does an education for the future look like in the UK, and elsewhere, given the
crises we are now facing?
is a question on the minds of many educators and parents right now, and is
something I have been thinking about for many years as a former teacher, UK SDC
Commissioner for Education and Capability Building, teacher trainer and, now, as
the CEO of a sustainability education charity – SEEd.
recently came across this quote:
“When I look back in every period of history, two flames have always been burning in the human heart, the flame of anger against injustice and the flame of hope that you can build a better world…..… To understand that is very important, because if you don’t have some aspiration then you find yourself in a position… (of worrying) … how the human race is going to cope with its problems.” Tony Benn 2006
way we have currently constructed our education system is based upon a notion
that we (the decision makers) know how to prepare young people for a future
world that we have identified.
future world is based on what we know now and understand now. This is a world
that works well for some and, one could argue, is a means by which we ensure
the entitled continue to be entitled, the gifted and talented are identified to
satisfy our future needs, and the rest are socially and culturally trained to
be good citizens accepting this status quo.
could be argued that this perception is reinforced through our acceptance of private
schools, the primacy of Oxbridge and a Government cabinet reflecting this.
also say this because when Michael Gove was reviewing the National Curriculum
he ignored all the evidence from his own review panel of experts, following the
a advice of a US academic, Ed Hirsch, whose basic premise is that state
education systems are primarily about inculcating young people in your
begs the questions, ‘Whose culture are we talking about?’ In an increasingly
diverse Britain, and a globalized, connected world, this is hard to define. The
‘British values’ part of PSHE looks like a list of democratic principles—and these
are not uniquely British.
all of this ‘culture’ implicitly focuses upon us as a species separate from the
natural world that we depend on. It also, often by omission, endorses our
imperialist approach to the environment and the ‘other’ e.g. cheaper labour in communities
in other parts of the world, that own the resources we want.
has also led to an industry saying they have the answer e.g. creativity,
enterprise, STEM etc. These are solutions often pounced upon by politicians as
they fit their political purposes and view of education. Our UK Prime Minister
is currently saying that the Build Back Better focus of the government will be:
- Technology and the digital world
those three? Building big ‘Infrastructure projects’ can increase GDP, allowing
a country to get a better credit rating, feeding more borrowing and our massive
financial system to retain its global position. ‘Technology’ because we are not
a manufacturing country anymore – so this is the hope. ‘Education’? – because
it will feed the other two. This is a technocratic, imperialist view of
current existential crises are not just limited to climate change and pandemic,
but include the destruction of ecosystems and their services, disruption of the
essential cycles in nature and the massive loss of biodiversity and species – a
looming ecological catastrophe.
live in a world of inequality and conflict, and where slavery, poverty and gross
injustice continues to be found. As educators we have built ‘educations’ that address
these issues. Yet, by continuing to focus on these as single issues we are in
danger of building silos and the professional territory building that argues
about which ‘topic’ in education will save the world.
in environmental and sustainability conversations – we have fought about energy
education, outdoor education, climate change education, waste education, again
missing the wider point of addressing ‘the flame of anger against injustice’
and ‘the flame of hope to build a better world’. Decades after our first
attempts to bring a more holistic approach to these matters, we are still
little further forward.
must be time to rise above all this, and maybe thinking about the purpose of
education in the light of these existential crises may be the way to go.
said that, please do carry on the learning associated with your
topic/passion/expertise but, maybe also, ask yourself what part of the whole is
it fulfilling and what new thinking is it engendering? The myth of ‘awareness
raising’ or giving people the facts and then they will make the right rational
decisions is a theory of change, so persistent, I find it hard to imagine the
effort needed to change it. This approach does not work, and has never worked, in
creating social change.
need to encourage thinking about change – environmental change, social change,
economic change, personal changes and political change.
also need to understand the systems that we operate and live within, and how
they connect. We cannot talk about the coronavirus without discussing
globalisation, food production, poverty, economics, wildlife, and other human
systems such as trade, health, politics, education. To not do so is, at best,
to short change our young people, and at worst is censorship. We need to think
more in systems.
cannot address these existential crises without asking the question ‘How did we
get here?’ – i.e. the encouragement of socially critical thinking. This would
include not educating about values (as the Reboot the Future education survey
seems to suggest) or providing students with a suite of ‘missing values’ that
they need to adopt. The current pandemic must be challenging people to question
what they really value and what is for our ‘common good’. Thinking about the
common good for the benefit of society is essential in my mind. This is
different from a starting point of thinking what values you want to imbue in
young people, given that Rutger Bregman says we are nice and collaborative by
nature (Humankind: A Hopeful History). Good education is surely concerned with
the exploration of values and then allowing students to reflect and make their
own minds up. Anything else is
Which brings me to a fundamental approach to education that has been prevalent for centuries. The idea that students are ‘empty vessels’ to be filled is a notion that many on the conservative spectrum of political thought seem to believe in earnest. The truth is that young people do have a well-developed suite of values. The recent SEEd Youth survey (https://se-ed.org.uk/sustainability-attitudes/) revealed that they get their information, knowledge, and attitudes from a wide range of sources including social media, TV, the internet. As educators, surely one of our critical tasks is to build and enable critical thinking about those sources with young people?
doing all this, we need to ask how to build the hope and not depress its flame
with young people. We need futures thinking and to build a sense of agency in
young people. In school there are two ways to do this effectively – inquiry
based project learning or action learning, and connecting their learning to the
real world through in-community projects (this latter, not just raising money
for charity as a displacement activity).
methodologies allow students to learn how to learn, be creative, work in teams,
work collaboratively, work in the real world – all skills many businesses say
teachers are struggling to do this, given that state education in the UK has
become so politicized. Many in the profession are fearful of being judged
poorly by the measures that follow. This is one reason many primary teachers
educate about ‘air pollution’ rather than climate change. Again Mr. Gove –thank
will always say they have no time, given the pressures to deliver the National
Curriculum, lack of resource and little training – they are not wrong! So those
wonderful people that are adopting these approaches are doing an amazing job
keeping flames alight – but they are not mainstream.
So we, and they, need a mandate to make the purpose of education clear – and the methodologies that follow should be fit for that purpose. That brings me to the need to change the Education Act, as it is statutory. The National Curriculum is not statutory. This has been a SEEd campaign for many years (https://se-ed.org.uk/about-seed/projects/seed-campaign-include-sustainability-education-act/).
need to disabuse teachers and schools that it is difficult to teach for a
sustainable future and to build resilience. It is not expensive, nor a new
subject; it is a way of teaching and designing learning opportunities – so,
training in that is required. It needs Inspectors trained in these ways of
teaching and it needs full partnerships with parents and communities – not an
army of consultants. It needs schools to be supported in this learning journey
through such mechanisms as ‘the whole school approach’.
we as an environmental and sustainability education sector need to review our
role in this new approach – can we let go of our own specific agendas and find
a better way to support this holistic rebooting?
Back Better should not be about critiquing teachers, schools or politicians –
it is a time when we should all be reflecting upon what we are doing, why we do
it and how we can change.
has been SEEd’s mission and we will continue to pursue it.
Ann Finlayson, Executive Chair, SEEd
Sustainability & Environmental Education