Rich Democratic (acronym WEIRD) countries,’ Bill explains. However, more than half of the global population lives in east and south-east Asia, meaning that ‘most of the research done on humans are not done on typical humans. … [My] research is a way of looking at something real among places that really matter, in ways that really matter.’

‘The magnitude of what is being done with the CFL programme matters. Even if none of this [work with the CFL curriculum in China] left the borders, it still is reaching many more than most education programmes do.’ And Chinese culture, Will adds, ‘is among the more largely exported cultures around the world. What happens in China happens big.’ 

‘The [CFL] programme itself has reached hundreds of thousands of students. It has been used by thousands of teachers, and thus has likely somewhat changed the attitude not only of these children in ways which may persist for years (if not potentially throughout their lives) but has also likely affected these important adults who will hopefully continue to change the lives of children.

Image provided by Dr. William Samuels

‘The work that Pei did, that ACTAsia has done in China, has been inspiring.’ 

Will continues to work with ACTAsia. He is currently approaching the second year of a three-year longitudinal study of the effects of the CFL education curriculum in eastern China, where he is examining the same outcomes of the initial studies. He looks forward to publishing more writing on the positive impact of humane education to promote a more justice-oriented world. 

‘I hope the legacy of this is the inspiration for understanding the importance of [animal and nature-based education] for ourselves, for our children, for our world and for all of us living harmoniously, sustainably together.’