Without the ability to photosynthesise, we rely on other organisms for our most fundamental of needs. As we grow, we gain independence as consumers. We spend our lives making decisions about the ways and things we consumer to meet our needs and wants – physiologically, psychologically, socially, economically, spiritually and intellectually.

In early cultures, children gained independence as consumers through what we recognise as play – a form of experiential learning. Play provided opportunities to learn through mimicking the behaviour of adults, trying new things and making mistakes. Through play children learned how to meet their basic needs, how to interact with others and their ecological surroundings, and how to contribute to the common welfare of their social group.

Fast forward to the present, and we have replaced experience and play with the politically curated curriculum, delivered primarily through direct instruction. We have become consumers of education and educational services.

We are told that this is for the best. By standardising the learning process we can ensure that all young people reach a level of competence that prepares them to assume their roles as consumers and contributors – mostly taking up roles that have been defined by others. And while democratic societies allow for a certain level of challenge to the assumptions that define the social and economic systems that drive our education systems, what is tolerated is generally not enough to seriously disrupt them.

In determining the scope of what passes for valued core knowledge, understandings, skills and dispositions, we have reduced the vast reservoir of human knowledge to a narrow set of eras, events, cultures, values and beliefs – and our imperfect interpretations of their significance to future human flourishing. We require children and young people to engage in formal learning and expect them to find enjoyment in the pre-determined curriculum, regardless of their individual interests or aspirations.

There are unanticipated, but widely recognised properties that have emerged from the system we have designed to deliver this type of educational experience. The limited scope of the curriculum and its rigid interpretation of mastery assumes that these selected bits of intellectual nourishment will engage all individuals equally, or that with strategic individualised teaching strategies all learners are capable of their mastery. Structures and policies intended to create social and economic mobility and equity have instead created a system where one learner is judged in relation to another of the same age, creating a hierarchy of cognitive attainment.

Rather ironically, only those individuals who are able to successfully navigate the education system are eligible to perpetuate it.

Some of these individuals go on to become experts as education practitioners and leaders. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, suggests that it takes about 10,000 hours – 10 years – to become an expert at a specific endeavour. During this time, the most successful education professionals engage in successive cycles of reflective inquiry and growth as they move from unconscious incompetence, to conscience incompetence, to conscious competence to unconscious competence. Some hone their skills as master teachers, while others grow into leadership roles.

Through continued professional growth, some education professionals who have achieved “expert” status may question the underlying assumptions, models and practices that define the education system, in an effort to better understand how to promote the success of all learners. Some of them challenge these through data analysis, research and the development and implementation of research-informed and learner-centred innovations. These innovations often provide rich learning opportunities that engage learners, bring joy and excitement to the learning process, build core knowledge, understandings and skills, and help individuals recognise and pursue their purpose and their place in the world.

It’s at this point, that the stages of unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence and unconscious competence become clear, as do the transformational experiences that fuelled this development. We ourselves have become more than consumers of professional knowledge, We have become part of the process that nurtures new knowledge, new practice, new perceptions of possibilities, and new passion for being a change maker.

In other cultures, they have a name for individuals who, through experience, practice and living, have reached a point where they are in a unique position to mentor the next generation change makers. They call them “elders.”

Over my long career, I benefited from the generous mentorship of a number of elders. And now after more than 40 years in the environmental and education fields, I increasingly find myself stepping into this role – without even recognising it (until now). I recently spent four years as an innovation coach, and it never really occurred to me why I enjoyed that role so much, and why it was so rewarding. It had little to do with what I was achieving personally, but with what the younger educators I was working with were experiencing and achieving – moments of authentic transformational learning, enabled through gentle encouragement, shared enthusiasm for their professional passion, and the opportunity to take professional risks with the support of a challenging friend.

For me, mentoring as an elder opened up a set of new possibilities for what teaching and learning could look like in an education setting where all learners and all learning are valued. Places where learner independence and confidence connect children and young people to the ecological and human communities that sustain them. Places where learners have a voice in their learning and build competencies through authentic experiences, grounded in a culture of inquiry. Places where teachers identify and solve problems of practice – not problems with learners. Places where we are so much more than consumers of learning.

Ben Hren is currently the Environmental Education Advisor at the Arbor School in Dubai. He is supporting the development of a systems approach to Ecoliteracy, driven by the school’s mission to prepare all its learners to be caring contributors to a future where there is “enough for all, forever.” During his time in the UK, he served as the Head of Formal Education for WWF-UK, where he co-authored “Pathways,” and was seconded to the UK Sustainable Development Commission, where he led the development of the Sustainable School Self-evaluation.